Are We Ruining Facebook with Politics?

Photo by Pond5
Photo by Pond5

Last week, Karol Markowicz, writing for The New York Post, said that we’re “ruining Facebook (and friendships) with political rants.”  Taking the position that Facebook is meant to be an environment for connecting with friends and family in traditionally gregarious ways—sharing kids’ photos and personal news, etc.—Markowicz makes a case that chronic political grandstanding is harming the social atmosphere of the platform, even citing a 2014 Pew study showing that roughly a quarter of users have blocked “Friends” because of political disagreements.

Markowicz’s observations prod consideration of a few different subjects, including the fact that even in an era of divisive politics, we’ve never had a candidate with the polarizing capacity of a Donald Trump before. And while it seems that our political climate has become more radical—and apparently less well-informed—over the last 20 years, is it more accurate to say that politics is ruining Facebook or that Facebook is ruining politics?   The latter notion has certainly been my bias since starting this blog—that the information revolution is generally a flop owing to the multitude of ways in which the electorate can now reinforce ignorance, racism, sexism, or xenophobia by fostering online communities predicated on exactly these sensibilities.  The so-called information age is one reason I believe fringe lunacy has gone mainstream.

With regard to Markowicz’s thesis, though, that political grandstanding is “ruining Facebook”, this presupposes that Facebook was somehow earmarked for a different destiny, which is a hard premise to accept a face value. For better or worse, social media is still an experiment—a catalyst only recently added to human interactions and which cannot fail to yield unpredictable results.  How can anyone say that Facebook is being ruined rather than come to the more reasonable conclusion that Facebook, for which there is no real precedent, was destined to become exactly what it is?  A social media platform itself is not society, which we do have a collective responsibility to maintain despite our differences.  Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg’s ant farm comprising a half-billion ant users, and it remains to be seen whether the farm thrives or dies, or if the ants just get bored.  Either way, how much does it really matter?

Society is outside my front door.  I don’t know who my neighbor is voting for, but I know he’s a hell of a nice guy, a great dad, and the kind of person who will do anything for you.  If he posted a Trump sign on his lawn tomorrow, yes, I’d think he has a serious disconnect, but am I going to walk over to his house and set him straight? Or will I suddenly be rude to him once he declares his intentions? Of course not. And to Markowicz’s point, if most of us would respect such boundaries in the real world, why do we feel it’s okay to cross these lines in cyberspace?

The answers are going to be found in the medium itself, in the nature and design of the platform.  The platform wants you to say something. That is its purpose.  And the environment fuses public and private behavior in ways that are relatively new in human experience, especially for the two generations who became adults before Facebook’s inventor was even born. Add to this the fact that most people don’t express themselves very carefully with the written word and that all other communication—facial expression, tone, body language—is obliterated, and of course friends and relatives are going to insult one another.

When I was a kid, most adults repeated the rule that one does not talk about religion or politics in polite company, and again to Markowicz’s point, social media often exemplifies why this was a pretty good rule.  It has been widely discussed—and it is empirically obvious—that people will say things on a social media platform that they would never say to someone, let alone a friend or family member, in person.  This phenomenon has provided grist for many a psychologist’s mill, but the actual effects on relationships within the confines of the platform itself are merely data in the ant-farm experiment. And it should be obvious that the farmers want Facebook to be as lively as possible—for the articles, memes, and comments we share to be substantive, political, and even self-righteous and bitchy because these interactions produce richer data.  If we shared nothing but baby pictures and snapshots of what we’re having for lunch, that would surely ruin Facebook from its owners’ perspective.

At the same time, while I could give a damn whether Facebook thrives or crashes, there’s no question the experiment is interesting.  If relatives or friends who would ordinarily get along by keeping their views generally hidden discover animosity for one another through a medium that fosters expressing those views, is there any value in this?  Maybe. Does the platform make relationships more honest, or does it just produce unnecessary conflict?  Presumably, it’s a bit of both.  Regardless, whether we’re talking about political ideology, tackling tough social issues, or cultivating interpersonal relationships, the question should not be what we are doing to the ant farm called social media, but what it’s doing to us.

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