Are we grown-ups? This is a question I have asked myself numerous times in the days following Tuesday’s election of Donald Trump to be the President of the United States (POTUS). Elections have always been emotional – some, more than others. I have worked on political campaigns for most of my adult life and, before that, when I was in undergrad. Some of those campaigns were winners and others were not. But at the heart of every campaign was a platform I supported, albeit rarely on a wholesale basis. Regardless, when personally attached to a campaign, losing an election is hard. It’s hard for every single campaign worker, volunteer, and donor.
So while this paper is not about political science or the election, fascinating as those topics may be, it is about the way in which our reliance on blogs and social media (BSM) has influenced the way we communicate about one of the most sacred processes in our great Democracy, and other societal events. Having a public space in which to air grievances, in a format that encourages out-viraling one another constantly, has degraded our communications and eroded civility to the point of near total distortion. One researcher opines on this phenomenon as follows:[i]
This realm of online social media, where people open their private thoughts to the public, is complex. It would seem to be the ideal place for unprecedented numbers of people to come together for mass discussion and to find common ground.
Unfortunately, social media is not usually well-disposed toward debate or collaboration, for a number of reasons. Much of what is said on social media is highly polarized. Trendy causes arise and people endorse them blindly. Online comments are easy to misinterpret, and it’s easier both to offend and to take offense when you aren’t face-to-face with any particular person.
It’s also easy to get too comfortable on social media, since there you feel like you’re in control of that space. Writing a comment on Facebook or Twitter can feel a lot like writing in your diary. But the reality is that it’s not for your eyes only, or for you and a few trusted friends; it’s an incredibly public space.
For you and a few trusted friends. This is the first part of the problem with social media communications. “Friends.” According to one source, the average Facebook user now has about 338 friends, though the median number is closer to 200.[ii] However, 15 percent of users have friend lists topping 500.[iii] These expansive friend lists exist in spite of research which suggests that “there is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome.”[iv] In other words: our brains can’t handle too many friends. Experts vary on the maximum number of true friends we are able to maintain, but it seems much closer to five. This convergence of intimacy and overexposure has played out before our eyes in the days following Tuesday’s election, through an explosion of uncivil discourse, followed by reported unfriending and blocking of extended networks on social media.[v],[vi],[vii]
The BSM sphere has grown beyond facebook, but facebook remains the behemoth, by far.[viii] Interestingly, we are addicted to facebook not so we can spew vicious attacks on one another, but because it taps into the brain’s reward center, called the nucleus accumbens, which is responsible for processing rewarding feelings about things like food, sex, money and social acceptance.[ix]
Most of the time, facebook succeeds in connecting us with the reward center. Earlier this week, I laughed hysterically when I clicked on “The Funniest Dog Snapchats Ever”[x] from my facebook feed. I spend a lot of time on the metro….so, it’s the little things.
But, every four years, facebook users collectively lose their minds. While this isn’t unique to 2016, many would agree this year has been particularly bad. In the off years, we mostly don’t notice our expanded friend lists. We go on about our business, posting about our vacations, food, our kids, dogs, etc. We “like” the same exclamations from our “friends.” Then, all of the sudden, that person you met at a wedding five years ago, who’s posts you rarely see, is blowing up your feed with political rhetoric, and you realize you fundamentally disagree with this person. But, here’s where it gets tricky. You may have a childhood friend who shares the same (opposing) views as your wedding acquaintance, but you love your childhood friend. By contrast, if not for the nature of facebook itself, you may not recognize your wedding acquaintance if you passed him/her on the street. And, it begins. The need to clarify that you are not a racist! The need to explain that there really were no good candidates. The need to assert that your reasons or justifications defy blanket judgements. Three comments exchanged, a few “likes,” and a red-faced emoticon later, your friend list is one “friend” lighter.
I posted to Facebook the other day, frustrated with the screaming attempts to educate me, “Not everyone I disagree with is stupid or evil, or even misinformed.” Afterwards, I patted myself on the back while imagining that this would go viral. People would make those little cartoon memes out of it. Maybe I’d even be invited to discuss this wisdom on a talk show. Six friends gave me a like (“likes” being the true measure of the quality of a status update), and a few others made witty comments—some of which I “liked.” In the reflective aftermath, I plummeted from the heights of grandiosity to the depths of self-doubt. But then I rebounded, thinking that perhaps I had touched a nerve. Lots of my friends probably felt the finger pointing at them for their well-meaning attempts to educate those who disagree with them. I commented on my own post by adding that “One of the reasons that not everyone I disagree with is stupid, evil, or even misinformed is that I may be wrong” because sometimes I’m misinformed or thinking emotionally.[xi] (note: this quote appeared in an article about the 2012 election)
Interestingly, the very lack of decorum surrounding the 2016 election, and the assertion that hyperbolic reactions from those in the Democratic Party to opposing viewpoints may very well reshape its platform – or, at least, its messaging.
Of course, this lack of civility isn’t limited to the election cycle. Earlier this year, when a three-year-old boy visiting the Cincinnati Zoo fell into a gorilla enclosure, resulting in the killing of a beloved silverback, Harambe, BSM went wild. The Cincinnati Zoo ultimately shut down its social media accounts due to an explosion of memes about the gorilla.[xii] The public was quick to blame the mother of the child and, at the time, there were a number of think pieces written on the event.[xiii] Finally, as with any modern day controversy, there was also a Change.org petition to bring “Justice for Harambe.”[xiv]
After facebook was traumatized by the killing of Harambe, Lane Graves was killed by an alligator while vacationing with his parents in Disney World. Suddenly, everyone on the internet was an expert on alligators, their habitats, their feeding preferences, and – most importantly – parenting.
Both of these events brought out the foul in my feed. While there were a select few who made public expressions of empathy, many more condemned the parents in both of these instances. And the vitriol was ugly. While the political and the downright tragic obviously strike at the heart of two very different sensitivities, they share evocation of strong opinions. And certainly, the list of examples in which others feel the need to comment, often emphatically, is seemingly endless.
In a way, the medium is the message, and the medium of Facebook is particularly unsuited to rational, political dialogue. In at least this sense, Facebook and politics don’t mix. So while Mill would agree that it’s good to play gadfly à la Socrates, I resolve not to use Facebook for that purpose. Freedom of speech does not mean we should just leave each other alone, but prudence dictates that we argue in friendly, constructive ways.[xv]
Civility doesn’t mean that we all have to get along organically, or that we should agree for the sake of agreeing. Further, intellectual civility demands that we do better than agreeing to disagree, particularly if that means we disagree in silence (hence, the “silent majority”). We must strive to restore civil discourse, understand and respect our ideological opponents, and conduct ourselves in a manner that exudes what we wish to receive from others. These basic notions should be extended to BSM, as the BSM world increasingly impacts the way in which we receive and process information. Moreover, we must resist the urge to share every opinion we have and retrain ourselves to listen and think more critically. Specific to BSM, public policy, and the political arena, BSM holds promise for facilitating robust dialog around important issues that the public cares about, but without a self-imposed societal reform in usage, we will fail to successfully leverage this platform.
[i] “Social Media, Civility, and Free Expression,” n.d.
[ii] Steven Mazie, “Do You Have Too Many Facebook Friends?,” Big Think, October 10, 2014, http://bigthink.com/praxis/do-you-have-too-many-facebook-friends.
[iv] R. I. M. Dunbar, “Do Online Social Media Cut through the Constraints That Limit the Size of Offline Social Networks?,” Open Science 3, no. 1 (January 1, 2016): 150292, doi:10.1098/rsos.150292.
[v] “Unfriending on Social Media Helps Some Deal with Election Dismay | 2016 Presidential Election,” Dallas News, November 9, 2016, http://www.dallasnews.com/news/2016-presidential-election/2016/11/09/unfriending-social-media-helps-deal-election-dismay.
[vii] Katie J. M. Baker BuzzFeed News Reporter, “Why People Are Unfriending Newly Public Trump Supporters,” BuzzFeed, accessed November 13, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/why-people-are-unfriending-newly-public-trump-supporters.
[viii] “The Biggest Social Network? Still Facebook. (But Growth Is Slow),” Brafton, August 28, 2015, http://www.brafton.com/news/social-media-news/the-biggest-social-network-still-facebook-but-growth-is-slow/.
[x] By Unity Blott For Mailonline, “The Funniest Dog Snapchats Ever,” Mail Online, November 7, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/~/article-3910306/index.html.
[xi] “Facebook Friends and Opposing Opinions,” Psychology Today, accessed November 13, 2016, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/plato-pop/201209/facebook-friends-and-opposing-opinions.
[xii] “Cincinnati Zoo Deactivated Its Social Media Accounts after Onslaught of Harambe Memes,” For The Win, August 23, 2016, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/08/cincinnati-zoo-deactivated-social-media-harambe-memes.
[xiii] AJ Willingham CNN, “Harambe, Cecil: Why We Mourn Animal Deaths so Intensely,” CNN, accessed November 13, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/02/health/harambe-gorilla-cincinnati-zoo-why-we-mourn-trnd/index.html.
[xiv] “Cincinnati Zoo: Justice for Harambe,” Change.org, accessed November 13, 2016, https://www.change.org/p/cincinnati-zoo-justice-for-harambe.
[xv] “Facebook Friends and Opposing Opinions.”
“Cincinnati Zoo Deactivated Its Social Media Accounts after Onslaught of Harambe Memes.” For The Win, August 23, 2016. http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/08/cincinnati-zoo-deactivated-social-media-harambe-memes.
“Cincinnati Zoo: Justice for Harambe.” Change.org. Accessed November 13, 2016. https://www.change.org/p/cincinnati-zoo-justice-for-harambe.
CNN, AJ Willingham. “Harambe, Cecil: Why We Mourn Animal Deaths so Intensely.” CNN. Accessed November 13, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/02/health/harambe-gorilla-cincinnati-zoo-why-we-mourn-trnd/index.html.
Dunbar, R. I. M. “Do Online Social Media Cut through the Constraints That Limit the Size of Offline Social Networks?” Open Science 3, no. 1 (January 1, 2016): 150292. doi:10.1098/rsos.150292.
“Facebook Friends and Opposing Opinions.” Psychology Today. Accessed November 13, 2016. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/plato-pop/201209/facebook-friends-and-opposing-opinions.
FOX. “Has the Election Sent You into an ‘Unfriending’ Frenzy?” WTTG. Accessed November 13, 2016. http://www.fox5dc.com/news/217151965-story.
Mailonline, By Unity Blott For. “The Funniest Dog Snapchats Ever.” Mail Online, November 7, 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/~/article-3910306/index.html.
Mazie, Steven. “Do You Have Too Many Facebook Friends?” Big Think, October 10, 2014. http://bigthink.com/praxis/do-you-have-too-many-facebook-friends.
Reporter, Katie J. M. Baker BuzzFeed News. “Why People Are Unfriending Newly Public Trump Supporters.” BuzzFeed. Accessed November 13, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/why-people-are-unfriending-newly-public-trump-supporters.
“Social Media, Civility, and Free Expression,” n.d.
“The Biggest Social Network? Still Facebook. (But Growth Is Slow).” Brafton, August 28, 2015. http://www.brafton.com/news/social-media-news/the-biggest-social-network-still-facebook-but-growth-is-slow/.
“The Secret Psychology of Facebook: Why We Like, Share, Comment and Keep Coming Back.” Social, April 23, 2015. https://blog.bufferapp.com/psychology-of-facebook.
“Unfriending on Social Media Helps Some Deal with Election Dismay | 2016 Presidential Election.” Dallas News, November 9, 2016. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/2016-presidential-election/2016/11/09/unfriending-social-media-helps-deal-election-dismay.