The point(lessness) of political arguments on Facebook

2016 has been the most politically divisive year I’ve witnessed. Scandals break daily that beg us to respond on social media. These “breaking” stories often evoke festering anger, driving us to rant or plead to the public to see the obvious. Our logical appeals can turn emotional, harming and sometimes severing ties.

I wanted to investigate this issue, so I took to Facebook to ask my 357 friends if these types of political posts and arguments had an impact on the way they used social media.

Three people responded.

I realize I’m not a lightning rod of political discourse like many of my friends, but I was still surprised to see how few commented, especially considering that 76 people liked the picture of me and my son shared a few minutes before.

Silence is not golden

A 2014 Forbes article “Debating Politics on Facebook, Where Silence Implies Dissent” helped explain my limited feedback. Social media has made it easy to share content which represents our views and even easier to “like” posts that we agree with. But it has made it harder to create original content that reflects our unique, individual worldview.

Scrolling through my Facebook friends list (most of whom I haven’t seen in years), I feel fairly confident that I know where each person stands on the presidential election, or at least where he/she stands on Donald Trump. Most of those people never actually wrote a political post, they shared where they stood through likes and shares.

I asked one of my Facebook friends about this, Barbara Moran. She explained casually observes political discussions on Facebook without speaking out because “everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” But at the same time she doesn’t approve of people that “slam on a personal level.”

Though she doesn’t interact on most of these debates, Barbara represents what many are fearful of: People will judge me for what I publish online. The Forbes article calls this the “spiral of silence,” where individuals become less likely to post their opinions the more they may be challenged.

The echo chamber effect

Dan Gillmor explained the echo chamber effect in his 2010 book Mediactive.

One of the great worries about the Internet is the echo chamber
effect: the notion that democratized media have given us a way to pay
attention only to the people we know we’ll agree with, paying no
attention to contrary views or, often, reality.

We live in an echo chamber when we only watch the news channel that agrees with our views, only read the blogs that support the same candidate as us, only interact with like-minded people. And there’s a real danger in this. We’ve all seen individuals and companies sink their ships by actively surrounding themselves with yes-men. What cost to our intellectual capacities do we owe to our willing silence?

People likely consider how various friends will interpret their posts prior to publication. No one wants to be called a moron online, so a heartfelt opinion might be held inside if it doesn’t mesh with the echo chamber. This perpetuates the cycle. We all agree with each other out of fear and when we disagree, we keep our mouths shut.

Of course some people are lighting rods for political discussions, and they’re worth investigating as well.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

Sometimes the 24-hour news cycle can make us crazy. When we seek reprieve on social media and aren’t met with an echo chamber, we get outraged. We post, comment, and engage in frustrated discourse in a desperate attempt to get through the thick skulls of those we disagree with.

We turn into Howard Beale from Network. We get mad as hell.

Oftentimes, these comments that turn to arguments don’t end until someone decides it’s not worth their time. To the peanut gallery watching, they grow more and more pointless, and respect may even be lost for “friends” that devolve into personal attacks.

I hold strong beliefs, and I understand that it is my ethical responsibility, my social responsibility to speak out when my beliefs are challenged. If someone on the street makes a racist comment, I’m a better person for stating that it’s not right or appropriate. I’m a better person for dissenting if a family member says it too.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve made an effort to engage on Facebook when my beliefs are challenged or when I feel the need to defend my perspective. In the five or six interactions I’ve had, only one conclusion is clear.

No matter how the discussion goes, I feel embarrassed, sad, and frustrated following the interaction. Why? I never feel like my point was interpreted as I meant. And the slings and arrows of friends and strangers actually hurt. And I feel self-conscious and exposed–knowing various friends are silently critiquing my meltdown.

The following day, I vow to keep my mouth shut. And stay off Facebook. And not let the “trolls” get to me. But for some reason, I’m always drawn back in. Studies have shown for years that Facebook contributes to depression, and I could see how frequent political commentators could be led down a frustrated spiral of anger and shame.



Things can get ugly

Discourse grows unethical when insults and personal attacks are lobbed. These have the ability to

Suddath's Facebook response. Click to read in full view.
Suddath’s Facebook response. Click to read in full view.

create emotional harm and might even drive people to silence themselves. My friend Patrick Suddath kindly detailed how this happened to him. His entire post is thoughtful and worth reading. The most important takeaway is that he doesn’t see an opportunity to engage because people are essentially bullies and will never change their views, simply because they’ve already dug their heels in the dirt. He’s a cool dude with lots to say but has come to find that Facebook is a platform that resembles a dodgeball match more than a Socratic seminar. Because he’s non-confrontational, he doesn’t feel welcomed at the table.

Another friend, Janel Romer shared an even sadder story; family ties have suffered as a result of Facebook. She’s blocked one relative for his incendiary comments, and she’s found herself silently ashamed of another. Though she has engaged and argued and tried to show the light, she’s only met with frustrating personal attacks. She explained her frustration:

I know we are living in a time where social media is an amazing tool, but I have yet to meet anyone who was swayed to the other side or to another candidate. I see more copying and pasting because people don’t have any original thoughts and are too consumed in their own lives to do any kind of actual research. It’s quite maddening!

That stuck with me. We live in an amazing time with all the tools at our disposal to engage in ways that could enlighten and change us. Information that could fill a million lifetimes is at our fingertips. But we’ve taken an easy out, leaving those that might actually engage in thoughtful discourse on the sidelines, wondering what the hell is wrong with the world.

I don’t like this! I want to engage on Facebook. How can I remain ethical?

I would argue that it is our duty to work for progress. And progress can only happen by influencing others. So according to this logic, Facebook would be more a more productive vehicle for change than the family dinners. Hundreds of people will hear my point on Facebook. At the Cullinane family dinner, three or four people will hear my points.

Spreading lies and inaccuracies is unethical. Facebook allows us to reveal the truth. Isn’t that our obligation? Wouldn’t silently watching and only passing judgment ignore our duty to enlighten the public of the truth?

According to a New York Magazine article titled “Sometimes Social Media Can Change Minds,” issue-seeking individuals are likely to form opinions or change their minds based on Facebook posts and discourse. Perhaps we forget that not every post on social media deals with Trump, Clinton, and Sanders. I’m an incredibly cynical media consumer, but when I look back to the global stories of the past few years, I can recall many instances where my opinions budded because of a friend’s Facebook post. I have a lot of highly intelligent friends that I respect. And even those friends that are outside of my echo chamber, the ones that might post click-bait, articles that in no way resemble journalism, at least they offer me insight into what the least common denominator is consuming.

The key takeaway from the article is that information-seekers can change their minds. Many are not seeking information. To remain ethical, the most important first step is to engage in the platform with the mindset of having the potential to learn something that could inform a worldview.

How to “win” an argument

The ethical goal of posting on Facebook in not to “win” an argument, but to let truth and insight prevail, which might feel like a win.

The Washington Post published an article that used science to explain how Facebook articles could be won. Or if not won, how to change people’s minds and show them the light. The eight rules include timeliness, brevity, relevance, and thoughtfulness. It’s worth a read, for anyone feeling frustrated during this election cycle.

I’d like to share some examples of my interactions to show what I’ve learned and how I’ve succeeded and failed in being an ethical Facebook poster as I’ve tried my hand in the past few weeks.

1. Link to outside evidence: Recently a friend posted a petition she signed that seemed dodgy to me. I decided to go to (a well-respected fact-checking source) to see if they’d written about it. They had, so I responded to her post with a link. She appreciated it and thanked me for sharing. Though I still felt embarrassed about the interaction (I worried that I looked like an egghead/dickhead know-it-all), I know that I did something positive. How do I know? I would have wanted someone to do the same thing for me. I’d feel worse if I’d posted something false and no one had alerted me for fear of embarrassment.

2. Don’t act too intense: Here, I failed on one account. Former Blaine Elementary principal Troy Laraviere posted from the Democratic National Convention about the “protests” during the speeches, an issue that incensed me. I wondered why he, my only Facebook friend at the convention, was seemingly in support of the “hecklers” as I called them. I wrote:

Screenshot 2016-08-10 22.47.01

My language was far too intense and accusatory. I realize that I acted short-sighted, just as I accused Laraviere of being at the DNC. The subsequent comments attacked me for my attack, and I ended up feeling ashamed. My anger and good intentions only resulted in a greater divide between the Hillary supporters and the Sanders supporters refusing to get on the Hillary train simply because Trump is a buffoon.

3.Try to base your arguments around points that your opponent didn’t initially address: Here, I didn’t do this, but I observed someone else. I had an interaction on Twitter with “Second City Cop”–a conservative leaning tweeter that posted. The interaction was drawn out, but essentially, he posted that Clinton said, “Oh, get over it,” about the Benghazi hearings, when she never did. I asked him to find anywhere online those words, and he couldn’t. As a response, he changed the subject. If his goal in posting anti-Clinton propaganda was to improve the chances of Trump winning, he may have succeeded in the eyes of the silent observers. I found that I was actively googling content in order to argue the attacks on Clinton he created. As soon as I found a response, he brought up a new point, perpetuating the idea that she’s a corrupt liar. I didn’t change my mind, but I did see Clinton in a slightly different light after the discourse.

These three points focus on winning. I’d like to add two that will help you maintain your integrity and dignity.

  • Don’t go to bed angry: Second City Cop is a cop. And I’m a teacher. In a blanket sense, we’re not all that different in our desire to make the world a better place. Why not try to end with some common ground that could promote mutual respect? After the below interaction, I didn’t stress the “fight” we’d gotten in. I actually felt pretty good about the world.

Screenshot 2016-08-10 23.05.49

  • When someone outside of your echo chamber makes a good point, celebrate it: Isn’t this really the point of debate? To learn something and see the world in a different manner. So many of us are focused on convincing others that we are right that we miss opportunities to celebrate our personal learning and development. Give a nice shout out to people that reveal a truth outside our immediate circles. By doing so, we broaden the circles of discourse and make it easier for others to do the same. Hopefully, before long, we’ll find that social media brings out the best in our circles, not the ugliness that turns us off and shuts us out.


About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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