The ugly truth about your Facebook friends

by Sarah Firisen

3quarksThe world seems a very depressing, scary place these days. Maybe it always was. I remember being 12 years old and driving with my father and expressing to him how terrified I was by the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He talked to me about mutual assured destruction and the deterrent this was going to provide. Those fears seem almost quaint now; our current enemies don’t seem to play by the same rational rules of self-interest. Another thing that has changed is our exposure to just how much other people in our lives don’t share our values and opinions on these, and other issues. I always knew that I was somewhat at odds with elements of my family about Judaism and Israel’s relationship the Palestinian people. But for the most part, as we probably all do, I lived in a bubble where most of the people around me pretty much shared my political and social views. I’ve always had friends who vote Republican, but they’re all on the fiscal rather than social conservative spectrum; lower taxes but prochoice. I have no problem with people whose views differ from mine in these ways. Yes, we can debate the merits of trickledown economics, but as long as we all are in favor of gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, and the normal laundry list of social items that US liberals care about, the friendship won’t be tarnished by the things we don’t agree on.

But social media has changed all this. The views that our acquaintances hold are often now fully in our faces, good, bad and sometimes very ugly. Reconnecting with your best friend from kindergarten now often brings with it the horrible realization that she’s grown into a narrow minded bigot. Yes, you can unfriend and unfollow, and we often do or have it done to us. But what about when that’s not viable option? And should it be our first reaction?

Someone whose views are aligned with my own recently posted on Facebook that we should stop Facebook debating about Syrian refugees, whether or not black lives matter or if Obama is the worst president ever and is the one most responsible for the rise of ISIS. Instead, we should just unfriend the people posting what we view as racists, bigoted, ignorant comments on our threads and jingoistic captions on theirs.

I countered this idea on two fronts: firstly, I really do think there is real value in exposing myself to views that are very divergent from my own. While I don’t believe that I’m going to be convinced to change my core beliefs and values, there’s always room around the edges to gain a fresh perspective. It’s because of this that I religiously read the New York Times conservative columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat, writers like Andrew Sullivan and beyond. Insulating myself in an echo chamber of liberal thought is to make myself part of the problem; an increasingly polarized population of people who only consume media that reinforces and amplifies their world view.

My biggest Facebook challenge these days is the superintendent of my apartment building, S. He’s is a great super, attentive, hardworking, friendly, kind, responsive. And I do truly believe that he’s a good person with a huge heart who would do anything for anyone. He’s a devoted father and husband. But he’s a self-proclaimed southern redneck, from North Carolina; a white 51 year old, uneducated, gun owning, evangelical Christian. Basically, Donald Trump’s base. Over the two years I’ve lived in the building, we’ve socialized casually on occasion and so I did have an inkling about the way his beliefs likely tended before he friended me on Facebook. But his, by my standards, extreme positions never fully surfaced when we were sharing a glass of wine at one of the apartment building’s periodical social soirees. The Facebook friend request did give me pause, I suspected this wasn’t going to be a great thing for our relationship, but I truly had no idea how bad it would be. And he’s not someone I can unfriend so easily, I see him every day and don’t want to ruin our professional relationship. I have stopped following most of his postings and when I remember, I exclude him from my political postings, but some slip through the cracks.

Initially, I just argued with him. That didn’t work out so well, his world view is pretty baked in. And of course, so is mine. Recently, I’ve tried another tactic: when the things he’s posting are just clearly inaccurate, not just unpleasant, but provably false, I try to find a source that I think he won’t just dismiss as holding liberal bias and I post my rebuttal and the source. This occasionally provokes something like a retraction, sometimes, something like one. In fact, Facebook is trying to help me with this by attempting to stop some of the fake stories that virally spread like wildfire through social media. One of the ways they’re increasingly trying to do this better is by tracking stories that are reported as spam or hoaxes. So even if I’m not changing S’s mind, I may be contributing to Facebook’s efforts and, at the very least, perhaps reducing the number of his like minded friends who repost.

And this was my second counter argument to the notion of just unfriending people whose views we don’t like; is there some room for education around these issues? This is probably hugely naïve on my part, I don’t believe I’m going to turn S into a Democrat, or even moderate his views on Islam or gun control. But at least I’m making sure he’s not living in a total echo chamber. And even if he is beyond my influence, perhaps he has Facebook friends who see our debates and rethink some of their positions, or at least maybe research further. I think we all have wiggle room around the edge of even our mostly dearly held views and beliefs, so perhaps continuing to engage with each other on social media, even when it makes us very uncomfortable is a worthwhile contribution to the public discourse.