Image Credit: Lawrence Jackson
I have a Facebook friend I’d like to unfollow.
Lee, his name is. We went to school together. I can’t remember the last time we spoke, and it’s quite plausible we never have. Still, thanks to corona and my ensuing increase in screen time, lately I’ve seen more of his virtual opinions on life than I have most of my real friends.
I say his opinions, but they’re rarely his words. He reposts a lot of content from viral right-wing pages. Snidely racist Chinese takeaway memes. Consistent “snowflake” bashing. None of this sits well with me, and with the flash of his content on my screen, there’s the flare to click him away. But I worry about living in an echo chamber of my own views, and unfollowing Lee doesn’t make his opinions any less real. It’s at least useful to hear the different sides.
Thanks to the Facebook algorithm, different opinions are paradoxically rare on user feeds. Whilst ideas fizzle and pop on the world wide web, Facebook cultivates streamlined newsreels, having replaced journalists as the gatekeeper of our news. The 2015 “Family and Friends” update constituted a further kick in the teeth for debate, privileging Friends above liked pages. This change was the backdrop for Brexit and Trump in 2016.
All Facebook-going voters now have a disproportionate exposure to opinions that they already hold. And as we’ve seen from the shock of Remainers and Democrats, there are dangers in this artificial exposure. Liberal democracy is a system with difference of opinion at its forefront, working through empathy and respect. Feeding your pre-existing views and allowing yourself to paint groups with a brush fosters intolerant anger. When met with an inevitable differing perspective, this results in the demonization of groups.
Today the site feels more like an endorsement marketplace, where my friends put their picture behind certain causes. It’s not their content, but re-posts, likes, comments on videos, that slide onto my screen. If my friends agree with me, I see what I agree with. The classic echo-chamber.
A trend I’ve noticed lately is taking this a step further.
Last week, Lee shared a post about Churchill’s role in the war. It suggested that if I didn’t agree I should “get off” his Facebook and take a “history lesson”.
The next day, another Facebook friend of mine shared a plain text post to the effect of “my page is pro-BLM, pro-LGBT, pro-trans, if you’re not, delete yourself”. She regularly posts a lot of persuasive political content. I would expect dismissal of difference from a closed-minded conservative, but for someone who promotes progressive values, this “delete yourself” message was a surprise. It begs the question, does she want to persuade people or not?
After the Brexit vote in 2016, I surveyed 450 voters in my local area. Despite the popular perception of Vote Leave as angry aggressors, it was the other side whose intolerance shined through. Remainers repeatedly blasted Leavers as racist, which closed down the conversation and blocked them understanding the social issues behind the vote. It’s much harder to persuade someone without trying to understand their initial position.
Today, the BLM movement across cyberspace and sidewalks has mobilised its hashtag to a peak of 8 million tweets in a day and the bodies of thousands. Though there is a positive correlation between online activism and physical behaviour, in order to persuade we must do more than just share to those who already agree. As the gap between social media and print papers reinforces, pre-existing divisions could worsen.
Facebook can be a unique and valuable safe space for many who are cut off from support in person, but the lack of distinction between its uses is difficult to navigate. Ultimately, if you’re posting a huge amount of persuasive politicized content from sites, and yet you only want to preach it to the converted, it might be worth asking what you’re looking to achieve. Democracy functions through debate. Virtue signalling or self-satisfying posts can only lead to disappointment and anger if the real world doesn’t keep up with your Facebook bubble.
Keep the people you disagree with and know why. Don’t feed their echo chamber, talk and persuade.