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Facebook Gets Ugly: Politics Brings Out the Troll In Us

Mixing Facebook and politics makes us meaner than we want to be.

Robson Hatsukami Morgan
Source: Robson Hatsukami Morgan

The potential of the Internet, according to Mark Zuckerberg, is to connect everyone: “If we can connect everyone, all of our lives will improve dramatically.”

While the Internet is huge and impersonal, Facebook promised to be a tool of connection - friendly, casual and capable of bringing us closer together. It is a democratic forum for sharing pictures of our lunch to die for, our kid’s thrills of victory and our manifestos of living the good life.

An August 2016 NYT article pronounced, “Calls for a national conversation are futile." Maybe a “national conversation” is too ambitious. At least we can “discuss amongst ourselves” - with our friends and family and perhaps learn why we may have immense differences of opinion. If conversing is a path toward better understanding, then Facebook might be a vehicle toward peaceably respecting our differences. Diversity with dignity!

Source: Facebook

Well, not exactly. The current presidential election made civil conversation about differences with family and friends out of reach, especially on Facebook. Disagreements go from spirited to vicious quicker than you’d expect had it occurred over dinner or a few beers. In fact, Buzzfeed published a step-by-step instruction manual on “how to delete your Facebook friends who like Donald Trump” in December 2015. Like many others, I am worried about this election, but also saddened by how much meanness has erupted on my “timeline," and to be honest, how I much I contributed to the incivility of it all.

So what accounts for the Facebook Paradox - how this potential Uniter became a Divider? Can we just get along even if we can’t agree? Why is the emotional charge of a Facebook post so often negative?

One reason is that we usually turn to Facebook with the expectation it will agree with us. A 2015 study in Science showed that Facebook users interact with and mostly click on content in line with their world-views. We gravitate to information that supports our cosmology.

Recently, Facebook made “sweeping changes” to its news feed algorithm, serving up content exquisitely engineered to your version of the world - a diet of comfort feeds. Facebook thus aids and abets the maligned “echo chamber of ideas and beliefs."

You may be able to pick your news feeds, but not your relatives; and even beloved “Friends” can have differences of opinion. Those differences can stimulate and even be fun, but not for politics.

Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, conducted an online survey about hostility on social networks and got some surprising results from the 2,698 respondents. Eighty-one percent of people polled in 2013 said “difficult or emotionally charged” conversations they have held over social media remained unresolved. Two out of five blocked, unsubscribed to, or defriended someone over arguments that took place via social media.

What’s going on?

Taking a closer look at this unsocial social media trend offers a few clues.

1. The Fear Factor.

Source: Facebook

Many of us are very afraid. Among those interested in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party. One thing that happens on Facebook is that people post material that expresses their fears, and their “choir” - their contacts that feel as they do - validates these posts. These posts also seem to trigger stress in those who hold opposing political positions. Many posts about this election express fear - threats to the safety of our kids, our way of life, our identities.

We want to be around others when we are afraid, but not just any others. Fear is stressful; enlisting another person who is facing the same threat (the “echo chamber”) reduces that stress. Fear is a powerful motivator and makes us act weird if we mistakenly believe that feeling fear is the same as being weak - one way is by puffing up like a threatened cat to project strength. Hostile posts are our equivalent of hissing or arching our backs.

2. The Road Rage Effect.

Source: Facebook

Even those among us prone to road rage are not angry all the time. Anger erupts and can thrive with the perception you are anonymous or more distant than you really are. Being enclosed in an armor of steel and glass makes us feel secure: the partial mask of a moving vehicle with locked doors. While our status is not anonymous on Facebook, it can feel disconnected and thus easier to shoot off an angry, dismissive or attacking response when incensed by another’s post, less mindful of a lasting impact on your relationship.

3. Try and stop me.

Source: Facebook

When we have a strong reaction to something we don’t like, we get agitated - that wired feeling we associate with anger. Research shows that many negative emotions tend to first trigger the “primitive” feeling of anger in the subcortical (reptilian) region of our brain. The angels of our better nature may be enlisted when our prefrontal cortex kicks in and reveals to us we are actually afraid, sad, confused or some other more subtle emotion. Many posts are reactive: We may post more hostile content in response to posts that seem hostile to us or provoke us by claiming we will not achieve something meaningful to us, in this case our candidate winning.

4. I’ll alert the media.

Source: Facebook

Thirty to forty percent of our speech is telling others about our experiences; what researchers refer to as “self-disclosure." That amount goes up to 80% when posting to Facebook. The act of sharing activates a reward system in the brain. Doing it kicks in neural and cognitive mechanisms that feel good - firing up the proverbial “reward center” - so much so that individuals will forego money in order to “share” more. This results in a pleasurable experience, similar to that which we receive from natural rewards such as food or sex. Research suggests we need an audience, though that audience does not need to agree with us to feel rewarded. We feel powerful when we believe we can rebuke or punish others (“coercive power”). A mean response can feel good but be bad for your relationships - losing friends is seldom gratifying.

Facebook Makeover

Not everyone predicted that more communication would be better. Way before the Internet, hell, before the telephone, Charles Dickens observed: “Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” Soul? Encourage? Brave? True? And Facebook?

What can we do about this problem? Well, what do you want? What are your goals on Facebook?

  • If your goal is to punish others for having a viewpoint different from yours, then let ‘er rip. You can attack them for being Neanderthals and morons till the cows come home – it’s a free country, so far.
  • If your goal is to change others’ opinions, it won’t happen by a Facebook proxy war of competing videos. But I have been wrong before.
  • If your goal is to connect, then it is unlikely an angry, snarky post condemning the candidate, issue or Facebook Friend you oppose will have any desirable outcome. It is more likely to provoke a counter-response, especially if you attack the person and character of those supporting the other.
  • If your goal is to express yourself, then more power to you. Facebook provides opportunity for self-expression and healthy vulnerability - the risk of identifying and revealing our unpleasant emotions. When we lean-into more subtle uncomfortable emotions (those beside anger), we deepen experience of all emotions - love, belonging, trust, joy and creativity. Anger is different - unbridled angry shares spur unintended consequences.
  • If your goal is to seek validation for your point of view, you may not need to actually post it. A brief survey of friends’ posts will assure you that you and your positions have a lot of spirited support. Your redundancy may feel like piling on by some on the opposing side.
  • If your goal is to understand the people you love and thought you knew and now baffle you, then you could try “good faith curiosity”. Consider that others’ choices make complete sense to them, and there is a good chance they are not idiots. For example, you could ask why their choice makes sense to them. Good-naturedly explore: What is the essential value / principle underpinning their choices? Would you want to be “friends” with these people if they were complete dolts? So an approach of “I want to see this as you do…help me understand what makes her or his position make sense to you” may help remind you that these are likely to be thoughtful people who are likely to think differently than you.
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Our “values” are often “nested” - what is outwardly important may not tell the whole story. What is important might lie inside another expressed reason, like those Russian dolls. Sure, “he speaks his mind” or “she is smart and experienced” may matter. But the more significant nested value- perhaps a crisis of values- may be “I am afraid for my kid’s future” or “I am ashamed of how our government treats other nations or individuals” or “I believe we need X because s/he has the power to inspire us when we are so close to despair."

Civil War histories are replete with accounts of “brother against brother”- eruptions of irreconcilable differences within families who lived peaceably just prior to the war. The war precipitated a crisis of values, and forced people to take sides: family loyalty or personal integrity - acting in accord with one’s conscience, even if that meant “betraying” my family.

Smithsonian Museum
Source: Smithsonian Museum

As a family therapist with over 30 years of experience, I have discovered that unadorned “truths” rarely convince people of anything. People want to be heard and if possible, understood. They need to feel that their feelings matter.

This election has ignited feelings of danger and urgent concern for our nation’s future. If we engage each other with curiosity and respect, we may judge each other less by the color of our states and affiliations and come to better understand each other by the content of our hopes and dreams.

And if you are reading this on Facebook, please “Like” and “Share” if you agree. Who knows, we may discover we are stronger together and already pretty great.

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