Facebook, political discourse and tolerance: Can they coexist?

For most of us, Facebook is the mainstay of our online social interaction. Facebook connects us to former friends, classmates and far-flung relatives. We switch back and forth between open tabs on our web browser while we do our homework. (Don't look at me like that, you do it, too.)

There are more than one billion users on Facebook today. The only website that receives more daily traffic is Google.

We can't escape it. Facebook is a daily part of our lives.

There is an immense value in the virtual social interactions: We can see photographs of weddings, graduations, birthdays and many more of life's major milestones.

However, there are times when dialogue through Facebook can turn into something less constructive. We've all done it. We've shared a post that takes a stance on a major controversy or political issue. We've all had someone respond to our post, perhaps in a less than polite way with some profanity thrown in for good measure.

In some ways, I enjoy seeing my friends of all walks of life and all political ideologies posting their views online. I am very politically engaged myself, and I like to know that I'm not alone in this.

But there is an inherent lack of depth in online interactions and political discussion in such a format. Most of the time, we aren't likely to meet our online adversaries in person.

There's not much of an incentive to filter our responses through the colander of civility before hitting the share button.

University of Chicago law school professor Cass Sunstein argued in a TIME Magazine article that the amount of content on the Internet no longer limits the media we consume: "If the public is fragmented and if members of different groups design their own preferred news packages, the consequence might well be greater fragmentation."

We can now choose to peruse information that serves to confirm our biases and opinions without challenging us to consider new information. This is what political scientists refer to as selective observation.

On Facebook, we are sometimes exposed to political points of view we do not share. Sometimes, we respond to this unexpected and perhaps unwanted stimuli in a constructive way and other times in a very destructive way.

Sometimes, friendships that were only maintained through technology are not strong enough to withstand a political schism. I've known many people who have either unfriended someone or been unfriended themselves over an ideological spat that took place virtually.

In the real world, we usually have enough composure to avoid major conflict. There is a greater degree of accountability available through direct contact that is simply impossible in Facebook conversations.

The best way to respond is, of course, to just get over ourselves.

In a fairly nasty political climate, it's easy to castigate one side or another because we have no social ties to our opponents.

But we do. Conservatives and liberals can be friends in real life. In fact, having friends whose political views do not align with our own is a great step toward tolerance.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

A part of maturity is accepting that other people have different experiences and different points of view.

If we're (supposedly) mature enough to be making political posts on Facebook, we ought to have the maturity to accept that ideological opposition is not the same as a personal affront.


Reach the columnist at skthoma4@asu.edu or follow her at @SavannahKThomas


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