Natalie Redmond: I didn't meme that: Where politics and social media collide
On Facebook, my platform of choice, my friends list is comprised less of "friends" than of "any acquaintance with whom I've had a chat." I'm friends with my fourth-grade teacher. I'm friends with old college professors, and their spouses, and sometimes their spouse's parents.
In the lead up to and fall out after the 2016 election, I did an unusual thing: I left my Facebook friends list unedited. Not for "peace on earth, we're friends first, political enemies second" reasons, but simply to see what would happen.
Social media is an echo chamber. In addition to Facebook serving you more of the content it's seen you like — if you commented on a friend's "I voted" post, you probably turned up dozens more — we also willingly select our own sub-tribes. Sometimes we have a vitriolic friend we can put up with no longer, so we cut the digital cord. At other points, we see bold ultimatums: "Unfriend me if you voted for " The trouble, of course, is by the time your friend finally makes that declaration, you probably have already pulled them from your list. Or, in agreement, you like that post, then Facebook serves you similar sentiments from others, and the tribalism deepens.
Splintered as my friend groups were, I left them messy and contradictory...you know, like they are in life, but with the digital capacity to track them.
Occasionally, I now do a notoriously stupid thing: I dive into someone else's echo chamber and chime in. Abortion is a popular topic. So is the evilness — or sanctity — of Donald Trump. Gun safety vs. Second Amendment rights is a scary button to press. And don't (or...do!) get me started on religious freedoms.
I'm not often close to these friends in real life. Ironically, we more often use social media to keep up with distant connections than we do with best friends, with whom we'd rather talk in person. Unlike scrolling through an anonymous forum, however, with acquaintances, we do have real faces and memories from which to draw. Our shared humanity is more evident. Fewer names get called.
The conversations I've started on controversial posts are often halting, as many online discussions are. After all, if you're angry and want to post a meme to make yourself feel better, have a laugh, or gain vindication, you probably don't want to have to restate or justify your implied opinion, let alone to a near stranger. You just want to process an emotion.
So I start my conversations from there. Viewpoints can be challenged and misconceptions corrected, but people's feelings are true to them. Most people aren't trying to be hateful when they post a sound bite or quote or news clip; they simply need a proxy to speak on their behalf. The emotional sentiment, however, is real, and if you want to have a conversation with a person, you need to care for them as a friend.
After validating those feelings and establishing that connection, you can share your opinion and see what grows from there. But political soil is rough these days. Occasionally, there is back and forth, onlookers chime in, polite discussion happens, and both sides learn a little. But, more often, for your annoying intrusion, bad words get said and the whole post gets deleted.
Do these online conversations matter in the big scheme of politics? Maybe.
Political identities are personal, shaped more by our immediate communities than by the White House. I like to think that online civility matters for this reason, too.
During the 2016 election, I watched my moderate Republican friends grow increasingly isolated. Their preferred candidates gradually lost, while other friends crowed about their candidates' victories, shaming anyone who didn't vote like they did. Many of these Republicans reluctantly chose Trump in the end, and I suspect in part because Democrats left few doors open for voters who felt rootless.
I believe in working, even in digital ways, to roll back some of that damage. People who are afraid or feel unheard can latch onto the desperate "us vs. them" mentality that shuts down potential middle ground. I want to reclaim those connections, to have halting and awkward conversations on Facebook, so at least we can build up trust in each other. So at least we can feel heard. So at least we know we matter to each other.
If we want to have honest political conversations with our friends and acquaintances, maybe Facebook is a place to start.
Natalie Redmond lives in Dorset, and is an associate writer at Bennington College.
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