The politics of unfriending
If you’re a Facebook user, then you know unfriending season is here. It’s an election year, so political disagreements will, no doubt, lead to broken friendships. News stories about friends and relatives physically fighting and even killing over politics isn’t unusual in election years. But on Facebook, those with differing views are simply deleted into the ether.
If you ask people if they want to see political posts on Facebook, they’ll say no. Drill down a bit and what they really mean is they don’t want to see political posts they disagree with. By choice, most Americans aren’t routinely exposed to differing political views. Liberals aren’t likely to watch Fox News and listen to right wing talk radio while conservatives, in general, aren’t watching MSNBC, Bill Maher or the Daily Show. Living in a hermetically-sealed bubble is the norm.
Homophily, the desire to associate with those like ourselves, is alive and kicking on Facebook. Why wouldn’t it be? In our real lives, the people we associate with are most often like-minded people. How many friends have nothing in common? Associating with those who enjoy the same things we do and believe similarly makes us more comfortable and accepted. People will, consciously or unconsciously, adopt the beliefs of their friends in order to fit in. Once those beliefs have set in and are reinforced by our social circle, it’s hard to change them.
Have you ever had an argument with someone over your political beliefs and in the middle of the argument you thought, “They’re absolutely right!” and adopted their views? Me either. People don’t learn through argument. And facts are completely irrelevant. This discordant strain in your circle of friends will drive you to want to be rid of it.
This isn’t just my opinion. Studies, like two out of the University of Michigan, have found that people base their political opinions on beliefs and when confronted with facts that challenge those opinions, they don’t change their opinions. Scientists call it “backfire.” Exposure to the correct facts actually makes some people more desperately cling to their opinions. Climate change, anyone?
It shouldn’t be surprising. How many times have you witnessed a Facebook political argument and seen someone say something to the effect of, “Nothing you say is going to change my mind.” While this may be a defense mechanism against the cognitive dissonance I mentioned earlier, it’s a breathtaking statement. People are saying “If I hear facts that refute what I believe, I will deny the facts.”
In light of this reality, it’s easy to understand why someone would choose to unfriend another with differing views. In order to quiet the dissonance in our heads, we delete the person causing it. Of course that’s not the only reason someone may unfriend someone for political speech. Some just dislike bickering. And often political debates turn nasty and personal. That is the only time I’ve blocked people, when their political argument is so weak they have to resort to insults. If you do that. then you’re virtually dead to me.
The funny thing is we’re exposed to differences among our friends on Facebook and in real life every single day with no problem. People like rival football teams and have different religions, tastes in music and movies. Some are vegan/vegetarian while others almost worship bacon. Some love chocolate and others are wrong. There are dog lovers and cat lovers. Some friends are gay or bisexual while others may be homophobic. Some are strongly pro-gun while others support gun control.
Why is it so hard to just ignore posts one disagrees with? All of us regularly scroll past advertisements and promoted content on Facebook. We do it so routinely we barely even notice them. Even when a friend posts something we dislike, as long as its not political, we blithely scroll past without a change in blood pressure.
Engaging in a political debate on Facebook, like most posts on public forums, tends to shed more heat than light. The arguments go round and round while lurkers, too afraid to voice their own opinion, “like” the responses they agree with. This usually turns personal and POOF, someone is unfriended. I admit, sometimes I get caught up in them before coming to my senses and realizing four responses in that we’re engaging in a slightly more adult version of, “I’m rubber, you’re glue.”
Why not just post a cat video, funny picture, motivational quote or a photo of that fat greasy double cheeseburger you had for lunch or some other Facebook cliché and not engage in a political debate that you say you’re not interested in?
I like having friends with differing views. Even if I reject their argument they can still provide valuable insight into why people believe as they do.
Beyond that, even if I disagree politically, there are other things about my Facebook friends that I enjoy. I focus on the things that attract me to people. Some are funny. Or maybe they’re Oakland Raider fans. Some of them I admire for how their religious faith informs their character. I admire the parents they are or I bond over our grandchildren. With others, I’m in awe of their military or community service. To me, it’s important that I see people who love this country as much as I do even if we disagree on how it should be run.
I’ve been in the opinion writing business for almost a quarter century. In that time, I’ve never thought my goal was to change people’s minds on issues. But it has been my goal to challenge beliefs, stir discussion and give readers a look at a perspective they may not have considered. I consider myself a professional goat-getter, button-pusher and intracranial artist. And since I’m in the opinion business, it would be hypocritical for me to discard friends simply because I disagreed with their opinions.
So if I see a political posts that I disagree with, I just keep it scrolling and it doesn’t bother me. After all, I can’t force my friends to be right!