Why politics on Facebook is important

This election season has been a very long one.  There is no arguing that.  For those of us working in the campaign business, it’s been a lifetime and a half.  On Tuesday, though, it all comes to a climax when the American people (or at least a portion of them) will go out and vote for many offices, ballot questions and referendums, upholding a 200+ year old tradition of democratic process in this country.  It’s been a long process, for sure, one that in many ways is far too long, and so much effort is being put into making it even longer, with the way primaries are being pushed earlier and earlier.  People are tired of it, tired of the ads, tired of the posturing on the news, tired of the name-calling, tired of the process as a whole, and are burnt out.

This election, however, is different from others because this time around social networks and internet communications are so much more ubiquitous for people who were not connected that way four years ago, and are still trying to find their way around the barrage of information on the Internet, from Facebook posts to twitter to news blogs and media organizations.  They are finding out that a lot of people out there do not share the same worldview, the same ideals, the same political thinking as them, and they do not like it.

People do not like being challenged, as a whole.  Everyone hates being proven wrong, or even proven that there is validity to the opposite viewpoint.  It’s natural, and one of the reasons that so many wars across history were (and still are) based on religious beliefs.  If I took away anything from the Jesuit education, it’s finding that ability to set aside that reaction, and try to understand  interpret, and maybe not agree with but at least respect someone else’s views provided that they are honest, and valid.  Granted, it’s also one of the things that drove me away from the Catholic Church, so maybe not their desired effect, but that’s a different blog post.

The general reaction to that is to ignore those people, or dehumanize them and try to avoid them, sticking with like-minded people.  Before the internet that somewhat limited your choices, and forced many people to moderate themselves somewhat, in a diverse community, leaving pockets of extremes, but they were definitely the fringe.  Now, however, not only does the internet allow for people to “gather” from around the world in their like-mindedness, but in relative anonymity as well, providing for no responsibility or accountability for things said.  to me this seems to be a classic double-edged sword.   It allows for the ability to clearly speak one’s mind without worry, but it also gives validation to the most extreme fringe sides of the spectrum, allowing ideas that otherwise would stay off to the edges gain traction.

This is true for both sides, but seems to be more prevalent on the extreme right, as far as collectively organizing in these fringe groups.  Not to say there aren’t any on the left, by any means.  But the sheer hatred and collective cognitive dissonance amazes me from the extreme right, in its purity and self-affirmation.  I’m not just talking about that bastion of thinly veiled bigotry that is Free Republic, I equate those guys with a lot of the folks at Kos. Not the writers, the commenters.  But then you look at places like Moonbattery.com, where you can find comments like this, in response to another commenter’s suggestion that there will be riots if Obama loses:

Locked and loaded for them Stan. And plenty of ammo where that came from. If they want to use the defeat of their brown god as a pretext to step foot on my property or loot my belongings, the great purge begin. It will be swift, massive and devestating. The ones that flee in the hail of bullets can come back later with mops and buckets to collect their comrades’ remains.

Nearly all the regular commenters on that site, never mind the authors of the posts, are gun-totin’ hyper-religious, racists who also seem to have this belief that having an education makes you un-American.  In another post where a nine-year-old African-American boy is put on the spot and gives an answer that is unfortunately for him a child’s interpretation of politics, this gem of a comment is made:

Statistics say that regardless of who wins this election, this young turdlet will likely be dead or in jail within the next 6-10 years. I hope not. I hope he can buck the trend and make himself into a productive citizen. But I doubt it. The propaganda that already fills his head that comes mostly from the racism of his own people has likely doomed him to his fate.

Nice, huh? Some day when you begin to feel good about humanity, take a couple of hours and read the posts at Fundies Say The Darndest Things.  It’s an interesting mix of people making amazingly outlandish claims based on religious fundamentalism, conspiracy theories, or pure racism, depending on which section.  In the comments as well, you will find some folks who sincerely just want to shine the light on ignorance, but an awful lot of other people who have just as much hatred for the people making the ignorant statements.  In the racism section, I wholeheartedly support the ostracizing and hate for those who honestly hold such views as shown there.  But it’s usually not the way to combat ignorance, with more hate.

This is why, I honestly believe, as long as people can be at least civil to each other, that it is vitally important for there to be open and honest discussions in the social media universe.  We need to force ourselves into a level of diversity among our peers, to open our minds and critically view the posts and statements made by our peers, and engage in discussions, and in a realm like Facebook, where there is less anonymity and some level of self-accountability, we are somewhat forced into some level of civility.

Or one would hope.

The problem is that just doesn’t happen, mostly because of two problems.  First, most people have a lot of trouble maintaining a critical eye.  They have their prejudices and as I said before, do not like them to be challenged.  Second, is the friends of friends.  The most vitriolic responses to any point I have tried to make have always come from friends of my friends, who have little accountability in arguing with me, or insulting me.  I will be the first to admit I can be a bit of a troll.  Another side-effect of having a Jesuit-enriched background is to enjoy bringing the argument out a little once the gauntlet has been thrown.  I think Socrates was one of the world’s greatest trolls, and had he been able to see the Internet, well, we’d all be in trouble.

Let me be really clear: I do not care what your beliefs are.  For example, I have a very deep and abiding loathing for organized religion of nearly any sort. I spent too many years in Catholic schools to be otherwise.  However, if you poll my friends, you will see some very religious folks, including even some clergy, and not a one of them will ever say that I have said anything about their beliefs that was not respectful and tolerant.  The same goes for political beliefs, I consider myself a centrist with strong liberal leanings.  I work for a company that has a very clear political approach to business.  But at the same time, I have many conservative friends, including some that we just don’t talk about it anymore because there is no point to it. The beauty of the social media universe, though, is our ideas and viewpoints can be shared, which is an awesome thing.  But we need to apply some objectivity, critical thinking, and respect to those views, and when we see things we disagree with or believe to be false, it is incumbent on us to respectfully express that view as well, to get a discussion going.  That’s really hard to do, but can be worth it in the long-term.  I myself have tried very hard to not retreat into a bubble of like-mindedness.  I am often asked “Why the hell would you watch Fox News?” or “be friends with someone like that guy?”  Because I am trying to watch all sides, and present my case out there.  How can I possibly expect other people to respect the ideas and things I say and post, if I am not doing the same.  Over this entire time, I know I have lost a few friends because of it, probably been blocked by others, but have only defriended one person for political reasons, and that was because some of the posts had descended into racism and bigotry that only served to make me angry.

The sad part, however, is that possibly as a result of the campaigns being so long and drawn-out, and two of the biggest media powerhouses being so blatantly partisan and more propaganda machines than actual journalists, it is a polarized population, who is burnt out and simply lashing out at anything political.  Which is having the unfortunate effect of driving us back to our safety zones of like-mindedness, which also only tells us the things we want to hear, and we don’t care if they are correct or not.  It’s that last bit that has made snopes such a household name, because most people just accept what they hear if it is something they agree with or coincides withe their beliefs.

This entire post is the result of this discussion on a friend’s Facebook page about Facebook possibly having political motivations for TOSing an image that was anti-Obama:

Obviously I have masked the identities because I do not wish to seem like I am blaming them or trying to ridicule them, but provide an example of this tendency to stick with what agrees with you or makes you comfortable.  Frankly, the Weekly World News has more journalistic integrity than Breitbart.  But it is an example of an area on the internet that has a following that does not care about the accuracy or integrity of the stories there, because it conforms to a world view.  Oh, and for the record, I am not a big fan of DailyKOS for the same reason.  I take them for what they are, partisan havens.

At the end of the day, however, this new form of communication is here to stay, and is only going to be more ubiquitous.  Our kids have already worked this into their lives seamlessly, and it will be the primary form of communication for them for a very long time.  It’s important for us to be able to help them use it in a critical way, to use it as a tool to learn about other people, other viewpoints, other lifestyles, other cultures, and not to simply find their own niche and let ideas fester.  When all is said and done, the words of Abraham Lincoln (which were based on a passage in Matthew) still stand and will always serve as a reminder of the hazards of polarity and hatred of the other side, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  We have technology that give us unprecedented access to everyone in the world and their ideas.  We have the ability to be able to hold each other accountable, to have access to more information than at any other time in history.  We need to use it for our betterment and unification, as opposed to dividing ourselves further.  I have faith we can, but sometimes it’s not that strong.

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