11 November 2016

On NOT Talking Politics on Social Media

By Art Taylor

Needless to say, it's been quite a week in U.S. politics—the stunning finale to a long and bitter political campaign. And while a Washington Post feature on Wednesday was headlined "Our Long National Nightmare Is Over" (an article on the election season ending, a different headline in the online version here), the truth is, of course, that the nightmare is just beginning from the perspective of half the country. Another headline that day talked about half of the country being filled with hope, the other half horrified, and I realized that this second headline would have been true no matter which candidate won, and the same would be true of that nightmare beginning—for Republicans if Hillary had claimed the presidency, same as for Democrats now.

As for the meaning behind that first headline—the election done, the ads gone, whatever—clearly it's only half true. The news remains focused on coverage and commentary, office chatter still revolves around the election and what's ahead, and likely your Facebook wall or Twitter feed is still as thick with election talk and post-election talk as mine is.

While I've occasionally shared online an article I've found interesting (I particularly appreciate when the Post covers my home state of North Carolina, as in this article I shared yesterday), I almost steadfastly avoid talking politics in my posts. I rarely post articles with any clear partisanship, and I haven't talked publicly about my own beliefs, hopes or fears. I don't know if I'm the minority here; it seems like so many of my friends are very vocal on such topics, but it's hard to gauge the absence of such talk—who's avoiding politics and, equally important, why.

For me, politics is a fairly private thing. I have very strong feelings on most political issues, and I try to stay educated and informed as best I can. I subscribe to the Post, and its website is the homepage on both my office computer and my laptop, so I'm checking in there several dozen times a day. I read both news coverage and commentary—from both sides of the divide—and I read letters to the editor to get a sense of what readers are thinking. (Despite myself, I occasionally read the comments section on online articles, and then remind myself again why I shouldn't.) Circling back to social media, while some people I know went on Facebook blackouts during the election season, I scanned my newsfeed to see what friends and acquaintances had to say or what they posted. And come election day on any year, I always vote—and my wife and I have taken our son with us each time we've voted in the nearly five years since he was born, hopefully inculcating in him the importance of taking part in the process.

So I read. I listen. I participate. But when it comes to talking about it or posting about it....

My family has never been one of those to passionately debate politics across the dinner table (I assume this happens in reality somewhere and not just in the movies), and on those occasions when we've been divided on topics or candidates, we've politely agreed to disagree and then steered clear of discussing it any further. At times at cocktail parties or dinners, I've had people talk to me with some assumptions (often mistaken assumptions) of my political beliefs, and while I have other friends who would've jumped into such conversations—expressed themselves, explained themselves, gone on the defensive or even on the attack—I usually listen briefly and then steer myself away, exiting rather than engaging. Frankly, I don't see anything to be gained by such a confrontation, especially in this era of solidly entrenched beliefs. (I hope that the other motives don't lurk beneath this, that this isn't evidence of some cowardice on my part.)

Maybe that same aversion to confrontation is true for me of social media conversations. I've seen how one person's passionate post can provoke another person's vitriolic comment and then the endless spiral of back and forth and back and forth on a topic until exhaustion sets in (or perhaps until someone is muted, blocked, unfriended); this is not how I want to spend my time and energy.

Maybe my reluctance comes from recognizing the futility of it all. Many of us—maybe most of us—live to some degree in an echo chamber; we're drawn to people whose interests and values mesh well with our own. It's become a cliche—and then the punchline to a joke—that Facebook posts on politics won't ever change anyone's mind on a topic, won't change anyone's vote or anyone's post-election perspective either. (Revisiting my aside above, maybe it's not cowardice at all but pessimism that drives my decision.)

Maybe it's just that question "Why would anyone care what I think or feel about politics?"

But then a counterpoint there too, because I guess I do care what even strangers think when I see them making those moves. I admire the people who've stood at the Farmer's Market each Saturday or who've gone door to door canvassing, even if my reaction was simply to smile and wave and think that they already have my support, I'll be there, I'll vote. Is social media the same way? Does the voice being heard matter? Or is it just a smile and a wave between those of us who share the same values? And then—further down the sidewalk toward the Farmer's Market—a brisk pass by the other party at the other tent? Just keep on scrolling down the newsfeed.

And sticking with that counterpoint, I recognize that much of speaking out is also standing up, taking a stand and going on the record with it—not just letting your vote be heard in the ballot box but letting your voice be heard as well. As my wife pointed out, reading a rough draft of this post, sometimes being a silent witness isn't enough.

I have indeed appreciated reading what other people have posted online in the wake of the election—their thoughts and reflections, their hopes and fears. In many cases, it's as simple as seeing someone express an idea in print (or pixels) that I've been thinking, of feeling that brief connection of extending that bit of empathy. And I'll admit, in the days since the election, I've been aware of the silences on my own Facebook page—conscious, self-conscious both with the sense that I should say something about what has happened (shouldn't I be an active member of the world?) and with some desire to say something, to get those thoughts and feelings out.

A small step here then:

I could say that my heart hurt watching the election returns roll in, but that's too metaphorical to be accurate enough. It was a physical hurt: not a weight in my chest, not just a tightness, but a clench, a ripping; restless throughout the night, I worried that my heart might simply seize up, stop. When I got up (I can't say "when I woke"), I was haunted by the fear that the America I hoped our four-year-old son would grow up in was suddenly on track to become an America I didn't want him to grow up in. I expect I'll be living under that fear for a long while.

If you agree with me, you'll understand what I mean here. If you don't, you may already be scoffing or at least with your own responses in mind. As I said, half are filled with hope, half horrified, not much middle ground to be found.

The last thing I want is for this post to spur folks to rehash the election, to call attention to or widen that divide. But what I am interested in are the questions I've been circling around: Do you talk politics or avoid talking politics on social media? What prompts you to do it? what do you hope to gain, from others or for yourself?

Whichever side of the aisle you're on, I'm curious about your answers there. And whichever side of the aisle, best wishes to all of us on the road ahead.


  1. Hey, Art,

    Good post and a lot of food for thought. But in response to your questions: I don’t talk politics on social media. As you say, and as the graphic you included shows, nobody’s mind is going to change and nobody’s going to change my mind. It’s an exercise in futility. It is hard, however, sometimes not to comment on either other people’s posts or to put something of my own on.


  2. Yep, Paul -- I actually thought of you as I was writing this and of a couple of other friends whose social media posts seem steadfastly non-political (not apolitical, which I think is different). I wondered if other shared my sense of futility or if--something I didn't mention--there was a conscious effort to focus on other things: great films, great books, humor, etc., a respite from the political strife.

    In any case, thanks for chiming in. I know that this post isn't complete or comprehensive. Appreciate folks' patience with it.

  3. Art, my tendency is to not post on political topics. I have little stomach for the vitriol, hate, and contempt that fills many posts from both sides. Reading the vicious remarks coming from left and right during this campaign makes me think of Lincoln's statement that a house divided against itself cannot stand. That so many from either side cannot engage in these discussions without demonizing the other camp bodes ill for our future. And, as has been said here, I have never seen any minds changed. Perhaps namecalling and contempt aren't the best ways to persuade others to embrace one's views.
    I try to stay out if it.

  4. Yep, Larry--good points here. Too much vitriol, hate, and contempt at each end of the spectrum, and your quote from Lincoln is an apt one these days. Been too long since folks (politicians at the top of that list) have tried to work together, and the chasm between them seems to be growing too wide to bridge.... Thanks for chiming in, good seeing you always.

  5. Very wise, Art. Love the graphic. Too true!

  6. Thanks, Meg! I was just thinking a couple of days ago that I hadn't seen you in a while. Hope all is well!

  7. Very insightful post, Art. I have to say I agree with you, and I, too, have avoided posting anything about politics--at least nothing partisan. (In all honesty, I'm not too fond of most politicians--having lived in Washington almost my entire life, I've experienced more than my share of gridlock, and I'm not just talking about traffic.) I think you're absolutely correct, no one's minds are being influenced on Facebook. Sometimes I think people just post things so they can argue with "virtual" people as a way to vent their anger. I do think it's important to try to understand all sides of an issue, and in that vein, I'm kind of proud that I haven't actually unfriended anyone, despite some of the nastiness I've witnessed--on both sides of the aisle. Democracy can be ugly.

  8. While I will like political posts by others, I rarely post about politics myself on social media because there's no upside. People aren't going to be swayed by what I say, and it does me no good to engage in arguments, especially because I hate confrontation. That said, there are times that I have to stop myself from typing a response to something that really bothers me. In those times, I whisper to myself words that Star Trek fans might sort of recognize: Do not engage.

  9. Thanks, Alan and Barb. Seems like our attitudes and approaches are similar here. Have also been getting different perspectives on my FB page, where folks like Dan Fesperman and Thomas Pluck have offered dissents--much appreciated--about why they post and how other people's opinions (posts or not) have helped to shift perspectives. Need to emphasize here myself that my own approaches aren't meant to suggest that others shouldn't sound out on social media themselves; in fact, I appreciate and admire those folks so much, and I'd hoped that came through in my post above somehow.

  10. Thanks for these reflections, Art. I generally stay away from politics on Facebook, too. I hope it's not cowardice; I'd like to think it's simply that I don't think Facebook is an ideal forum for discussing complex issues. It is, after all, a form of social media--doesn't that suggest it's a place for socializing, rather than a place for parading one's political beliefs or trying to persuade others? Like you, I'm not criticizing people who do post political opinions, only explaining why I don't. I did feel compelled to speak up when a certain meme was circulating a year or so ago. It showed an arm stamped with a concentration camp number and said something about "six million people" following Hitler "blindly" and not fighting back. It didn't explicitly mention Jews, but the meaning seemed clear--the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves and never resisted. That seemed so outrageous to me that I had to respond when three of my friends posted the meme. One apologized, saying he hadn't thought carefully enough about the implications; he and I are still friends. The other two tried to convince me and convert me. I went a few rounds with them, gave up, and unfriended them. There are many, many things about which decent, well-intentioned people can disagree. That's not one of them. I would have indeed felt like a coward if I'd stayed silent then.

  11. All right, I confess, I get into political discussions on Facebook. And believe me, I've tried to figure out what character flaw it is in me that every once in a while jumps into the fray. Some of it is that I still have friends who are on the opposite spectrum, and when I see a post that I find completely unfair, or immoral, or that I KNOW is an outright lie, I feel compelled to speak up. It's something I hope to step back from now that the election is over. Then again... I may not.

  12. It's interesting, Eve, that you use that phrase "I confess" and then the phrase "character flaw." I've had a one friend comment (on FB) about aspiring to be like me in this regard and another take issue with what he thought was my recommendation that others follow my lead. On the contrary, I really admire folks who speak out when they seen injustice or immorality--just as you said here and as Bonnie mentioned above. See something, say something--let your voice be heard. And that's where I'm not trying to advise or judge but really to look inside myself at what motivates or fails to motivate, and the tension I feel is actually pulling me in other directions, that I maybe need to speak out more.

    I think I should've worked on this post longer, worked through it more....

    In any case, I appreciate your thoughts here--and fight the good fight, always!

  13. Recently I discovered that my BFF since age 10 has never voted in her life, nor has her ignorant cracker husband or any of her relatives. If they did, she said they would have voted for the other candidate! I guess she & I never discussed politics or voting before. I tried to talk some sense into her on the phone around the end of September, before Election Day. We haven't spoken since then & we used to talk all the time. I figured after my candidate won, I'd be able to extend the olive branch & everything would be wonderful ...

    It looks like we'll need to wait until December 19, when the electoral college actually votes for real, to know who our next president will be. As of this a.m. Hillary was ahead by 400,000 popular votes.

    But my friend doesn't use a computer so isn't on social media ... I've been hollering at her to join the modern world for at least 10 years, so far it hasn't worked. But however it turns out, all of this has put a horrific strain on our friendship, much like the anticipation one feels when about to go through a divorce.

  14. Although I have been extremely active politically since before I was old enough to vote, I don't discuss politics outside of my family and a tiny group of friends. We often don't agree on much but we are cordial and there is never any fighting because everyone is entitled to their opinion. And the conversation is brief and to the point, usually because someone has a genuine question. Needless to say, I would never discuss anything political on social media.

  15. You have to watch Terrie… She’s a Whig but I think she voted for Zachary Taylor.

    Facebook uses ‘heuristics’ to gauge a user’s interests and then uses their conclusions to feed that user like-minded posts from friends. In other words, facebook will usually tell a user what they want to hear.

    A friend is notorious for her angry politics among family and friends and often refuses to speak with them for week, months, even years. I like her as a friend and I refuse– and persuaded her to refuse– antagonizing our friendship with stupid politics. We have our own beliefs, but it’s nice putting the friendship on a higher plane.

  16. I'm an old guy and was brought up in the "never discuss politics and religion" era. I still stick to that except with like-minded friends. I read lots of opinions on Facebook and elsewhere, but I keep my own counsel.

  17. Hi, Elizabeth, Terrie, Leigh, and Bill —

    Thanks for the comments. My parents are in town this weekend, so I've been a little behind on checking in here.

    Bill, I almost made the comparison to religion myself, so I think we're coming from similar backgrounds there.

    Leigh: Yes, that's part of weighing how to proceed, weighing how friendships or even family relationships are more important, how political differences can lead to more significant, lasting divides. And of course, we've seen it happen where friendships or even family relationships lose out in that weighing. I didn't end the friendship but I did "unfollow" a friend on Facebook; others have taken further.

    Terrie: that word "cordial" stood out for a couple of reasons, not just for the politeness at the core of it, but also for the distance I think it suggests at least to me. (I actually looked up the word and don't see anything in the definition to support that, but....) Building from my comments above to Leigh to my comments here, I think that's a mental distancing that works better than others: cordial, respectful of differences, keep it brief.

    And Elizabeth: Yes, I remember distinctly times when I've been surprised by sudden realizations about friends (and family) and their political beliefs or lack of political beliefs or.... Sometimes this has been so surprising that I've never been able to see that person in the same way again. However, even that hasn't resulted in an end to the relationship, so maybe there's hope. Sending that hope your way--and everyone's.

  18. Thanks, Art, for this thoughtful post. Thanks also to those who’ve commented. To date, I’ve been quiet on social media about my political views. I did post something the “day after” that I tried to make extremely neutral. I guess I succeeded because friends from both sides of the aisle liked and commented. I’m not skilled at political debate; also, I don’t want to alienate half my readership (I don’t know if it’s half exactly, but there are quite a few whose views differ). I admit that I often “like” a political post (I just can’t help myself!) but I refrain from those emojis that looked horrified or scowling. I’m often tempted to change my policy on neutrality. Today I blocked about six friends. While I believe, at least in theory, in respecting those with different views, I don’t care for some of the obnoxious posts I’m seeing.

    I mentioned politics quite a bit in my first book, Murder at the Book Group. A few critics said I was “picking” on a certain group, assuming that I was using my fictional sleuth as a mouthpiece. Was I? Hmm. Interesting question.

  19. Excellent post, Art. Thank you. I found myself more outspoken to family this election than I usually am--especially since I felt so strongly about it. I guess I was hoping to change their minds. But just as I wasn't changing my mind, neither did they. I didn't post anything online. I worry about the future of our country and would like to pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep for the next four years.

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  22. They include calls for fair wages and working conditions.

  23. These needs have now intensified in a hotter climate.


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