Earlier in the year, an iMessage conversation with a high school classmate gave me pause.
“Wait, can I ask you something?” she ominously inquired. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you used to be so vocal about U.S. politics on Facebook. And now you’ve been pretty quiet about it lately. Is there any reason for that?”
She posed a valid question, and she’s not wrong: a few years ago, I would post constantly on social media about the goings-on in the United States and international political scenes. That changed somewhat recently, due not only to major changes in how social networking sites present content, but also a desire to write more long-form, thoroughly sourced pieces. Here’s why.
At some point in late 2015, a family member of mine blocked me on Facebook. To this day, I am not quite sure why she did, but it almost certainly had something to do with our different political views. She frequently shared viral right-wing memes, on which I routinely replied with links to Politifact or Snopes fact check articles. When I would post links on my page, she would often comment with ad hominem insults directed at (then) President Obama or the Democrats, or what she perceived as “The Left”. These exchanges occurred frequently.
Usually she would end up not responding if her logic was questioned. Our most substantial conversation concerned the 2015 takeover of a federal wildlife preserve by terrorists in Oregon. To be clear: I did not engage her because she was a random internet user with a differing viewpoint (such as one might find in a YouTube comment section), but rather because she was an individual I had a connection with. I do not think people have a moral obligation to try to sway their families on political issues, but people are more likely to listen to others with whom they have a connection.
When I discovered that I had been blocked, I had a moment to reflect on my social media habits. What is the purpose of posting opinions on Facebook? What do I hope to gain? What am I doing with my social media presence?
When I first started posting about politics on social media, I had two objectives: support my like-minded allies and challenge friends who disagreed. For a period after I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter 9 years ago, this worked quite well. Both platforms were much simpler at the time: when you posted an item, it would appear in the newsfeed of all the people with whom you were connected. If they weren’t online at the time, there is a chance that they would not see what you posted.
This was what I consider to be the “Golden Age” of social media politicking. I have fond memories of debating about who would win the 2008 Democratic primary, what exactly the future would hold for Sarah Palin in the Republican Party, and whether nationwide gay marriage would ever happen in the United States. I don’t want to sugarcoat it too much—some people were just as crass, inarticulate, and myopic as users can be today. But others reacted well, substantiating their position with sourced facts and disagreeing while remaining polite. I learned a lot from these good-faith debaters.
In internet terms, this is ancient history. Both Facebook and Twitter now curate what you see using secret algorithms. Even if you have a diverse collection of Facebook friends, you still won’t get the full story: “according to a closely guarded and constantly shifting formula, Facebook’s news feed algorithm ranks [stories], in what it believes to be the precise order of how likely you are to find each post worthwhile.” In early 2016, Twitter adopted a similar model.
Over time, I noticed that the stories I was sharing began to generate fewer and fewer responses from my conservative friends. Similarly, I saw fewer and fewer conservative postings. The algorithms had filtered our newsfeeds to eliminate content we disagreed with. Perhaps it saved some mild annoyance on my part, but I missed the discourse that I had with my good-faith colleagues.
As I said above, I had two objectives with posting about politics on social media: support my like-minded friends and challenge those who disagreed; with the latter reason off of the table, what about the former?
As social media flourished, so did the delivery system of news. No longer do people have to rely on manually checking blogs or using RSS feeds (although I still do!); pages such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy made sharing the news not only easy, but also more accessible to users who aren’t political wonks. While my political postings were initially somewhat of a rarity on Facebook–at least amongst the posts of my largely apolitical hodgepodge of Facebook friends–today, it is quite common to witness people posting about politics every day.
Don’t get me wrong – this change is mostly a good thing. People are now able to share news that matters to them in an incredibly accessible way. However, it’s not perfect; people are able to surround themselves in echo chambers with likeminded people, with no knowledge of differing viewpoints. The ease by which people are able to consume and pass along knowledge is an underrated achievement of the technological age. But, with this ease, my own postings began to stand out less and less.
This led me to begin posting less and less. I noticed that the less often I posted, the more my stories seemed to stand out among the fray. I sought out stories I didn’t see others posting about. I stopped using Twitter and began crafting longer comments that accompanied the stories I was sharing. This new style worked for a while, but I was bothered because I knew I was fighting a losing battle against the algorithms.
Then came Election Night in November 2016. Along with most statisticians, policy wonks, pollsters, commentators, political scientists, and even voters, I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. I went as far as to post my electoral college prediction with the caption, “Will Clinton’s emails be a big issue in her 2020 reelection campaign?” Yikes.
It’s still cringeworthy to think back to my optimism during the campaign. I had the gall to propose an expensive wager on the outcome of the election with a Trump-supporting childhood friend. (Luckily, Trump’s infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” boast of his prior sexual assaults scared my friend away from accepting my bet. My bank account thanks him considerably.) After the election, seemingly thousands of think pieces in major publications portrayed surprised Trump critics as having fallen victim to an ideological bubble, made worse by a social media echo chamber.
Given the irregularity of this election–including the fact that Trump received nearly 3 million fewer votes than Clinton–I find this claim to be difficult to validate. On a personal level, I have always made an effort to read right-wing and centrist publications to keep an eye on other perspectives. Nevertheless, I was ashamed that I had made such blatantly incorrect predictions on a (semi) public platform. Perhaps, I thought, my analyses would benefit from more consideration. Maybe off-the-cuff political commentary on Facebook wasn’t for me.
Since then, I’ve greatly rolled back my social media use in general, as well as my political commenting. Once in a blue moon, I’ll succumb to my baser instincts and write up a quick political post or make a little quip–such as when I shared this photo in which it looks as if South Korean President Moon Jae-in is lecturing Trump. For the most part, I’ve switched over to long-form blogging.
In this format, I am able to clearly articulate my point in a detailed manner. Citing sources is also much easier. If a reader is unconvinced of a conclusion I make, then they are able to check my sources to further explore the topic. Even if a prediction I make in a long-form manner ends up being wrong, people would still be able to read why I thought that way.
My published articles are still shared on this blog’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google Plus, and Tumblr accounts with additional content to be shared on Flickr, YouTube, and Vimeo. But, in terms of my personal social media accounts, I’ve turned into somewhat of a lurker: “[someone] on a messageboard [sic] or anything similar, [who will] browse the board very often, but without ever posting anything.”
This approach is not right for everyone, but perhaps more people should consider blogging. Setting aside a bit of time to research topics, formulate my opinions, and write my posts has brought me satisfaction and clarity. Micro-blogging platforms, such as Tumblr and Pinterest, might be an option for people who want to dip their toes in the format. Given that the U.S. political scene since November has resembled a tsunami of devastatingly bad news, perhaps taking a slower approach isn’t such a bad idea.
In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.