I made a terrible mistake. After years of exclusively posting pics of kids and vacation spots on Facebook, I decided to engage my “friends” in a little political debate over the last few weeks. I don’t know what I expected to achieve. Deep down I guess I assumed that well reasoned arguments supported by facts and historical analogies would prevail, especially if presented in a respectful manner. All I knew was that the thought of letting the absurdities in my timeline go unchallenged left me feeling complicit, as if my silence would be mistaken for tacit agreement. There’s too much at stake with the US presidential election this year. I had to speak out.
What pushed me over the edge was an abhorrently ignorant post by an immediate family member — a person for whom I care for deeply but rarely see in person. So, after a period of cautious consideration, I keyed in a brief response from my phone. My notifications lit up almost immediately with a chorus of rebuttals citing ancient religious texts. The replies weren’t from my relative, however, they came from friends-of-friends — a group of Facebook users I mostly don’t know, but whom I’m algorithmically linked to via my relative. Reason was taken off the table because God was now arguing the case through her mortal vessels. I grew angry. Angry at my inability to fight faith with facts, and angry that these zealots hijacked the conversation. My mind spun for hours, trying to formulate the perfect responses. The perfect words that would show my Facebook foes the error of their ways! It was no longer about convincing a family member, now I felt the need to convince everyone who posted, or even liked a dissenting opinion.
I seethed in that miserable cauldron for most of the day, to the point where my wife noticed my frustration and asked me what was going on. “Someone is wrong on the internet!” I exclaimed in loathing self-mockery, hoping she’d take pity on me and join my noble quest. Her response was predictable. Rolling her eyes she pivoted on one foot and walked away saying, “Never discuss politics on Facebook, dummy.” She was right, of course, but I couldn’t stop.
Emboldened by my anger, I took on more adversaries in the days ahead and even started my own politically-charged threads. I dropped brash (but honest — I wasn’t trolling) opinions into Facebook as lures for the opposition. Some people would only respond privately over Facebook Messenger. I found these one-on-one conversations to be the most conducive to honest and respectful debate. Most however, engaged me in the open, with their comments visible to hundreds of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Game on.
Some would counter without words, relying solely upon links to articles on political websites I’ve never heard of, that seemingly exist only to cater to, and coddle, niche interests. Sites where opinion is regarded more highly than fact (I checked). I found that the people who argued with links were easy prey as they often failed to understand a topic well enough to articulate their own opinions. Not exactly a revelation in a political system that thrives on sound bites, 140-character declarations, and memes.
I’ve also realized that you can “win” a political argument on Facebook without necessarily being right. It’s akin to a competition, where the score is tallied by the number of likes each statement receives. Inject humor into your response and you might score big. Go too intellectual or use too many words and you risk having your response ignored entirely. It’s all about the performance. Again, not a revelation in a political system that more often than not resembles a popularity contest viewable on reality TV.
All the discussions eventually died semi-natural deaths, resulting in what appeared to be stalemates because nobody on the internet ever admits defeat. Notably, my relative, the one who spawned my political adventure in the first place, never bothered to engage me in political discourse. So, ultimately, whatever it was that I was trying to accomplish failed.
In hindsight, instead of posting a response on Facebook, I should have used my phone for its original purpose: to call, talk, and most importantly, to listen.
As to my role of political pundit on Facebook, I think that’s over, or at least curtailed. My friends now know how I feel. So I’ll go back to honing my custom filters and using Facebook’s tools to permanently hide the people, posts, and web sites I disagree with. I want Facebook to be a happy, agreeable place that’s free from conflict, one that mirrors my views on life, liberty, and happiness. I’m guessing many of you want the same, which is troubling for a democracy that thrives on diversity of thought and a populace that increasingly gets its news from Facebook almost exclusively. But that’s a battle for another day.
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