The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

November 3, 2012

The new face of politics

By Shirley O'Shea
The Daily Star

---- — Has it happened to you? Or have you done it yourself?

It has happened to me, and I have done the deed, and I wonder, with a dull ache in my heart, if it was all worth it.

At different times in varying emotional states, I’ve posted my thoughts and feelings about political issues on Facebook. Some of my postings were met with “Likes” (for the uninitiated, if an FB user wants to register approval of a friend’s posting, the user can point and click on the word “Like,” found in tiny print below the posting) and with like-minded comments. Others were met with angry denunciations as wide-ranging as accusing me of slapping U.S. troops in the face, advocating for theocracy or simply being no fun. Facebook political sparring in my life has led to a broken quarter-century-long friendship and some tense family relations. 

There’s a foolish adage that says, “Never discuss religion and politics.” I call it foolish because it must have been coined by someone who knew a bit about human nature, but clearly not enough. Discussing two institutions with the most power to mold human behavior (the third that comes most readily to mind is the family) is indeed risking sharp disagreement and injured feelings. But the truth is that humans cannot help talking about either. And how could we?

This is an article about Facebook and politics, which frequently involves religion in our time. Specifically, I’m talking about how Facebook users interact with each other when they express their convictions about the 2012 elections and

related matters, such as the economy, God, taxes, marriage … practically every element of our experience as citizens and human beings, and whether these interactions are as beneficial and constructive as they could be.

Some of my Facebook friends, who are also my flesh-and-blood friends and relatives, shared their thoughts on the topic. They will speak first.

“At least the people posting online are paying attention — I like to read opposing views, as well as (a) healthy accounting of my own views by someone who can express them better than I,” wrote Jocelyn Steele of Virginia, my friend of more than 20 years. For Steele, posting her own political commentary, including links to partisan and non-partisan websites and political cartoons, and reading responses to her posts and the posts of others, is educational as well as a form of advocacy for causes she deems important.

My sister, Stephanie Clouse of New Jersey, contributed: “It just may cause you a couple of friendships or damage a few relationships. It really matters how passionate you are … Political conversations can take place without becoming rude or disrespectful. What we see more than anything today is, ‘If you don’t support the same candidate as I do, then you are stupid, naive and are being duped.’ Of course, one would hope that friendships are strong enough to endure a little bit of heavy debating.” 

For my sister, Facebook serves as a forum for vigorous debate that runs the risk of damaging relationships, and users must be prepared to take some hits if they make strident postings.

“I may post my views in hope of MAYBE swaying others, but whatever their views, I will not allow a political view (to) affect friendships, and no bad feelings to anyone. I like the challenge of responding to other views also!” shared another friend  of more than 10 years from New Jersey. She sees Facebook as a political discourse forum as well, but said she is unwilling to risk damaging relationships. 

The response that I found most moving came from my friend of high school days, Diana Conn Worth, also of New Jersey. “I love to discuss politics over the kitchen table with friends. We have different opinions but they are respected. I voiced my opinion once on faceless  book and felt exposed and violated. It was like a form of abuse. It was hurtful.

A recent Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project survey indicated that nearly one-fifth of people admit to blocking, unfriending, or hiding someone on social media over political postings.

I spent some face time with Assistant Professor Joshua Frye of the State University College at Oneonta’s communications department to gain an academic’s perspective.

Frye says she sees the controversy about the often not-so-edifying effects of Facebook political discourse as a continuation of a debate over the public’s fitness to talk constructively about its business (rather than limiting that discussion to society’s super-educated elites) that goes back to Plato.

“Attitudes towards public deliberation are under attack,” Frye said. “It’s really become a privatized experience of public messages. Facebook is privately owned, and any information (uploaded onto it) can be used for commercial purposes.”

Frye said, “We have become a very polarized public in recent history, (and) political culture is so polarized.” 

He said this situation is in part attributable to the U.S.’s two-party system. In this “polarized consciousness,” Frye said, “matters escalate. There’s no real deliberation at all.”

The bad feelings produced by a society that thinks of itself in terms of conservative vs. liberal, free markets proponents vs. regulation advocates, one percenters and 99 percenters, religiously devout vs. non-believers, seem to be inescapable, a source of bewilderment, frustration and angst for which no one seems to know a remedy.

“Humans by nature are predisposed toward dualistic thought,” Frye said. That is, people tend to think in binary or “either/or” terms, feeling discomfort with ideas and statements that fall somewhere in between because of their seeming lack of clarity.

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian communications theorist of the mid-20th century. He is the father of the famous concept, “The medium is the message.” According to Frye, McLuhan taught that “certain forms of media introduce specific opportunities or limitations for an audience of or producer of a message. People are not critically aware of that when engaging with modes of communication. They are grappling with very difficult dynamics in public discourse.” 

Frye said that, in response to these difficulties, which are amply embodied by Facebook, people’s communications with others might evolve into the stark alternatives of the “open hand verses the closed fist, propaganda versus effective, beneficial social influence.”

One of the most profound thinkers about the Web and its effects on society must surely be Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who is considered the father of virtual reality. His 2010 book “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” is a critique of what he calls Web 2.0, of which Facebook is a part. 

In his book, Lanier explains why he believes the design of Web 2.0, the successor to the first Internet technology, depersonalizes and dehumanizes users. In his view, this is largely due to the technical problem of lock-in — the persistence of old digital designs when newer programs are developed to work with them, rather than the emergence of entirely new designs, which would require considerable effort by programmers. This can impose limitations on how users express themselves on social websites.

As most computer users know, information moves in and among computers through bits — numerical expressions consisting of the digits 1 and 0. This is called a binary system. As Lanier writes, “there is a new brittleness to the types of connections people make online. This is a side effect of the illusion that digital representations can capture much about actual human relationships. Relationships take on the troubles of software engineering.”

Lanier argues that people want to believe in computers and that their designs accurately reflect human thought and logic. So, when a given program design fails to work in concert with how people do think and behave, the human users defer to the all-wise technology and change their own thinking to align with that of the software, as if it really could think.

And so, perhaps people are thinking and expressing themselves in rigid, binary ways — with rigidity and extreme ideas — that are a corollary to the ways websites such as Facebook are designed. When one takes into account our two-party system and the ideological divide between them at this time, a reasonable explanation emerges as to why angry political arguments on Facebook take place with disheartening regularity.

When people communicate in person, there are hundreds of signals and messages that are sent and received, not only through spoken words, but through subtle facial expressions, body movements and postures, and non-word vocalizations such as “uh” and “ahem” that serve to enhance and fill in gaps in the information being shared. Even a telephone conversation can be more informative, with tone of voice, sighs and silences, which all make a message more meaningful. 

None of this is available on Facebook. This, incidentally, is the sort of thing that Lanier decries about Web 2.0 social networking.

Being aware of Facebook’s limitations may be the start of using it in a more civil and friendly way.