Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Go Ahead and Talk Politics in Social Networks

We are five weeks away from Election Day, and I intend to vote for Obama. Don't click away from the blog quite yet, because that is the last I will say about my political leanings. My point isn't to convince you of my political views but instead to encourage you to share your views, as well as listen to others' in the final five weeks before the election.

I was inspired to write this blog post by a well-known social media professional who posted a politics-themed Someecards user card to Facebook.  It read, "'Your Facebook status really made me change my political views," said no one ever." Soon many other people I respect (and that you know) were posting their agreement with the sentiment.

I certainly understand the frustration people have about the campaign--it has already been a long election season, and between ads, news, phone calls and social media posts, it is hard to escape the din of politics. Still, it concerns me to see people who have national reputations for promoting the power of transparency and engagement suddenly giving the appearance of arguing the exact opposite.

So, which is it: Can social media break down barriers or does it reinforce them? Is social media a force for change that can help resolve some of our world's most pressing issues, or should we only tweet and post safe things that will not challenge others? And perhaps most importantly, do we want to live in a nation of people who express care about the future or one where people only crave the latest meme? Are we really that sick of discussing the role of government while welcoming the hundredth parody of Gangnam Style?! (What was it the Romans said about "bread and circuses?")

Most people avoid political social media posts in part out of discomfort but also because they assume that the sentiment of that Someecard is accurate--that political tweets and posts do not change minds. Wrong, according to a recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life project. Among the findings:

  • 36 percent of social networking site users said the sites are “very important” or “somewhat important” to them in keeping up with political news.
  • Roughly one-fourth of the respondents said the sites are “very important” or “somewhat important” to them in recruiting people to get involved in political issues that matter to them, for debating or discussing political issues with others, and for finding other people who share their views about important political issues.
  • Twenty-five percent of those surveyed said they have "become more active or involved in a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on a social networking site."
  • Around one in six say they have "Changed views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on a social networking site."

A majority may be cautious (or apathetic) about politics in social media, but in a year where a single percentage point may make the difference in the election, these survey results should encourage more political dialog among our social networks. Not only may doing so help you to change others' views, but you may also find yourself more willing to reconsider your own. Says Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew, "people with greater exposure to (and interest in) political chatter on online social networks are more likely to change their mind or take action as a result (regardless of who that chatter comes from)."

Of course, I am not recommending that brands start chatting about politics, but the idea that we should avoid politics within our personal networks seems contrary to the good of the country and the basic tenets of social media. We cannot very well gripe about the divisiveness in Washington and then bring that same contentiousness to our interactions with our own friends. If we want to see more political collaboration and dialog between Democrats and Republicans, we ought to start with more collaboration and dialog within our social networks.

There are risks to talking politics in social media--Pew found that 18 percent of social network users have blocked, hidden, or unfriended someone due to political posts--but this shouldn't cause us to question if we engage but how we do so. The fact that Godwin’s Law has been part of Internet culture for over 20 years is a reminder of how easily a passionate online conversation can turn ugly. Godwin's Law states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of someone comparing another to a Nazi or Hitler grows, and that doing so automatically ends the conversation.

Calling names, mocking candidates or supporters, sharing partial or incorrect facts, resorting to vulgarity, launching ad hominem attacks, ignoring the opinions of others and letting your passions overcome your logic and emotions are ways to not only lose friends but also undermine your own political arguments. Conversely, asking questions, inviting feedback, sticking to facts (as closely as possible), knowing when to back off and seeking middle ground can help foster healthy political dialog. Just keep in mind the goal isn't convince everyone but to understand everyone, and there is no shame in acknowledging that you and a friend have a fundamental difference of opinion.

I began this post declaring my intention to vote for the Democratic candidate, so I'll close this blog post by quoting the current Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. At an event hosted by my employer, he said something we should all consider in these final few weeks before the 57th presidential election in our nation's history:  

“It matters who wins this election. And if you’ve got an opinion on that, then you should express it. Whatever’s in your heart, whether it’s to vote Democrat or Republican, that’s your choice. But get out there and do it. It’s time for us to get to work, everybody.” 

So, what do you think? Are you encouraged to engage more on political topics? Share your thoughts, and heck, let us know who you intend to vote for if you choose to comment below. 


Sheila DuBois said...

I am voting for Mitt Romney!

Augie Ray said...

Good for you for sharing, Sheila. That wasn't too painful, was it? I hope you'll do more of that, and tell people why you think Mitt's the man for the job!

Reff said...

Augie, thanks for starting this conversation. You make good points. For me, I follow the same principles online that I do face to face: don't talk religion, politics or money. Now I'm known to slip up and break my own rule from time to time, but for the most part I don't find interactions on these topics to be fruitful. Mature adults tend to have well formed opinions on these matters and I think Godwin's Law is very much in effect. Further, as the article in today's WSJ points out (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444592404578030351784405148.html) people tend to be much more rude online than they would in real life.

In summary, I agree with your ideals, but I believe there are a few principle topics that don't lend themselves to fruitful discussion online.

In closing, four more years!
-John Refford

Augie Ray said...

Thanks John. I think the Pew stats speak for themselves. Mature adults may have well formed opinions, but REALLY mature adults are open to changing them based on new information and the way the world changes around us.

Given one in six people say they've changed an attitude on a political issue based on social media engagement, I think that may contradict your observation that political conversations don't lend themselves to being fruitful. That said, these conversations are tough, sensitive and can go south. I understand why someone may care to avoid them, but we cannot (IMO) applaud social media for helping to bring change in the Middle East and then bury our own heads in the social media sand because our own political discussions can be difficult.

I appreciate your thoughts, as always!

Unknown said...

Okay, I'll take the dare w/ this tweet from Andy Borpwitz: The Dow Jones just hit a 4-year high, which means Obama is the crappiest socialist in history.

Augie Ray said...

Ken, if there was a "like button for that comment, I'd click it! :)

Unknown said...

I was one of those guys to felt the somecard rang of truth until the data demonstrated otherwise. I ate my words publicly on Facebook.