Our Uncivil Society
Note: This is a repost of a piece in my column in Plaza de Armas that was originally posted on Election Day. I reposted it because of interest from several friends in social media.
How can you not feel for little Abbey who, in a YouTube video that has gone viral, is tired of “Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney” and has had about as much of this presidential election as the rest of us have. I believe Abbey has expressed to the nation what all of us are feeling right now – enough of the back and forth. Let’s just get this thing over.
The 2012 election has turned into one of the most polarizing elections in our history. I watched the talking heads the Sunday before the election, and almost every single pundit said they’ve never seen the presidential race this close or this polarized before. Romney leads among independent voters, but that number has eroded dramatically, meaning the impact of that advantage has been lessened. Come election night we could see one candidate win the Electoral College and another win the popular vote.
On Saturday’s edition of This American Life, I listened to a segment titled “I Know You Are, But What Am I?” that chronicled relationships that were strained over political differences this election season. In the past, these anecdotes would seem out of the ordinary, but as I heard the stories played out, I recalled friends of mine who have had similar experiences.
While some of these estrangements play out face-to-face, the majority of them occur through social media such as Facebook, where your conversation is exposed to all of your friends. Friends of yours who don’t know each other jump into the conversation, a great feature when you’re talking about the latest episode of Downton Abbey or the best place for street tacos. But remember the three things your mother said you don’t start a conversation with? Yep, politics is one of them.
Granted, this doesn’t happen with the majority of online conversations. When we see the temperature in a thread rising, most of us will step in and call a truce; the tried-and-true “agree to disagree” phrase pops up. It’s the yellow card of social media, warning everyone to tone it down a bit.
Anyone who is a friend of mine on Facebook knows I’m going to bring up political issues. In fact, when you pull up my Klout profile, Politics and Local Politics are two of my three influential topics. I sort of take pride in how civil the tone has been in conversations between my friends.
But this past year I have had to block and ban two people because their tone just got out of hand. It shocked me, considering these were people I respected. But sometimes that disconnected experience of social media allows you to say things you might not say in a social gathering. Sometimes social media is an oxymoron.
I’m not alone in this experience. Just before the last presidential debate, I noticed the status of one of my social media guru friends, Colleen Pence. It said: “I’d better get off the computer for the rest of the night. Hackles are raised and I’m unfriending people who I used to respect who don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word respect. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day.”
What happened this election season? How did we lose the ability to chat respectfully? Personally, I believe we reached this point as a result of targeted messaging by the campaigns on specific issues – messaging that sometimes doesn’t present all the facts. This season has given rise to not only increased coverage of the campaigns but an increased use of “fact checkers” – a sign, some pundits have suggested, that we can’t even agree on basic information anymore.
As soon as a campaign, news site, or blog makes an assertion, thanks to the wonder of social media and link-sharing that point starts making it around our circles, sometimes without proper vetting. In an article in the Charlotte Observer, Hans Peter Ibold explores the rise of fact-checking, including a deeper look into how news is curated.
“Today’s fact-checking is teasing out new norms, such as the recent emphasis on transparency and engagement. Journalists are asking questions like ‘What should we fact-check?’ And, most legit fact-checking projects include background on how and why the content was fact-checked, as well as any limitations of the approach,” Ibold said.
One of my favorite “facts” that has spread through social-media circles is that Obama has abused the power of the Executive Order by issuing 923 of them. It’s a viral text that has spread without any links to resources or documentation. Recently a good friend told me his best friend is not voting for Obama because of it. Whipping out my trusty iPhone I surfed the web and quicklydispelled the false information.
Is this trend a sign our republic is doomed? Hardly. If anything, it’s helping elevate the conversation on some critical issues. I equate it to “storming,” the second phase groups typically go through when working together. We’re just learning how to use these social media tools and talk to each other through the internet.
Just like the early days of Facebook, when new “friends” learned not to share every uneventful moment of their days, we’re all going to hopefully learn maturity and respect as we talk about politics.
But, in the meantime while we’re weathering the storm, let’s just remember to still be friends.