Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Saturday, July 21, 2018

Political discourse, disconnected

Social media tests our ability to have conversations rather than fights about some of the most important issues facing our nation

With the 2016 presidential election upon us, politics and rhetoric are seemingly everywhere, from newspapers to television… and social media. Unlike other public exchanges of ideas through media, social media breaks down a necessary barrier in discourse that has existed since the advent of conversation—self imposed restrictions on tone and thoughtfulness.

Like television and radio, the newspaper is an effective exchange due to editorial standards that regulate tone. Tone is often regulated to fit the social situation when you’re physically speaking with someone. The closest social media equivalent would be the Facebook comments section, but the virtual equivalent to tone awareness is not present. The etiquette of self regulation and self awareness is thrown out when the exchange shifts to Facebook comments in particular. 

Social media emerged as a political platform during the 2008 presidential election cycle when President Obama utilized Facebook extensively and tactfully to gain and engage supporters. This effort targeted youth, one of the largest demographics of Facebook users. Obama not only had thousands more supporters on the social network than his primary election opponent, Hillary Clinton, but the continued engagement through the general election also earned him 70 percent of the youth vote, those under the age of 25. The 2008 presidential election was the start of a social media political revolution, but there is a key difference between political Facebook then and now. 

As Facebook matured with a steadily increasing user base from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations, the opportunity for the exchange of ideas expanded and more political pages and groups came to be. However, online political discourse within social media platforms did not pan out as a societal “copy” of verbal communication. The act of sharing data and opinions through keystrokes ended up breaking down the awareness of conversation and resulted in very blunt and sometimes unnecessarily patronizing speech.

This being said, the Facebook environment itself creates these situations; a post you make aimed at your friends can then be shared and disseminated more widely than you intended. A friend of a friend may happen upon it, and they can just jump right into the conversation without any pretext or knowledge of your political beliefs. A lack of privacy can lead to an array of problems, paramount being that opinions and tone cannot be discerned without the context of a relationship. It would be like walking up to a random person on the street and, without exchanging formalities, spewing your opinion in an accusatory manner.

Another issue that arises from sharing posts on Facebook is the infamous comments section. Anyone, be it a like minded friend or political foe, can spark a thread in the comments of a post. With the ability to comment on these posts instantly, and in the heat of the moment, the tone filter is removed and the thread devolves into a string of meaningless insults and vague assertions that don’t tell the whole story. 

As we move into the 2016 election and beyond, having civil conversations with one another about the important issues that face the United States will be the foundations of at least some meaningful discourse. Ordinary citizens may not be able to dictate exactly how the government works, but avoiding virtual screaming matches will certainly prove to be beneficial to toning down the overly partisan society we live in today. Call up a friend or sit down for a cup of coffee with someone with a different line of thinking. You will save yourself the anger of a Facebook exchange, and you might even learn something from one another.

Kris Schneider is a sophomore in the School of Communication and serves as the Associate Secretary of the Student Government.

kschneider@theeagleonline.com


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