5 Biggest Fears for using Facebook as a forum for Political Debate

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5 Biggest Fears

My 5 biggest fears about the use of the internet, particularly Facebook, for researching and debating political candidates are as follows:

1. I fear that I will sometimes give in to repeating partisan rhetoric gleaned from partisan websites and blogs as if it was gospel truth.

I actually did this for a while (briefly) in the past few weeks. As I described in the previous post, I made a sweeping conclusion about Obama’s stance on the abortion issue based primarily on one bill he voted against in the Illinois State Senate. At the time, I didn’t even realize it was a sweeping conclusion, and that there were other possible conclusions from the known facts. Unlike my usual self, I took Robert George’s claim that Obama was a pro-abortion extremist at face value, perhaps on the basis of the article’s seeming authorititaveness. I think the problem here was my unwillingness to wrestle with the article. Maybe I was too fearful that my own beliefs would be overthrown by alternate conclusions. I shouldn’t have held my beliefs so delicately. Solid beliefs are not arrived at overnight. I should be willing to criticize and evaluate arguments rather than taking other people’s words as a substitute for thinking about the issue for myself.

2. I fear that political debates online will usually devolve into emotional reactions and will not increase intellectual understanding.

There is a good reason to be passionate about your fundamental beliefs. They are, after all, core convictions, part of who you are, and democratic society depends on people advancing and contending for their own core convictions in public. But there is no reason to get emotional and weak mentally, to the point of shutting out opposing viewpoints. This is mostly a matter of patience.

One of the inherent weaknesses of the internet medium is that you cannot see and hear intangible, personal things like facial expressions and tone of voice when engaging in a debate. All you see are words typed on a page! A lot, therefore, depends on your ability to remain patient and calm in the face of heated debate. Another sensible solution would be to attribute charitable motives to the people with whom you are debating. They are, most of the time, not out to waste your time or debate for the sake of debating; if they are debating with you, chances are it is because they sincerely believe something that conflicts with something you sincerely believe. Thus, you can assume that it is an opportunity for growth in your own understanding.

Another solution is to interrupt public internet debate and send a personal e-mail to the person you are debating with. Midway through my first round of debating on Facebook, the Obama supporter I was debating with sent me an in-house Facebook message. Here is the text from that email:

Hey — perhaps now would be a good time to communicate what body language and expression might convey in a face-to-face conversation. I’m very interested in what you’re saying and am enjoying having the chance to debate with someone whose views are different from but still connected with mine. I’ve enjoyed your frankness on Facebook on these issues, and have merely been attempting to participate in the same wise.

This email, and my response to it, gave me a sense of personal contact, and made me realize that we were, if nothing else, old college buddies who merely had some conflicting opinions!

3. I fear that political bloggers and other political internet content producers will often write dishonestly, publish misinformation, and otherwise try to take advantage of me as a reader, for the purpose of advancing a partisan agenda.

This is a tough one, because it is not directly under your control, as my first two points were. Many bloggers may misinform, and in a free country there is no stopping them. Misinformation may even characterize 9/10’s of all political blogs. Because of the anonymity of the internet especially, writers may publish things they would not even attempt to say in personal conversations. And even if they do not publish anonymously, the internet may encourage this type of behavior because it is less likely that people who read their statements from thousands of miles away will know who they are, or have any personal relationship to them offline.

But it is not impossible to find more balanced, nuanced sources. Again, it takes time, discernment, and patience. A possible solution would be to think over the political statements you have read online, discuss them frankly and in person with a friend, and weigh them before even considering believing them or repeating them yourself.

4. I fear that the “star quality” of a candidate may serve to bias me against that candidate.

I confess, for the past two months or so I have suffered off and on from an irrational bias against Sen. Obama. It has nothing to do with him, his views, or his identity. It has to do with the star quality that surrounds him. He is in fact a star, a rock star of Democratic politics. He is a charismatic individual, appealing to many people on many levels. I have myself called him the Michael Jordan or Nirvana of politics — the one person everybody knows about in a particular field without having to know anything else.

For example, anybody who really knows something about NBA basketball will also know who
Jason Kidd or Carmelo Anthony are. But absolutely everybody will say they know who Michael Jordan is! So I begin to think of “Michael Jordan” as a code word for “I don’t really know anything about basketball.”

But just as Michael Jordan was in fact one of the best, most talented basketball players ever to play the game, so, many times, well-known people also have legitimate merits. Obama’s celebrity does not in any way amount to an argument against his intelligence or his qualifications to serve our country.

The solution here is to realize that star quality comes and goes, and usually says more about a person’s fans and the culture he lives in than about the person himself. If he were just a pop singer or basketball player, I could choose to tune him out. My life has not been any worse for avoiding Britney Spears’ albums. But a politician, especially a Presidential candidate, is much different. If I have a negative gut reaction to a politician simply because a cult of personality seems to surround him, I may be missing out on his real merits and substance.

The solution to this problem is easier. I think the internet is actually well-equipped to help get us past celebrity. Since blogs are a two-way street, it is much easier to talk about the substance behind the real person in a blog than it would be to talk back to the television set about a popular entertainer.

5. Pride, coupled with a well-known internet persona, may bias me against being willing to change my mind publicly.

After I had engaged in debate on Facebook with this old friend for a few days, I began to realize that I was leaving a very public, very readable trail of words — sitting there in the plain sight of all of his friends and all of our dozens of mutual friends, mostly from college. If I ended up changing my mind now, it was a potential embarrassment. I would be recanting on passionately held positions I had advanced no more than a few days ago!

Facebook is a very public medium. In the past I have found out, to my chagrin, about friends’ relationship problems and all manner of dirty laundry through the NewsFeed, so much so that at one point I changed the privacy settings for my Newsfeed to cut down on what gets shown to me.

One solution to this problem is to debate somewhere less public, or under a pseudonym, or in person, where there are not dozens or hundreds of people watching and reading your comments! Another solution is simply to be less prideful and be willing to admit a change of thought undergone through learning new information. In the long run, those heated exchanges will be buried under new material. But they will still be frozen in cyberspace, virtually on the public record, and anyone who wants to embarrass me by digging them up will always be able to do so! How weird! Words in the virtual age can now never be completely unspoken, and can always be dredged up for future use! I’m glad I have no aspirations to run for political office!

8 Responses to 5 Biggest Fears for using Facebook as a forum for Political Debate

  1. Charles says:

    When your candidate for our nation’s highest office wins or loses we emote. In my case, I showed lots of emotion and yet I decided not to share some of these emotions on my Facebook page. Many of my friends, colleagues, and family posted were however eager to post. I felt their excitement and their disappointment, but I also felt their cynicism and disdain for others who didn’t share their views. One of my family members gloated about the victory and another of my friends started a minute-by-minute update on how many alcoholic beverages she had consumed. The passion was definitely felt, but opposing viewpoints were no longer considered. I argue that Facebook is not an appropriate forum for such debate. While it offers an opportunity to share “status updates” and quick messages, it’s more of a place to find group speak and a mob mentality. Differences of opinion are more akin to shouting matches in CAPS instead of opportunities to exchange thoughtul ideas. I agree with you that personal expression and human contact are necessary to effectively engage viewpoints; especially when it comes to politics. Even if Facebook or social networking sites offered the ability to see messaging video and enabled improved emotional understanding, it’s not the place for any thoughtful debate.

  2. Nate says:

    Geez, there are so many good thoughts here I hardly know where to begin. Thanks for bringing this post to my attention by tagging me on Facebook. I really appreciate your candor, here, and I find your confessions of weakness and pride tremendously sympathetic; they describe me too well!

    There’s something tremendously strange about that permanence of Facebook debate, isn’t there? With blogs it’s a bit less obvious: though thoughts recorded there are every bit as permanent, there isn’t that news feed that automatically distributes it to so many different pairs of eyes. I wonder if that permanence isn’t a bit of what leads us (or me, at least) to be too arch in my posture online, to write as if I must write from a position of authority, defending every utterance rather than flowing with a river of evolving thought.

    St. John’s really taught me a lot about how to talk with people in this more fluid manner, where one communicated with attentive posture, friendly expressions, and key phrases (“say more!”) how much one was committed to the conversation, rather than one’s own soap box. But I often have a terrible time translating these lessons to online communication. I get sarcastic, high and mighty, and worse. I try to temper this, and sometimes I do better than others, but I’m very tempted to just print out a copy of this and put it by my computer as a reminder.

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