With Election Day looming less than a month away, politics have officially overtaken our Facebook feeds, drowning us in a flood of article links, memes and political satire. The quantity and intensity of political commentary keeps increasing — and it’s eliciting a host of reactions, especially among millennials.
Some have taken to Facebook itself to respond to the political overload. One page titled “No One Wants To Hear About Your Politics, Especially On Faceb00k!” has amassed nearly 18,000 likes, protesting Facebook politics. On its “About” page, the group writes that while “everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinions, especially on issues that involve important political and social consequences,” there are “some venues where it is not appropriate to broadcast your political agendas.” Facebook — they claim — falls into that category.
So should Facebook be a “politics-free” zone? Some millennials think so. Jonathan Gonzalez, a junior at Wheaton College IL, said that he thinks Facebook is “the absolute worst place for politics.” Another student, Laura Methany, shared that she unfollows people who post political content. She’s not alone — nearly a quarter of social media users have “hidden, blocked, defriended or stopped following someone” because of “disagreements over political posts,” according to a report by Pew Research Center.
Their distaste for Facebook politics isn’t surprising due to the lack of millennial engagement in politics. In recent years, millennials have shown low voter turnout and a strong dislike for the two-party political system. Add in the fact that this year’s leading presidential candidates are two of most unpopular in the history of polling, and it’s easy to see why Facebook politics elicited grimaces from many millennials I interviewed.
Yet, at the same time, another Pew report shows that Facebook is now the largest source of political news among millennials.
A contradiction? Maybe not.
For many, it’s not the existence of political content on Facebook that is problematic, but the way that the news is communicated and shared. Gonzalez finds it a “turn-off” because “it’s so opinionated that you just don’t want to participate.” Katie Moore, a freshman at Texas A&M University, said that she finds Facebook politics annoying because many article headlines seem “very biased” and “overdramatic.”
Christianna Tai, a sophomore at Wheaton College, said that although she doesn’t consider herself invested in politics, she wouldn’t mind political content on Facebook that “summarized facts” allowing her to “make decisions.” It’s the angry and arrogant tones accompanying many political posts that cause her frustration.
This concern about incivility, especially on social media, has heightened in recent years. Now 95 percent of Americans think incivility is a “problem,” and 70 percent see it as a “crisis” according to a new survey. This seems particularly true of the Internet — a third of Internet-using adults say that they’ve experienced online harassment for sharing political views, according to an online poll.
Because of its disembodied nature, Facebook often lacks considerate conversation, said Dr. Amy Black, Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College. Social media, Black explained, “provides a distance that tempers social norms and notions of polite behavior,” leading “people to say things on Facebook that they likely would not say to someone’s face.”
Even millennials who are highly engaged in Facebook politics share this concern. Phillip Kline, a political science student at Wheaton, uses the platform only because it’s the “most realistic for reaching people.” He believes that Facebook creates a “defensive posture,” causing users — concerned with protecting their public images — to be less civil.
Meanwhile, others claim that Facebook has actually improved political dialogue. Black’s colleague, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations Dr. Michael McKoy, thinks that Facebook helps us to develop and express our political views. The vast availability of information on the platform leads to “more credible communication,” he said, because political dialogue becomes subject to quick Google fact checks and friends’ counter-arguments.
To use these capabilities, however, requires overcoming default tendencies. For example, the political content that pops up in your Facebook feed may already be skewed based on your friends and Facebook’s political algorithms. And you don’t need to scroll far down your feed to find not-so-credible political posts, ranging from grossly simplistic memes to emotionally-charged, clickbait headlines.
This means that we must first take steps to inform ourselves properly, beginning with “listening” to a variety of perspectives and “reading broadly,” McKoy said. By doing so, we can help prevent our Facebook feeds from becoming political echo chambers.
Then, it’s a matter of expressing views thoughtfully. Black believes that the platform can be useful when users link to interesting news articles or present a helpful and reasoned case for their views. Civil discussions in the comments can happen too, although she added that “it doesn’t seem to be very common.”
At its best, Facebook politics extends beyond the digital realm. Emily Fromke, a political science student, shared that some of her Facebook posts — which she tries to frame in a “gracious” way — have led to several worthwhile in-person conversations. A millennial himself, McKoy said that his Facebook posts have also sparked many positive interactions, both on and off-line.
At its worst, Facebook is a place where online harassment and illegitimate content hijack our hopes for civil political discourse.
A number of concerns make the platform seem like a less-than-ideal conduit for political conversation. Yet Facebook’s power to influence and share information can make it a valuable tool — if used properly. A word of advice: always be “thoughtful, clear and humble,” McKoy said — and don’t forget to “leave space for pushback.”