Saturday, April 14, 2012

Politics and (anti) Social Networking

This year we have already seen a lot of political mud-slinging, unfounded accusations and super-PAC character attacks and those were just for the GOP primary elections.  The partisan warfare will no doubt heat up even more as we approach the general elections in November and the Republicans attempt to prevent Barrack Obama from winning a second term in the White House.

One thing to consider as we head into the Summer and the race boils down to Mitt Romney versus Barrack Obama is that this will be the first Presidential election in which the immensely popular social network website Facebook will provide a meeting place for political foes who also happen to be "Friends" to engage in political debate.  Actually, bickering is probably a more correct term than debate.

Facebook was here for the last Presidential election in 2008, but it was relatively new and the site has witnessed steady growth in the number of members since then.  Further, members who were there for the 2008 election have added new friends to their lists. I would also point out the political discourse in the last four years has grown uglier and nastier, to the point now that almost nothing a person can post can elicit much shock anymore.  What would have been considered blatantly offensive four years ago would hardly raise an eyebrow now.

Place the blame for the worsening behavior wherever you like; bombastic radio talk show hosts, advocacy journalism on cable and in print, conspiracy theorists joining forces on the internet, racist chain e-mails, the mainstreaming of the Bircher agenda into the GOP...  It doesn't really matter why people have become so prone to arguing and blaming and hurling insults back and forth, but it is obvious the nature of public political discourse has gotten meaner and nastier over the last few years.

The combined effect of deteriorating political discourse and the immense growth of social networking, and in particular Facebook, will serve to make this election season unlike any other we have seen.   As people make more politically charged status updates they will find that some of their friends will strongly agree and others will strongly disagree. And unlike in the blogosphere where ideologues can hide behind nicknames, everyone on your Facebook friend list knows who you are.  Instead of swaying opposition and undecided voters to their side, the campaigning on Facebook is more likely to just set off flame wars and waves of unfriending and ignoring by political foes.  This election may bring us a new term.. Anti-social Networking.  

I'm not sure anyone will change their political leaning or their vote based on something they read at Facebook, but I do know a lot of people will have a different friend list in November than they have now. And that is unfortunate for all of us. To bring the country back from the throes of radicalism and solve the wide range of massive problems we face, we need to communicate more with our political foes, not less.

So I think those of us who happen to have strong political views one way or the other and also have Facebook accounts where we keep track of family, friends and co-workers need to stay civil in our status updates and try to not be too offensive in the comments back and forth.  Easier said than done I know.  It will be interesting to come back and read this post six months from now to see how things actually turned out and if Facebook turned out to be the new political debate forum for the masses or if all the bickering and insults turned out to be the needle that popped the social network balloon.

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