Political Conversations in the Age of the Unfollow Button

During the Second World War, Americana artist Norman Rockwell created a painting entitled Freedom of Speech. The painting, which depicts a man standing to speak at a town meeting, was based on a 1941 speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, where he presented four fundamental freedoms that should be enjoyed by all, the first being freedom of speech. The message of FDR’s speech and of the paintings themselves was simple – free speech and public discussion are integral parts of a free and democratic society. In the modern era, especially in this year’s election, the archetypical town meeting of Rockwell’s painting has been supplanted by social media as the primary forum for people to express their political beliefs.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that  67% of Facebook and 65% of Twitter users reported that “a lot” or “some” of the content they saw in posted was political in nature. Such discussions have the potential to change minds, with 20% of those surveyed saying they had altered their political positions based on content from social media. Yet this potential for persuasion is countered by the ability of social media to create “echo chambers” of like-minded individuals who are never exposed to ideas outside their personal political point-of-view. The political landscape can appear very different when viewed from the newsfeed of a conservative versus the newsfeed of a liberal, even if the two are using the same website.

In same study, 30% of people who were identified as “highly politically engaged” (registered to vote, said they always or almost always vote, and have volunteered or contributed money to political parties, campaigns, or groups in the past year) reported that they had unfriended a person due to political differences, while 42% of the same group had changed the settings on their social media accounts to receive fewer political posts they disagreed with. Researchers have found evidence that such self-selection leads people to only accept media reports that conform to their beliefs, while rejecting others.

These echo chambers have removed an important feature of the town hall meeting from Rockwell’s painting – having to face the members of your community and interact with people from the other side in a political discussion. They make the other side of an issue a real person, instead of an alien force hidden by anonymity of a screen. The threat here is a breakdown of something our Constitutional system is built around – namely the idea of an informed electorate, able to confront and discuss the ramifications of a law and policy.

Bridging the political divide is key protecting our lawmaking process from extreme influences. It may be that the answer can be found through the designing (or redesigning) social media to build connections between people with differing beliefs. Likewise, it may be found by unmuting a few old friends on Facebook and starting a conversation. No matter where it is found, we owe it to ourselves and our democracy to seek an answer, least we find ourselves drifting even farther apart.

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