“The lion’s share of what is on Facebook”: Some Thoughts on Online Politics

In response to my earlier post, Some Notes to Progressives on Criticizing Conservatives, I got this comment:

Greta, what you are citing is not issue advocacy. It is mindless and immature ranting, which is the lion’s share of what is on Facebook. I have almost given up trying to have anything resembling an exchange of ideas on Facebook. It is just not the type of forum that is conducive to a rational discourse, without heavy moderation and a commitment among participants to keep it at a sensible level. Too much ignorance for me.

It’s a commonly expressed sentiment, so I wanted to amplify my reply. Thus, this blog post.

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Sorry, but I don’t buy the idea that “oh, that’s just Facebook.” For one thing, it’s not true (or it’s often not true). I’ve seen, and participated in, many very good political conversations on Facebook and other social media. Yes, it requires heavy moderation and a commitment among participants. That’s true of any online forum.

For another: Interaction on social media is human interaction. It’s people expressing their opinions and feelings and experiences. Yes, people do this differently in different media: human interaction is different at cocktail parties, town hall meetings, conference panels, conference after-parties, quiet dinners among friends; yes, it’s different online than it is in person, and it’s different in different online forums. But it’s still human interaction, and people are still responsible for what they say and do. Yes, this was mindless and immature ranting — and it was mindless and immature ranting that was hurtful to women, trans people, and gay people. It’s way too common, and it does harm, and it’s worth calling out.

And finally: Interaction on social media isn’t just human interaction. It’s an important place for political conversation. An ENORMOUS amount of political conversation is happening on social media — and it’s not trivial. It has an impact. Some of that interaction sucks, and some of it is awesome, and a lot of it is in-between. But the fact that it happens on Facebook doesn’t make it trivial. I hear from people all the time who tell me that they changed their minds because of me — and while some of that probably came from my books, most of it came from my work on the Internet. The content of political opinions isn’t lessened when it’s expressed on Facebook. When you tell women, trans people, LGB people, and other marginalized people that Facebook just sucks so we should discount it or abandon it — you’re basically saying, “Your fight to improve the world shouldn’t include one of the central places where the world takes place.” You’re telling us to either isolate ourselves, or suck it up.

If you don’t enjoy Facebook, by all means, don’t do it. (Although, if I may venture a suggestion: If the only Facebook interactions you see are mindless and immature ranting, maybe you need different Facebook friends.) But please don’t respond to critiques of sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, and other forms of marginalization and oppression that happen on Facebook by simply saying, “That’s just how Facebook is — whaddya gonna do?” It amounts to saying, “That’s just how the world is — whaddya gonna do?”

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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“The lion’s share of what is on Facebook”: Some Thoughts on Online Politics
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7 thoughts on ““The lion’s share of what is on Facebook”: Some Thoughts on Online Politics

  1. 1

    (Although, if I may venture a suggestion: If the only Facebook interactions you see are mindless and immature ranting, maybe you need different Facebook friends.)

    I’ve been coming to exactly this conclusion in my analysis of bad parenting memes at Grounded Parents. Maybe don’t be friends with asshats?

  2. 2

    The vast majority of the rants I see on Facebook are not from my friends. They are from the members of groups in which I participate. Group communication constitutes the lion’s share of my Facebook interactions. I tend to agree with the comment that Facebook is a terrible platform on which to have nuanced conversation, especially when you are referring to groups, and where “ability to engage in nuanced conversation” is not a criterion for participation in the group.

  3. 3

    I tend to agree with the comment that Facebook is a terrible platform on which to have nuanced conversation, especially when you are referring to groups, and where “ability to engage in nuanced conversation” is not a criterion for participation in the group.

    elephantasy @ #2: Can I ask what, precisely, the point is here? Is the point, “Facebook is a terrible platform — so when people say sexist or transphobic or homophobic or otherwise bigoted things, don’t bother speaking up?”

    Literally every time women speak up about sexism on the Internet, somebody replies with, “Oh, that’s just Facebook.” “That’s just Reddit.” “That’s just Twitter.” “Or else the generic, “That’s just the Internet.” What are women and other marginalized people supposed to do? The Internet in general, and social media in particular, is a huge part of where human social interaction takes place. It seems like you’re telling us to either ignore it, or leave.

    I will say again: When you tell women, trans people, LGB people, and other marginalized people that Facebook just sucks so we should discount it or abandon it — you’re basically saying, “Your fight to improve the world shouldn’t include one of the central places where the world takes place.” You’re telling us to either isolate ourselves, or suck it up.

    As for this:

    The vast majority of the rants I see on Facebook are not from my friends. They are from the members of groups in which I participate.

    So ask your friends to do a better job moderating. When I said, “maybe you need different Facebook friends,” I didn’t just mean “maybe you need friends with less shitty opinions.” I also meant, “maybe you need friends who are willing to moderate and curate their spaces better.”

  4. 4

    What’s more: I think that the rise of social media has greatly boosted political conversation. Forums and the like are great places for debate and discussion. They give you the opportunity to ponder before you reply, at only a little less speed than a live conversation.

    BTW I did abandon Facebook a while ago, but for other reasons.

  5. 5

    The vast majority of the rants I see on Facebook are not from my friends. They are from the members of groups in which I participate. Group communication constitutes the lion’s share of my Facebook interactions. I tend to agree with the comment that Facebook is a terrible platform on which to have nuanced conversation, especially when you are referring to groups

    Greta’s comment applies to groups the same as to friends: If the only Facebook interactions you see are mindless and immature ranting, maybe you need different Facebook groups. Because my facebook groups are fucking awesome: I learn a lot, they provide a social safety net, they help with my mental health, and I have met new awesome friends (as in actual friends, not fb “friends”) in these groups.

  6. 6

    also, I’m wary of people who dismiss social media as not real, as a place where serious conversation cannot happen, and/or as places that you can leave without consequences; cuz those are usually the people who value civility & privilege-protection over minimizing social harm & listening to oppressed viewpoints.

  7. 7

    To be clear: I never said “Oh, it’s just Facebook”, and I hate that argument when people excuse the problem. My comment was a lament, not an excuse.

    I have had moderator responsibilities in a group, it’s a thankless job, made more difficult by Facebook. There are structural deficiencies in the platform that make it difficult to follow conversations (can’t categorize or sort, hard to find older conversations), and it provides few tools for moderation; you can’t simply close a thread without deleting it, for example. THAT is what I meant when I said Facebook is a terrible platform for nuanced conversation. I have tried to get a group to move to a real discussion forum platform, but it simply doesn’t happen, the people involved are stuck on Facebook.

    So, not “Facebook sucks, that’s the way it is, live with it or leave”, but “Facebook sucks, here are some reasons why I think it sucks, I sympathize, I don’t know what to do”.

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