A Facebook friend recently posted: “I won't ever post political or religious statements on any media. Call me chicken, but I just think it isn't anyone’s business.”
Judging from the number of “Likes” the post received, this seems to be a popular opinion among many Facebook users.
I’ve been fascinated with the issue of ” since I began using Facebook shortly after the 2008 election. During that election cycle, my communication with friends and family related to the election was limited to forwarding an occasional political cartoon or Op-Ed piece. But the advent of Facebook and other social media outlets has launched a variety of communication options for those inclined to want to share or debate political issues.
As someone who has become more politically engaged and informed as I’ve become older, I welcome the platform to share information and opinions and, yes sometimes, arguments about the issues that are important to me. Over the past four years, I have weighed in on issues including marriage equality, affordable healthcare, separation of church and state, women’s reproductive rights and presidential elections. If you are a Facebook “friend,” you know my thoughts about people ranging from Michelle Bachman to Anderson Cooper to Barack Obama (loathe, love and support in that order.)
The issue I wrestle with is whether my Facebook friend who prefers to keep her opinions private about hot button issues like religion and politics has the right idea, or whether her friend who responded by saying: “I don't agree and that is how ‘we the people’ have lost control of ‘our’ country - silence means approval,” is correct.
At the risk of sounding too self-important, I tend to fall into the “bad things happen when good people do nothing” camp and, as a result, am one of those people who will post opinions about political and religious issues on Facebook.
I have always been an avid news follower and often feel very passionate about current events. Every morning I compose letters to the editor in my head while drinking my coffee and reading the morning paper. Some even get written and published. However, social media provides a much more democratic, accessible platform for sharing political conversations than traditional media ever did.
But the rules of engagement are murky. We may feel a false sense of anonymity and safety sharing provocative thoughts from a keyboard rather than in a face-to-face gathering. And it’s true that posts can meet with disapproval and disagreement from friends and family (personally, I’d rather you tactfully disagree with me and foster a discussion of issues rather than silently fume about an opinion that differs from your own.) I believe if you’re going to enter the virtual town square with your opinions, you better have the backbone to endure the pushback you may receive.
I’ve seen some who post very controversial comments but are deeply offended when anyone challenges their point of view.
My personal rules for engagement are:
- I try to always post things I’ve verified as factual. It is simple enough to look things up on a non-partisan site such as FactCheck.org before posting. I will not re-post a headline I read or an inflammatory email someone has forwarded to me about Romney’s “latest gaffe” or Obama’s latest “tax scheme” without first doing my homework.
- I try to share things that are informative while adding a few words about how I feel about the story I am sharing.
- I try to avoid going off on tangents in a debate and try to stay on original topic. It’s astonishing how many posts begin about something like and end up in a discussion about whether Obama was born in Kenya or Hawaii.
- I try not to get too snarky - I admit it, this can be a tough one for me.
Where the e-etiquette gets even trickier is whether and how to respond to comments from people you don’t even know. I’ve seen discussions started by a friend who then receives replies from other friends who I may not know. If one of their friends says something I really agree with, what’s an appropriate response? A “Like”? A comment voicing support for the post? And trickier yet, what about when the friend of a friend says something I radically disagree with?
Is it appropriate to enter into a debate with a stranger who may have a very close personal relationship with our mutual friend?
I’m not sure that there are any right or wrong answers to this question, and everyone has to decide for themselves what they are comfortable sharing and what they prefer to keep private.
Personally, I view my Facebook wall as my own piece of real estate and feel it is my place to express who I am. I also believe it is a powerful way to network, inform and organize. I figure about 25 percent will agree with me, 25 percent will disagree and 50 percent are apolitical and open to information from those they trust. According to a recent Pew Research study, Facebook users are 78 percent more likely to influence their friends to vote. In my mind, sharing opinions and important news stories to fellow Facebook friends is far more productive than yelling at the TV set at night while watching the evening news.
Regardless of the proper “dos and don’ts” on the information superhighway, it’s a topic that is here with us to stay as social media will only become a greater part of our interactions in the years to come. I realize the risk I run by publicizing what more pleasant society might say is private business. I sincerely hope I don’t offend anyone and hope to never alienate friends or family members.
I even promise from time to time to limit myself to innocuous posts about my kids or pets. But then I read a story about babies born into poverty in the Philippines because the Catholic Church has prevented the use of birth control in that country. Or I read about a teenager who commits suicide because he is bullied for being gay. Or I see a story about a family who has lost their home because of catastrophic medical bills and no insurance due to a pre-existing medical condition.
And I hear in my head, “bad things happen when good people do nothing” and before I know it, I’ve clicked the “update status” button once again and begun tapping away on my keyboard.