Scroll through your social media feeds. I bet half of the posts you just saw were political. Many of said political posts probably included words like “liar” or “bigot.” Sigh. This isn’t a surprise. Just by perusing through social feeds, it seems that rhetoric surrounding politics on social media is more extreme and divisive than ever before. What’s more, that rhetoric is proliferated through our constant social connection this election cycle.
However, this partisan political speech is not unique to #Election2016. Stanford researchers have studied political speech from 1872 to 2009, creating an algorithm that seeks out two-word phrases spoken by politicians from both parties in the sample period and attempts to identify Republicans and Democrats from the language they use. Until 1994, algorithm accuracy was at 55%. By 2009, the algorithm could differentiate between Democrats and Republicans with 83% accuracy. According to Matthew Gentzkow of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, “The partisanship of language has exploded in recent decades. The ways both parties use speech to promote their different visions is much different today than it was in the past.”1
The roots of this exponential divergence in political language are hard to pin down. Are they buried in carefully curated campaigning? Did they get watered down by biased 24-hour news cycles?
Despite the roots, it’s hard to ignore the role that social media plays in the reinforcement of this linguistic political divisiveness. Recently, I had a conversation with a man I grew up with in Texas. His original post was about the hypocrisy of the “the news media who are run by big corporate businesses with an agenda” calling Melania Trump’s RNC speech plagiarism and ignoring plagiarism on the left, citing then-Senator Obama’s plagiarism of a speech by Governor Deval Patrick in 2007. I pointed out that Obama apologized, that the men were friends, and that Patrick had granted Obama permission to use his words. Then the conversation quickly devolved into a general attack on the left, during which he said about Hillary Clinton, “She defended a rapist of a 12-13 year old girl and got him off with no charges even though she knew he did it. That tells me all I need to know about a person.” He had gotten this information from a meme, which Snopes has since investigated and debunked.2 But this did not seem to matter, as he was entrenched in his rhetoric and comfortably seated in the Trump camp, citing a photograph with block letters spelling libel rather than a reputable investigative source. Other buzzphrases he used included “Saul Alinsky,” “protect our borders,” and “dishonest,” even after acknowledging one of the very points I’m trying to make here, sort of: “You’re right, opinions rather than evidence is dangerous and creates polarizing political stances.”
Case in point: under-researched opinions are dangerous, and can lead to an uninformed and often extreme voter — but that point is neither here nor there. In my own social media sphere too, it looks like the partisan speech flowers are in bloom, and they smell pretty bad… Like carrion flower bad.
So it seems that the problem isn’t only liking, sharing, and repeating divisive political terms. It’s also liking, sharing, and repeating misinformation or uninformed opinions. When we do this, we dehumanize people on “the other side,” so to speak, or, more aptly, people resting in places other than ours on the political spectrum. The state of political discourse or healthy debate has largely turned to mudslinging, calling each other idiots, and an unwillingness to listen to people whose opinions vary even slightly from our own. Don’t get me wrong, I love a little mudslinging (#TrumpSacrifices, anyone?), but it ultimately undermines conversation and growth. Despite our constant social and communicative connection, when we discuss politics on social media we seem to be perpetually talking over or past each other, caring only that our message is heard, rather than listening to what someone else has to contribute. SAD!
So what can we do about it? What is the best weed killer?
Those are great questions, friend!
Roundup works pretty well. But seriously…
Foremost, I think, we need to change how we see and think about people who disagree with us. We need to reposition ourselves and remember that just because another person’s opinion or political beliefs are different than ours does not mean they are any less valid or that they are an enemy of some kind, although this can certainly be the case. They are beliefs and, as humans, we have the right to believe what we want to believe. However, there are two things that go hand-in-hand with respecting someone else’s beliefs.
First of all, we need to listen to each other, especially when talking politics on social media. I realize I might sound preachy right now, but bear with me. We need to really consider what “the opposition” has to say. In a piece called “The “Other Side Is Not Dumb” on Medium, Sean Blanda writes about a game he plays with his friends called “Controversial Opinion”. The rules are simple: one person shares their controversial opinion and the others around the table are only allowed to ask questions like, “Why do you feel that way?” Much like Fight Club, you don’t talk about the controversial opinion after “Controversial Opinion” is played out.3 Now, I’m not suggesting we play a collective game of “Controversial Opinion”, but rather that we approach our political conversations this election cycle with the same sense of curiosity and listening that is at the heart of the game. Blanda goes on to suggest that we suspend mocking, read about the other side, and even prepare to be wrong ourselves.
Secondly: opinions are just that. Opinions. My grandfather always says, “Well, that’s my opinion, and an opinion can’t be wrong.” I’m inclined to agree with my grandfather on this syntactic technicality, but opinions can sometimes be ill founded. They can be based on misinformation, where someone grew up, their religion or lack thereof, their passions, etc. — the list goes on. Opinions become exponentially more dangerous when they are presented as fact—a rampant problem in our news media. The line between opinion and fact has been blurred, especially when talking politics on social media. Consider the oversupply of memes presenting source-less “information”, people sharing videos of loud talking heads as if it’s news, and then add in the social media user’s own commentary… Scary, right?
So here’s what I suggest we do, dear friend, in terms of Roundup: We don’t stay quiet, but we also don’t yell. When we see that social post that absolutely perplexes us, we should comment with the “Controversial Opinion” mentality: ready to listen, to use respectful language, to see that person as human instead of on the “other side.” If, when we listen, there is no substance to that person’s argument, provide them with information, research, etc. from a reputable source. Because let’s face it: we all know someone who has read a satirical news article and taken it as truth. This type of engagement, ideally, is what leads someone else to listen in return. It worked a little with the aforementioned Facebook friend from Texas, and my shortcoming was missing the crucial step really understanding where he was coming from. But he did respond to the way I was writing to him (i.e. with respect even after he talked down to me in the beginning with condescending things like, “You really think our enemies…?!”). He even conceded some points he believed based on hearsay… despite the fact that he was unwilling to read the Snopes report. Partial victory for political discourse!
Let me just reiterate: someone just has to be willing to listen first. This does not mean you’re weak or that you’re admitting that you’re wrong. All this gesture is saying is that you want to understand that person’s side of things, ultimately leading to a rounded out understanding of an issue.
We need to step back. We need to look at our own political leanings and understand why we lean the way we lean with it, rock with it. Okay, I’ll stop…. We need to carefully consider the words we use when discussing politics on social media, not in a Nixon-Southern-Strategy kind of way, but in an inclusive way. We need to suspend our spun political lexicon, as it seems to get lost in translation or maybe is never even thought worthy of translation. Candidates and political movements are much more complex than the few words we associate them with. If we ever want someone else to listen to where we’re coming from, we first need to extend the courtesy to other people. Maybe then we can change politics on social media from this place of prolific political argument, divisive language, and misinformation to a platform for real communication and information.
Have you ever experienced this kind of political banter? Let us know your experience in the comments!