Monday, 24 December 2012

Politics, Facebook, and JUST STOP IT

It should come as no surprise that politics and Facebook don't always go well together. Less than two days after the Dark Knight Rises shooting in Aurora earlier this year, someone on my Facebook posted up a 'sarcastic wonka' meme of the 'Ban guns? Yes, because criminals obey laws' argument (an argument so ridiculously point-missing that anybody using it isn't worth arguing with). Two days after Sandy Hook, a different person posted up a poster showing the stats for gun deaths in the US versus other countries, which showed the US as having some 200 times as many gun deaths as West Germany this year (despite the fact that 'West Germany' went out of existence two decades ago).

Neither of these gestures was in any way respectful, edifying or helpful to the gun control debate. There were similar excesses around the US election, as there are around any hot-button news issue.

But I think the problem runs deeper than it just being too easy to post stupid stuff like this. Facebook is an actively bad environment for bringing up political issues.

Let's start with a basic premise; the purpose of bringing up a political issue is to support your side of the argument (occasionally to ask for clarification of the argument, I suppose, but very rarely without some sort of agenda). You bring up gun control, or gay marriage, or class warfare, in the hope of helping your cause to succeed. Anything else is just trolling, or at best blind self-absorption.

Now, it's important to remember that politics isn't warfare - progress in politics isn't about wiping out your enemy, it's about persuading your opponent to see it your way. That's hard enough in any context. My argument is that elements of the structure and design of Facebook make it many times harder to persuade anyone of anything.

I've talked before about how the sheer number of people who have access to any internet debate makes any such debate less likely to achieve anything. Facebook has a particularly pernicious version of this, which is that everyone who sees anything you post on your Facebook is someone you know, or have known. It's not just faceless internet goons like you see on Youtube comment threads. It's your mother, your brother, maybe your boss (in which case God help you), and your mates. People whose opinions of you, whether you like it or not, have a powerful effect on your life.

Basically, posting on Facebook is like being back up onstage during your primary/grade school play, in front of God and everybody. And the same goes for everyone else. That means that if you back down, everyone's going to see it. If your opponent backs down, everyone they know is going to see it (particularly since Facebook introduced that stalker bar in the top-right that tells you what all your friends are doing. That thing is bad for my soul).

And that means no-one's ever going to back down on Facebook. So, already, any political debate you get into is doomed to failure from all perspectives. But there's another, subtler, more damaging problem.

Think about the way comments on Facebook work and appear. The text is extra-small and crammed quite closely together, which makes it very easy to misread stuff. If you're angry, you're more likely to misread comments as less reasonable than they actually are, and thus get more angry.

Furthermore, by default pressing 'enter' enters the comment rather than starting a new line, unlike almost every other website ever. This has two effects - it makes it much harder to produce a clear, multi-stage argument (which should be laid out with a new paragraph for each step) without being interrupted, and it means you're less likely to pause and think before posting, because it's so easy to post without breaking your flow.

All this means you're more likely to cause offence, whether you mean to or not. It means tempers are going to run hotter than they otherwise would. It means the only likely outcome of any charged debate - of which political debates are among the worst - is people falling out with each other.

So not only will you fail to persuade anyone by posting political material on Facebook, you're most likely to lose friends and alienate people. Can we all agree to just not do it anymore?

NB. I'm not saying don't post links to political material in other forums - news stories and so on - because that's an important benefit of social media in general. Just don't try to start, provoke, or participate in debate on Facebook, because it can only hurt you and others.

(I reserve the right to repost this post every time there's a fresh surge of politics on FB until they stop altogether :P)

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