On July 4, 2009, the day Sarah Palin announced that she would step down from the Governorship of Alaska, the perfect quip popped into my head. As we are wont to do in this age of social media, I immediately logged onto my Facebook account and typed the most famous line from Gerald Ford’s inauguration speech into the status update box: ‘Our long national nightmare is over.’
Minutes later, a distant acquaintance (the older brother of a high school friend with whom I had long ago fallen out of touch), posted a comment that I found surprising given what I knew (from earlier Facebook comment discussions) to be his radically left-wing political views. ‘Look, I completely disagree with most of Palin’s politics,’ he wrote in the way of political throat clearing. ‘But can we at least applaud the fact that unlike 90 per cent of Americans, she chose to keep Trig rather than killing him in the womb? She made the right decision, she struck a blow for the culture of life, and she deserves our praise for that regardless of what our politics may be.’
Another ‘friend’, a young woman who had been a senior while I was a freshman in college, and whom I barely even knew at the time and hadn’t spoken to in over five years, was having none of it. ‘Where is that completely bogus statistic from?’ she demanded to know from my other ‘friend’ whom she had never met. ‘Last time I checked, 90 per cent of Americans don’t support abortion and 90 per cent of women haven’t had them. Throwing out ridiculous numbers like that really doesn’t help your argument.’ What followed was an online argument lasting past 2am, in the course of which no less than the medical journal Prenatal Diagnosis was cited.
I doubt either one of my ‘friends’, a term I use loosely in this context given I have over 2,000 of them on Facebook, changed their minds due to this exchange, which had quickly degenerated from a blithe comment about Sarah Palin’s governing abilities to a debate over the proportion of women who abort fetuses with Down Syndrome. Nor, I presume, did any of the other acquaintances who followed the discussion on my Facebook wall. If there was one thing that the two antagonists agreed upon, it was likely, ‘How the hell does Jamie know such crazy people?’
It’s because of exchanges such as this that I recently decided to stop posting, or engage in any debate, about political matters on Facebook. This was not an easy decision to make, at least from a professional standpoint. I am an opinion journalist, and make a living by reporting and commenting upon politics and international affairs. Many, if not most, of my friends are also passionate about current events, something that became annoyingly apparent around election season as my Facebook newsfeed filled with endless political commentary. Facebook is also a powerful tool to publicise one’s work, providing a useful platform for writers to share their latest articles or blog posts with their network of friends, colleagues and remote acquaintances. But it can also be a harbinger of estrangement.
As the over 1 billion people who are members of the site can attest, Facebook is an incredible tool for staying in touch with people. It has been particularly useful for me as a writer in engaging with readers in far-flung locales; a handful of people whom I consider genuine friends I met in person via Facebook. But as much as the site allows me to interact in a fruitful way, it also has a knack for getting people pissed off at me, not to mention creating furious discord among my diverse friendship groups, which range from out-and-proud gays to no-holds-barred right-wing polemicists.
Take for instance, the time I posted a comment about Ted Kennedy receiving the presidential Medal of Freedom. ‘How about we award one posthumously to Mary Jo Kopechne and call it a deal?’ I impishly suggested, referring to the young woman who died as a passenger in the car that the former Massachusetts Senator drunkenly drove off a bridge in 1969. ‘I guess you plan to be the Perez Hilton of Politics,’ sneered one college friend, a fey and fabulous gay man from the Deep South working as a model and professional dancer. A flurry of conservative friends rushed to my defense, leading my school chum to cite a Quebecois Feminist author:
‘“The main engagement of the writer is towards truthfulness; therefore he must keep his mind and his judgment free.” – Gabrielle Roy,’ he wrote.
‘“What a load of horseshit’ – Non-French person,’ a conservative magazine editor instantly responded.
Or then there was the time I posted an article about the captured Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic, now standing trial at The Hague. ‘It feels great that Mladic is arrested (and is going to be put on trial),’ a liberal Serbian friend wrote, adding, ‘much better than killed and thrown into the sea,’ tacitly referring to Osama bin Laden, who had been assassinated by a Navy SEAL team just a few weeks prior. A childhood friend of my Mother’s, whose friendship request I probably would have rejected had I the ability to foresee all of my Facebook friends he would manage to offend, was outraged. ‘It felt pretty good that Bin Laden had his head blown off,’ he wrote.
‘sounds more like vengeance than justice to me,’ the Serbian responded.
‘OK, so its vengeance. Nothing wrong with vengeance. He was among the most horrible of histories [sic] mass murderers. And vengeance can be quite sweet. Was [sic] wasn’t guilty of overtime parking.’
(Facebook’s content rules, lamentably, do not require proper grammar).
As I receive an email message for every comment posted on my Facebook wall, I watched this exchange fill up my inbox with ever-increasing horror. Should I intervene and tell both of them to stop? Block their ability to comment on my wall? Delete the original post, and all of the attendant comments? I’m not a censorious person by nature, and think that the multiplicity of voices enabled by the internet is a wonderful thing. Yet I had to reconsider my commitment to the principle when my mother’s friend, having done the cursory research of his interlocutor’s Facebook page, dropped the proverbial bomb:
‘the people in the Balkans have no power to stop. There has been warfare in the Balkans for hundreds of years without end. The end of it was imposed from the outside. You have never demonstratd [sic] the power to control yourselves. sorry.’
Ironically for a website aimed at helping users maintain old friendships and forge new ones, Facebook is actually quite good at facilitating their destruction. Users seem to forget the old maxim about avoiding discussion of politics and religion. It might sound odd to the denizens of New York and Washington, but most people naturally avoid conflict, and the prospect of getting into heated political debates, particularly with friends or colleagues, is a major turn-off. But on Facebook, shielded from the inherent anxiety of personal contact, many can’t resist the impulse to speak whatever is on their mind. When that person you thought you knew quite well actually turns out to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, is it possible to still stay friendly with them?
A recent survey confirmed my suspicion. Earlier this year, the Pew Internet & American Life project released the results of a poll it had conducted among over 2,500 adult users of social networking sites. 38 per cent said that they ‘discovered through a friend’s post that his/her political beliefs were different than the user thought they were’, and that 18 per cent had blocked, unfriended or hidden a friend due to politics. The trend is exacerbated by the fact that those people who are most active in posting and commenting about politics on social networking sites fall on opposite extremes of the political spectrum.
Facebook doesn’t notify users when someone has de-friended them, so I have no way of knowing how many have decided to cut me off over the years, whether due to political posting or other reasons. But one can easily find out by checking his friends list. I just realized the other day, for instance, that my college acquaintance, the one who got into an argument with the conservative writer over Ted Kennedy, decided to unfriend me. It could not have been that long ago, however, as I noticed that, on Election Day, he showed up in my newsfeed declaring something along the lines of, ‘If you vote for Romney either unfriend me or I will unfriend you.’
Amid the red-hot passion of Facebook political commentary, which saw an uptick last month due to the recent inflammation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, some of my friends manage to keep a balanced, even light-hearted perspective. ‘“Thank you for changing my views about the situation in the Holy Land with your post,” said no one ever,’ a Lebanese friend, with whom I disagree passionately about the Middle East, just posted the other day. A political animal, I have no plans to stop opining about the issues of the day. Just don’t expect me to engage with you about them on Facebook.
James Kirchick is a contributing editor at The New Republic and columnist for The New York Daily News