Support the ‘Prince’

Please disable ad blockers for our domain. Thank you!

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class for 17 minutes this Wednesday to honor the victims of last month's Parkland, Florida school shooting. Princeton students are holding the "We Call BS: Princeton Rally for Gun Reform." Each night when I look at my Facebook newsfeed, it is saturated with political posts, rants, and cartoons about people's opinions on guns or the walkouts. Many of them make incendiary statements, which then devolve into flame wars in the posts' comments. Inevitably, feelings get hurt, friendships are broken, and the issue doesn't get any closer to being resolved. We should stop making and responding to political posts on social media because most people dislike or don’t care about them.

A poll conducted by Pew in 2016 found that Americans generally don't like seeing political content on social media. Over one-third of respondents said that they, "are worn out by how many political posts and discussions they see." Fifty-nine percent think that debating about politics on social media is stressful and frustrating. A 2013 study from Beihang University showed that anger was more likely to spread across social media than any other emotion.

Political posters may argue that social media forces people to think critically about their positions and reevaluate them. In reality, they rarely cause people to change their opinions. Another Pew poll found that only 20 percent of social media users modify their views on issues because of something they saw on social media. But that statistic was dragged up by liberal Democrats who were more likely to change. When focusing only on conservative Republicans and centrists in both parties — which constitutes the majority of the population — the number drops below 15 percent.

Instead of changing opinions, online political rants actually reinforce views via echo chambers. When Facebook friends or Twitter followers of differing ideologies see posts with which they disagree, they block or stop following the people who posted. Almost one-third of social media users have unfriended someone because of content related to politics. By ideology, liberals are more likely to unfriend people due to politics, and conservatives are more likely to hear opinions similar to their own. Consequently, society becomes polarized as people increasingly interact only with people who share their political beliefs. At Princeton's Alumni Day James Madison Medal lecture, Professor Daniel Mendelsohn said social media allows us, "to screen out every element of society (and culture and politics) that doesn't suit or flatter or soothe us, thereby removing the necessity for civility."

On the rare occasion that the echo chamber is broken and one does see content contrary to their ideology, the impersonality of social media means that the political posts only manage to make people angry. It's easier to write an offensive comment to online pictures of people than to say the same words to their face. The platforms are designed to create instant gratification or outrage by generating hyperbolic content that immediately grabs users' attention.

This isn't conducive to constructive political dialogue. A study from Cornell University showed that people are more likely to alter their political opinions when met with calm language, original arguments, and strong examples backed by evidence. By contrast, the arguments that I see on Facebook invariably follow Godwin's Law — the principle that someone will make an unnecessary comparison to Hitler or the Nazis the longer an online discussion lasts. Posts’ formats — whether in the form of a character limit, focus on pictures, or visually shortening longer texts — aren't favorable for nuanced, well-researched arguments.

If people want to change others' political opinions, then they should seek a variety of alternatives. Write to a local newspaper. Letters to the editor are an excellent way to introduce new arguments, evidence, or lived experiences to the sphere of public debate. Promote events by putting up posters or launching a door-to-door campaign. For those seeking a harder — but more impactful way to influence opinions — talk about politics with friends who hold different beliefs. A person won't be as rude in a face to face conversation as in an online argument.

Gun reform and other current events conjure strong feelings that compel people to post their political opinions on social media. But the benefits of doing so are marginal and the consequences significant. This walkout is supposed to be about protecting ourselves and our friends from gun violence. Let's not permit social media to break our friendships first.

Liam O’Connor is a sophomore from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at lpo@princeton.edu.

Comments
Comments powered by Disqus