As more and more people voice their politics on social media, a new type of etiquette is evolving. What are the rules of web-based political debate? What are the proper manners? How sharp should the crosstalk get?
Of course, we’d all say that polite civility should be the rule of the day. But when deeply-held partisan opinions merge with sloppy facts and heaps of anger, the normal niceties of society are often left at the doorstep.
In one Facebook group, a new member (let’s call her “Paula”) recently joined a discussion about drone strikes by claiming that President Barack Obama was a war monger because he, like Hillary Clinton, had “voted for the Iraq War.” Of course, that comment was factually ridiculous on two counts: 1) Obama was not yet a U.S. Senator in 2002 when the Iraq War Resolution vote occurred, and 2) Illinois State Senator Barack Obama came to national prominence by giving a speech decidedly against the Iraq war.
Now everyone makes mistakes, and Paula’s could have been forgiven by the other members if she had backed off the stance once her error was pointed out. But Paula instead went on to further knock Mr. Obama for voting “present” too often in the U.S. Senate. That comment was also factually ridiculous on two counts: 1) the United States Senate does not use a “present” vote, and 2) while Obama did vote present 129 times during his eight years as an Illinois state senator, when you look at his his voting record in the U.S. Senate, his record of abstain votes is not much different than other senators. In fact, on 50 key senate votes leading up to their 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain voted “Abstain” 60% more times than Sen. Obama. (Obama had 5 abstentions; McCain had 8.)
But once again, when her error was pointed out with supporting articles showing she was misstating the facts, Paula doubled-down on her wrong facts, further infuriating the pro-Obama crowd on the thread.
So what is the proper etiquette to deal with a Paula? Sure, one could continue to gently point out Paula’s repeated factual errors, but as anyone who spends time on Facebook knows, politeness is rarely met with contriteness. As she forged on blindly repeating her partisan gaffe, group members pounded Paula for her false claims. Which of course made her defensive and combative. Which turned the thread into a rumble.
Within days Paula had withdrawn from the group, citing the angry liberals there who could not tolerate “opposing views.” But it wasn’t her opposing views they pounced on. It was her opposition to factual reality.
A similar free-for-all erupted weeks earlier when another member (let’s call him “Clyde”) wrote multiple angry posts about the “scummy populace” of Ferguson, Missouri, which he called a “hellhole,” “a ghetto” and “a wasteland,” and that police shooting victim Michael Brown was a “lowlife scumbag” from a “useless, trashy family” who “got what he deserved.” When other members, including one black man formerly from the Ferguson area, angrily pointed out the highly racist nature of those comments, Clyde insisted that no one could prove his comments were racist since he never used the word “black” or the N-word.
That thread also devolved into a nasty clash between liberals who were offended and conservatives who felt the lefties were being too sensitive.
And to be fair, there are just as many examples of liberals inciting the ire of conservatives with comments that go beyond the norms of civil discourse. Just try voicing a sincere belief in biblical creationism in a Facebook debate about climate change and see how well that goes over.
In all these cases, social media users struggle to find a new etiquette that at once demands tolerance of free speech while requiring people with deeply-held personal convictions to find the best response to people of opposite mindsets. Most often, anger and vitriol win out. You can only be so polite when someone is calling your hometown “scummy” or painting your president as a war-mongering child murderer. When we turn the other cheek to recklessly false political claims, we give them power to grow and infiltrate the zeitgeist. Yet when we stand up for our beliefs, we may find it means taking off the verbal gloves and giving as well as we get.
It’s doubtful that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg realized that his modest invention for online friendships would demand a new form of social etiquette. In the years to come, our cyber-culture will find new ways to grease the squeaky wheels of social media discourse. But until then, political campaigns like the 2016 presidential election will surely bring out the worst in us.
And when partisan opinions meet heated rhetoric, Facebook chatter will not be for the feint of heart.