Why I Talk Politics On Social Media

I won’t stop. And neither should you.
01/16/2017 11:14 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2017
March to Trump Tower in New York City, November 12th, 2016
Robert Stribley
March to Trump Tower in New York City, November 12th, 2016

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” ―  Ai Weiwei

Consider this an explanation, not a justification or an apology. For a long time, I’ve thought about the nature of the content I post on social media. Why am I prompted — even driven — to post political material on Twitter or Facebook or Medium or even Instagram from time to time? I mean, I’ve lost friends and family over some of these posts. I’ve promoted gay marriage, for example, and argued on behalf of universal health care and sensible gun control and I’ve been openly critical of many politicians, including Donald Trump (he’s now a politician, whether he likes it or not) — and long before he ran for president.

Of course, I’m not the only one who posts political content online. Millions do. But I also recognize that millions don’t. Or they seldom do. I realize that many would prefer not to see such posts. (Except perhaps when a post is in total alignment with the individual’s point of view.) I understand that some people are actually irritated by these posts. And “irritate” is precisely the word because these posts (they believe) are an irritant in an otherwise friendly and pleasant news stream.

I understand and sympathize that some people don’t want to irritate others and that’s why they completely avoid posting material of a political nature. And that they may have completely legitimate concerns about losing their jobs or at least causing unnecessary rifts in their family or personal or working environments. I understand. Which some may find hard to believe. They might argue that I don’t understand well enough or I’d stop. I understand that it must puzzle and frustrate some people. It certainly has infuriated some.

Some may argue I should stick to experience design just as Meryl Streep should stick to acting or the Dixie Chicks should shut up and sing. But the thing is, none of us are just actors or teachers or artists or farmers or web designers or electricians or — well, you get the idea. We’re all humans. And as such, politics affects each and every one of us. And as Ai Weiwei says above, “Everything is art,” yes, but also, “Everything is politics.”

Some may argue I should stick to experience design just as Meryl Streep should stick to acting or the Dixie Chicks should shut up and sing.

And thinking about all of these dynamics early in 2017, just days before Donald J. Trump is sworn in as the next president of the United States, I thought I’d finally take the time to explain why I continue to post things of a political nature, when I know some people do not approve. Because, though it may surprise some to learn it, this is something I have thought about long and hard. Now, by positioning my thoughts this way, I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers, nor that I’ve mastered the way to present my more divisive thoughts online effectively and in a civil fashion. Instead, all I hope to accomplish is to explain the multiple reasons I continue to engage politically online. And, in doing so, I suspect I’ll be speaking on behalf of many others who engage with politics openly and often online.

Here then are the six reasons (six non-partisan reasons, incidentally) I believe you and I should feel free to engage in a political conversation and debate online — and offline for that matter.

1. People do change their minds.

This point responds to the most common reason people leverage to discourage others from posting their political thoughts online. It’s not a partisan argument either: I have friends all along the political spectrum who employ this argument. And I get it. I even respect it. Because it’s largely true. But it’s not completely true. (And it’s not the only reason for engaging politically online.) We may know from various studies that most people don’t change their minds after getting exposed to opposing ideas online, but we also know that some do.

Researchers at George Mason University, for example, sampled some 684 survey respondents and found something that indicates that this may happen more often than we think:

Even when a person [isn’t explicitly seeking out information of one sort or another], if the person stumbles into a cross-cutting political discussion while using SNS [social networking sites], he or she has a high possibility of experiencing political view change or increased issue involvement.

That suggests that people change their minds after being exposed to political debates online. Anecdotally then, I’ve had a number of people approach me online to thank me for posting about subjects like gay marriage and LGBTQ rights and to tell me that I’ve helped them understand another point of view, which they’d had very limited exposure to. Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers on any given subject, nor that I’m better equipped to makes these arguments than anyone else. I’m simply making the case: Why would I stop engaging if I know that I am helping to change minds on issues I believe important? Similarly, I volunteer with many people who spend many of their waking hours attempting to educate individual people and the more general public about LGBTQ issues and we do see progress over time.

Incidentally, the researchers above do point out that this dynamic is lessened when people browse social media within what we often refer to as an “echo chamber.” Still, they said, people can change their opinions when encountering “cross-cutting political discussion.” If that’s the case then, and I can make an impact upon cracking into another’s echo chamber, why on earth would I shut up?

2. The value of expressing solidarity.

This point couldn’t be more significant. Even if I weren’t changing any minds — even if you’re not — we all as human beings experience a great need for belonging. One of the most astonishing things about the internet is its power to enlighten people to the fact that they are not alone. I emerged from an environment as a young person wherein I kept my thoughts to myself because I was afraid to express them among people, who (I thought) would not only disagree with me but also socially ostracize me. I experienced a deep (and not irrational) fear even of being dismissed from the university I attended for straying from the fold with my thoughts. Little did I know at the time, but there were many people around me experiencing the same struggle. This was in the early ‘90s, too, so I didn’t have the same easy opportunity to hop online to discover there were many like-minded people out there.

Why would I stop engaging if I know that I am helping to change minds on issues I believe important?

Now that situation and those dynamics have changed irreversibly. I know that when I post something online which affirms the rights of LGBTQ people, for instance, that even if I don’t change a single mind, I do signal my support to those who need it — potentially even to someone who needs it quite desperately because they’re still silently and secretly struggling with accepting their orientation. They deserve to know they’re not alone and that the facts are out there.

There’s a lot of talk about “tokenism” online and how just changing your profile to a rainbow flag or a Black Lives Matter badge is meaningless. I disagree. Of course, if that’s all you’re doing, you could arguably do more. Of course, some may convince themselves that they’re adequately supporting a movement if that’s all they do. But, you know what? It’s not nothing. Expressions of solidarity count for something and I believe they will count for a lot in 2017. And, of course, the more deeply and explicitly and cogently folks can express their solidarity, the better. LGBTQ people need to know they are openly supported by straight people. Black people need to know they are openly supported by white people. People resisting Donald Trump need to know they are not alone, too. To be reminded that tens of millions of Americans still agree with them. That the entire country hasn’t lost its mind.

3. Some taboos exist for the wrong reasons.

What do I mean by that? We have a pretty well ingrained belief in our culture that there are three things we shouldn’t discuss in polite company: sex, religion and politics. Oddly enough, these are three of the most important things in human life. These three things motivate and propel and affect us all on daily basis. Still, they’re also the three subjects, which often prove the most contentious and divisive. So I would suggest that we avoid these topics — truly — not because we should but because we do not always know how to engage in them civilly or politely. Or without someone erupting into a vitriolic fit.

Take abortion, for example. As the best example, in fact. This is a subject which people perhaps wisely avoid discussing online and in real life because we are so polarized on the subject that any discussion quickly devolves into name calling and stereotyping and black-and-white assumptions about each side. On both sides. Honestly, it’s the one subject I avoid like the plague and seldom enter into myself online. Besides, though I have thoughts on it, I have many other subjects and causes which are important to me to engage with anyway. However, I wouldn’t tell someone else they shouldn’t discuss abortion online even if I disagreed with their particular track and tone. Instead, I think the solution lies in us learning to engage more civilly on these subjects.

Again, I wouldn’t claim to have mastered the right tone or to consistently avoid the temptation to employ a little snark or even to troll from time to time. But, I believe, engage we must. And if that means you have to call me out on my tone from time to time, so be it. I hope you’ll trust me to take any such feedback to heart.

“What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” — Christopher Hitchens

4. Combatting misinformation.

Consider all this talk lately about “fake news.” When people post information or stories online, which are flatly wrong, who’s going to correct them if we’re all too afraid to step on toes? Many of us are probably guilty of posting content sometimes that runs the gamut from not entirely accurate to flat-out fictional propaganda. But who would like to argue that we’d all be better off if no one steps up to contradict some of these more egregious false claims? For example, when Donald Trump asserted, repeatedly, that illegal aliens are flooding into the United States, that claim was completely false. And easily refuted. But I seldom heard the media call him on it. And that’s what prompted me to write a detailed essay on the subject. I wrote it on Medium and it was reposted on The Huffington Post. I posted it on Twitter and Facebook and Google Plus. And it’s now one of the more widely read things I’ve ever written. I point that out, not to brag, but to underline the fact that I had no idea whether it’d make an impact or not, when I wrote it. I just felt deeply that Trump’s statements should not be out there going unchallenged.

Expressions of solidarity count for something, and I believe they will count for a lot in 2017.

Arguably, now more than ever, we would benefit from challenging people firmly but politely to defend the fake news or misinformation they post if they’re unable to support it with facts. (Particularly when it’s arguably harmful.) To some degree, this makes folks uncomfortable because we’ve entered a time now when people will claim anything they disagree with is “fake news.” (Donald Trump is currently enabling this daily.) Of course, that’s not the case. And some stories people submit can be easily refuted: Vaccines do not cause autism, for example. Barack Obama was clearly born in the United States. “Pizzagate” never happened. Those facts are easily verifiable and, without evidence to the contrary, stories which claim differently can be easily dismissed.

As Christopher Hitchens — never one to shy away from an argument — used to say, “What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” On the other hand, “Obamacare is a success” may be a more subjective statement, which could benefit from debate and the presentation of evidence but it cannot be easily proven one way or another. At least, not in a moment. However, statements like “Obamacare is an unmitigated failure” or “Obamacare is an unqualified success” are statements so sweeping that they can probably be quickly dismissed quickly and with a salient fact or two.

Of course, by highlighting misinformation, I’m not saying people will always respond by changing their mind. But even if they don’t, at least bystanders now have the facts or an alternate point of view before them. And if we can learn to firmly but politely confront people about posting “fake news,” perhaps they’ll look more closely at the content they post in the future. In fact, perhaps we can prompt a much-needed cultural shift where we all think more carefully about the legitimacy of the sources we’re using before we post online. In other words, we can coach each other to be better judges of the quality of news items and to have more discernment.

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

5. Silence can be construed as acquiescence.

As someone who feels more comfortable remaining silent, at what point do you decide to break your silence in order to confirm that you do not support a particular person or party or their policies? Do they have to be a murderous Hitler for you to speak up? Or a fascist Mussolini? Or just a corrupt Berlusconi? Or, in 2017, a Donald Trump? You could argue that Trump hasn’t become President yet, so he hasn’t done anything yet worth critiquing (I’d disagree), but at what point would you speak up? If he were to deport millions of people and split up families, removing parents from their children in the process? If he were to refuse over one billion Muslims entry into the United States? If he encouraged our troops to engage in torture — “beyond waterboarding,” as he’s explicitly promised? Now, you may have no issue with any of those actions if you’re a Trump supporter, so I’d ask you instead to imagine the thing he would have to do in order for you to speak up. (Or, if you prefer, imagine the thing Hillary Clinton would have to do in order for you to speak up.) Because if you were not to speak up, that could be construed as acquiescence or agreement. Those of us who are speaking up now — already, if you will — are simply signifying that we do not acquiesce to nor do we agree with the policies that Trump has promised to implement.

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth.” ― William Faulkner

6. Change never happens without disagreement and friction.

If I’ve leaned anything in 16+ years of collaborative user experience design, it’s that better ideas and better products arise out of this sort of engagement. I can tell you emphatically that the best ideas — the ideas that promote the greatest and most helpful changes — do not come from brainstorming meetings within which everybody agrees with one another. Instead, the best teams I’ve worked on allow for open and firm yet polite disagreement. And yet, some in my industry still shy away from disagreement, despite the fact that launching into it is often the speediest way towards any form of meaningful and productive consensus.

... at what point do you decide to break your silence in order to confirm that you do not support a particular person or party or their policies? Do they have to be a murderous Hitler for you to speak up?

The same is true in any political discussion. We can’t look to change minds or the world for that matter (at the risk of sounding grandiose) if we don’t learn to disagree with one another openly and often. And we can’t cultivate progress without cultivating environments in which people can disagree with one another openly and often. I learned this lesson, too, as an escapee from fundamentalism and it could not be more deeply ingrained within me. Because within fundamentalism, there is no room for disagreement. And the resulting silence only breeds anger, discontent and even depression.

***

Yes, sadly, I suffer from the desire for more, not less civil engagement and dialogue on political issues online.

I want to reiterate that I understand and even sympathize with the reasons why many people don’t wish to engage in online political discussions. Certainly for fear of losing friends or family. To maintain a more peaceful online existence. I understand and I certainly wouldn’t suggest anyone should adopt my particular social media behavior. I only want to explain to those who seem puzzled as to why I (or we) continue to do this. And, sure, in some cases, I’m hoping to explain myself to those few individuals who would literally tell me to just shut up. Now, at least, you may better understand why I (or we) will not.

Additionally, if I’ve used some examples above which reflect my progressive ideology, I believe those six reasons for engaging politically should still appeal to universal sensibilities and that each can be appreciated from a bipartisan perspective. So I make these arguments not just for my own sake, but on behalf of everyone who feels similarly compelled to engage politically online. In 2017, it’s going to be increasingly important in these United States that we do.

I’d also like to highlight the paradox that those most likely to wish I’d just hush myself are also the least likely to read this perhaps unnecessarily long explanation of why I won’t shut up. On the other hand, at least those of you who are sympathetic to me will have a few points at your fingertips to explain your own compulsion.

***

This piece first also appears on Medium.com.

Follow Robert Stribley on Twitter.

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