13 January 2012

Facebook politics

The following appears as the latest instalment of my monthly column, "Principality & Powers," in Christian Courier, dated 9 January 2012. Please subscribe today.

Facebook has been around for almost eight years, having been started by a group of enterprising Harvard students. Although it was intended initially for the Harvard student body alone, it was soon expanded to include other Ivy League universities and eventually the entire globe. In a short time it has remade the way we communicate with each other. Speaking for myself, I am now in constant touch, not only with immediate family and former students, but also with elementary and secondary school friends, my grade 5 teacher, and geographically distant relatives in Cyprus and elsewhere. Every week or so, I receive a friend request from someone who has read my book or shares my interest in sung psalmody.

It is not surprising that Facebook would begin to reshape political life as well. Candidates for public office now have Facebook pages, which supporters are encouraged to “Like” and thereby spread the word to their own expanding list of “friends.” Although the internet has been around for a decade and a half, and candidates have been posting websites for some years now, Facebook has developed into a distinct medium of communication in its own right. It has radically democratized the communication process by allowing users to reveal as much as they like about themselves in addition to following the activities of well-known personages. Facebook has made all of us potentially famous – to someone at least.

In the past year we have learnt how protesters in Egypt, Iran and Russia have used Facebook to communicate with each other and to co-ordinate their activities. Later in the year, the Occupy Movement spread to cities around the globe, facilitated, not by a common ideology or set of goals, which it largely lacked, but by Blackberries and iPhones, along with the social networking sites which they accessed.

As of last month I had 777 Facebook “friends.” (I use inverted commas because, although many are indeed personal friends, others are mere acquaintances or people who follow my writings.) A number of these regularly use Facebook to air their political views to their own “friends.” Their views range from aficionados of Ron Paul and Sarah Palin to champions of Barak Obama and the late Jack Layton. (Twenty of my friends like Palin, while 42 like Obama.) Most of these are utterly predictable in the sorts of articles they link to. Those of a conservative bent will link to the likes of National Review Online while those with progressive leanings tend to link to the Huffington Post and similar publications.

Perhaps I should not be surprised at this, but it has become increasingly evident that Facebook does little to facilitate genuine dialogue or even healthy debate on the major political issues of the day. People simply put their views out there, as if they were obviously gospel truth with which all people of good will must surely agree. It is the rare person who will call attention to an article in, say, the Globe and Mail and ask her “friends” for their input on the matter in the interest of expanding her own store of wisdom. Facebook encourages us, not to exchange ideas with each other, but to put ourselves on display for the world to see. We therefore post our profile photos, the schools we attended, our current employment information, and our numerous likes and proclivities, to which our religious and political convictions are implicitly reduced.

There is some irony in the fact that a social networking site intended to facilitate communication has effectively impaired the communicative process on those matters of greatest significance. We may now be in constant touch with people we knew forty or fifty years ago and haven’t seen in nearly as long, but the quality of our communications with each other has not notably improved. In fact, it may have exacerbated the current tendency for people to shout their political propensities at each other rather than to listen, learn and – perish the thought – even change their opinions.


Paul said...

I've tried to gain input from my friends but I never get any comments on my political posts. (For understandable reasons, given the nature of the Progressive Unionist Party).

But Facebook has been useful for developing friendships with people who support other parties. For example, I went to a houseparty and met students involved with the Alliance Party and the Socialist Party. Before Facebook the extent of our friendship would have been a beer together that night. But now I'm able to keep in touch, to see what they are interested in, to "like" and help them with common causes, etc. I'm not sure that it has reversed any of my positions, but it has certainly expanded my horizons and changed my emphasis.

Britt Bernatchez said...

I'm torn between both arguments. I definitely agree that Facebook has impaired our ability to have face-to-face interaction, decreased our ability to focus on anything and increased the spread of somethings I would rather not see. But it has also helped in the spread of news and opinions and connection with people all over the world which we would not otherwise have contact with. I myself am not a big fan of Facebook and I find myself leaning to the more pessimistic view of Facebook, however I do try to utilize it's good qualities. Everything has good and bad qualities. Like we discussed in Philosophy it's our motive behind our actions that makes something negative but then it is the user not the creator which is in the wrong.


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