The biggest casualty in this dumpster fire of a US election: civil discourse. On our Twitter and Facebook accounts, usually polite friends and loving family members seem to morph into political trolls, creating a funhouse-mirror distortion of reality.
But look closely, and you’ll see that most people are actually not rabid partisans. For every flame war, many more people are trying extinguish the conflagration (or just avoid it altogether). That’s true across party lines. In fact, Americans are no more polarized today than they were 60 years ago. (Congress is another matter.)
“When it comes to politics, most Americans are not full-contact players,” says Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center. “They are not, as a rule, interested in hard-core partisanship. They certainly don’t want to argue as much as hard-core partisans.”
It’s just that the few now have an unprecedented megaphone to broadcast their views to the rest of us. “It’s true you see more of this stuff now,” conceded Rainie, but that’s mostly because in analog social networks a few overtly political folks made less of a vocal impact.
The proportion is still relatively low on social media, with less than 10% of users reporting they “often” discuss, comment or post about politics or government on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, reports Pew.
But social media has set the table for the biggest family dinner of all time, every day, and it’s not just your drunk uncle sounding off anymore. It could be anyone who has ever friended you on Facebook.
How to respond? Many of us just try to ignore or reduce our social media exposure to friends who post something we find disagreeable. Pew estimates that about a third of social media users have changed their settings to minimize someone in their feed due to politics, and 27% have blocked or unfriended someone for that reason.
Is there a better way? Quartz consulted experts and two prolific Facebook posters. Here’s their advice:
Matt Scharpnick’s political Facebook posts frequently find an audience among both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters. But he has found no one is willing to have a genuine conversation until they’ve felt heard. “You can’t be combative,” he advised. “People are so tired of the other side not hearing them.”
Rainie said this is a ground rule to make meaningful conversation possible. “People love it when others take the time to listen,” he said.
Rainie found that the people most highly valued in social networks are those who “gently” introduce contrarian information without partisan vitriol. He suggested helpful sentence constructions such as “I thought you would be interested in this, even if you may not agree” to pave the way.
“People who do this well have appreciative and growing socials networks,” he said. “People who don’t may see them shrink.”
A standard finding in social science research, and one that predates the internet, is that people mistakenly believe their friends are just like them. ”A lot of people report to us they are stunned by their friends’ political views,” says Rainie.
It’s likely that your friends differ in ways you can’t anticipate. Expecting this, and proactively extending empathy to friends who don’t see the world as you do, prevents disputes.
It’s easy to forget people arrive to social media armed with completely different sets of facts. A new class of misleading websites is undermining a common sense of the truth.
“I think what this election has made so clear is that people are living in parallel universes,”said Scharpnick. “If you believe everything Breitbart is telling you, someone who supports Hillary would seem like a rotten person.”
Yet many arguments stem from misunderstandings about things people actually agree on, rather than their differences. Ruth Evelyn posts publicly on Facebook about topics from sexual assault to the presidential elections. Before jumping into an argument, she says, she’s careful to ascertain just where the disagreement lies, and often finds there’s less distance than it first appears. “I think there’s more common ground at the outset, if we can find it,” she said.
“One of the biggest things you can think about is, what is your intention?” Evelyn says. “Is your intention to vent, or is it to open a new way of thinking for people?”
The most successful posts start a conversation, rather than show people why they are wrong. Evelyn’s recent post on sexual assault, for example, garnered about 1,000 shares and 138 comments. “One reason I haven’t had much kickback,” she says, “is that I say, ‘Here are my experiences,’ and let people draw their conclusions.”
Social media tends to free people from the inhibitions and filters that social norms impose on face-to-face interactions. More than 80% of respondents in a Pew study agreed that people discussing politics on social media are likely to say things they would never repeat in person.
In your own feeds, or in comments on your posts, Rainie suggests that small measures can defuse conversations spiraling out of control: Even something as simple as an emoji or an expression of empathy can help, or asking people how exactly they meant to make a point. Evelyn sometimes asks that posters wait five minutes before responding, to ease the tension.
Even if you don’t turn Trump supporters into Clinton boosters, open and thoughtful discussions do change people. Evelyn recalls that one acquaintance was posting racist, Islamophobic comments on her feed. She reached out and offered alternative views, engaging with him over time.
Three months later, she said, he wrote a public post apologizing, and saying he had changed his mind.
Everyone agreed some battles will never be won. Disagreement isn’t the problem; it’s disrespect and a refusal to acknowledge others’ views. “Part of it is knowing when to stop talking to certain people,” said Scharpnick. He continues to debate one of his closest friends, a Trump supporter, he said, but he realized that another friend was unreachable, and his relationship had soured far beyond just political views.
Evelyn has also unfriended people in this election cycle. “It wasn’t over politics,” she said. It was their inability to listen. “I don’t need to keep room for him… in my life if he’s not someone for whom I’m going to make a difference,” she said.
But both Evelyn and Scharpnick said they would continue to post about the issues on which they were passionate—and maintain an optimistic view of human nature.
“I have hope,” said Scharpnick. “It’s a small thing, but maybe it makes a difference.”
The image above was taken by ResoluteSupportMedia and shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license on Flickr.