The Lure Of Broadcasting Our Politics On Social Media

After months off the Facebook wagon, I tentatively took a step back on this week. There were a few friends that I struggled to keep up with offline, and I wanted more contact with them. What I didn't want was a constant barrage of politics. 

Maybe I just chose a bad week to get back on Facebook. After all, what with the Supreme Court's momentous ruling on same-sex marriage, there was bound to be virtual cheering and fist-pumping on one side, or anguished hand-wringing on the other. And for good reason: it's a big deal that affects us all.

Yet even for these high-profile issues that deeply matter, many of us don't want to have a friendly place to mingle turned into London's Speakers' Corner, with friends and family broadsiding us with politics.

And why do we think that a Facebook or Twitter post is the right way to communicate our personal views to the world, anyway?

Think about it. When was the last time you started a conversation with a friend or co-worker by shoving a picket sign into their face? Or, really, when was the last time you started a conversation with a political statement at all? At least since the golden age of the French salon, politics and religion have been excluded from polite conversation. Yet on Facebook and Twitter they're front and center.

Why?

Politicking To Bolster Self-Esteem

According to research by professors Keith Wilcox and Andrew Stephen, "people present a positive self-view to others," which in turn causes them to feel good about ourselves and decreases our self-restraint. We're all familiar with this as it pertains to our pictures of perfectly assembled meals ("Look at the food I get to eat!", our selfies in front of famous tourist attractions ("I live a glamorous life of travel!") and nights out on the town ("My life is so fun!"). As much as we dread seeing others show us their highlight reels, we do it ourselves.

But how does this apply to our political posts? Following this same research, posting political statements may be a way of telling friends and followers "I'm enlightened." We want people to see that we're on the right side of a particular discussion, which is easy on Facebook, in particular, because we tend to congregate with like-minded people and get positive reinforcement in the form of "likes" and "attaboy/girl" comments.

Indeed, this may contribute to helping us feel less lonely, as another study found. In this University of Arizona study, the mere act of posting to social networks—even absent any feedback in the form of comments or likes—led to an increased sense of well-being. Perhaps telling the world our political beliefs makes us feel engaged and in partnership with other like-minded people who surely must be out there, reading our posts.

The irony is that while such rewards apparently motivate our online politicking, we generally aren't convinced by others'  political screeds. We either nod our heads in agreement with like-minded individuals or dig in our heels against conflicting opinions. Or, in my case, we're turned off both by those with whom we generally agree and disagree.

Yet this doesn't seem to inhibit the ego-boost and sense of well-being we get from raising our own virtual pickets.

Can I Turn This Thing Off?

Whatever our motivations for foisting our opinions on others, is there a good way to avoid others' political posts? After all, as much as I'd like to simply unfriend or unfollow friends and family who persist in telling me how they feel about genetically modified salmon or President [insert your least favorite president here], that's not always possible. 

After all, I love my mom.

During the election season, when political sloganeering reached fever pitch, Jason Perlow (who posts far too much about food but nothing about politics) walked through how to use Social Fixer to cut down on political clutter. I've found that it works well, though only for Facebook. Also, it requires constant feeding to weed out the latest social or political cause your friends now want to share at you. Still, it's a good start.

Civil Discourse For A Civil Society

Unfortunately, that's all it is. Because let's face it: until people stop broadcasting their political beliefs, no filter is going to perfectly block them. Kind of like spam in our email inboxes.

Hence, maybe the best we can do is to take care that the next time we want to tell the world why they should vote for X, or care about Y, we remember just how ineffective it is when others yell their beliefs at us, and forbear. If we absolutely must share our opinion, try one-on-one. It's amazing how much higher the quality of our communication becomes when done in-person. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.