Sunday, July 16, 2017

Facebook As A Surprising Antidote To Toxic Political Polarization-- A Guest Post By Jeff Rasley


-by Jeff Rasley
"A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
-Abraham Lincoln
The almost-deadly attack by a gunman at a Republican baseball practice briefly focused national attention on the dangerous level political polarization has reached in the US. The upward trend of ideological divergence was identified by political scientists even prior to President Obama’s election in 2008.
Since the 1970s, ideological polarization has increased dramatically among the mass public in the United States... There are now large differences in outlook between Democrats and Republicans, between red state voters and blue state voters, and between religious voters and secular voters. These divisions are not confined to a small minority of activists-- they involve a large segment of the public and the deepest divisions are found among the most interested, informed, and active citizens.
-Alan I Abramowitz and Kyle L. Saunders, The Journal of Politics, “Is Polarization a Myth?” 2008
Many of us thought Obama was an inspiring figure as the first African-American (or mixed race) President. He would unite the nation and reverse the trend of polarization. It didn’t turn out that way.

And now, an even more polarizing figure holds the office of President of the United Sates. The extremity of our angry national division is summarized in the online article, “Polarization in 2016."
This is the year of Donald Trump. It is the year Republican primary voters applauded proposals to build fences on the border and to ban Muslims. It is the year that the leading Democrat in New Hampshire polls was a self-proclaimed socialist who favored 90 percent top tax rates and a $15 per hour national minimum wage. It is the year we all decided once and for all that those on the other side of the political divide didn’t just have different priorities, didn’t just hold different opinions, but were out to destroy the country and everything it stands for. Americans in 2016 are more politically divided than ever before.
-Matthew Gentzkow, Stanford University

We might not have reached the zenith of hyper-partisanship in 2016. Social scientists have only recently begun to grapple with the contribution of social media to political polarization. Gentzkow’s article summarizes the arguments of prominent academics who castigate the Internet as the Iago-like villain pushing and pulling Americans into hostile camps.

An early, influential example of this argument is the book by Cass Sunstein (2001). Sunstein argues that the Internet is creating “echo chambers,” where partisans will hear their own opinions, biases and prejudices endlessly reinforced. He writes: “Our communications market is rapidly moving” toward a situation where “people restrict themselves to their own points of view-- liberals watching and reading mostly or only liberals; moderates, moderates; conservatives, conservatives; Neo-Nazis, Neo-Nazis.” This increases polarization and limits the “unplanned, unanticipated encounters [that are] central to democracy itself.”

More recently, Pariser (2012) argues that we are not only self-selecting into echo chambers, we are being steered into them whether we like it or not. In trying to show us content we will click on, Google’s personalized search results and Facebook’s personalized news feeds screen out content we are most likely to disagree with, and create a comfortable bubble of like-minded information.

Epstein and Robertson (2015) argue that the effects on American democracy could be profound. They conduct laboratory experiments in which potential voters are shown manipulated search results that favor one side of the political spectrum or the other. They then ask participants about their voting intentions. They find large effects, which, if extrapolated outside the laboratory, would imply that large companies such as Google could determine the outcome of many national elections.

Yikes! Google could determine the outcome of the next presidential election?!

The Shorenstein Center of the Harvard Kennedy School summarized the findings of a group of studies in an article published May 17, 2015 in Journalist’s Resource (online), “Does Facebook drive political polarization?” It reported that the Pew Research Center and several university social science departments had shown that “political discussions on Twitter often show ‘polarized crowd’ characteristics, whereby a liberal and conservative cluster are talking past one another on the same subject, largely relying on different information sources.” The research “confirms that groups are disproportionately exposed to like-minded information and that information reaches like-minded users more quickly than users of the opposing ideology. Political talk ... is typically highly partisan and clustered around groups of likeminded users.”

And it’s getting worse. The Shorenstein Center published its results in May 2015, a year before the polarizing Trump v. Clinton race. My own experience on Facebook is consistent with the studies reflecting an increasing polarization along political-ideological lines. As predicted, during the 2016 presidential campaign my friends increasingly posted hostile comments on politically oriented threads and have retreated into like-minded private groups after the election.

The finality of the presidential election results was not an antidote to the irrational passions inflamed by the angry rhetoric of the campaign. Facebook lit up with even greater vehemence after Trump’s election and then again at his inauguration. By hurling insults and ridicule at right-wingers my left-wing friends were releasing their fury over Trump’s election and taking their revenge for the assaults against Obama my right-wing friends posted during his presidency.

Social media was not serving as a forum of healing with meaningful conversation about where we go from here after the conclusion of the 2016 presidential campaign. It wasn’t used as a medium to develop greater understanding between partisans on opposite sides of the political divide. It wasn’t even much used as a forum for strategizing on how to respond to the surprising election of a neophyte politician as President whose party would control both Congress and the Senate. Post 2016 election, Facebook was just another place for disappointed Democrats to howl their rage at their political foes and where Republicans could express their triumphant glee.

Some Trump supporters reveling in their guy’s victory aped the outrageous-insulting style he used so effectively in the Republican Primaries. Instead of the stuffy form of address customary in presidential elections, Trump delighted in name-calling. Rather than “my worthy opponent”, there was “low energy Jeb”, “little Marco”, and “lying Ted” in the primaries. He was no more gallant against Mrs. Clinton during the general election campaign. He encouraged his followers with shouts of “Lock her up!” and labeled her “lying Hillary.”

Clinton contributed to the below-the-belt style of campaigning Trump started by focusing her campaign on Trump’s personal unfitness to be President. She left her comfort zone as a policy wonk to try her hand at negative campaigning. She and her advisors rightly thought Trump was an easy target. But they didn’t anticipate that Hillary herself would be as easy a target as she was. The never-ending Congressional and FBI investigations of her emails gave a veneer of credence that she lied and should be locked up.

When the campaign was finally over and the votes counted, instead of swords being lowered, the partisanship of a polarized electorate was mirrored in social media. The hyper-partisanship in Congress was spurred on by post-election heat in social media, and the heat generated in social media encouraged more partisanship among Congressional delegates. Where were the good guys riding in over the horizon to save the country from the spreading disease of extreme polarization?

President Trump was not the gracious winner who would calm the waters and bind up the nation’s wounds. After a perfunctory nod to bipartisanship in his inaugural speech, he was back to his habit of madly tweeting away on his smartphone egging his supporters on and throwing rotten eggs at his opponents.

The writer and public intellectual Camille Paglia thinks the deepening polarization of the American and European body politics should be diagnosed as suffering from a cultural pathology.
The liberal versus conservative dichotomy, dating from the split between Left and Right following the French Revolution, is hopelessly outmoded for our far more complex era of expansive technology and global politics. A bitter polarization of liberal and conservative has become so extreme and strident in both the Americas and Europe that it sometimes resembles mental illness, severed from the common sense realities of everyday life.
-Camille Paglia, Time, “Women Aren’t Free until Speech Is,” March 21, 2017
Paglia is correct to point out that the deepening polarization of left versus right politics is not limited to the US. Another online Time article posted as voting results came in for the May 2017 elections in France described, “The campaign has been unusually bitter, with voters hurling eggs and flour, protesters clashing with police and the candidates insulting each other on national television-- a reflection of the country's deep divisions.” Philippe Sotto, “French Cybersecurity Agency to Investigate Emmanuel Macron Election Hacking,” May 06, 2017.

Rebecca Solnit argues in “Easy Chair,” Harper’s Magazine, May 2017, that politicians and the media are engaged in an unholy alliance of “trafficking in outrage.” She’s a leftist, but accuses both leftwing and rightwing media outlets and politicians of “making ad hominem attacks, dividing the political world into heroes and villains, giving us this day our daily rage.”

So, it’s no secret that the US and other democratic republics are ailing with the sickness of extreme polarization. But what can we citizens do about it? We don’t have hands on the levers of power to make structural changes. We don’t have the voice of national media. Of course, we can raise our voices at protests and rallies. But to some extent that just contributes to the noise, if the event is one-sided.

Voters can demand that politicians behave like mature adults in the campaigns for the 2018 mid-term elections. If enough of us do so, they might. However, the success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries and general election may suggest a different lesson to aspiring politicians.

There is another strategy that can be employed by those who agree that the health of the body politic will be improved with rational discourse among citizens, candidates, and elected representative.

In the Winter 2017 issue of The American Scholar, Amitai Etzioni urged his fellow liberal progressives, “who wish for a less reactionary America,” to engage with, rather than despise, Trump voters. “We Must Not Be Enemies” was written a month after Trump was elected and published a month after Trump’s inauguration.
Clearly, not all of these Americans can be reached by new progressive thinking, but respect for their fellow human beings and political prudence suggest that all of them should be approached as if they could be. The question is not only whether a new progressive movement can appeal to the less extreme elements of the Trump constituencies, but also whether progressives can understand the legitimate anger and frustration that many Trump voters felt and still feel, in the hope of creating a more workable, just, and peaceable society.
The way to approach Trump voters is to try to engage them in respectful and rational discourse. Conversely, the way Trump supporters can better understand those on the other side of the political divide is by engaging them in respectful rational discourse. Etzioni isn’t urging his fellow progressives to change sides or to alter their own political alignment. He just wants them to treat Trump supporters as adult human beings.

Fran Liebowitz had a different approach in today's NY Times

The place where rational-civil discourse has been least practiced, but where it can cast the widest net, is social media. Facebook, with its billion-plus users, offers citizens the greatest network for communicating with others that has ever existed. It can be used to reverse, rather than increase, unhealthy polarization. Self discipline and perseverance will be required, because civility in social media discussion threads about politics is not the norm.

A common insult kids of my generation applied to verbal bullies was: “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it.” Too many of us have grown up to be that kind of social media bully. We can dish it out, but then block or delete critical replies or un-friend people who offend us. As adults we ought to be able to dish it out and to take it.

Is it really that hard to listen and speak respectfully with people we disagree with politically? The admonition of Etzioni, an internationally respected scholar writing for the journal published by the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa, is giving his readers the same kind of advice given by Robert Fulghum in the popular book series from the 1990’s, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The implication is that even the best and brightest among us have regressed into angry children misbehaving on the playground. The refusal to engage in adult conversations across ideological lines is more a problem of maturity, in the sense of tolerance to accept differences, than intelligence or learning.

The response of a progressive-liberal Facebook friend, who has advanced degrees from prestigious universities, to my invitation to participate in an online forum with pro-Trump voters:
Thank you. Jeff's idea is totally wonderful in theory, but when you factor in racists, bigots, and brain-washed religious fanatics who have not and will not ever listen to facts, reason, and measured attempts to "understand" the fact that they're haters, it won't work. The operative word here is FANATICS. They have abdicated all rights to be treated with respect and courtesy. And the Democrats are only finally opening their eyes to the fact that you can't negotiate with FANATICS. You either fight them on their dirty, ugly, Trumpian turf, or you die.
Democrats who have totally written off all Trump supporters have forgotten a historical precedent. After Nixon resigned in disgrace, because he was about to be impeached and the evidence was incontrovertible that he had acted with felonious intent, I had an encounter I will never forget. Ed lived down the street from my boyhood home. He was over 70 and a life-long conservative Republican. I was home from college the summer of 1974 during the Watergate hearings. I saw Ed walking down our street, and stopped to greet him. He shook his head, looked me in the eye and said, “That god damn Nixon betrayed me, and I’ll never vote for a Republican again.”

I was stunned and impressed. At first, it seemed like an over-reaction on Ed’s part. My father, also a life-long Republican, tried to elaborate on how betrayed Nixon supporters felt. He explained that they felt like Nixon had lied to them personally.

In the next presidential election some of the felt-betrayed Republicans voted for Jimmy Carter. Nixon’s Vice-President, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon after Ford assumed the presidency following Nixon’s resignation. The pardon was another cut into the lacerated skin of betrayed voters, and they took it out on Ford in the polls. Turncoat Republicans may have later regretted it and voted for Ronald Reagan to oust Carter. But still, the Democrats had an opportunity to swing some votes their way after the Watergate debacle, and they did.

Some disappointed Republicans, like Ed, may have turned away from politics or turned to even darker forces on the far right. The John Birch Society had members in my hometown of Goshen, Indiana, and I wondered if Ed might have found shelter there.

If Trump is impeached, I worry that enraged Trump supporters might turn to darker forces on the extreme right rather than to traditional Republican-conservative or moderate politics. Some of my Progressive-Democrat friends will gloat. I don’t blame them in the sense that I thought all along that Trump was a very poor choice by the Repubs. Rather than gloat, I would like to keep the lines of communication open. That will not be possible if anti-Trumpers dominate discussions in the public press and social media with, “I told you so, you deplorably stupid ignoramus!” If utter contempt for Trump supporters is all they hear from Democrats, they might only feel welcome in even more extreme rightwing silos.

Current extreme political polarization has not developed without a reason and intention. It is not a historical accident. Moneyed interests influencing politics through political action committees (PACs) and the major political parties, along with the ideologically-slanted news media, have decided that it’s in their selfish interest to drive an ideological wedge between conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning Americans. These forces oppose moderation and bipartisan compromise. They benefit by inflaming the right/left animus of their consumers and constituents. That’s why so many media outlets have become openly partisan. It’s why bipartisanship has become a cuss word in Congress. And that’s why political campaigns have become so ugly. Inflaming visceral passions and prejudices keeps the money pouring in.

So, we’re going to have to take advantage of our own communication networks to create a more rational and civil political climate. The virtual world of digitized communications has blessed us with numerous ways to do that. At present, Facebook is the best.

What would happen if we declared a suspension of hostilities on our Facebook pages? Political adversaries could be invited to cross picket lines to engage forthrightly, but respectfully, in discussion threads about political issues with friends on the other side of the political divide. Pragmatic, instead of ideological, solutions to our social, economic, and political problems could be posted and discussed.

But questions arise. Is the impulse to attack political rivals so powerful that Facebook friends would be unable to restrain themselves? The fear of being attacked might be so great friends would prefer not to go out into the open of “no man’s land”. Wouldn’t it be safer to hunker down inside our own trenches in the protective comfort of like-minded allies?

Yes, We Can Engage in Civil Political Discussions on Facebook

I witnessed an outpouring of mass grief and anger at the post-inaugural Women’s March. Resistance was the dominant theme. Offers of reconciliation were not the response from the Trump side. It was mockery and hostility toward the protesters. The Inauguration had no discernible effect in reducing polarization. It was clear that the divide would continue to deepen and widen, not lessen.

I’d had enough. I didn’t want to be sucked into unhealthy outrage any longer. So, I decided to try to ward off the disease. My therapeutic discipline would be to try to maintain a conscientious respect for friends who voted differently than me. I would refrain from posting inflammatory or disrespectful remarks about Trump and his supporters on my Facebook page. I did not want to alienate friends from the Facebook community I had developed, even if they were engaging in obnoxious hardcore-partisan posts. (Twitter, on the other hand, would still be an outlet, if I really needed to vent.)

That was the first step I took on Facebook toward developing what became an experiment with civil discourse about political issues. I committed myself to cease my own anti-Trump posting in Facebook. The discipline would allow me to “like” or comment approvingly of critical posts about Trump, but I was determined not to launch a thread which would impugn friends who voted for Trump.

For several months, beginning in late February 2017, I invited friends, both pro and anti Trump, to participate in discussions on Facebook about current political issues. My only request was that contributors not attack each other, although they were free to criticize political figures. It worked. 63 friends participated in the initial discussion threads and more joined in as time went on. Several started their own discussion forums.

Angry, and even nasty, remarks were posted about Trump, Clinton, and other political leaders. But the request of no personal attacks against participants was honored. 63 diverse “friends”, including pro and anti Trump, blue and white collar, Baby Boomers and Millennials, high school grads and PhDs, urban and rural, from many different states mastered the fight or flight response to participate in the Facebook discussions. The topics ranged from US policy in Syria, to relations with Russia, abortion, etc.

I summed up my own response to the experiment with civil discourse on Facebook with this post:
I would like to wind up this experiment of trying to encourage civil discourse on FB about tough political issues by thanking all of you who have participated. I plan to write an article (maybe a book) addressing the question of whether civil conversation can take place on FB. These conversations are proof that it is possible. It's tempting to use social media either to shout your own opinions and insult those who oppose you. Or, to huddle only with like minded friends, so you're never challenged by reasonable views different from your own. Yet, most of us agree that growth comes from exposure to new & different information, interpretations, analysis, and conclusions. I think we don't use social media to its full potential when we hide from opposing opinions or just attack those with whom we disagree.
Disturbing statistics about the loss of faith in democracy and a willingness to turn to authoritarian rule are compiled by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in “The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy, July 2016. The authors found that “world values surveys” since World War II reveal a trend of increasing cynicism about the value of political participation in Western democratic countries. Millennials are the most disillusioned generation in the modern era about democracy, since polling data has been compiled. 26% do not think “free and fair elections” are important, according to one of the surveys described by Foa and Mounk.

The decline in the commitment to democratic values is related to an increasing feeling of powerlessness and anger among Americans. The anger and recrimination of the electorate manifested during and after the 2016 campaign reflects more of a hatred for the other side than loyalty to our side. The inclination is to lash out rather than produce rational arguments to support what our party and candidates stand for. That was the way both the Trump and Clinton campaigns were run, and too many of us have followed their leads.

If we leave it up to the PACs and politicians to take the lead, it might get worse rather than better. Launching attacks or siloing in social media is not going to help reverse the trend. Fighting and hiding will more likely deepen cynicism, pessimism, or complacency about our traditional-liberal democratic values.

Instead of using Facebook to bash political opponents, it can be a forum for hashing out disagreements and possibly finding some common ground on important issues. We can at least develop a better understanding through civil conversation of what divides us and why. That would lower the temperature of our body politic so more moderate-pragmatic voices could be heard as an alternative to the shrieking of angry extremists.

The value of civil discussion on Facebook need not end there. After we’ve vetted our own opinions and arguments, we’ll have a firmer grasp of the relevant facts and better understanding of the issues. Then, we should move past the point of discussion to encourage activism by calling out politicians who behave undemocratically and do not act for the greater good of the country. We can ask everyone we communicate with in Facebook to join in political discussions but also to march, demonstrate, petition, call legislators, and vote for the best candidate.

Or, we can feed our primitive fight or flight impulse by lashing out in social media and then duck into our silos. If we do that, the unhealthy polarization of the time of Trump will get even worse.


Jeff Rasley is the author of ten books; the most recent is Polarized! The Case for Civility in the Time of Trump, which was inspired by the experiment in civil discourse on Facebook. Rasley practiced law for thirty years in Indianapolis, Indiana and was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago, Indiana University School of Law, and Christian Theological Seminary. He has taught classes on philosophy and philanthropy at Butler and Marian Universities.

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At 4:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good piece with many good and interesting points. Some, however....

'Rebecca Solnit argues... politicians and the media are engaged in an unholy alliance of “trafficking in outrage.” '

Pols and media on the right (where most of them truly live) have been doing this since the Great Society. What has evolved, though, is the social acceptability of racism and general hate of anyone who is not 'them'. And 'them' has grown to include liberals, progressives, anyone who votes for a D, women, blacks, latinos, Asians, Jews, LGBTQs, the elderly, the sick, the poor and children. The Drumpfdeath is the quintessential piece of lege proving this hatred. It will kill millions of all of these because they are not wealthy white men. And the voters on the right seem fine with it only because it'll kill a lot of the minorities they hate so much.

Voters on the left NEED to be outraged at this. And if the motherfuckers on the right insist on being such xenophobic douchenozzles, then the left should NEVER talk to them like they are equals. They are despised because they are despicable.

fucking period.

The hatred used to be socially ... frowned upon. Laws existed to prevent discrimination and those laws tended to be enforced. No longer. The government of/by/for the rich whites refuses to enforce them any more as the rich, white supreme court slowly whittles them away.

And the democraps, rather than being part of a solution, is part of the problem. They ignore their erstwhile demographics (see the hated above) as they chase the almight dollar by the billions and are then obligated to do only what that money wants.

And left voters seem fine with that because every cycle we turn out by the 10s of millions to vote for these motherfuckers that are ass-raping all of us for money.

The only antidote to all of this at this point has to be utter collapse, revolution or both.

human beings are just so fucking stupid!

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Jeff Rasley said...

The above comment certainly provides evidence to support her/his last point.

At 9:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is truth here: "polarization of the time of Trump will get even worse."

Before (anti-)social media, we used to talk to each other, see the faces, read the body language and hear the words.
5 decades ago parents taught kids to be civil and kids taught other kids to be civil or get the shit kicked out of you.
Except in the south, hate speech was self-edited for these reasons, even if you genuinely hated.

with technology, we can speak anonymously, so the filters are gone. And, whether the chicken or egg, our politics has gotten purely uncivil too. A white pinhead of german heritage can spew racist, antireligious, sexist bile and boast about being a sexual predator, and he gets elected president by the party of jesus. Another man, a jew, advocates all manner of long-overdue altruism for the powerless and he can't even get the nom from his own party.

I don't see any cure here.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Jeff Rasley said...

Anonymous of 9:54 PM, Yes, your analysis of the problem of a decline in civility is one of the points made in "Polarized!". But the book also addresses what practically & politically can be done to try to reverse the trend. If we just sit on our hands and moan about it, the shrieking will get worse, political violence will increase, and politicians like Trump, who offer authoritarian solutions will win. Let's not let them win.

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