On Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey published an article decrying how the rise of Donald Trump has worsened online political discourse. “In the past week alone,” she wrote, “thousands of Facebook users have publicly promised to unfriend each and every Trump supporter in their network, regardless of — in the words of one Trump critic — ‘how long I’ve known you or how close we are.’” She also cited apps that have popped up with the sole goal of blocking Trump-related content (or, in one case, turning it into a smiling-poop emoji).
To Dewey, this marks a depressing moment in what she sees as the country’s long-running trajectory toward polarization and demonization of political others. “Political scuffles aren’t unusual among friends and acquaintances, of course — it’s part of the reason the topic is typically never raised in polite conversation,” she wrote. “But in an era where Americans are both more polarized than ever and more able to tailor their environments to their preexisting views, standard disagreements have veered in an ugly, intolerant direction: one that’s inconsistent, critics argue, with our most fundamental democratic values.” In other words: In order for democracy to thrive, we need to be able to argue about politics online without simply tuning one another out.
To which I say: Meh.
It’s a scientifically couched meh, though. What this debate comes down to is the question of which circumstances give rise to productive political debates, where productive means one or both parties shifting in their opinion a little, or at least both parties walking away feeling reasonably positive about how the debate went down, even if their views didn’t change. And while I understand the sentiment of wanting Facebook and Twitter to be the sorts of places where productive political debates go down — and am baffled that anyone would be so insecure or angry about their own political views they would preemptively block Trump-supporting Facebook friends — both platforms are built in ways that fundamentally undermine meaningful political back-and-forth. In the long run, the national conversation might be better served by having fewer political debates on these platforms.
Bear with me here. The big question in political psychology is how people change their minds. At this point, researchers know more about what doesn’t work than about what does. What doesn’t work, at least not usually, is appealing to factual accuracy, or making moral arguments that don’t resonate with the other person’s belief system, or ridiculing the other person for being stupid or immoral or sheeplike in their political beliefs. To the extent that researchers know what does work, it appears that meaningful political discussion is a pretty painstaking process that involves trying to get on the same page as the person you’re trying to convince: appealing to their sense of morality (which, if you’re arguing over politics, is likely quite different from your own) and trying to find some sort of common ground. It’s the sort of thing done over a lengthy, nuanced, friendly conversation — one that might be helped along by a beer or three if you and they are the drinking type.
The reason Facebook and Twitter almost always lead to excruciatingly bad political arguments is that they mitigate against a two-friends-debate-politics-over-beers model and nudge people toward a screaming-match-with-an-audience model. Twitter is worse by far, but neither platform allows for the sort of intricately textured, sustained political conversation that might lead to progress; on Facebook, even if you start to get somewhere, the public nature of the conversation — the pressure to perform for likes and to show your allegiance and value to your “team” — all but ensures one or both of you will revert to point-scoring, or that someone’s dumb friend will pipe in and derail the conversation.
When I think about those times in which I’ve come away from an online political debate feeling better, rather than worse, about the person I’ve debated with, those conversations have almost always involved extended correspondence on a private channel (which, yes, could include Twitter DMs or Facebook messages). I’m not usually swayed all that much, but I do start to see the correspondent as a human being who came to their beliefs for human reasons rather than as a sloganeering, brainwashed troll. That’s progress!
The public political conversations on Facebook or Twitter, though? Almost everyone comes across as a sloganeering, brainwashed troll. The content is really awful, on both sides. So if you’re annoyed by Trump supporters — or Bernie Sanders supporters, since the underlying point applies regardless — but are genuinely interested in better understanding where they come from, it might be better to filter out examples of them at their least thoughtful and most rah-rah-look-how-right-I-am. All of that awful content leads only to further dehumanization and greater distance.
Talking politics publicly on Facebook or Twitter and talking politics productively, in other words, are two very, very different things.