THE UNFOLLOWING: social media circles in an era of political awakening

*This piece originally published 12/1/2020 as an Inkstick Media column.*

BLUF: Several studies have shown that Americans feel more polarized than ever. Unfriending/unfollowing on social media based on civil, dissenting opinions may contribute to deepening that divide.

I’m just a small-town girl from a conservative corner of the PNW. The little city I call home is not unlike other small towns in America, I imagine, with the exception of our nuclear motif.

*pause for effect*

Yes, you read that right. My small hometown produced the plutonium used in “Fat Man” on that fateful day back in 1945. But my town is proud of our history — something I won’t get into right now. So, growing up,  a hot date meant hitting the lanes at “Atomic Bowl,” my high school’s mascot was a mushroom cloud, and the best pizza was easily from the “black book” at Atomic Brew Pub. Yeah, we took the nuclear thing to a whole new level.

So no one really should’ve been too surprised when a girl from small town USA ended up living in the DC swamp working in national security. And, with a minor detour at a Catholic university, two years volunteering with the Peace Corps, and a Master’s degree from a purple state — my social media content pretty much spans the political spectrum.

In the age of 24-hour news cycles, TikTok, Twitter, dating apps, Facebook and the gram: we’ve all heard the warnings about social media toxicity. We’ve all deleted (then re-added and subsequently deleted again) the influencer we hate to love. Yet when it comes to political differences, unfollowing a human being — especially someone we know well — is trickier. On the one hand, we have our mental health to think about (and rightly so); but, on the other hand, does unfollowing dissenting voices do more harm than good?

As you will come to learn in reading my [Inkstick Media] column, at THE BABES BLUF: we don’t do opinion; partisanship or BS. Just facts (and personal anecdotes — often against my better judgment).

So, let’s take a data-driven look at the phenomena I like to call “the unfollowing” or the practice of unfollowing/unfriending individuals on social media because of political opinions, and the ways in which this practice can contribute to polarization.

In 2016, Leticia Bode looked at unfriending and unfollowing political content on social media in an article for Research & Politics. Interestingly enough, data from a 2012 Pew Research survey used in this article suggested that political unfriending was “relatively rare,” with results demonstrating that less than 10% of 907 respondents were unfriending/unfollowing for political reasons. Shockingly (to me at least), folks were more likely to unfriend someone due to the quantity of political posts (read: about your pyramid scheme diet products), and less so about the content of those posts themselves.

However, in 2016, a study by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found some updated and interesting results about Christmas (i.e. did you know that 47% of Americans think stores and businesses should greet customers with “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas” out of respect for people of different religious faiths while 46% say they should not?) and political unfollowing.

According to that study, after the 2016 Presidential Election “Only 13% of the public say they blocked, unfriended, or stopped following someone on social media because of what they posted about politics. Again, sharp political divisions emerged in the tendency to remove people because of the political opinions they expressed.” 13% was a slight increase from the 2012 Pew data, but not alarmingly so. But the data starts to get interesting when you look at political ideologies of those partaking in the unfollowing. For example, liberals were by far the most likely of political ideologies to block, unfriend, or stop following someone because of what they posted on social media, coming in at 28% — a huge difference from conservatives (8%) and moderates (11%). And if you break it down even further by party affiliation and gender? Yup, 30% of Democratic women said “they blocked, unfriended, or stopped following someone on a social networking site because of what they posted about politics.” Next closest was Dem men at 14%, Rep women at 10%, Rep men at 8%.

AN ECHO CHAMBER IS LITERALLY “A ROOM WITH SOUND-REFLECTING WALLS USED FOR PRODUCING HOLLOW OR ECHOING SOUND EFFECTS” BUT THE TERM IS OFTEN USED FIGURATIVELY TO DESCRIBE THE CONVENIENCE AND COMFORTABILITY OF LISTENING ONLY TO WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR, AKA FOLLOWING PEOPLE WHO THINK THE WAY YOU THINK.

Maybe the explanation for this is that Dem women just have more diverse friends on social media to begin with? Seems unlikely, as another study found that neither Biden nor Trump voters in 2020 had more than “a few” friends who support the other candidate.

The deeper you look into partisan and ideological divides, the starker the picture becomes. A 2020 PRRI poll shows that 8 in 10 Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, but 8 in 10 Democrats believe the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. Using innumerable data points, an in-depth 2019 Pew study shows clearly what many of us have been thinking — Dems and Republicans really are more polarized than ever before, or at least, that is our perception.

Now, perhaps, you feel seen or attacked (or both) by reading all that data — I certainly felt some kind of way when I did.

But then I saw the October 2019 Civility Poll from the Institute of Politics and Public Service out of Georgetown University. The Civility Poll found that “the average voter believes the US is two-thirds of the way to the edge of a civil war. On a 0-100 scale with 100 being ‘edge of a civil war,’” with the mean response being 67.23. (Are you stressed yet?) Well, that very same poll found that 8 in 10 voters want “compromise and common ground.”

The survey of all this data tells me one thing: America is truly divided; but, we’ve also started to recognize it.

So what does this mean when it comes to one’s decision to join “the unfollowing”?

When making the decision to unfollow a polite but dissenting view (I am not talking about obscenities and hostile posts), it is important to recognize how that decision might contribute to your echo chamber. An echo chamber is literally “a room with sound-reflecting walls used for producing hollow or echoing sound effects” but the term is often used figuratively to describe the convenience and comfortability of listening only to what you want to hear, aka following people who think the way you think. It’s certainly not a new concept, but it is one that has been exacerbated by social media. In a 2016 academic paper, Jonathan Bright writes, “These patterns have concerned many theorists of democracy, who have argued that exposure to a diverse range of viewpoints is crucial for developing well informed citizens … who are also tolerant to the ideas of others. By contrast, exposure to only like-minded voices may contribute towards polarization towards ideological extremes.” Essentially the same has been said by others like Kristina Lerman, a USC professor looking at the structure of modern social networks: echo chambers contribute to polarization and increase divisions in our society.

To make matters worse, your personalized echo chamber is being cultivated for you as you read this article. Maybe by now you’ve seen the documentary on Netflix, “The Social Dilemma,” breaking down how social media sites are creating incredibly brilliant (and disturbing) algorithms to curate every single thing you see on your feed. You’re not paranoid, when you look up late night cookie recipes — you better believe Insomnia Cookies is about to show up everywhere. As such, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that when you disengage or unfollow someone/something, you’ve just given your personalized algorithm data it can use to essentially perfect your echo chamber and buy your engagement time. After all, the more time your scroll, the more money they make.

The act of unfollowing may not just be narrowing our blinders but also fundamentally distorting the way we see people of differing opinions. Dr. Tania Israel, a professor in the counseling, clinical and school psychology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara runs workshops on cross-the-aisle conversations and said in an NPR article, “Both sides tend to view themselves as eminently fair and right, and the other side as irrational… We’re flattening people out in terms of our view of them and we’re not really seeing the full complexity of people on the other side.” Israel has stated that, in her opinion, “The only useful comment that you can make on somebody’s social media post is ‘Can we find a time to talk about this? I’m interested in hearing more.’”

I personally have found it exhausting to engage with friends and family who have dissenting political views — even considering hitting “unfollow” on multiple occasions. I am usually stopped by one of two things:

1// The reminder of an essential national security tenet — know your opponent’s position: During my time in DC, whether behind closed doors at a roundtable, sparring over drinks, or battling for FY budgets — one integral part of each of these debates and negotiations has been  understanding what I’m up against, if for no other reason than to prep my counterpoints. After all, if you don’t know your opponent or his/her position, you don’t have a shot in hell at getting what you want. All that’s to say, maybe the “kumbaya” thing doesn’t resonate with you at all — fair, you’re (gasp) entitled to your opinions. But maybe you find the argument that you should “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” more convincing.

2// #Science — the fact that the earth is not flat: Remember when people literally thought the Earth was flat? But after research and exploration, we began to understand not only the shape of the Earth but also the size of the galaxy? Humans aren’t flat. As we learn more about and from each other, we gain a better understanding of the human race, which could lead to incredible advancement.

If none of that works for you, try asking yourself: by unfollowing this person, am I making that 67.23 mean about civil war increase or decrease? JK. Not really.

All of this needs to be caveated by another important message: In any environment, toxic comments or treatment should never be excused nor accepted. And in an era where politics and mental health are both starting to get the public recognition many have been yearning for, Ebonie Barnes, a licensed mental health counselor, puts it best, “While I don’t believe you should unfollow anyone simply because of differing views, I do believe that it is emotionally unhealthy to inundate yourself with posts that cause you distress. If that means unfriending, unfollowing or muting the feed of someone who you know personally, so be it!”

In semi-short, there is no real scientific answer to guide your unfollowing, that decision ultimately belongs to you in America. But there is data to show trends between political unfriending and polarization. So next time you find your finger hovering over that “unfollow” button, think twice before you click.

And that’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

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