November 9, 2016
During the presidential election of 2016, it was easy to avoid misinterpretation, escalation, damaged relationships and offending Facebook friends with differing opinions. Just never be on Facebook.
Only about half a dozen Americans heeded that advice. The rest of the country is left on the day after the contentious election wondering how awkward Thanksgiving will be knowing exactly how Grandma felt about Hillary Clinton, Aunt Jane’s thoughts on Donald Trump and 18-year-old Susie’s impression of the entire electoral process.
Jaclyn Cravens, assistant professor of addictive disorders and recovery studies who studies the role Facebook plays in relationships, and Jason Whiting, a professor of marriage and family therapy who studies abusive and controlling relationships, studied Facebook reactions to revelations about domestic violence between actor Johnny Depp and his now ex-wife Amber Heard. On the surface it’s unrelated to politics and how the 2016 election played out on social media, but people’s actions on social media and the general tendency to post whatever they want with no thought of how others will be affected remains the same.
They discussed how social media can damage relationships, what can be done on Facebook and in real life to repair those relationships and how the country can move forward, knowing social media will continue to play a major role, without it destroying relationships every time such an event occurs.
“Politics is such a team sport,” Whiting said. “People become really passionate, and they read things that support what they already feel. They forget politics, like a lot of things, is super subjective, it’s very complicated, and there are intelligent people on all kinds of different issues who disagree. They just say my team’s right, your team’s wrong.”
Social media amplifies that. It encourages people to only engage with people and information who reinforce their beliefs. It also creates a distance, removing body language, context and the responsibility that comes with saying a comment out loud to a real person sitting across the table whose face the speaker could see flinch, cringe, tear up, get angry or otherwise react.
“It’s easy to rationalize what you say and do because there’s a distance there,” he said. “People would say something in an online comment that they would never say to someone’s face.”
Cravens agreed, adding she sees this in her research and when she has fingers on the keyboard about to write a comment in a moment of high emotion.
“There are times when I realize I need to take a step back, I need to be aware of why am I feeling reactive to this. What is it that has me so emotional about what we are talking about?” Cravens said. “How can I express that in a way that allows room for somebody else to have an opinion? I think the Internet prevents people from seeing that play out. If you were having these really heated debates with someone you would feel the intensity of the conversation in the room, you would see nonverbally that people were upset, and you may back off it a bit or say we need to call a time out.”
They did offer one best practice to avoid misinterpretation, feeling criticized, unintentionally offending loved ones or being offended by a passionate post from a friend you never would have expected to feel that way: have these conversations in person or don’t have them at all.
For everyone else, they offered advice on when and how to engage on the Internet.
“I’ve caught myself getting ready to comment and even doing so in an appropriate manner that leaves room for other people to have an opinion, but catching myself and saying, ‘Do I want to have this conversation and is online in a Facebook comment or social media comment the appropriate medium to even have a conversation?’” Craven said.
And on that note:
“Be thoughtful when you engage on social media, knowing this is permanent, knowing it might be interpreted in different ways,” Whiting said. “Really reflect on your motivation for posting. Are you trying to prove a point or are you trying to genuinely do something useful? Is this something you would like to receive in your comments? Is this being done in a way that you won’t regret the next day when you look at what you posted?”
“Or the second you hit enter,” Cravens said.
Cravens and Whiting found in their research that many people, when considering domestic violence, downplayed anything that happened virtually, saying things like chatting with an old lover for hours every day on Facebook isn’t infidelity. Even Trump uses that excuse, arguing words in a tweet matter less than words in a more formal setting.
“It’s just very easy to put on this different self or the worst self or the excusing, rationalizing self online,” he said.
People who know a friend or family member feels differently and will post about it may find unfollowing that person makes maintaining that relationship easier, Cravens said. It allows users to filter out the comments on topics they would never bring up while out to dinner.
Unfriending or blocking someone, however, is a little more nuclear. Those actions raise questions about the nature of the relationship.
“Unfollowing is the kinder, more caring way to go about it on social media,” she said. “Blocking and unfriending oftentimes seem like reactive responses.”
Unfollowing may especially be beneficial with family members. If people need to preserve these intimate relationships, unfollowing allows for that source of disagreement to go unspoken. It remains a gray area, Cravens said, since 15 years ago no one had these conversations: “Do I follow them on social media? Do I be friends on social media? Do I have to block them on social media?”
“Can I express an opinion on social media without it going nuclear?” Whiting added.
At every point in this process, Whiting suggested taking a moment to consider the action.
“Anytime you react at all on social media or online, you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s my goal in this?” he said. “If you block somebody just because you think, ‘That’s the stupidest political comment I’ve ever heard,’ what’s your long-term goal? Is that going to make it worse? Even if you say something and you try to be thoughtful, will that help, really? Is that going to change somebody’s mind?”
Whiting recently read a study that showed occasionally posting contrary opinions to social media will change a person’s mind. That remains the exception.
“Studies show people become more and more convinced, even in the face of contrary evidence, when you challenge their beliefs,” he said. “The brain lights up in different ways about emotional issues than it does logical issues, and these are almost always emotional, not logical.”
“We’ve forgotten about the golden rule,” Cravens said. “It’s a big start in learning to be empathetic to one another again, learning to listen to one another and not making blanket statements about how being with one political affiliation over another means something about your personality or your morals.”
“Remember you’re part of a team,” Whiting added. “This is all our country. On some level we all want roughly the same things. Focus on that instead of rubbing it in someone’s face.”
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