Apparently we are all busy fleeing from, unsubscribing from or de-friending people who espouse differing political opinions on the social media sites that we frequent. Or so says Howard Kurtz, writing in The Daily Beast in an article entitled “Unfriending Over Politics”:
“According to a fascinating survey by the Pew Internet Project, 9 percent of those who frequent social networking sites have blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because they posed something about politics or issues that the user disagreed with or found offensive.”
I find this interesting because it doesn’t chime with my personal experience at all. While I will never know how many people have spat out their morning coffee and hurriedly de-friended me after reading one of my rants on Facebook, I do know that I have never even thought of doing this to anyone else. Well, with one disclaimer – I once defriended someone after she posted a comment in which she eagerly anticipated the death of Margaret Thatcher, a callous thing to say but really only the straw that broke the camels back in terms of that particular connection.
Perhaps I am the exception to the rule, but I rather like hearing contrary opinions expressed on Twitter and Facebook. I like dissenting and hearing other people disagree with me. Sometimes it makes me change my mind, and other times it makes my own arguments stronger. Life would be so dull if we lived in a world where everything that you posted was automatically “liked” by everyone else, with no dissent or discussion. But apparently this is the world that a lot of people are slowly moving towards.
Of course, we have observed this phenomenon for some time in terms of the traditional media, the newspapers and television news. With ever more options at our disposal it has never been more easy to gather one’s news from friendly sources and voices with whom one shares the same biases, prejudices and political leanings. I am guilty of this to some extent myself. As the US Republican Party has drifted ever further to the reactionary right over the course of the Obama presidency, I have found my television news habits shifting from a blend of CNN, Fox and MSNBC to the significant exclusion of Fox News and a slight decline in MSNBC viewing, compensated for by a large reluctant increase in CNN. And in terms of UK politics, when The Times Online went behind a paywall, my first instinct was to gravitate to The Daily Telegraph as a natural substitute, over The Guardian or The Independent.
However, I try to always remain very aware of the political biases of the news sources that I consume, and to compensate for them by reading or watching alternative outlets too. This is really important if we are to avoid buying in to the two-dimensional caricatures of our political adversaries that the television talking heads often perpetrate. Most Republicans are not racist, backward people harbouring a cultural resentment against President Obama and interested only in their own economic wellbeing, and most Democrats are not union-beholden thugs committed to subverting America and establishing a socialist economic model in the United States.
But at times you could be forgiven for holding one of these opinions, given the poisonous rhetoric and lack of balance that exists almost everywhere now. Take CNN for example, the only major cable news network that makes an honest effort to tow a middle-line and avoid political bias in its coverage – they are consistently beaten in the ratings by FOX and MSNBC, each of whom have carved out a lucrative niche catering to and reinforcing the preexisting leanings of their viewers.
Should we go back to the old days, when the trusty voice of Walter Cronkite or the generic BBC News announcer was the sole source of information and the undisputed truth? Surely not – though it is hard to see that movements like the “birtherism” movement in the US, questioning President Obama’s citizenship, would have prospered were it not for a television news network ready and willing give such radical voices succour and airtime.
Surely we would all do well to take time to watch and read the news from alternative perspectives sometimes – and not just to laugh at the crazy stupid liberals/conservatives, but really to watch and see the world from another perspective. We don’t have to change our minds, but we can change our tone and improve the level of public discourse in our respective countries.