Politics & Policy

Facebook Doesn’t Have to Be a ‘Safe Space’

(Dolphfyn/Dreamstime)
Don’t let its algorithms deprive you of different political viewpoints.

Last week I spent my Wednesday night as I usually do — lurking on Facebook to stalk ex-boyfriends and delight in how my high school’s mean girls are horrifically aging — when I noticed that an old friend had defriended me.

My heart dropped. Ours had long been a genuine friendship, built on raucous laughs and countless memories from the halcyon teenage years.

I didn’t take it well.

I messaged her to ask what had happened, and her response was fast in coming. After months of watching me report on the immigration crisis in southern Texas — a focus of my journalism in 2014 — enough was enough. She couldn’t bear to read another line of the “offensive, disgusting” news from the border. In her words, “Republican filth.”

I spent the last few years writing on border issues as a reporter, not an opinion writer. I was just calling them like I saw them. And for any journalist in Texas reporting on the border in 2014, nuance was in short supply. Thousands of migrants were flooding over a porous border daily and taking advantage of a diminished national readiness. All you had to do was park your car on high ground and watch it happen. The only “agenda” you could have there as a reporter was to pretend that that a crisis wasn’t happening. Which some did.

Deleting a friend on Facebook for reporting uncomfortable political information seems extreme. Yet it’s also extremely common. This wasn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that I’ve been defriended on account of politics. Chances are that it’s happened to you too. Now the issue turns to that all-important question: What is going on?

According to a study from a researcher at the University of Colorado, religion and politics are the two most common reasons people delete their friends on Facebook. It turns out that we’re even more likely to delete our closest friends than our casual acquaintances.

The Pew Research Center revealed in another study that roughly 45 percent of “consistent liberals” have defriended or blocked a Facebook friend because they disagreed with his or her politics, while only 31 percent of “consistent conservatives” have done the same to their liberal friends. But conservatives aren’t off the hook: Consistent conservatives are more likely than liberals to see political views similar to their own on Facebook.

Add to the selectiveness of individuals the power of Facebook’s behind-the-scenes algorithms that figure out what kinds of posts you like. If you consistently hit the “like” button on liberal posts, those kinds of posts will appear in your Facebook news feed more often. Ditto for clicking “like” on conservative posts.

Our Facebook accounts have become echo chambers where we hear only what we’re most comfortable hearing. Don’t like hearing facts about the U.S.–Mexican border? Just click “defriend.” You hardly needed a million-dollar study from the Pew Research Foundation to know that. Especially if you’re a liberal.

Millennials have embraced ‘safe spaces,’ the idea that they should be shielded from anything that they disagree with or that might make them feel — God forbid — uncomfortable.

The echo-chamber phenomenon would be less troubling if Facebook weren’t the biggest political-news source for millennials. The social-media network has made us more politically plugged-in than ever, but it’s also closing us off from new ideas, opposing viewpoints, and uncomfortable truths in ways we are just beginning to understand.

Millennials have embraced “safe spaces” during recent years, the idea being that they should be shielded from anything that they disagree with or that might make them feel — God forbid — uncomfortable. Young people are claiming emotional trauma after being exposed to ideas that conflict with their own. In other words, it’s apparently just a short step from banning Halloween costumes at Yale to blocking news about illegal immigration from your Facebook newsfeed.

So here’s the point: Don’t do it.

You may have an urge to banish from your hallowed Facebook page of greatness that former high-school comrade who’s now forwarding Bernie memes. Or it may be tempting to defriend your flag-waving tea-party uncle in Iowa. (He looked ridiculous in that Revolutionary War costume anyway.)

But just don’t do it. Robust debate is healthy. Tolerance for reasonable opposing views is essential to a functioning democracy. It seems that the fundamental concepts we know so well are systematically eluding us the moment we log on to social media.

So come on girls, will you take me back on Facebook?

I promise to cut down my reporting on illegal immigration to 41 posts per week.

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