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How social media stands to heal political divides - if only we'd let it

Posted December 9, 2016

For activist and grass-roots organizer Joan Blades, there’s one main ingredient missing from political dialogue in the wake of the 2016 election: Kindness.

“I’m sad that we have such a divisive political situation now that it’s hurting people’s relationships,” Blades said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Many people know Blades as the co-founder of political advocacy group MoveOn.org, but these days she heads Living Room Conversations, an advocacy group that helps to organize exchanges between small groups of people with different political backgrounds to foster meaningful exchanges and understanding.

In the wake of the 2016 election results that surprised many Americans, Blades expects to be very busy in the new year.

“What I’m seeing right now is a desire, especially in faith communities, to heal relationships. The directive to love thy neighbor is deep in all faiths,” Blades said. “I hope next year will see dramatic expansion for us because cutting people off is not a way to have a healthy democracy or community.”

There’s no question that America is politically divided geographically and ideologically — any electoral map from the 2016 election can illustrate that. But since founding Living Room Conversations in 2010, Blades said she’s experienced the divides between people becoming more pronounced — for some reason, Americans seem to adopt a stronger “us vs. them” attitude each year. Part of that is natural, Blades concedes, but she argues that finding common ground has changed as people interact more on social media.

“It’s natural that you get to know people who are more like you. It’s not devious, it’s just how human beings work, especially in times of discomfort,” Blades said. “But it’s wild how differently people are relating than they did 10 years ago. Text (as used online and on digital devices) changes the way people communicate.”

In theory, social media should be the perfect tool to unite Americans divided by political or ideological differences or surrounded geographically by similar-minded people because, as George Washington University assistant professor of media and public affairs Nikki Usher said, “there is no geography online.”

Experts suggest that Americans are ideologically divided these days in part because of a social media environment that promotes divisions. Many people think of social media as a place where differences are exacerbated rather than assuaged, which is why activists like Blades are working to get political conversations offline and into communities and private homes rather than through digital outreach via Facebook or Twitter.

“The basic problem is that we haven’t figured out a way to talk to each other well online. There’s this potential for great unifying around a problem, like Black Lives Matter, but it only takes you so far,” Usher said. “The internet doesn’t allow you to actually see and understand a place like rural Appalachia. You have to actually go there to appreciate what they’re facing.”

But some are optimistic that social media could become a tool for ideological unification over the next four years — if only Americans will learn to use it that way.

“This is a question I’m grappling with. How do we build a community across all these dividing lines?” said nonprofit consultant and former Living Room Conversations organizer Elisa Batista. “I think social media is going to play a key in that, but we’re still figuring out how. We have to stop thinking about this being a debate, because it’s about being a human being.”

Isolating ‘individualization’

So why is social media seen as a source of division rather than healing?

One reason may be that social media inadvertently isolates users — the more social interaction happens online, the more people tend to only interact with people in their online social circles. University of Oregon journalism professor Seth Lewis said that as American social interaction has migrated to social media and texting, we’ve sacrificed time spent in what he calls “third spaces” — like churches, coffee shops or other gathering places where people could meet and mix with people outside their usual social circle.

“There’s a displacement effect of the media that’s going to exacerbate these problems and contribute to the conditions of being separate from one another,” Lewis said. “What is different today is that some of the mechanisms that might have brought people of different socioeconomic standing into contact with one another are fading. Churches, for example, were a crucible of differences and places where people might interact.”

In his 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” political scientist Robert Putnam called this theory technological individualization. The idea is that media and technology like television and the internet take away from time spent in the broader community that offer people a feeling of connectedness to others — like church activities, civic organizations or, as the title suggests, bowling leagues.

(Interestingly, Putnam’s book even extrapolated his individualization theory beyond household internet and television to include the then-distant possibility of what he called “virtual reality helmets” — now a groundbreaking and widely available form of entertainment.)

The isolation of social media doesn’t end with who users interact with, but what facts they absorb as well. Because social media is so individualized based on a user’s likes, two users of different political opinions may be exposed to different news items — many of which may be completely fabricated.

“One of the most difficult things is facts are now partisan. Nothing is truly factual anymore, and that makes it difficult,” Usher said.

The so-called “fake news” problem where Facebook’s algorithm promotes false, partisan propaganda masquerading as legitimate journalism came to the fore in the 2016 election, but experts say it has major implications for America’s political disagreements. The preponderance of fake news on social media — where an estimated 44 percent of Americans get their news and information, according to Pew Research Center — leads to basic confusion of fact vs. fiction that makes agreeing on anything difficult.

“As a result (of fake news), we are all living in different realities,” Batista said.

Columbia Journalism School research scholar Jonathan Stray suggests the way to overcome that confusion is to follow true news outlets that users may disagree with, but are generally factual, to get an idea of how the other side approaches the same issues covered elsewhere, rather than writing such publications off as biased or simply wrong.

“It’s about building a shared reality,” Stray said. “You don’t do that by just denying the reality that you disagree with.”

Normalization vs. humanization

Some experts worry that in the wake of a volatile election, political divisions in America will get worse, particularly as people continue to debate online.

Arguing about politics online may lead to what Pew Research Center calls the “Spiral of Silence,” where people tend to shy away from discussing their views on important issues if they feel their perspective isn’t welcome, an outcome that serves no one.

Just weeks away from Trump's inauguration, unity seems like a loft goal. Many of President-elect Donald Trump’s opponents have expressed concern that even considering that Trump might be a good president or reaching out to his supporters in any way is to espouse rhetoric they find immoral or repulsive.

“They fear that (Trump’s) personal insults, his disregard for the truth, his angry impulsiveness, and his extraordinary ignorance will simply become part of the fabric of American political life,” the National Review asserted.

But experts say there are some simple ways to relate to people of different political views without excusing activities they cannot abide using social media. It could start as simply as not muting or un-friending someone on social media who has different beliefs.

“You can provide ideological diversity by being patient with people you disagree with and not auto blocking or defriending them,” Usher said. “It’s really important to be aware how all the people you know think — that they’re not just these ‘other people,’ they’re people you know.”

Next, set aside the idea of “winning” a debate with someone you disagree with online and instead try to focus on having a healthy dialogue. That goal alone is significant, Stray said.

“Each side has their principles they’re fighting for and you can engage to win or to have a better argument. That’s the hardest thing,” Stray said. “If you’re trying to win, that’s a losing battle. You don’t have to agree. You just have to find a way to coexist.”

Lewis pointed to the LARA Method as an effective way to approach communicating with people you differ with. An acronym for listen, affirm, respond and add, conflict-resolution experts use it to improve communication in all sorts of situations. If that doesn’t work, it’s also OK to step away, Lewis said.

“The tendency on Facebook is to just unload or act hastily, and part of it is to take a step back and think calmly about what your message means to different imagined audiences,” Lewis said. “Just think about, what is my purpose in this space?”

It all starts with listening, Blades says, so that everyone can start seeing the people behind the politics.

“Listening is so powerful, because when I care about you and you care about me, we listen differently,” Blades said. “It’s all about opening hearts and finding that human connection. Once you understand someone else’s deeper values, you might find you share some.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

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