By Grant Collins
Posting about politics on social media is a step into the boxing ring. Regardless if you are the creator, you’ve probably observed the unfortunate outcome all too common in today’s polarized political arena. Friends, family, and complete strangers take off the gloves for a fight, and rarely is the outcome pretty, let alone productive. So what is it about social media that transforms normal people into raging, gloveless keyboard fighters, and can we do anything about it?
If you take a few steps back it’s fairly intuitive to see why social media has become the equivalent of a street fight arena for politics. Short text dialog strips out much of the context and non-verbal padding that normally keeps some resemblance of civility in other communication (FaceTime, phone calls, in person exchanges). Without such padding in place, it is far too easy, even human, to superimpose our context and emotions on top of what we are reading—which, when it comes to politics, is normally a little heated, biased, and stereotypical. Additionally, the short nature of conversations promoted on social platforms can create an even greater divide between reality and our ideological misinterpretations. Context breeds empathy, so the less we have of it, the more polarized and judgmental we can become.
With so many inherent communication obstacles in place, it can seem naive to believe that interactions on social media can ever lead to civil and productive conversation in politics (or any hot topic for that matter). I felt much the same way until I had an experience that shed some positive light on my own personal negative paradigm.
A few weeks before the 2020 presidential election, I wrote a politically themed post on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. I knew the content had potential to stir the pot because of the politically charged climate it was being introduced into, but I believed in my message; so I pushed on and posted the content. Within minutes the comments began to stream in. After a couple days of heavy engagement, I was shocked to see that nearly all the interactions had been both civil and productive. Not only that but several people reached out to me privately over DM, where wonderful exchanges regarding our differing viewpoints occurred. I was completely perplexed. What had made this experience so different from the other negative interactions I had seen on other political posts? I re-examined my original content and the associated responses, and I made four key observations.
When you treat people like humans they typically respond in kind
Without realizing quite what I was doing in the moment, I began each response to my post’s comments as if I were talking to the individual in person. In almost every case, the friend, family member, or stranger responded in kind. This created space for us to agree or disagree while still maintaining respect for the human virtually seated in front of us.
Set clear communication boundaries
At the end of my post, I included the following expectation: P.S. I look forward to the civil discussion that can take place in the comments. While I am happy to hear other opinions/points of view, I will not be responding to keyboard warriors who believe that a screen somehow gives them the right to belittle or degrade others who think or feel differently than they do. This set up a clear boundary for people to follow while interacting with me and others around the topics I presented. If needed, I could easily reestablish this later on if things got out of hand. It’s your conversation, so you can create the guardrails that promote constructive conversation and then moderate when necessary.
Acknowledge that establishing opinions is a journey NOT an endgame
Too many times during a conversation I look only from my side and don’t, as Stephen Covey suggested, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Acknowledging that I was still in the journey of discovery around the topic I was speaking about dispelled the winner-loser mentality that often fuels the competition aspect of politics. Leading with ignorance is not weakness; it's reality for everyone who doesn’t know everything (which, I would argue, is all of us).
Know when to stop
Sometimes for one reason or another people will just not be in a headspace where productive conversation can occur. It is totally okay to stop the interaction by either not responding to or respectfully transitioning away by using phrases such as, “I can see we are probably not going to agree about this, but thank you for your thoughts.”
Creating civil and constructive conversation takes both effort and intention. Let’s face it, though, things of value rarely do. While it may seem easier to interact blow for blow, what is the cost? From my perspective, it is democracy itself. Conversation between individuals of differing opinions is the foundation of America, so if we don’t create space for this in the technology we use, we are in essence taking away our own freedom.
Technology has granted us the opportunity to be the most interconnected version of humanity to this point. Instead of becoming increasingly polarized, we can promote disciplined discourse that uses our God-given energy to move the conversation forward instead of to one side or the other. So let’s be brave and be a part of the creation of an America that is truly free.
About Author: Grant is a super connector and relationship fanatic. He received his bachelor's degree in Accounting from Brigham Young University-Idaho, and he now serves as the Director of Experience and People Operations at Nimbl, a fully remote cloud accounting practice. When he’s not building the business, he’s finding ways to connect with the people around him, form trustworthy relationships, and is always ready for a game of Pickleball. Whether he’s at home, in the community, or at the office, he’s known as a true friend—someone who is willing to invest in the personal lives of others regardless of background or political affiliation.