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GOZUN: Social media silences open discussion of ideas

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It is common courtesy to avoid two topics during family reunions or Thanksgiving dinners: religion and politics. Unless one does not want to see a certain aunt or cousin next year, it is generally wise to leave the president’s job performance, the events going on in Ferguson or the midterm elections out of the conversation. In addition to the inconvenience of having to defend your point of view, a drawn out argument can ruin an otherwise festive family affair.

However, a recent study published by the Pew Research Center found that people are actually more willing to discuss hot button political issues in person, during an event such as a family dinner, rather than through a social media platform like Facebook. The study asked respondents whether they would be open to discussing a current events issue like government surveillance in various situations. Of those asked, 75 percent of respondents were “very willing” or “somewhat willing” to discuss the topic during a family dinner, while only 43 percent were willing to do so on Facebook. Respondents even said they were more open about politics in the workplace than online, with 66 percent saying they were willing to talk about the issue while on the job.

While the specific topic may have had an effect on the responses, the results are still rather surprising. It is commonly thought that people are more open about their views online than they are in person, and, to an extent, this is true. Anonymity gives internet users, many of them in the comments sections of news organizations, the ability to say whatever inflammatory opinions they may have without any fear of repercussions. For better or worse, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter do not offer their users the same privacy. Whatever a person says or even likes on Facebook is attached to his/her name and is visible to any user on Facebook, depending on privacy settings.

Society today revolves around the phenomenon of the image, both in the literal and figurative sense. Social media has made it much easier for people to control how they present themselves to their friends and the world at large. Users choose the profile pictures that are the most flattering, take selfies wherever they go to make their lives seem interesting and document their acts of charity.

In today’s hyper-polarized political atmosphere, displaying a controversial opinion is bound to illicit a negative reaction from a certain segment of the population. At best, people discover that their friends have different opinions. At worst, the perception of someone’s image can completely change. 

Speaking in-person allows for someone to defend themselves; on social media, the reader nitpicks what he or she wants to read. A single comment criticizing Israeli military operations can turn someone into an Anti-Semite, while another one expressing opposition to same-sex marriage can make a person into a homophobic bigot.

Despite breakthroughs in instant communication, the “spiral of silence” in which people discuss politics only with those who agree with them continues on today. And with the invention of social media, it is now even easier, with partisan blogs and news sites, to remain in a one-sided echo chamber without exposure to other points of view. The current rate of political polarization across the country is perhaps due to the unwillingness of people on both sides to even consider other positions. It has become customary to react in a knee-jerk fashion which prevents social media from being an effective platform for political debate and discussion.

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