November 6, 2012

When You Grandstand My Newsfeed

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For someone who generally writes about politics, running a column the day following Election Day is a bit awkward. When I write my column, I’ll have no idea who is going to win any election. When you read my column, you’ll have a pretty good idea who is going to win most of them — including the presidency, and the senatorship and basically anything else that matters. So, how do I champion this day? How can I, like an impending presidential victor, capture your hearts and minds?Definitely not by posting a Facebook status about it.Something I and all of you have probably noticed and hated in the past couple of years is the notable uptick in political postings on social media sites. When I was on Myspace in eighth grade, I was concerned with getting the most posts out of anyone on my Top 8. Today on a whole platform of different social media sites that I subscribe to (sorry, Myspace,) I’m concerned with avoiding a tsunami of political tweets, retweets, tags and — of course — the omnipresent status update.These posts — “GObama!” “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” (Thanks, Coach Taylor) — generate an equal number of the obligatory, oh-so-counter-cultural, complaint posts: “if 1 more of my friends posts about obama, im moving to canada,” “can facebook ban political statuses?!!!!!!!” I’ll be honest; the jig is up. The anti-political status joke has been made — many, many times. But still, people post them, accounting for much of the politically-related activity that clogs up my feed, multiplying the problem.The number of Facebook “likes” that these complaint posts on my newsfeed get usually vastly outweighs the number of likes on sincere political posts. I’m left to conclude that many people, like myself, feel irritated when, around election time, our news and Twitter feeds explode with a sudden collection of opinions we never even knew our friends had.Complaints about the pervasive and widespread presence of political Internet activity is backed up by the numbers. Sixty-six percent of social media users read or post political content. As of noon on Tuesday, 22 percent of registered voters had announced their vote over a social media platform. It’s safe to say that among friend groups and Twitter followers of university students and graduates like us, the percentage is even higher than that of the general population.That’s not to say that all that online political activity is based on academic proof. A great deal of it is “shared” or “liked;” people reinforcing opinions stated by others regardless of the facts. Additionally, the majority of political content posted on social media sites is overwhelmingly negative. I know that I’ve defriended or unfollowed people in the last couple of months after being subjected to a deluge of emotionally-charged, counterfactual posts that they cite to other people or generated after skimming the web.  What we can take away from all of this political hoopla is that many people using the Internet (and that means most of us here in the United States) are really politically informed these days — just not always by reliable and diverse sources. The wide variety of Internet functions that news outlets have developed — “recommended for you,” “most emailed,” “most viewed” — have allowed consumers to be highly selective in what news they are exposed to.Even the most basic ideological split between news options, such as that between CNN and Fox, means that your choice limits your exposure to a specific perspective. Even if facts play a role in newscasting and article-writing, they are served up to us in a platter heavily decorated with political biases. The Internet means more choices, and social media gives people an opportunity to jockey for their choices to be heard. We’re not hearing fact-based interpretations of political events — we’re hearing whichever interpretation is communicated the most.Our relaying politically-biased information via social media promotes polarization. Our accounts are virtual representations of our personalities; funniness is encouraged and jokes and political jabs are witty ways to expose sides of our preferences. But at this very moment, I’m looking at six politically-charged statuses on Facebook uploaded by friends who I know aren’t even voting. They post political content because it’s relevant to their reputations or their images or because it’s funny to their friends. This, in turn, makes other people mad and the split between political views gets even wider.  This online political activity, however damaging to real, fact-based opinions, is here to stay. We won’t get sick of talking, joking and promoting misinformation because we think it’s true or because it’s funny. The best thing to do is to accept this reality and not defriend or unfollow other online relationships because someone’s posts are far from our personal opinions.Posting one of the complaint posts that I mentioned above only dismisses peers for taking an interest in politics, something we should promote even if much of that exchange is polarized or misinformed. Posting genuine responses that point out an absence of fact-based information might seem cheesy or lame, but only because of those complaint posts that mock people for being politically active. Social media sites provide an awesome opportunity to expose ourselves to a diversity of opinions. Join me in sucking it up, letting other people say their piece and getting what value we can from Internet grandstanding.

Maggie Henry is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry