In between the photos of cute animals and the quotes from dead white guys, Facebook has become a blood sport — an environment in which people attack one another with a lack of civility I haven’t seen since the Internet flame wars of the 1990s.
Facebook, which is used by two-thirds of those online, essentially has replaced the mainstream media as what is known as the “public sphere” — a place where people of differing economic and political status can come together to discuss and argue about ideas of common concern.
What has happened, however, is that Facebook has hardened the lines over ideas and philosophies rather than providing a forum of free-flowing discussion aimed at coming to a consensus, or at least an understanding of others’ points of views. Facebook may be reflecting the division of the country into red and blue spheres, but it seems as though the social network has only widened the anti-social fissures.
Many people see Facebook as a means to keep up with friends and family, but it has become more than that. Political emails and other information targeted at individuals have become important. But a survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found only 25 percent of social network users agreed all of the time or most of the time with their “friends.” The survey of more than 2,000 people found 73 percent of those on social networks only sometimes agreed or disagreed with their “friends.” See the full report at bit.ly/xtkD3I.
I lost more than a few “friends” on Facebook when I supported Mitt Romney for president and pointed out what I considered the failures of the Obama administration on issues ranging from Benghazi to health care. The name-calling from my Facebook “friends” became vicious, including one former colleague calling me as dumb as a boulder.
Few people openly agreed with my posts — an example of what is known in communications theory as the “spiral of silence” — despite the fact that 47 percent of the vote went for Mr. Romney compared to 52 percent for President Obama. Simply put, those who think their views may be in the minority tend to stay silent rather than state their views publicly.
My most recent experience occurred on a Facebook group of former television news employees. One member posted a blog he had written in which he argued that officials from the Bush administration should be tried as war criminals.
I disagreed, and the onslaught began. I spent nearly a decade as a reporter for Newsweek and ABC News in the Middle East, including trips to Iraq. Most of those who criticized my views received their information from the mainstream media without any time in Iraq. That’s not to say people cannot have viewpoints, but the dismissive nature toward my time in the country was troublesome.
One Facebook “friend” compared me to Adolf Hitler for my position that I thought Iraq was better off without Saddam Hussein. I was called a fool, a journalistic interloper and a narcissist. That’s usually the way it goes: attack the poster rather than the post. I did have one colleague who liked my posts and several who defended my right to say what I did.
“Parrhesia” — speaking the truth fearlessly for the common good — served as the ideal in ancient Greece, even in the face of personal risk. Facebook users need to take this ideal to heart and listen to the views of others even though they may disagree. We might regain a public sphere with far less divisiveness and vitriol, focused on dialogue rather than parallel streams of political thought that never intersect.
• Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.