Yes, this is a Facebook specific post because each online platform has its own distinct culture, and my experiences on Facebook are unique compared with other forums.
Want to stay connected and share moments with friends but not get overwhelmed when controversy shows up?
Facebook is the space where our connections are based on friendships, whereas other platforms can be more relationally removed and driven by subject—you follow accounts that feature your interests or inspirations, whether food, travel, world issues, self-improvement, etc. The average person on facebook (the exceptions being celebrities and business owners) interacts with a wide variety of people with whom they've spent time—former classmates, extended family, co-workers, people in your community, people from your former community. These dynamics create a unique online experience, which is what keeps people coming back for more, but also what can turn people off in an instance.
Some things to keep in mind in this unique Facebook setting regarding controversial conversations:
1. These online conversations do matter, and they actually can persuade people’s opinions. Research shows that this is esp. true for anyone under the age of 35 and in increasing measure, so sharing thoughtful opinions or knowledge can benefit someone who is earnestly open to learning more on a topic.
2. Online posts can also be a poison. Quick-tempered and/or not well-sourced data not only fuels division, but also spreads false information more rapidly than ever before.
3. Conversations are one of the most fruitful aspects of our humanity, BUT the Facebook forum rarely (I won’t say never, because I have seen it done, but oh, so rarely) has the qualities of a beneficial conversation. By nature, controversial topics are filled with complexities that can’t be reduced to memes. When having a real-space conversation a with a friend (not a jerk at the water cooler, but an actual friend), you usually have some idea of where the other person is coming from, and if you don’t understand how they could hold a certain viewpoint, you do hold onto the things that you admire about them, which allows you to give your friend the benefit of the doubt regarding his/her intentions. This allows you (and your friend too) to consider each other’s positions and to maybe ask a question or two, which you do with care as you try to preserve the relationship. If at the end of the conversation you don’t agree, you both have profited from realizing that another decent human being can in fact hold an opinion in opposition with yours. But on Facebook, the “conversations” aren’t just between you and your friend. They’re between you, your friend, and all the other friends that either of you share. You don’t know from where each person is coming, and since there is less relational collateral, the benefit of the doubt is replaced with stereotypes and assumptions. Arguments ensue, not in real space, but in virtual space, which leaves you mad at people you’ve never met, or mad at your real life friend who is disagreeing with you on a public platform. An argument on a Facebook comment thread is equivalent to someone stating their reply into a microphone at an assembly. It brings the private conversation public and usually trades benefit for injury.
4. Some people recognize this dynamic of online conversations, and because of such, choose to not participate in discussing controversial topics online. Their lack of participation—an act of wisdom in their mind—is sometimes interpreted by the online community as apathy to the current conditions. “You post a pic of your vacay, and you have an opinion about Chick-fil-a’s new BBQ sauce, but about the things that matter, you don’t care,” they conclude. Some people even condemn this lack of participation as part of the problem, arguing, “We need mature voices in this conversation. People should participate and demonstrate care for the current situations in the world.” The fact is that some of them may be showing care in their real spaces, leaving little time or energy to engage digitally, while some may not. Some people actively respond to the world’s needs, and some try to muffle the cries while planning their next vacation. Assumption as to which person your Facebook friend is won’t benefit anyone, but it can definitely upset the assumer.
So what to do? How do we engage in this digital age?
1. Consider.We can think about the views of our friends. We can treat them in online forums the same as we would in real-space. We can ask questions that aid in our understanding and/or help them to think more deeply about a topic. We can read articles that are written by well-sourced sites. We can also consider our words before we share them. “Why am I about to hit the share button?” What’s my posture--Is it to persuade, to educate, to “stick it to” the other side? Am I considering my friends as more important than myself? Am I considering my identity to be wrapped up in my opinions and therefore I must share?
2. Hone your expertise.
We’re all experts at something, but no one is an expert at everything. There’s a hierarchy of authority when it comes to opinions. For an opinion to be given as advice, it should be rooted in knowledge, have understanding that comes from experience, and have the intentionality of carefully chosen words. Becoming an expert takes time. Perhaps the controversial conversations online inspire you to make yourself an expert in a certain field. Do it! Find the sources and experiences, and get to learning! Explore your passions. If you’re not willing or able to work your way through this process, your opinion still matters, but it’s not a fully developed opinion just yet, so it’s probably best to process those opinions through journaling or in small conversations with trusted friends rather than deeming yourself an expert and suggesting all others align with your opinion.
An online environment can force its urgency on us. “I must respond now!...I must share now!...I must reply to this ignorant comment because it can’t be tolerated for one second!” If something is true now, it’ll be true in 15 minutes. While the windows of opportunity are sometimes short, everyone can afford a moment to pause. Give yourself a few minutes. Then see if you can wait an hour. What about tomorrow? Sometimes at the start of a fresh day, you don’t feel as strongly about something—that’s an indication that it’s not really a passion but just a fleeting thought. Or perhaps the passion grows—this is a time to lean in. Pauses help us sort our thoughts and know when and how to act.
4. Be brave.Are you holding back because of fear? Insecure of how your message will be received or of your reputation? You are wise to not stir up controversy, but you’re also wise to speak the truth in a loving way. Is there something on your heart to share? (Has it been there for more than a day?) Does it keep tugging at you? Give that nudge the attention it deserves. Working out your thoughts not only brings clarity but gives the added benefit of reducing stress and anxiety. Once your thoughts are organized, consider if they could benefit others. Your words could be exactly what someone else needs in that moment!
5. Be a friend.
Encourage. Affirm. See people beyond their positions. Don’t assume the worst. Reach out—invite for coffee. Respect the friends of your friends--don’t argue with someone you don’t know (really, just don't). Let your friends handle their argumentative friends first. Follow their lead because they know the background and sensitivities of their own friends. Occasionally you may feel the need to defend a friend in a public sphere—that might be good and necessary or it might not. You can discern those case by case and if uncertain, send your friend a private message and ask how the current argument is affecting them and if they’d like another voice in the conversation or not. Regard relationship as a higher priority than opinions.
Some people "digital detox" and remove themselves from the forum altogether. This is certainly an option. But if you want to stay engaged in this modern medium of communication, you can maintain your friendships (and your sanity) by choosing intentionality. Blessings to all of my Facebook friends and other friends near and far!