Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Do conservatives and liberals behave differently in social media? Yes.

Originally published in my award-winning hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

A recent Pew Research Center study showed that 44 percent of liberals have blocked or unfriended someone on social media for political reasons, compared to 31 percent of conservatives. Some folks are heralding the study as proof that liberals are intolerant. But that interpretation misses an obvious point: Conservatives deserve to be unfriended far more often than liberals do.

I’m very active in social media, particularly Facebook, where I’ve seen plenty of rudeness and incivility from both conservatives and liberals. Online discussions too often resemble the basement of an outhouse. 

But I’ve noticed a distinct difference between conservative and liberal incivility. When conservatives are intolerant, they’re also usually wrong on the facts. When liberals get rude, it’s usually in reaction to conservative ignorance and incivility. 

I administer a Facebook page named for one of my books, Tales of a Real American Liberal, a collection of personal essays on political and social topics. Like the book, the Facebook page connects my personal experiences with politics and current events, always supported by facts rather than unfounded speculation. Naturally, the page attracts a fair number of contrarian conservative comments. 

Occasionally, these conservative visitors are polite and open to civil discussion. Far more often, unfortunately, the conservative side of the conversation is represented by people who drop in with hit-and-run insults, profanity, copy-and-paste misinformation from right-wing websites and accusations that I’m a baby killer who hates God and America.

I have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior, so I begin every discussion with this disclaimer: “Please keep the comments civil and on topic. Disagreement and humor are fine, but anyone who just wants to hijack the discussion with ignorance, insults, or debunked misinformation will be satirized, deleted, and banned — so please don’t waste everybody’s time. Thanks.” 

I can’t really use such a disclaimer on my personal Facebook account where I’ve sometimes unfriended and been unfriended — almost always for political reasons. A few examples from my own personal social media experience can be illuminating on the subject of political incivility and intolerance.  

I unfriended one guy I know from the gym after he claimed that the Sandy Hook mass shooting was a “false flag” staged by “Odumbo” to stir anti-gun feelings. Before unfriending him, I replied firmly but politely with references to several online debunkings of his theory. His ranting, paranoid reply ended by calling me another one of “Obalmer’s sheeple.” Was I intolerant for unfriending someone who insists that the murder of children was faked? 

Another unfriending occurred when a former coworker posted a link to a Fox News article with the headline “Obamacare Price Hikes Hit Red States Hardest.” Here’s her comment about the article, verbatim: “Obummers death panels are just for real americans in red states. Lets impeech this kenyen basterd before he kills us all!!!” When I pointed out the obvious fact that Republican elected officials in those red states had sabotaged the law’s benefits, she immediately called me a “libtard.” It’s a shame that’s not a real word because it’s one of the few she spelled correctly. Was I intolerant for unfriending someone so rude? 

A third unfriending happened when a high school classmate posted a completely false claim that President Obama’s first-term stimulus program had created more jobs in China than in the United States. I sent him several sources showing that economists said the stimulus led to millions of American jobs and saved us from another Great Depression. He replied that he always knew I was a “commie homo.” Was I intolerant for unfriending someone who told me I should move to China where I belonged? 

A typical case where I was unfriended happened when an acquaintance posted an unflattering photo of Michelle Obama with claims that the First Lady was born a man. I immediately commented that this claim was misogynist, immature and intolerant. Strong words, yes, but was I being intolerant for pointing out his gross intolerance? 

One college classmate objected to my posts praising Connecticut’s recently expanded gun-safety laws. He sent this message before unfriending me: “Maybe you shouldn’t flaunt your gun-grabbing BS to someone who owns as many guns as I do and can find out where you live.” Was I intolerant for not wanting to be the target of his implied threats of violence? 

I was once even unfriended over the course of a full year. A college classmate posted misinformation several times each day, flooding his Facebook page with obviously false claims from right-wing websites. I painstakingly and politely explained the countervailing facts and provided nonpartisan references as often as I could. He rarely responded to my comments, and when he did, he usually threatened to block me. One day, out of the blue, he sent me a message that he was unfriending me for harassing him and being “a closed-minded liberal.”

Ironically, “open-minded” is one of the primary definitions of the word “liberal.” I’ve actually studied conservative claims and policies with a fully open mind. That’s how I’ve discovered that they’re often fact-free, ineffective, beneficial mainly to the wealthy and powerful and counter to the best of American values, traditions and history. 

If I had studied conservative claims and policies with a closed, intolerant mind, I probably would have liked them more. 


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