Erika D. Smith

Bursting the social media bubble of politics, hate

Supporters of Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally in Virginia on Monday. Leading up to Election Day, Americans are divided, and Erika D. Smith sees social media as partly to blame.
Supporters of Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally in Virginia on Monday. Leading up to Election Day, Americans are divided, and Erika D. Smith sees social media as partly to blame. The Associated Press

Perhaps prematurely eyeing the office of first lady, Melania Trump, in her most poignant, nonplagiarized speech yet, talked about something that should be a national priority long after Americans leave the polls Tuesday and all of the votes are mercifully counted.

“Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough,” she declared in Pennsylvania last week. “Social media is a centerpiece of our lives, but like anything that is powerful, it can have a bad side. We have seen this already.

“We have to find a better way to talk to each other,” she continued, “to disagree with each other, to respect each other.”

The irony, of course, is that this is coming from a woman married to Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who has taken “mean” and “rough” to whole new levels on Twitter and, unfortunately, inspired others to the same.

But she’s still right.

Regardless of who comes out on top, Hillary Clinton or Melania’s husband – and, polls or no polls, I’ll be biting my nails until the results are in – soothing the harshness of our national discourse must be of the utmost importance. That goes not just for our next president, but for all of us.

As it stands now, Americans of differing backgrounds are having a difficult, if not impossible, time finding common ground, both online and offline.

There are partisan divides and cultural ones. Schisms over race and religion and socioeconomic status. It’s not just red states versus overwhelmingly blue states, including California. But blue urban islands rail against the red rural states holding them hostage. (Think Charlotte in the swing state of North Carolina.)

Facebook and Twitter, Silicon Valley companies once hailed for their utopian promise of connecting people who would otherwise be strangers and exposing them to new ideas, have largely failed at being bridges.

Instead, social media has often exacerbated the self-segregated bubbles in which so many people already live. People retreat into their own echo chambers of like-minded friends who live in like-minded neighborhoods, and defend their turf as if their lives depended on it.

That has been a recipe for divisiveness – especially since a whopping 62 percent of American adults say they get their news from social media, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s up from 49 percent in 2012.

What’s more, that news – thanks to Facebook’s profit-driven desire to sell as many ads as possible – is filtered based on algorithms, so users primarily only see the news they agree with from the news outlets they like. Think of it as a space safe you never asked for.

The Wall Street Journal demonstrates this perfectly – TRIGGER WARNING!!! – with its “Blue Feed, Red Feed” interactive tool that shows liberal and conservative Facebook news feeds, side by side.

It’s no wonder then that in another Pew survey, 81 percent of respondents said that Democrats and Republicans not only differed on policies, but also on basic facts. When the truth is up for debate and people, including a presidential candidate, can cite their own facts, the gloves come off.

Nowhere is this more true than on Twitter. With its shoddy policing of cyberbullies and the ability of users to remain anonymous and message almost anyone, the company has made it far too easy for people to be just plain mean, in 140 characters or less.

Tempting, too. Just seeing the racist, sexist commentary that has become a hallmark of Twitter this year has emboldened others and brought them out of the woodwork. How else to explain the Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who felt comfortable enough to call Hillary Clinton a “c--t” in a tweet? I don’t care if he deleted it minutes later. In what world is that acceptable?

And it’s not just the elected officials who are into cyberbullying. If you’re like me, in the past year, you’ve probably blocked at least a few childhood friends, second cousins, old co-workers or spouses of friends who you swore had better taste.

In fact, close to 40 percent of social media users have changed their settings, or blocked or unfriended someone because of something related to politics, according to Pew. And 64 percent of users said their online encounters with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum left them feeling as if they had even less in common than they originally thought.

Given all of this, some people might conclude that a simple solution would be for everyone to just quit social media. But that’s just not realistic. Like it or not, Facebook and Twitter have become as essential to many people’s lives as email – and maybe more so after the instructive postmortem of Clinton’s use of a private server.

Instead, what we can do is stop being so lazy and so judgmental, even passively, about people who are different from us. It’s certainly easy to fall into those habits because Americans have been segregating themselves for decades.

The New York Times recently reported on election data that show, in 2012, half of all voters were living in a county that President Barack Obama or then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney won by 20 percentage points or more. That divide is expected to be even wider this year.

In lieu of the kind face-to-face understanding that comes with exposure to the other side, people have filled in the gaps by relying on social media. As a result, stereotyping is rampant, even among well-meaning liberals.

I spent a decade living in a red state, moving there from a blue county in a swing state. What I learned is that, yes, there are blatant racists and sexists among conservatives. But more than that, there are people who live in bubbles. The same is true in California, where people I encounter don’t know the difference between Minneapolis and Indianapolis, and have a hard time naming even two states in the Midwest, much less explaining what makes Midwesterners tick.

If you ask them, most people actually have a very good reason for believing what they do. You might not agree with what they believe, but sweeping generalizations don’t do anybody any good. Nor does blanket arrogance about being better than those people over there – wherever “there” happens to be.

We can no longer rely on social media as our only form of communication across the ever-widening gulf of the American experience. We’re going to have to climb out from behind our smartphones and keyboards and actually talk to people again.

But executives at Facebook and Twitter need to start thinking critically about what they’re doing to our national discourse, too. The companies are now two of the biggest publishers in the world, the gateway to countless media companies that are trying to report the truth, even when it’s inconvenient. There’s an inherent responsibility that comes along with that.

If we’re truly going to have a postelection, bipartisan kumbaya, social media must be part of our national discourse, too.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith