Last night, I unfriended two people on Facebook with whom I have shared many interesting, but mostly frustrating exchanges. I’m not really sure what happens when you ‘unfriend’ someone or whether they find out about it at all. If I’ve caused offence I apologise. But to have trolls, activists-on-a-mission and people with whom you disagree profoundly about almost everything that you post, immediately removed from that virtual bubble in which we subsist on Facebook, is really liberating.
The first reason why is that they’re not ‘friends’ in any meaningful way to begin with. They’re more like digital radio – far too many to choose from when you can only meaningfully listen to one at a time. I remind myself now and then that most of the 400 or so ‘friends’ I have on Facebook wouldn’t recognise me in the street. And in truth, I’d be delighted to have a coffee with almost anyone I’ve ever unfriended. I suspect that we’d either like or dislike each other in a much more authentic way. A real friendship takes time to mature. We learn whether the foibles of our new friends are really irrelevant to what makes them worthy of our respect and affection, or whether they are make-or-break differences of character or opinion. Facebook may be a lubricant for friendship but it’s not the real thing.
So what happens when we disagree? Well I take disagreement, debate and objections really seriously. I’m willing to take on board the views of others and I love the way (notwithstanding my digital radio metaphor) really interesting conversations can happen on social media with many participants so spontaneously about either general or specific topics of interest. It’s immediate and entertaining, in a way that no other medium is. The possibilities for social activism and political organisation are endless, and almost effortless in comparison to the pre-social media slog of organising and promoting anything. Facebook along with other social media undoubtedly deserves status as a new type of civic space. But it’s not truly public, or necessarily democratic, no matter how many hundreds of friends you have. It’s only going to be a partial, fragmented and isolated conversation dominated by the loudest or the funniest, the most popular or the most outrageous voices. Facebook is where we get an illusory taste of celebrity existence: people can ‘follow’ us, ‘like’ us and even ‘love’ us with a pinging palate of emojis, notifications and shares. We basically get to star in our own show (as we do when we blog too).
Much of the stuff I post is because it’s of interest to me. I treat Facebook as a kind of archive of interesting titbits, much like the way people in the olden days used to keep scrapbooks. Usually I’m not that pushed about this piece or that, but my own views are left-liberal, green and feminist. That should come as no surprise to my friends, but my ‘friends’ have viewed some of my posts as missiles fired directly into the innocent lap of Vladimir Putin or the heroic vanguard of the 99% fighting the global elites. People are of course entitled to their views, but that doesn’t mean some statements aren’t off the point, rubbish or wrong – in part, or in whole.
On Facebook though, I often find the reasoning behind some of these objections has the same structural texture as mashed bananas. And that’s because implicit in this kind of argumentation is a rejection of the very idea of deliberative reasoning. Sometimes there is no argument, just ad hominems hurled into virtual space. Sometimes, history, politics and social theory get simplified into pithy retorts that are catchy and emotionally convenient, so the ascent of populism should be no surprise. It’s what populist politics masks that really troubles me. On a political level, the fragmentation and the destruction of of the Left, and the swing to a resurgent Left-wing nationalism is unlikely to bring about parties capable of governing this country competently. And yes, that matters to me (and I think it should to you too).
I predict Facebook will be the channel of choice for voices and interests whose political modus operandi includes fostering disagreement, as well as sowing confusion, falsehoods and propaganda among the masses that we might tear down the EU or the capitalist West/ North, including ‘establishment parties’ of the left, centre and right (oh wait…. that includes just about everybody doesn’t it?). As a civic space, Facebook is entirely chaotic. There is no arbiter of the truth, no editor-in-chief, no research or investigation offered to separate fake from real, or real from robot. There is no-one to moderate our conversation, which is the hallmark of any good political debate. I’m sure I’m guilty myself of contributing to this babble, but I’m willing to admit that I’ve learned something about myself and the medium in the process.
Maybe we should think about finding ways to talk about politics that are respectful, and that do not collapse into marketing or propaganda. In the old days, that meant face-to-face communication and something called ‘standing orders’ in meetings. These practices evolved for good reason within political debating groups and parties: we need to tame our instincts to decimate our opponents and learn to stick to basic rules of debate. Disagreement and debate are essential to the experience and practice of political life. It is what shapes our ideas into something defensible and ultimately communicable to a wider audience. Without it, we will imagine that we are more or less powerful than we really are.
So if you disagree with me, please be specific about whether you object to: my political ideals, or the most workable strategy or the degree of realism that is appropriate in this context. But if you feel like retching, go retch on your own Facebook page please.