Deyna Hardison did her best to stay above the fray as feuds erupted online. She did her best to ignore disagreements until a close friend posted about Philadelphia Eagles players kneeling during the National Anthem: “Come on Eagles, don’t be stupid like Kaepernick.”
“I don’t know why it struck me that day, but I asked, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Why are you calling them stupid?’” says Hardison. What started as a question for her friend, turned into a nasty back and forth argument thread with comments, name-calling and vitriol involving several people.
“We can disagree, but when it got nasty, I found myself just really upset with people,” she says. Hardison utilized the ‘unfollow’ feature and isn’t even sure if they are still Facebook friends.
She’s not alone. Though Facebook does not keep official statistics of ‘unfriending’ or ‘hiding,’ there is allegorical evidence to suggest that there was a swath of online friendships ‘lost’ because of the election.
Now that the election has passed, the question becomes, how did we let things get so out of control, and how do we begin healing those wounds?
According to UNC Professor of Media and Technology Studies, Michael Palm, part of the solution comes in simply acknowledging the unique nuances of online communication, and Facebook specifically.
Accountability and anonymity are both factors that can make people behave more boldly online. But even an increased emboldening doesn’t seem to account for the polarity that many feel even beyond their screens. “There have always been deal-breakers and irreconcilable differences; what makes being online seem to increase their prevalence?” Palm asks.
The answer could be as simple as this: knowledge. “We are more privy to people’s politics. I might have a drinking buddy or someone I play soccer with whose politics I disagree with, but I’d never know. When we become friends on Facebook, more opinions are exposed,” he says.
Meredith College Department Head of Psychology Cynthia Edwards adds that our natural human tendencies further the problem. “There is good evidence that we’re born with a preference for people that we perceive to be like us,” she says.
With Facebook, the data and information that we have access to is heightened. Between confirmation bias and a natural preference for people we perceive to be like us, it is natural to filter our feeds to agree with our perspective.
However, Edwards argues that our innate tendencies have become corrupted: “When it comes to belief systems, politics and critical thinking, we’re going to gravitate toward information that is confirmatory; then it becomes maladaptive, and that is what social media has done for us.”
Edwards notes that allowing ourselves to give in too much to this instinct could lead to a distorted sense of reality, allowing us to believe a disproportionate number of people believe as we do. Creating these echo chambers make people who disagree seem almost ‘fringe.’
Understanding this complexity and seeing our place in it is half the battle in repairing online friendships. “Acknowledge it and say, ‘We were both angry in this election’ or ‘We both struggled, but there was a relationship here that we valued; can we find a way to reclaim that,’” says Edwards, adding that you should have this conversation in person.
Palm agrees: “If there’s a geographically distant friendship that needs maintenance, I’d recommend Skype, or email or even a letter, something that can be done private as opposed to a Facebook thread where people are egging you on or watching.”
“If I lived near her, I would’ve invited her out for coffee,” Hardison says of her now ‘blocked’ friend. In person, Hardison could’ve asked the questions that her friend’s post raised in her heart—“Do you think that my life doesn’t matter? Is it OK for police to shoot someone that looks like my husband?”—and talk through their differences.
In the online world of character counting and name-calling, those are the questions, the ones that account for people’s feelings that are often left unheard. “If I had one piece of advice to repair online friendships moving forward, we have to start listening to each other,” Edwards says.