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    The Promise and Pitfalls of Social Media in Today’s Political Climate

    Zoe Dunning

    Zoe Dunning

    By Zoe Dunning

    Six years ago, my friend Gary Gartner tried to persuade me to join Facebook. I had steadfastly resisted the temptation, because I was incredibly busy at the time and considered it to be a huge potential time sink. As I became more involved politically in San Francisco, I soon recognized it could be a great tool to connect with other like-minded political junkies—to discuss breaking news, find out about events, and publicize topics that are important to me. So, I joined, and have since become an active user of the platform. I use Twitter as well, but less frequently.

    An unexpected benefit has been reconnecting with folks I had lost touch with years ago. Former co-workers and classmates from graduate school, college and even high school were “suggested” to me or reached out to me directly. Some people I remembered, others I had never met, but we had friends in common on Facebook, so I accepted. “Why not?” I thought to myself. I expanded my Facebook circle of “friends” to include folks from all over the country—and world—and from many different life trajectories and political perspectives. For better or worse, I find myself now up to 3,500 Facebook friends, and probably know less than half personally.

    With that has come some tension and debate. My feed is a mix of personal reflections, funny happenings and a lot of political commentary. As I step back a bit from local politics, I am still very engaged in what was going on in the 2016 Presidential election and what has been happening in the first 100 days of the Trump administration. I share news articles or videos and add commentary, or ask others for their reactions. During the Presidential primaries, there were many heated Hillary vs. Bernie vs. (fill in the blank) exchanges. My general rule is to let the comments dialogue happen naturally, but intervene if it gets too personal or mean. If there were folks who were so adamant that their view was right and everyone else was an idiot, I sometimes unfriended them. This included both Bernie and Hillary supporters, mostly folks I don’t know personally. In general, though, I have tried to foster a healthy dialogue that contains differing views.

    Now with Donald Trump, our Cheeto-in-Chief, as President, the stakes seem to have been raised. Many of my more liberal friends have used support for Trump as a litmus test and unfriended anyone who voted for him or defends him. I have no judgement; people can use their social media however they like. I myself have been tempted to block or unfriend folks, as I wonder how I can productively interact with someone who seemingly has such different values. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, but I also know that it is crazy-making to read some of the comments I see supporting Trump, or calling CNN #fakenews, or promoting the confirmed false statements coming out of Washington, D.C., these days (the Obama wiretapping of Trump Tower being only the most recent and egregious).

    Several of my Annapolis classmates and former shipmates lean much more conservative than me, and they test me the most. Some I’ve had to unfriend, or block, or hide their posts from my feed for my own sanity. I try, though, to use it as an opportunity to understand why and how folks voted for Trump (or didn’t vote, or voted 3rd party because they hate Hillary with a passion). What is their view of America? Why specifically isn’t it “great” now? What do they believe is the role of the government? Why do they have such disdain for Democrats? It’s hard, as there are a lot of ad hominem attacks, or accusations of hypocrisy, or red herrings, or assertions that others who disagree are just not educated enough to understand they are right. I know Facebook comment feeds can be weird shark-infested waters, but I also have had some great exchanges with folks I don’t agree with, when we have respectfully defended our positions.

    My point is that my jury is still out on Facebook. It has brought good and bad. I will likely cull down my friends list and remove random folks I’ve never met or interacted with online. But every day I struggle with how I balance protecting my “space” and sanity (by unfriending/blocking people) with trying to keep an open mind and promote differing perspectives. Lately, one strategy for me has been to also include posts with questions or comments that can highlight things we all have in common, rather than divisive political commentary.

    In the end, I think most of us do share common values of equity, opportunity, justice, family, and patriotism. We simply disagree on how best to achieve that, and for whom and what the role of the government is in achieving it. If we all retreat to our Facebook feeds full of like-minded souls, I worry the increasing divide in this country will never be repaired. So, think twice before you block/unfriend/hide. Do what you need to do to stay healthy and motivated, but beware of the risks of packaging ourselves in our own bubble wrap.

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and as an elected Delegate for the Democratic National Convention. She is a San Francisco Library Commissioner and is the former First Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.