Mitt Romney (left) and President Obama (Getty Images )
After the second presidential debate, one of my Facebook acquaintances announced in a status update that she was in the process of pruning outspoken Republicans from her friends list.
"I can't take all the idiot Romney lovers anymore. For my sanity, I'm defriending all of them. Good riddance." Others "liked" the post and chimed in with their own stories of deleting conservatives and other undesirables from their Facebook lists.
There are a bevy of reasons to defriend people on social media—a messy breakup, someone's mother is insulted, or they're posting compromising pictures of you in a swimsuit on Reddit. But blocking a person who holds different political beliefs is a fundamentally bad idea.
As a Chicagoan who doesn't work downtown (I assume many of those suit-wearing Romney clan look-alikes I see in the Loop lean GOP), I'd guess 90 percent of the people I interact with on a daily basis are either Democrats or hold generally liberal views. Watching the debates at a bar on the North Side was the equivalent of sitting in the Cubby Bear during a Cubs broadcast—there was unabashed cheering and rooting for President Obama.
Similarly, social media conversations about politics in my feeds often resemble an online forum for moveon.org. I've heard every Big Bird, binder and bayonet joke possible over the past three weeks, with plenty of figurative "amens" and "preach its" from the lefty choir about the awfulness of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. After a while, it creates an echo chamber effect in which everyone simply reinforces already firmly held beliefs and congratulates each other for having them.
It's an idea discussed in journalist Bill Bishop's book, "The Big Sort," which theorizes that those on both sides of the political spectrum are becoming more extreme in their viewpoints because we're self-segregating into communities in which we share nearly identical political values. Without knowing any actual members of the opposite party, perceptions of the "opposite side" become way more radical and less accurate.
That's why I value my few conservative and Republican friends on Facebook. Most of them don't live in physical proximity to me (they tend to be college friends from Missouri who now live in suburbs or small towns), but I can read their thoughts online and put a recognizable human face behind a certain brand of rhetoric or way of thinking.
Sure, political arguments on Facebook or Twitter can be irritating, unproductive and create bad mojo between people, but there is evidence that they can have a positive influence too.
According to a Pew Research Center survey released last month, one in six social network users say they've changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on a social networking site.
I don't necessarily find myself agreeing with many of my Republican friends' ideas, but listening to them helps dismiss the stereotypes I've heard other friends express—that most conservatives are brain-dead rednecks, or crusading religious nutjobs. By the same token, maybe some of my Fox News-loving friends won't be as quick to write off all Democrats as effete, latte-sipping socialists.
I'll be sure to stay friends with them either way. That is, unless they call my mom a Commie. Then I'm clicking unfriend.
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.
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