Friday, September 21, 2018
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‘Unfollowing’ Juan dela Cruz

How many people have you “unfollowed” or “unfriended” this election season?

With the divisive and polarizing nature of the 2016 elections, many people I know have resorted to the “unfollow” button on Facebook to remove posts and people they find offensive or disagreeable from their news feed.

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“At first I could take it, so I didn’t unfollow anyone. But when I saw people coming up with ridiculous excuses to defend their candidate, I unfollowed na. They’re not really my close friends so they just add noise with empty statements,” Paula Peralejo-Fernandez, a travel and lifestyle personality, told me, adding: “But my close friends, I don’t unfollow them, even if they’re posting opposite views.”

Her view is shared by many others. Eliseo Ruzol Jr., a hiker who responded to the question on my Facebook page, opined: “I think it’s safe to use that unfollow button [on] a person who’s been flooding your news feed with nonsensical and biased election-related posts and propaganda. It’s not about being entitled to your own opinion or view anymore, it’s about being a critical reader and observer, one who does not subscribe to hasty, misleading-headlines-based reactions of their own and [keeps] all the violent insights to themselves, or [engages] in more decent, friendly debates with the other side.”

“Unfriending”—removing someone from your “Friends List”—is a much stronger gesture. While you can “unfollow” your friends without them noticing it, “unfriending” can be interpreted as tantamount to breaking a real-life friendship. Of course, there are many Facebook “friends” who have never actually met each other in person, and these are the easiest to “unfriend.” But I have seen people having a falling out because of their divergent political views.

The resort to “unfollow” or “unfriend” is understandable: Several months into the election season, many Filipinos have become weary of political posts, especially the ones with which they don’t agree. New York Times writer Nick Corasaniti observes: “With the presidential race heating up, a torrent of politically charged commentary has flooded Facebook … with some users deploying their ‘unfollow’ buttons like a remote to silence distasteful political views. Coupled with algorithms now powering Facebook’s news feed, the unfollowing is creating a more homogenized political experience of like-minded users… Instead of offering people a diverse marketplace of challenging ideas, the web is becoming just another perpetuating echo chamber.” Corasaniti was writing about the US presidential election, but the same can be said of the Philippines.

His point about social media being an “echo chamber” is valid—and is perhaps the most worrisome consequence of people “unfollowing” one another. If you are a supporter of Rodrigo Duterte, then you’re more likely to “like” articles backing him, and “unfollow” personalities like Carlos Celdran who are against your candidate. As Facebook detects your preferences, it will bring related content to your news feed; hence you will see even more pro-Duterte articles, further solidifying your stance. Similarly, the supporter of Mar Roxas will, by his or her own choices and Facebook’s algorithms, receive more pro-Roxas content. In this way, social media reinforces, not just reflects, the divisions that have existed long before the internet was invented.

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Not all is lost, however, even in today’s highly-charged political environment. Last week, my Lola Rosing, who has just turned 85, called me to say that she is changing her mind about a candidate because of a message someone posted on Facebook. Although there are many “fanatics” in different camps who are impervious to reason, I have also seen people change their minds, signaling an openness to argumentation that should encourage people to keep expressing themselves in social media, the threat of “unfollows” notwithstanding. An “echo chamber” social media may be, but at least it is not a vacuum: Ideas still manage to circulate, even against the odds.

And regardless of its content, a respectful message will always find a receptive audience. In my informal survey, some people claimed that they never “unfollow” people so they can hear other perspectives—unless people are being hateful. This reminds us that while hate speech deserves to be “unfollowed” or at least called out, perhaps we should exercise a little more restraint in clicking the “unfollow” option, if only to learn more about what others are thinking.

Moreover, we have to be mindful that offensive speech can come from ourselves if we do not exercise care in the language we use. Ivan Henares, a heritage advocate, calls for respectful dialogue—which is perhaps our only recourse, even in an age when respect does not always beget respect. Says Ivan: “Courtesy should be of utmost importance, especially among discussions with your own friends. Also, name-calling has no place in today’s society. In the end, everyone will move on. Why do we even have to place ourselves in a position where we have to mend broken friendships?”

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Others, however, are ready to move on even before the elections. “It’s an ongoing essay-writing contest right now in the internet, and I’m just fed up with it. Suddenly, everyone’s a political analyst who thinks they know everything!” says Mark Gutierrez, a call center agent. Instead of “unfollowing” people, he has temporarily deactivated his Facebook account, promising to resurface once the election fever breaks.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.

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TAGS: Elections 2016, friendships, relationships, social media
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