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Before you ‘unfriend’ …

/ 12:26 AM June 02, 2016

The 2016 electoral process has come to a close and the canvassing of votes has ended. Yet, the fallout of a particularly vitriolic political season continues. The popularity of social media as a platform for both discussion and political campaign made this election season less of a civil forum and more of a battlefield, replete with black propaganda, grave threats of rape and murder, and the occasional Facebook friend still rooting for Allan Carreon’s invisible majority. It seems that after the advent of Facebook, Twitter and the like, divisions between political points of view have become markedly stark.

The increasing ubiquity and functionality of social media have not only fundamentally changed the way elections work, but have also made it easier than ever to tune out the noise and conflict that normally accompany them. This insulation is a common phenomenon, one that practically every user of social media has seen in the past few months. It often starts with a telling post, “Dear Martial Law apologists” or “Dear rabid Dutertards,”  and goes on to “I don’t have the time to listen to anyone who holds your points of view, so don’t expect to remain my friend online.” With social media, if you ever find a person whose choices you disagree with, or whose political choices you disdain, he or she is only one click away from never entering your virtual life again.

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Inevitably, you’re going to meet people with ideas wildly different from yours, both online and offline. Before social media, meetings exposed Filipinos to the wide spectrum of political ideas held by their countrymen, and forced them to listen. After all, in the workplace or in school, there’s no option to simply “unfriend” someone and never hear from him or her again. But with the movement of discussions online, this is slowly changing. The simple act of “unfriending” highlights a troubling social phenomenon that has only been accelerated by the internet—a growing group mentality and a subsequent polarization of ideas and worldviews.

Unlike random workplace encounters or run-ins with acquaintances at the mall, social media is designed to feed us the information that we want to see. The encounters we have on social media aren’t random at all: Instead, they are a feedback loop, where we see what we want to, which gives Facebook’s algorithms a better idea of what we want to see.

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Let’s say, for example, that someone we’ll call Mark supports Grace Poe for president during the elections. Mark likes the statuses of several friends who also support Poe; Facebook picks up on these likes and subsequently shows Mark more content from these friends. Sometime during the season, Mark sees an opinionated post by an acquaintance who supports Miriam Defensor Santiago, another presidential aspirant; he doesn’t enjoy reading it, and hides the post from his feed. Taking note of this, Facebook’s algorithms slowly reduce the amount of content Mark finds on his feed from this friend.

Through this series of small actions, Mark is insulating himself more and more from people who espouse political viewpoints different from his; he can comfortably surround himself with a circle of friends who believe in the same things he does. What’s scary about this, though, is that Mark often believes he’s fully in control; he doesn’t realize that his online choices result in subtle changes in the content he sees, reads and views. This makes his support for his candidate all the more passionate—and, often, all the more rabid.

This social phenomenon is dangerous, especially in any country that upholds democratic ideals and principles. A democracy works only when multiple voices are aired and heard. But when the tools to drown out voices who disagree with our own are at our fingertips, it becomes ever easier to dismiss those who think differently as bigots, racists, elitistas, fanatics and sexists. The choice to “unfriend” is a choice to limit our own empathy, a choice to frame those who disagree with us as less than people—after all, they’re not worth the space on our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls.

With that choice comes stark consequences. Where, offline we would previously be forced to reflect on our political decisions by coming into contact with those who disagree, online we no longer come into contact with those who disagree. Without our knowledge, an entire range of discussion and dialogue is blocked off, and replaced by more of the same. And, since our political choices are shaped more by our background and context than we’d like to admit, the choice to “unfriend” those who support different candidates and political parties unconsciously becomes a choice to ignore those with different social and cultural backgrounds.

That choice is not so far away from a society where those of different races, religions or sexual orientations are ostracized solely for not following the norms imposed on them by others. That choice is not so far away from fracturing the very foundations upon which a democracy is built.

So, before you click “unfriend,” think of the value that can be gained and the lessons to be learned from meaningful discussions with those you’d otherwise consider your political enemies. And think of the viewpoints and insights that you could lose from the absence of what they have to share. Choose to listen to those who are different. The world will be a better place for it.

Ethan Chua, 18, was editor in chief of Xavier School’s high school publication, Stallion, and is an incoming freshman at Stanford University in the United States. He is “also a fiction writer, spoken word poet, and occasional shower singer whose words you can read at medium.com/@ezlc327.”

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TAGS: Elections 2016, social media, unfriending
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