My mother told me there are three topics to avoid discussing with people: politics, religion and money. Most people generally avoid these topics in the work place and at parties to avoid controversy. In the social media age, however, we blast our opinions about politics and religion over Facebook and Twitter to all of our friends. Half of whom we are probably mere acquaintances. This is especially true around election time.
I think it is safe to say that nearly everyone in America is counting down to Election Day, but not everyone is anticipating the results of the election. Many are counting down the days until their Twitter and Facebook feed returns back to normal. When all of friends stop being amateur political analysts for MSNBC or FoxNews and start posting funny videos and interesting articles again.
According to a CNN article, Presidential Elections Tests Facebook Friendships, nearly one-fifth of Facebook users admit to blocking, unfriending or hiding from the mini feed an over zealous friend due to their political posts. Unlike the real world, you are forced to at least see, if not read, your friends’ political opinions on social media.
Filtering these posts are beneficial to the users, right? Well, Cass Sunstein doesn’t think so. In his article for the Financial Times article, the University of Chicago professor discusses the concept of the “Daily Me” on the Internet. Through filters on news sites, people are only exposed to information that reaffirms their preconceived notions on certain political issues. This lack of exposure to other opinions can lead to extremism and group polarization, which damages democracy. Sunstein would certainly be upset to see one that these filters have been extended to political speech on social media sites, especially during the days leading up to the election. Sunstein wrote a book called Republic.com that discusses the phenomena of the “Daily Me” and its repercussions. According to James Holbrook summary of Sunstein’s book, this lack of exchange can lead to extreme partisan and can damage the efficiency of the democracy as a whole.
An article by Russell Neuman, Bruce Bimber, and Matthew Hindman criticizes Sunstein’s claims saying that they are exaggerated. At one point, they claim that people do not avoid contrary information when they encounter it inadvertently. Unfortunately, people are doing just that by blocking friends and hiding their comments that contradict their opinions until after the election.
These types of filters can also be used to remove exposure to all political speech entirely. Google Chrome has an add-on called Unpolitic.me for users to filter political posts out of their social media feeds. The add-on was created by BuzzFeed, a viral news aggregator, and the makers of Unbaby.me. My friend demonstrated it for me. You designate several key political phrases and words, and the posts are automatically changed to pictures of cats or whatever images you want. This way, you can keep all your friends and only block political content that you do not want to see.
Will this new technology have any effect of turn out or lower the public’s political awareness? Only time will tell.