Seeking more civility on Facebook

Steve Kelman discusses his pursuit of a more constructive social network.

Image: Julia Tim / Shutterstock

In terms of expressions of political opinion, Facebook has a reputation for being a brutal place. Extremes of left and right are very overrepresented, and insults abound. Friends stop speaking with each other. Too often, Facebook is a place where civility dies. It reflects, but also models, polarization and incivility in our society more broadly.

In my own small way, I am trying to fight this on my Facebook page. I think if you were to read my page, you would see it dominated by respectful displays of opinion and disagreement, and recognition by others of the contributions of fellow-posters. You will not see brutality.

I start off with an advantage over others who might try the same route. It is fair to say that I have an easier time getting a wide range of views on my page because of my role as a professor and as a participant in the government contracting community. Both exposed me to a wider range of people than one might see in a Facebook network dominated by personal friends and neighbors.

Roughly 80% of the people who post on my Facebook page supported Biden. But perhaps 10% supported Trump, and maybe another 10% are notably to my left. Many of my active followers I met by teaching them in Kennedy School master’s classes or executive education programs. They are civil servants, mostly moderate liberals, with many ex-military, often now Defense Department civilians, a group from whom many of the Trump supporters among my friends come. I have a very small number of friends posting on my page who believe the election was stolen. Facebook friends to my left are younger, whom I met when they were Kennedy School master’s students. They take me on over my criticisms of “defund the police” and my strong criticism of violent protests. So I perhaps have a broader political range of contacts than many.

I have been on Facebook for over 10 years, initially introduced by a student who sent me a friend request. A bevy of friends from among our master’s students, older executive education students, and friends outside the U.S. joined over time. (Shortly after joining, I connected with a Chinese student who later became my Chinese-language teacher just a few weeks before Facebook was blocked in China in 2008.)

For almost all my time on Facebook, my usage has been fairly conventional, focused on sharing personal and to some extent academic news. (I am not great at photography, so I share pictures less than most.) Although always interested in politics, I tried to keep politics off my page. But that ended in the age of Trump, when, angry about him, I gradually became less inhibited about posting my anti-Trump views.

Then somewhat less than a year ago, my Facebook presence morphed again. I gradually began sharing more not only of my observations on Trump, but also more general commentaries on social, cultural and world events -- ranging from shoutouts to former students who had established NGO’s to endorsements of a new generation of non-traditional information technology companies selling to the government. Then I expanded to reporting briefly on interesting things I saw in the media, often the day’s New York Times.

At this point, I post five to seven times a day on average. And now more and more people have begun leaving comments (and likes or other emoticons such as “wow!”) to my comments, as well as those of other Facebook friends. I would say at this point there are about 50 people regularly reacting on my page, some of them several times a day.

I consciously use a number of techniques to encourage civility. I am careful to use civil language myself. I will often comment “Thank you for posting” under posts, or “Thank you for your thoughtful post,” even if I add a respectful disagreement. I will sometimes “like” posts I disagree with. More than most, I will use the “love” emoticon for a post if I reacted that way.

I criticize harsh language, usually in a private message on Messenger, when friends use it. People get self-selected out by hearing a disrespectful tone on Facebook, and the opposite is true as well. Even if I started off with an unusually diverse group of Facebook friends, that would have diminished over time if the minority felt unwelcome because of their views. I feel by showing respect one can expand the size and diversity of one’s Facebook friends.

One of my old Facebook friends is the one-time national chairman of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, whom I had met at a conference. He continues to write frequently on my page because he is usually respected there. I have a number of times written private messages on Messenger to people either to my right or my left to say I appreciate their participation and asking them not to abandon the page because of criticism from others. Similarly, I have sometimes sent private messages to friends (and even a relative) criticizing them for being too harsh in their comments.

A bit over a month ago I also put a message on my Timeline saying I was disturbed by the appearance of more disrespectful language on my page. I was fascinated to receive a number of comments from friends who thought I had them in mind (I hadn’t!) apologizing and saying they wouldn’t do it again.

I frequently see people on other Facebook pages unfriending people. I have only once unfriended somebody, after long thought and feedback from other friends. This was a very aggressive Trump supporter who posted constantly on my page, sometimes with insulting language. I received a significant number of appeals from friends asking me to unfriend her, but I responded by saying I had too strong a belief in freedom of expression to do that. I had more tolerance for insulting language because she disagreed politically. (I finally unfriended her when one of her friends posted violent comments.)

I don’t want to draw too much from my story. But I want to believe that conscious efforts to promote civility can actually help. I have been pleased to see that our new president has declined the opportunity to descend into the gutter with Trump over the “stolen election” accusations. Maybe with his help, we can, to appropriate a Trump phrase from a different context, turn the corner.

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