Steve Kelman doesn't dispute Facebook's problems with disinformation and extremism, but he notes that the social media platform can also produce real dialogue and respect -- if one is willing to put in the effort.
I have almost 3,100 Facebook friends, developed at retail over a 15-year period since a student first sent me a friend request on the platform. I am on Facebook pretty much every day, posting short comments and reacting to posts from others. The largest group of my Facebook friends is current, former, or retired federal civil servants, mostly met through executive education programs at the Harvard Kennedy School. There are also a good number of high school and college friends, as well as people from other countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
Most, but by no means all, are mainstream Democrats like me. A smaller number are somewhat to my left. There are also some conservatives, including a one-time national chair of the Young Americans for Freedom and the general counsel for a Washington-based conservative organization. There are a few, but not many, Trump supporters.
The Facebook I experience is, frankly, nothing like the ones we learn about in the media and in Frances Haugen’s whistleblower account.
There is definitely debate and disagreement on my Facebook page. A number of my Facebook friends were furious about Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan (not just the way the withdrawal was done), believing we had abandoned a country we had stood by and were leaving women to a horrid fate. But another friend, himself a veteran, has written repeatedly that we never had any business there and that U.S. foreign policy is controlled by defense contractors who profit from war.
I have been criticized on my page for reporting that I listen to Fox News every morning before the Today show goes on at 7 a.m.; some have expressed amazement that I could stand watching such a purveyor of disinformation (nobody has defended me).
Probably the two biggest topics being debated on my page right now are Israel and China. Most of my Facebook friends are broadly sympathetic to Israel (two are American Jews who live there), but others have been vocal recently criticizing violations of human rights in the West Bank and calling for greater understanding of the Palestinians. On China, I am in the minority on the page who are uneasy about anti-China hysteria in the U.S. (though I myself have written frequently on the page in support of Hong Kong and Taiwan), but people on the page are split about this.
Two topics about which there is more or less unanimity on my page are opposition to vaccine deniers and to mask mandate opponents, though one person has attacked me for blaming Trump for the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic. This topic actually generates perhaps more emotion than any other, with a few of my Facebook friends writing that the unvaccinated dying of covid was a way to “cull the heard.”
However, the overall tone of the page is very open, tolerant and respectful, even though many of my friends – and especially those posting on the page – are very interested in politics and have strong views. People disagree with each other, but they almost never use insulting or extreme language. The friends who are former national chair of the Young Americans for Freedom and the conservative general counsel have more than once apologized on the page for language they used that they recognized went overboard. I did lose one Trump supporter on the page, who had been very active but told me he got tired of being attacked, but the other Trump supporters have stayed. And I get a stream of people writing that they learn a lot from the back-and-forth.
At the risk of being boastful, I would like to suggest how all this has happened. It takes mindfulness, and it takes work, but creating a respectful dialogue on Facebook requires no unnatural acts.
I think the two most important things are to show respect oneself and to work to nip in the bud words that could derail a dialogue. One thing I do is regularly to publish posts sending the relevant friends wishes for their Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious holidays -- for a while I sent Hindu friends wishes for Diwali, but have lost my Hindu friends -- and greetings for their countries’ national days. (A number of friends have called this out as a feature of my page that they like.) More importantly, and very consciously, I frequently “like” posts that I disagree with, even when also posting something critical of what has been written. Very frequently I begin responses to posts with the words, “Thank you for your thoughtful post” or “This is really insightful.” When I am disagreeing with someone, I will often write, “I understand your point of view, but I disagree.”
Luckily I don’t need to do this often, but when someone has gone overboard with strong language I will write a comment on the inappropriately worded post like, “I think your language has gone overboard here. Let’s always try to show respect on this page.” A few times I have written a more general comment on my page like, “I feel some of the language some are using on the page is excessive, and I ask people to be careful.”
Fascinatingly, each time I have done this someone has written me privately on Facebook messenger apologizing – though in none of the cases was the apologizer a person I had in mind when I wrote the post! On very rare occasions I have written a private note on messenger to someone about a specific post.
The result of all this is that I experience Facebook more like the place described in Mark Zuckerberg’s propaganda -- a platform that brings people together -- rather than the realm of insults, hatred, disinformation and extremism that clearly exists as well. I have no way of knowing whether the Zuckerberg version or the version that dominates coverage of Facebook is closer to reality. Speaking for myself, Facebook has let me stay in touch with many people I would otherwise never encounter, and I have learned a huge amount from the exchanges on my page. Let’s keep in mind that this is part of what Facebook represents.
P.S. I am setting up a new blog called “Steve Kelman on politics, culture, and life” that runs my short Facebook posts.
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