Ditching politically different friends

I’ve been reading — as a somewhat guilty pleasure, given how bombastic it is — Charlie Pierce’s politics blog over at Esquire.

At the end of October, he critiqued Kim Brooks’s qualms about defriending people who post things like “Just turned off the t.v. More lies from B. Hussein Obama.” This sort of unfriending happens quite a bit on Facebook and Twitter (Sibona and Walczak 2010; Kwak, Chun, Moon 2011), but Brooks was wondering if she was creating a liberal echo chamber for herself, as she chooses to “simply opt out of such challenges, to crop the frame in whatever way suits our political orientation or cultural sensibility.” If many people come to rely on social streams to point them at their news — oh hello Facebook social reader (still one of their creepiest features as I experience it), hello Twitter — this sort of homophily would take Sunstein’s fears of a DailyMe and selective exposure and raises them to yet another level.

Pierce, however, says, no, this is a perfectly reasonable action. He argues that

…they’re low-information assholes, most of them, and they and their ilk have done untold damage to this country. It is alright to de-friend these people. It is alright never to have anything to do with them again. It is alright to believe that most of their ideas are half-baked, and the ones that aren’t are utterly vile, and all that you would ever learn from them is how to be as nasty a human being as you can be.

Like, I said, bombastic. And polarizing. Most of the comments are in agreement with Pierce’s point of view. The cynic in me thinks he might be right; posts like the one Brooks mentions really don’t have any bearing on my political opinions, other than to possibly reinforce them, though more thoughtful critiques might. I also really do believe that there is a point where others’ opinions get so vile, and so hardened, that one really ought to cut them out and disengage.The optimist in me, though, wants to say: no, this is the chance to engage, presumably you have some sort of other relationship to protect. This is what motivated my study of political discussion in non-political blogs. (& then the cynic in me responds, at which point, this will probably make *them* defriend *you*).

This leads to an issue I’d like to explore in my own work, or have others beat me to: when confronted with disagreeable political opinions in social media streams, (a) when can (and can’t) one engage to possibly affect opinion change, or at least reconsideration, and (b) how can one most effectively do so? From what we learn from that, are there ways to shape the Facebook feed or other streams to show people diverse views from friends that they can engage with, rather than that repulse them? I’ve worked a good deal on related questions in news aggregators, but as a lot of the action moves to Twitter and Facebook, these spaces, and understanding the ways to present and engage with a variety of opinions in them, become more important.