Facebook use has exploded all across the world and while many still use it for more trivial pursuits like posting pictures of their latest, yummiest meal, status updates about work or endless cat memes, more and more are looking to expand their Facebook horizons into the exciting world of politics and activism.
Now I was raised in a polite household and one of the mandates I had drilled into me was that we did not discuss politics or religion in polite company. It simply wasn’t done. So it was with some trepidation that I posted my first politically charged articles on Facebook. I just knew that someone was going to be offended.
But I soon realized that either I could abandon FB entirely as a boring bland place or I could venture out into new and dangerous territory. So I went the route of following my bliss and started posting about things that interested me and cultivating friendships with those who were on the same page. As time went on my friends list made a paradigm shift away from people I knew but had nothing in common with, to people I had never known before but with whom I shared a love for politics and discussion.
The first time I friended someone I didn’t really know it was somewhat scary, bringing back those admonitions we all received as children about talking to strangers. All the articles I had read about Facebook labeled people who had large friends lists as narcissists whose only purpose in life was to bolster their feelings of self-worth through ever-growing and somewhat creepy friend collections.
But these articles failed to address the entirely different and now more prevalent use of social media as a tool for political discourse and activism. I quickly found literally hundreds of people who shared my viewpoint and who, as part of my friends network, were actively engaged in common interests.
Even Facebook seemed uneasy with my new friending habits because I always got a warning when adding a new stranger: “Do you know this person?” Well no, not really… and no I’m not going to post my phone number or street address in my info because I’m not a complete dummy about these things either.
So here is my short guide to how to be a political junkie and social activist on Facebook and enjoy the hell out of it.
1. Check your privacy settings.
Facebook has an annoying habit of changing the rules every so often so it behooves us to keep up with it. Check your privacy settings often and make sure your “about” page on your wall does not include personal information you wouldn’t want everyone to see. If you don’t want everyone in the world to see your posts or comment on them set your default to friends only. Stay safe.
2. Branch out.
Look for and “like” pages that share your point of view. This is the best way to expand into the political realm. When these pages post articles, photos and memes, they will appear on your wall. Comment on those posts if they interest you and share the ones you like.
Join groups where long discussions can take place or start a group with a particular theme. Send friend requests to people you meet in groups, pages or on friend’s posts if they seem interesting.
Some like to join pages they disagree with, but that can become tiresome and invites trolling on your part. I’m a Golden Rule Facebook user and try not to do unto others that which I find annoying, but many don’t agree. This doesn’t mean I never post a comment or two on disagreeable pages, but I try not to dwell there.
Try to not be a prima donna on Facebook. Don’t expect everyone to comment on your posts while you ignore everyone else’s. Your wall isn’t where everything is happening. The point is show that you are interested in other people and what they have to say, otherwise you’re skating close to narcissism and are not a good friend.
Of course you can’t comment on everything but it doesn’t work well if you don’t participate. Write a little bit when you post on your wall about why you agree or disagree with what you’re posting. Discuss with your friends when they comment.
Also don’t be afraid to be yourself. Do status updates of your thoughts and yes, even a picture of your cute doggie or that delicious meal I made fun of earlier. Don’t be all political all the time, be the multi-faceted human being you really are. And don’t be afraid to have a sense of humor. People who take everything seriously are dull.
4. Don’t be rude.
This is the hardest thing to remember when engaging in political discussion on social media and one I struggle with all the time.
Yes we’re passionate about our points of view and yes we often think that people who disagree with us are idiots. But try, try, try to not be a dick about it. I’m as guilty as anyone of being a self-righteous jerk on Facebook and there’s no easier way to be an asshole than though the anonymity of a keyboard. But over time I’ve learned to moderate myself.
One of the most important learning experiences I’ve had was when I was engaged in a flame war with a guy on a friend’s wall but after the smoke cleared he actually took the time to message me to apologize for his rudeness. I apologized as well and though we weren’t friends by any stretch of the imagination, we both recognized that there was no excuse for being rude. After that I’ve made a conscious attempt to be less bad-mannered.
This doesn’t mean I’m a shrinking violet or I don’t call people out, especially if they’re acting badly or if I simply disagree with them. And of course I also use sarcasm a lot on FB, since for me it’s an expressive tool and I can be the queen of snark. But belittling, bullying and ad hominem attacks are definitely someplace nobody should go. Those who do go there are often subject to being blocked.
5. Use the block function.
The block feature is a double-edged sword. Yes it makes it so you can’t see someone you find annoying or hurtful and they can’t see you either but it should be used with caution. The old saying about keeping your enemies close has some merit and if you can’t see what someone is saying, you’re left in the dark; you can find yourself in a conversation where people are talking to the invisible person and you’re left out of the loop.
I reserve blocking for people who are insufferably rude to me, engage in attacks or are obvious trolls. I usually give fair warning before blocking in order to let them moderate their behavior. I also use it to keep myself from descending to their level and the only way to remove the temptation is to, well, remove the temptation. You can remove a block later if you feel you’ve calmed down and can deal with the person again. But I’d rather block a person than allow him or her to chase me off a conversation or prevent me from participating.
If you’re a page or group admin, you will find that trolls can quickly reduce a page to chaos where nobody will want to participate anymore. So warn and eliminate those who are disruptive (and don’t let their whining about “free speech” deter you. FB is not subject to the First Amendment).
6. Have friends you don’t agree with.
This is for advanced users only (and I say this with tongue firmly in cheek). Actually it is very difficult to maintain an active political FB friendship with people you disagree with. Some can do it, some cannot. I’ve had limited success since my number one mantra is No Annoying People On My Wall. I find it only works when there is mutual respect and unfailing politeness going on.
I can’t emphasize enough that you should be sure to listen to the other side of the political spectrum; too often we operate in an echo chamber when we become political on Facebook and preaching to the choir all the time is not only boring, it makes you downright dumb about what is going on in the real world.
But I can find all the disagreeing people I want when I engage on public pages, groups or on other people’s walls so who I allow in my own circle of friends is a decision I’m pretty picky about. Inevitably my friends who have an opposing viewpoint are often piled on by my like-minded friends when they comment on my wall and I end up in the same predicament when I venture into their territory. So proceed with caution and remember numbers 4 and 5 above.
7. Get off your duff.
It’s very easy to be a keyboard warrior for change and it has its place but don’t let it be the end-all-be-all. Divide your time between advocating and educating people online and going out and making stuff happen.
Don’t ignore the event pages of things going on near you. Sign up and go! It’s all about community and your community isn’t just online. Join a local organization that is actively working towards change. Hell, I did and it got me arrested. But it was worth it. Honest.
Bring your cell phone to activities and post photos and tweet about what is going on so those who can’t attend will see or those who are still too timid to come out will get inspired.
It’s all about showing up folks, and when you do show up, you’ll find the people you met through Facebook are there too.
And that’s when it really becomes awesome.
Self-avowed political junkie Amy McMullen is an activist for human rights and social and economic justice currently residing in Arizona. Her former incarnations include back-to-the-land counter culturist in the 70s, small business entrepreneur, charter boat captain, EMT, and rehabber of distressed homes. She is currently unemployed except for her writing and the required care and maintenance of her husband and two dogs. She also volunteers for the Phoenix Urban Health Collective as a street medic and is on the board of a new nonprofit devoted to providing free medical care for the uninsured in Phoenix. Her writings on social justice, immigrant rights and other subjects appear in Truthout, Salon, Addicting Info, The Tucson Sentinel, The Pragmatic Progressive and on her blog at Open Salon. You can follow her on Twitter but she really prefers Facebook.