There are some people who should not be engaging with politics on Facebook. Maybe political exchanges cause them to be overly frustrated and bitter, or overly self-conscious and sensitive, and in the long run it can be pretty harmful to their emotional health. Or maybe they have the tendency to allow online politics to completely take over their lives. Rather than focusing on their relationships and personal goals, they dedicate an unhealthy amount of time writing futile comments to people they barely know.
The idea of politics on social media can be cringe-worthy, but I would suggest that the core concept is not bad. After all, social media is not inherently good or bad, and politics is not inherently good or bad. The issue at hand is whether people are engaging with politics on social media in healthy or unhealthy ways. In other words, social media is simultaneously the best way to talk about politics and the worst way to talk about politics, depending on how it is used.
At its best, Facebook is a tremendous platform for political engagement, and it has great potential to make positive differences in people’s lives. At its worst, it leaves people angry and calloused.
If you’ve made the personal decision to keep your Facebook experience politics-free, then I applaud you for setting healthy boundaries. You can stop reading this article now. But if you want to grow in your ability to utilize Facebook as a positive voice in the realm of politics, keep on reading.
Note: Perhaps you are wondering why Christians should engage with politics at all. Politics seems like a distraction to the gospel, you may say. But I believe that while Christians should not be immersed in politics, they should certainly be involved with politics (I’ve written about this previously here). After all, Jesus is the king of all things, even politics. And I am not willing to let the secularists call all of the shots in the world of politics. I believe that we need to enter into the world of politics holding the banner of Christ.
The Politics Subculture of Facebook
Facebook is a world of many overlapping subcultures. Among them include the “look at my cute baby/dog” subculture, the “please share this with ten friends” subculture, the “who is the sports GOAT” subculture, and so on.
Perhaps the most confusing and most off-putting subculture is the politics subculture. It is perhaps the single greatest cause of people unfriending one another, as well as the single greatest cause of people needing to “take a break” from Facebook.
And it can be especially jarring for those who don’t typically spend much time in the politics subculture of Facebook. If your timeline mainly consists of “Which The Office character are you?” surveys or inspirational workout videos, and you decide one day to dip your toes into the world of politics, it can come across as pretty abrasive.
The reason is that each subculture has its own unwritten rules. There are certain expectations for how to write a post, how to comment, how to reply to comments, and so on. We might not be able to verbalize them out loud, but the more time we spend in these subcultures, the more intuitive these rules become. But if you are not familiar with a certain subculture, the initial exposure may seem like people are speaking a different language.
For example, the politics subculture has a “community board” dynamic, which is not true of, say, the “here’s what I am consuming today” subculture. In the “here’s what I am consuming today” subculture, you are giving people a filtered glimpse into your own life, and people are expected to give you positive reinforcement. When you post pictures of your favorite Starbucks drink, you will probably receive nothing but positive responses. Very rarely will people say something like, “That is such a disgusting drink,” even if that is what they are thinking.
But in the world of politics, everything is considered a public forum. Every video you post, every article you link, or every opinion you give is as if you posted it on a community bulletin board for all to see, and people will think that they have a right to give their say on the topic.
So how do you speak the language of the politics subculture?
And for the Christian, there is another layer. How do you speak the language of the politics subculture as a Christian?
Whenever I talk online, I want to keep in mind that I am primarily a kingdom citizen. Thus, when I talk about politics online, I am to be a prophet, not a partisan. Additionally, since I represent Jesus in all that I do, I need to make sure that my speech should “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). In other words, as Christians, we should be mindful of not only what we say, but also of how we say it. Unfortunately, some of the rudest people I come across online self-identify as Christians.
With that in mind, here are ten tips to talking about politics on Facebook.
1. Expect controversy.
When you post something political, it’s possible that you won’t get anything but positive responses. But if you do it often enough, you will inevitably receive negative responses here and there. If you’ve never experienced that on Facebook before, it might catch you off-guard. But know that this is normal in the politics subculture. If you want for your Facebook to be a place where politics is welcome, then you need to allow for some controversy. Having the expectancy of controversy from the beginning will prepare you for the times when controversy will come.
Note: There is a subculture within the politics subculture that we can call the echo chamber politics subculture. These are the politics-engaging people who actively unfriend everybody who would possibly disagree with them. As a result, they are able to engage with politics in a conflict-free manner. There is no controversy because they are perfectly aligned with all of their friends. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that chosen path, but it’s not my path of choice. I want for people who disagree with me to be among my friends. I want to see their content, and I want for them to see my content.
2. Separate what you are talking about from who you are.
When you are not expecting controversy, then any controversy may seem like a personal attack. Even when arguments are not intended to be personal, it can be easily interpreted as personal. Therefore, there needs to be a delineation between what your stance is and who you are. What I mean is that we constantly need to be saying to ourselves, “This commenter is not attacking me. This commenter is attacking this argument, which is not a part of me.” That helps you to remain objective and not unnecessarily emotional.
3. Choose your battles.
Some people intentionally join specific Facebook groups where they know that they will be in the political minority, and they try to argue with everybody there. I am not sure if there is a worse way to use your time. It is not your job to correct everybody on the internet.
As a general rule of thumb, I prioritize talking to friends over strangers. I prioritize talking to people who seem to be genuinely curious rather than those who seem to be willfully ignorant. I prioritize talking to people who are gracious with me than people who are accusatory toward me. I prioritize talking to people with whom I already have some common ground than people with whom I have no common ground.
4. Choose the timing of your battles.
Not everything needs to be responded to right away. When somebody says something that sets me off, I never respond immediately. I try to do something else for a while and then come back later in the day. Arguing with anger in person is already pretty bad. Arguing with anger over social media is worse.
But it’s not just about anger—it’s about having the mental capacity to respond thoughtfully. For example, if I have to get on a call in five minutes, I know that I will not have the time to write out a good response, so I will wait until another time. Similarly, if I want to write out a substantial response, but at the moment I’m out of the house running an errand, I’m not going to spend 10 minutes typing out a response on my phone. I will wait until I get home and then type it out on my laptop.
5. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Normal social interaction doesn’t just consist of words—it also includes one’s tone, body language, facial expression, etc. However, on social media, all we see are words (and sometimes, they are edited words), so a lot of what we normally pick up in communication is lost. Sometimes people read in between the lines and assume the worst in others, and this does nothing but escalate the argument.
As much as possible, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to overlook people’s offenses and chalk it up to, “That was probably just a poor word choice, and he didn’t mean that,” or “She’s probably angry at somebody else, not me.”
6. Know when to facilitate and when to respond.
Because your comments section is a public forum, not everything has to revolve around you. Sometimes different people use your original post on your timeline as a means to have a dialogue with each other, and sometimes the discussion goes on so many tangents that it is completely unrelated to your original post. That’s okay. During those times, I see myself as a facilitator of a group discussion. I often refrain from giving my own opinions, but I just insert myself here and there to clarify some things as needed.
On the other hand, when people ask me a direct question, or when people misinterpret what I say, then I will feel the need to respond and engage.
7. Think like a customer service representative.
This might seem like a silly exercise, but sometimes I try to think of myself almost like a customer service representative responding to a customer who doesn’t like my company’s product. Even if somebody seems rude or unreasonable, I might still start off my comment with something like, “Thanks for commenting on my post. I appreciate you taking the time to write all of that out.”
Additionally, when I determine that some of what was said has value, but I don’t agree with it all, I sometimes click “like” on the comment before I respond. “Liking” the comment signifies that you respect their content, and you are characterizing the exchange as a conversation and not an attack.
8. Remember that other people are reading.
Whenever I am posting things on Facebook, whether they are the initial posts on my timeline or they are replies to people’s comments, I recognize that many people will be reading what I say. And so my primary audience is not necessarily the person I am talking to, but it is everybody who will read my comment afterward. Very rarely do I actually convince somebody on social media that he or she is wrong. But I think I do convince other online passersby who are reading along to reconsider their stances. And that is often my primary focus.
9. Utilize the power of private messaging.
When I sense that things are being really misunderstood, or when I see two of my friends who don’t know each other wrongly assuming things about one another, I have sometimes privately messaged people to provide intimacy and clarity. I have found that people sometimes react differently in private conversations than in public conversations. Public conversations can come with feelings of shame and embarrassment and pride, and they make people say silly things that they would never say in private. Initiating a private conversation can really de-escalate the situation.
10. Know when to walk away.
At a certain point in time, you may realize that the conversation you are having is no longer productive, and it needs to come to an end. Perhaps there is too much misunderstanding, and it will take too much time to unpack it all. Perhaps you reach a “we just need to agree to disagree” standoff. Perhaps you are just having a busy week. Regardless, there often are times when you need to let go of the need to “say the last word” and walk away.
I usually give a short reply thanking them for their response, as well as a brief explanation that makes it clear that I will not be engaging with them anymore. If they choose to reply after that, I may “like” their post to show that I am acknowledging it, but I will not respond anymore.
My hope in writing all of this is that your Facebook commenting experience would be more positive and productive. And I especially wish that for you if you are a Christian.
Today’s church has a tendency to elevate issues of second and third importance over and above the issues of first importance. What is of first importance, of course, is our Christian faith. It is that Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). And that common ground should be powerful enough to unite us with one another, regardless of our disagreements in other areas.
But unfortunately, so many of us have allowed our national politics to usurp our kingdom politics. We have unfriended one another, humiliated one another, and demonized one another. That is not the way of Jesus.
Let us commit to being unified to one another in our Facebook exchanges. To paraphrase Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Republican or Democrat, there is neither conservative nor progressive, there is no libertarian or authoritarian, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”