Provoking Online Reaction, But Not Open-minded Dialogue

I have a Facebook friend, John, who repeatedly posts provocative or hyper-partisan statements that seem designed to get reactions, but generate more heat than light. It’s a far cry from discussing politics with your neighbor who has a completely different perspective but who you listen to respectfully and are always looking to find his good side and common ground because you know you have to live with him. We seem to have lost a lot of those public spaces, for various reasons I discuss elsewhere. FB tends to encourage political tribalism on both the left and the right. Everybody’s looking for validation or confirmation of their existing viewpoints, which leads to a lot of assumptions about who people are, what they believe, and what ideological box they can be put into.

Too often I take the bait. A recent example:

  • 1 “Michelle Obama, by her own admission, never much cared for this country before or after living in its premier residence. Good-bye, Mrs Hope-and-Change. You are capable of neither.” I took the bait:  “What a bitter and close-minded remark. It’s very sad that you haven’t bothered to really listen to Michelle Obama in all the opportunities over the last eight years, or that you never had curiosity about the full context of those remarks eight years ago. Open your mind, man.

About seven other people also commented, four opposed to Michelle and four defending her. Like many online “discussions,” it wasn’t really a dialogue, mainly just talking past each other and getting ‘likes’ from our allies.

My friend projects that Michelle Obama is “ungrateful” and “wallowing” in bitterness and “life’s negative experiences.” So I asked him what does he even know about her, “what have you actually read or seen of her except outrageous propaganda” that she “hates America” and “hates white people”? “That you are so eager to believe such BS without checking it out says a lot more about your preconceptions and a priori assumptions than it does about Michelle.”

Dredging up really old stuff, man. For what purpose? To show that your mind shut down on her after watching that soundbite nearly 9 years ago? I guess you can’t possibly understand how an African American might not have been so proud of the America that imposed abject segregation and legalized discrimination against her parents and previous generations?

I proceeded to post lengthy interviews or profiles of Michelle Obama.

He didn’t answer, but went on to reiterate his earlier assertion that she is an angry and bitter woman.

Michelle Obama’s message, I said, “has not been one of bitterness but of profound hope, repeatedly saying over and over that her story could happen only in America, urging kids to believe in themselves and never quit. In many ways, her message was a conservative one. How could you miss it?”

He didn’t answer the question. I don’t think we came to a common understanding.

This and so many other online discussions reminded me of an old Saturday Night Live routine from way back in 1976 starring Buck Henry and Dan Ackroyd (episode available for purchase). “Frank Noland (Buck Henry) has multiple phone lines to talk with the public, but, no matter how high he raises the stakes in controversial topics, no one calls him.” He keeps raising the ante with outrageous comments until finally listeners start to react. Transcript.

I can never be sure how serious my FB friend John is, if he really believes what he posts, if he is just trying to yank the chain of people he perceives as liberals or if he views social media as mostly a game or form of entertainment. He says he didn’t vote for Donald Trump, and posted very critical comments about Trump (and Hillary) throughout the campaign. It did seem he hated Hillary more than Trump.

For more than a decade, I engaged in provocative online dialogue with a guy named Ron. He viscerally hated Bill and Hillary Clinton. He portrayed himself as Tea Party before the Tea Party existed, a free market fundamentalist who I viewed as extremely defensive about racial issues. We did actually persuade each other to think differently about some things. Then in 2009, he started to demonstrate a radical change of heart. He suddenly rejected the Republican Party, and became an Obama supporter. As far as I can tell, he has never looked back. (Since we seem to agree on most things, we rarely talk online anymore.) He now calls Trump and the Republican Party “a bunch of scary racists.” In 2016, he says he voted for Hillary Clinton.

The challenge of interactive media is that if you say moderate and sensible things or seek widespread agreement, readers and listeners tend not to be motivated to participate or to respond to you. You don’t necessarily feel heard or listened to. If instead you say extreme and unbalanced things, or rant, readers or listeners will participate, to either cheer you on or chide you.

But do not be deceived: your audience is not necessarily representative of the public at large. It is representative of a cultural shift in America that may not be for good.

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