Navigating Social Media During Times of Conflict

How to cope when your feed is dominated by political unrest.

Regardless what side of the political spectrum you rest on, it’s impossible to deny that last week was a particularly tough one.

Emotions are still running high as the country reels from the surprising election. And for all of the advancement in communication and information sharing it allows us, the Internet (and social media in particular) isn’t helping when it comes to our anxiety, or sadness, or anger, or (enter negative emotion here).

When you once could retreat to your bed with a book and escape the realities of the world for at least a few hours, we are now consistently bombarded with updates, notifications and tiny red bubbles alerting us that yet another emotionally charged political debate is filling our feed.

They won’t go away, and they likely will continue to dominate your online experience for the next few weeks, at least. What you can change is how you engage with and navigate through the digital climate so as to reduce the power it holds over your mental health.

A recent Facebook live hosted by Harvard Business Review featuring Alexandra Samuel, author of “Work Smarter with Social Media,” delved into the timely topic of coping with social media. And as our own feeds flooded with emotional 1000-word personal essays from high school friends, college roommates, colleagues and family members, we found some solace in her tips.

Here are a few takeaways we hope can ease some of your anxiety, prevent conflict from dominating your newsfeed, and reduce the amount of triggers you encounter when scrolling.

Puncture Your Bubble

There has been a lot of talk over the past week of the so-called “bubble” many of us seemed to have been living in online over the course of the election. The same bubble that left New Yorkers flabbergasted as state after state clocked in red on Tuesday night.

“This is a week where [listening] is particularly important. You need to recognize that what you hear on social media may not be as broad and representative as you think and that’s really important in both a professional and personal context,” said Samuel. “This might be a week where we doubt conventional polling, but it’s also a moment when we need to recognize that social media as well can miss as much as it shares. I’ve heard from a lot of friends over the past week who have been feeling like ‘why is what is going in the world so different from what’s showing up on my Facebook feed?’”

Does the sentiment feel familiar? There’s a reason for that.

“Facebook has an algorithm that determines what you’re going to see based on what you typically click on, like or engage with,” said Samuel. “So one of the most important things you can do when you’re thinking about social media if you’re looking for a broader perspective, is think about how to puncture your bubble.”

Newsfeeds are echo chambers for our own points of view. And the past few months—and the outcome of the election last week—only further solidified the validity of this statement. While seeing your own sentiments reflected back at you from your newsfeed may be comforting and empowering, it creates a false sense of reality. Samuel provides some ways to puncture your own bubble to give yourself a more comprehensive understanding of the broader conversation:

On Twitter: Lists

To puncture your bubble on Twitter Samuel suggested utilizing the list feature.

If you follow a relatively small amount of accounts on twitter (50-100), chances are you can keep up with what is going on with each of them pretty well from looking at your home feed. But as the amount of people we follow grows, it gets increasingly more difficult to stay updated on all of them, and checking in on your news feed becomes a random shot in the dark, giving you a glimpse at the most recent posts, which are not necessarily representative of those your follow as a whole.

For this reason, Samuel is a big fan of Twitter lists: “take a group of people that you follow (or maybe even don’t follow) and put them on a list so you can see just those people in one place.”

Many of us probably think of creating a list as a tactic for narrowing the information stream, not widening it.

“Twitter lists are helpful for focusing in on a certain place, like I am just going to follow all the folks who are super smart about data,” agreed Samuel. “But then there are times when I actually want to go broader and puncture my bubble. So I created a Twitter list called ‘normal people.’ That was a place where I curated a list of people who were not social media professionals, just people who actually use Twitter, and I made a point of looking at that every day just to get a feel for how Twitter works for folks who are not social media professionals. For me that was a helpful way to puncture my bubble and get to hear from a boarder universe. “

On Facebook: Trending Topics

 Because Facebook’s algorithm for determining what information earns a coveted spot in your newsfeed is so complex, it becomes even more important to actively pop the bubble it creates.

“What you see on your newsfeed really does reflect what Facebook thinks you’re going to find interesting, and then to some extent who’s paid to appear in your newsfeed,” said Samuel. “But when there is a moment or topic that’s really hot on Facebook you will see trends on the sidebar and then some topics—[last] week you saw people were talking about the US election.”

These trends are your way to hack Facebook’s algorithm, ensuring you see the entire conversation—not just the pared down version of the story Facebook creates on your newsfeed.

“Even though Facebook is only showing you stories about a big issue or financial trend that come from people who think like you, if you go over to that sidebar and you click on one of these trending stories, you will then have a Facebook curated feed that is far more reflective of the breadth of Facebook users,” said Samuel. “It’s really shocking actually when you do that, how different Facebook at large looks from what you see on your own newsfeed.”

She recommended making this a regular habit, not just one that’s exercised during particularly high-stake periods like an election year.

“It’s so easy in this world of algorithms and targeted media to end up in a bubble that unless you do stuff like making a Twitter list of normal people or looking at trend conversations, you really can lose touch with the broader universe.”

But Create a Bubble When Necessary

“The flip side of the bubble problem is that we’re humans; we’re easily triggered, easily frightened, and also we sometimes just have specific things that we want to avoid or find, so it isn’t always helpful to puncture your bubble,” said Samuel. “Sometimes what you actually need to do is create a bubble.”

Create Groups

“This is particularly important when you need to have difficult conversations or engage in a really complicated topic,” said Samuel. “To give an example: I created a Facebook group 28 hours ago because I noticed a lot of my friends were talking about how they were going to talk with their children about the election. And that seemed to me like a conversation that would be really hard to have in an extremely eclectic community, so I created a Facebook group for people who just wanted to have that specific conversation.”

The obvious application of this is to discuss hot button issues that you aren’t willing to open up to a public forum. Samuel also highlighted the fact that this can be a great way to take political and personal conversations that you may consider NSFW offline:

“One of the things I’m very conscious of is that Facebook, which once upon a time was very much a personal networking space for people, has increasingly become a really important professional channel. There’s a really simple way of managing that on Facebook which is to create lists that allow you to target things to different audiences.“

Filter Out Triggers

If you’re an active user on social media, it’s inevitable that you will be bombarded by opinions that contradict your own, and some—especially in this intensely polarized political climate–may be particularly damaging to your mental health. In these circumstances, it is completely acceptable (and it may even be necessary) to hide people from your Facebook feed and filter out tweets.

“When you’re in a sensitive, raw moment, think about how to filter out the stuff that is going to be hard for you and use your stamina where it really counts,” said Samuel. “That means hide people from your Facebook feed if they are triggering you; do not look at your Twitter home feed; go and look at the list of 20 people who you love—I keep a Twitter list that I call inspiration and it’s just the people who inspire me. On those days where I can’t even remember what I’m doing, going and looking there and finding out what they’re sharing and thinking can really help me a lot.”

Sometimes what you don’t know (or in this case what you can’t see) can’t hurt you, really is the best policy.

Have a Three Strikes Policy

We all have that uber-conservative relative who continues to post articles about “Making America Great Again” that feels like rubbing salt in a fresh wound. Or perhaps you’re coming at the issue from the other camp, and feel constantly attacked by a liberal friend posting jabs at Trump-supporters, blanketing the entire Republican party (you included) with the labels “racist” and “sexist.”

“There’s no shame in admitting we can be triggered,” said Samuel. “I have a three strikes policy: If you trigger me three times, you get hidden from my Facebook newsfeed.”

Simple as that. Since you’re not unfriending anyone on the platform, no relationships need to be severed. They won’t even realize you blocked their posts, but you can eliminate the barrage of uncomfortable messaging filling your newsfeed.

How to Engage in Healthy Debate

Opening yourself up to the conversations at large and putting yourself in the vulnerable position to have your beliefs challenged is extremely hard to do.

Which is why most of us don’t.

“In social science we know that a lot of us suffer from what they call ‘confirmation bias,’ where we prefer information and data that confirms what we believe and we don’t like stuff that challenges us because it’s uncomfortable,” said Samuel.

“We all have different stakes in these conversations and sometimes puncturing the bubble can be terrifying. A person of color seeing racist comments online is a really different experience than it is for me as a white person, so puncturing your bubble isn’t for the faint of heart, but I think if you can find it in your heart to commit to doing it, it’s really important.”

This, course, is just the first step. Once you’ve peeled off the blinders, the focus becomes having conversations across those lines, with those who may fiercely hold an opinion opposite of your own.

“There’s been a lot of research on the extent to which social media and the Internet generally brings people together within communities of commonality versus allowing people to connect across differences and in some ways social media has been awesome about that,” said Samuel. “You can find people who live in other places and connect across time zones and communities with people of different backgrounds. But what we tend to do is even if our online conversations become more diverse and forgiving in a geographic sense, they become narrower in terms of the range in views.”

The Importance of Audience Awareness

It has never been more important to engage constructively in online conversation and debate than in our current political climate. If you want to ensure that your posts aren’t going to trigger or alienate others, and in turn negatively affect your relationships, it’s vital to take a moment to consider your audience before hitting publish.

“It’s crucial to think regularly about the breadth of your audience relative to the breadth of what you see on social media,” said Samuel. “I’m somebody who posts a lot on social and the people I hear back from in comments and tweets, I start to think of as the entirety of my audience. Because it’s really different when you’re giving a presentation; you only get maybe five questions in a room of 50 people, but you still see that the other 45 are sitting there. On social media when you only hear from 10 or 20 of your colleagues or friends on a regular basis, it’s really easy to forget that there may be 500 or 5,000 or 10,000 people who are seeing what you post.”

And on the heels of an election that is particularly emotionally-charged this becomes even more relevant.

“This is a week where this feels particularly important. The first thing to think about is what’s the breadth or mix of personal and professional contacts who are seeing what I am sharing?” said Samuel. “When you’re posting things publically, it’s important to be aware that you may be reaching both a personal and professional audience and also that that audience likely encompasses a broader range of interests and perspectives than you may be aware of.”

She suggested taking a moment to then consider how much of your political views you really want to share online, and in what context you want to do so.

“I’m the last person who would say that there’s no place for politics on social media. I think for a lot of people, social media is a very important place to share the process, what they’re thinking about, not just during an election but day to day, it’s a huge part of the texture of our online lives,” she said. “But it is really important when you do that, to be aware that not everyone you are posting for or who is seeing your post necessary shares your views.”

Before You Post a Political Message, Do This

That’s not to say that their isn’t a place for political commentary, or healthy debate, online. But to prevent insensitivity that may cause conflict within your personal and professional relationships, Samuel suggested an exercise you can implement to keep yourself in check:

“When you’re posting something about politics imagine you are saying it in a room full of colleagues whose political preferences you didn’t know. Imagine you’re about to say this to 20 people who you work with and you have no idea what their personal life circumstances are or their political views.”

The hope is that the exercise will provide you a level of sensitivity that often comes naturally when addressing people verbally, face-to-face, and not so naturally when separated from your audience by a computer screen.

“One of the points I really want to make is that when we have these kinds of conversations online, and this is relevant not only to political conversations but to business conversations, people have very different stakes in a lot of the issues that come up online,” said Samuel. “Bear in mind that what, for you, may just be a news story, for other people can be really personal. That’s particularly true, of course, on political issues, but also with celebrity stories, crime stories, health news. Be aware that for someone else this could be an incredibly sensitive issue. Again, we don’t have to put bubble wrap around everything we say and keep everybody protected at all times, it’s just that when we’re online we’re more likely to lose the sensitivity to other people’s soft underbellies. You can never go wrong by imagining you’re actually in a room full of people and trying to think about how what you say may affect them.”

Be a Stalker

“One of the challenges we have in social media because we are engaging text to text is we forget that there is another human being there, and you can be really rude,” said Samuel.

She encourages everyone to take a moment to humanize the person on the receiving end of your debate.

“It can be really helpful to Google somebody. If you’re really mad, the madder you are, the more important it is to Google them and try and find a picture of that person. This is a practice I got into a number of years ago, I’d written a post and someone tore into me and I felt super defensive and angry. I went and found a picture of her online before I replied and it was a picture of her sitting with her grandchild on her lap and I looked at that picture while I posted my reply. That is just a naturally humanizing cue. Because when you’re looking at somebody’s face it’s a lot harder to de-humanize and it’s a lot easier to have a constructive conversation.”

Target What You Share

“Target on Twitter by using hashtags and when using Facebook, lists are a really great way to target what you post to a specific audience,” said Samuel. “There’s a nice trick: Facebook has a restricted list and if you put people on it then when you post something they are still your friends but they only see things you select as public, so they still think they are seeing everything.”

In other words, your parents don’t have to see pictures of you at the Trump protest—or feel the need to confront you about it at the Thanksgiving table. Argument averted.

The Power of Listening

When we think about the active use of social media, we think posting, sharing information. But listening is an equally important part of the conversation. One that many of us put way too little focus on.

But in public mediation, whether you’re talking about social issues or economics, it’s conversations that make the impact, said Samuel.

“Talk less and listen more to be more persuasive; the most powerful engagements I’ve had on Facebook started with a question,” she said. “What’s the question that will engage people in conversation? Ask them. Engage them in their replies; don’t do it in a fake way. Ask real questions that are interesting that generate conversation.”

 

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