I normally refrain from posting political content on social media, but in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting last December I shared a video on Facebook. It was too disturbing not to.
Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host, narrates the video, which appeared on the National Rifle Association's news site. She has harsh words for liberals. "These saboteurs share the same fanatical fervor to tear apart the foundations of America as the terrorists who threaten our very survival. And together, they march hand in hand toward the possible, purposeful destruction of us all," says Loesch.
The video implied that the "godless left" was responsible for the San Bernardino shooting, piling it on with other purported atrocities Loesch believes liberals are also responsible for: Benghazi, Obamacare, the overall "tearing apart of the foundations of America." She goes on to say that liberals "demonize Christians" and endanger the country with our talk of "racism and xenophobia."
The inflammatory nature of her remarks alarmed me. I'm a progressive. I felt personally attacked. But I also felt terrified that this rhetoric existed at all in the light of such a tragedy.
I was further alarmed to see that this video was sponsored by Kimber, a manufacturer and seller of guns. It's not that I didn't understand. I know that gun manufacturers do not want their profit margins affected by gun control laws. But I was still shocked that they would support a message that equates progressives with terrorists. In a knee-jerk reaction, I took to social media to express my disappointment.
I posted the video with the following comment: "As we continue to lose our sense of safety in public places, including schools, it is interesting to note that the NRA and those who profit from the sale of weapons are sponsoring videos such as this one to further promote fear and division among Americans. What a scary, scary video."
I assumed my friends would see that the video was propaganda. That they would be horrified, and agree that whatever our beliefs about gun ownership, making remarks like Loesch's about any political group is not acceptable.
This is why I was incensed when an old classmate commented that she absolutely loved the video and proceeded to repost it to her page. I didn't respond. I had a sudden urge to block her from my news feed, to prevent her from commenting on my posts, or even to delete her. But I worried that these feelings made me guilty of the same intolerance I have accused others of in the past. I resolved to not take any action.
I have more than seven years of experience marching on the streets for reproductive rights and working long hours on behalf of polarizing candidates. I have been the person calling you to ask who you are voting for, the person knocking on your door reminding you about the upcoming election. I have seen my share of heated political discussions in person and online. In fact, I have been yelled at and called names that range from murderer to communist.
Despite my personal beliefs, in my private life I avoid arguments on controversial topics: They seem to only entrench people in their beliefs and cause greater divisions. And they don't tend to persuade anybody, anyway.
But gun control is something I feel especially strongly about. It is an issue of life or death, and I worry constantly about the consequences of inaction. Have we resolved that children being murdered in schools is just a fact of life? Are conservatives and progressives really so different that we cannot join forces to demand that our government takes some action, any action? Can we at least allow an honest conversation about why our country is plagued by so much violence that doesn't resort to equating one side to terrorists?
While I was aware our country is deeply divided, I was surprised to learn someone I grew up with felt that liberals like me are responsible for the demise of America.
I'm not alone in being bewildered by the beliefs of my friends. I reached out to Amy Mitchell, the director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center, who told me that according to her research almost 60 percent of Facebook "news consumers" have been "surprised" by a friend or family member's views. She added, "Facebook has helped people get to know where their friends stand on different issues."
My former classmate's enthusiastic endorsement of the gun video I posted made me consider how my circle of virtual and real-life friends has expanded over the years. The people who have entered it tend to all fall on one side of the political spectrum, and my most intimate interactions are with people who share a majority of my worldview and beliefs.
This is quite common. According to Mitchell, "Nearly half (47 percent) of those with consistently conservative political views and about a third (32 percent) of consistent liberals say that the posts they see are nearly always or mostly in line with their own views." This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the "echo chamber effect."
While we may have always created echo chambers in our social circles, the emergence of the internet has intensified this effect. In his TED talk, Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You and the founder of MoveOn.org, warns that the internet is "increasingly showing us things we want to see and not the things we need to see."
Pariser also warns us that the more "personalized" our internet experience becomes, the more an echo chamber effect can be intensified. This made me wonder: Is it really a good idea for internet algorithms to decide to shield things from us?
Facebook conducted its own study last year to test this concept. Its researchers wanted to know if Facebook algorithms were preventing people who had self-identified as conservative or progressive from seeing information that didn't align with their beliefs.
They looked at activity of these users over a course of six months. They concluded that users were still being exposed to differing opinions and that their algorithm didn't suppress content. But people created their own echo chambers based on the posts and pages they liked.
The researchers also found that "liberals tend to be connected to fewer friends who share conservative content than conservatives who tend to be linked to more friends who share liberal content." No wonder I found my classmate's dissenting view so odd.
I decided to conduct my own experiment. For two weeks I amplified my own echo chamber. I eliminated people from my social news feed who held distinct beliefs from me. I created a category on Facebook and would block them from certain posts. I also could no longer see their posts.
Like most people, my network is a compilation of old friends and classmates, former colleagues, current friends, and family members. Those who hold different belief systems than I do generally fall in the old classmates and family member categories. Deleting these people made it abundantly clear that I am indeed an outlier in my own family and that I have become more liberal than several of my former classmates.
After a few weeks I started to notice that there were no dissenting views appearing on my feed. The echo chamber I was already living was enhanced.
I noticed because my Facebook feed no longer had anything that irritated me. It was pleasant to not see disturbing images of fetuses from my anti-abortion relatives. I no longer saw memes that attempt to illustrate why we shouldn't accept Syrian refugees into our country. There were no comments insisting that President Obama wants to take people's guns away. It was just a constant stream of progressive news and posts from friends, acquaintances, and former colleagues.
The Pew Study found that about 61 percent of millennials reported that they obtained their news from Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, Facebook has replaced television as my main source of news. The pieces my friends post provide me with my daily dose of news on social issues and political happenings, along with posts by the pages and publications I "like," such as NPR or Huffington Post.
We know that what we see on social media is as much as a product of our preferences as it is a product of the gurus working behind the scenes with algorithms that determine what we see and don't see. Facebook has come under scrutiny for aggravating the echo chamber effect. One study found that Facebook users "tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization."
This reinforces the findings from the Pew Research Center that found that it is actually quite common for millennials to have like-minded friends, particularly those who label themselves progressives like I do. Even more interesting is that people like me are also more likely to delete or block friends who have dissenting opinions; about a quarter of them have stopped talking to someone over political disagreements.
As Washington, DC, has become more polarized, it has become harder to make compromises that are necessary to govern the country. The polarization has become so entrenched that this year, in an unprecedented move, Republicans decided they would not even set hearings to discuss President Obama's budget. In recent years a record number of bills have been vetoed, and each year has become a showdown that ends in the threat of government shut down.
In their book The Mindsets of Political Compromise, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson argue, "A compromising mindset can mitigate the effects of polarization on the dispositions toward political compromise of both political leaders and voters, while an uncompromising mindset can exacerbate those effects."
If this is true of Congress and the president, then the same can be said of our individual interactions. We need a disposition for compromise. We need to at least respect those who hold opposing viewpoints if we ever want to see the same attitude from our leaders. Easier said than done, even for me.
At the end of the two weeks, I reinstated my feed and friend settings. But questions about what one should do about political disagreements on Facebook still lingered. I spoke to Dr. Arely Zimmerman, an assistant professor at Mills College who has studied civic engagement, new media, and online activism. She told me she believes that when it comes to millennials, any political discourse is better than no political discourse at all. She reassured me that what we really need is more conversations on these topics not less.
After speaking to her, I resolved not to avoid political talk and engage more with people, ask questions, and learn more about their beliefs.
It was at that moment I decided to add a third week to my experiment. This third week, I posted articles about social and political issues that ranged from environmental justice to prison reform, race, and electoral politics to gauge the responses. Many of the articles went unnoticed.
The night of the Iowa caucuses, I posted an article about Hillary Clinton, one of the most admired yet polarizing figures in American politics. It wasn't long before someone commented on how much they dislike Hillary. I pushed through my discomfort and engaged in a discussion about her and Bernie Sanders. Soon after, another friend who is a strong Hillary supporter chimed in. Several comments later we had a great, civil discussion about Hillary's positions. Turns out sometimes the disagreements can be equally intense among like-minded individuals, but the dialogue is promising nonetheless.
But of course dialogue is more meaningful if it compels people to take action. Millennials' voter participation rates are lower than those of previous generations. I know that not voting doesn't equate lack of concern. In fact, I would argue that millennials do care. We care deeply. So much so that we are more likely to delete or unfriend someone from social media if they have different beliefs than we do.
But we are also deeply disenchanted with the current political climate. Maybe we are disenchanted by the deep divides that have stalled our Congress from taking action on many issues we care about, including gun control. While it might feel like we cannot control the discourse among our leaders, we can start by at least talking to each other about these issues in a civilized manner, preferably in person and online.
After all, engaging in these discussions encourages us to be critical thinkers, a valuable skill at a time when our political system has reached a point where it is hard to discern fact from fiction.
In retrospect, I should have engaged my former classmate about the gun video. Maybe then I could have learned more about why she felt that way and what elements about the video appealed to her value system. This whole time I thought it was not worth the effort to engage with people whose minds I wouldn't change. But perhaps it wasn't about them. It was about me learning more about what it is about conservative messaging that resonates with people.
I realize that even if it brings me great discomfort, it's important that I continue conversations about big issues and that I contribute to an environment where we can have these conversations in a more respectful way. I haven't encountered any Donald Trump supporters among my social media or real-life friends, but if I do I will have to remember my newfound philosophy.
After all, when I eliminated my cousins from my Facebook feed I didn't only eliminate dissenting viewpoint. I also eliminated pictures of their children. There's a lot at stake when we decide to remove those who disagree with us from our virtual lives if they are members of our own family. If they are distant relatives, it can be easy to just hide them from my feed and avoid them at family functions. But I suspect that while this is comfortable, isolating ourselves from opposing views is not how we will achieve the changes we need.
It's worth examining how we find common ground with those who disagree with us even at a time when it seems we are more divided than ever. We need to dig in and get a little dirty. While voting is a private act, keeping our democracy is not private. It's all about collective action.
Betsy Aimee writes about the intersection of politics, careers, parenting, and lifestyle for a variety of publications. Her writing has appeared in Marie Claire, ForbesWoman.com, the Muse, and Romper. You can find her on Twitter @betsyaimee or at BetsyAimee.com.