Saturday, January 20, 2018
Opinion

Facebook really is a lousy medium for political debate

Shortly after Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in 2009, a close Muslim friend I'd known since elementary school suddenly disappeared from my Facebook feed. She'd been excoriating Israel in her posts, and I'd said nothing. Then I posted a statistic showing the number of Hamas-fired missiles landing in southern Israel, where my husband has family. That same day, I noticed my friend had written "OMG!!" under my post. And then she was gone.

With a couple of cool, obliterating keystrokes and no questions asked (or at least posted), she'd apparently banished me from her online world. Years of friendship ended with a wordless, virtual severing.

That's the way things work in social media.

When my husband posted a video with a Zionist interpretation of the founding of Israel (this in response to an animated video advertising the Palestinian version of events), a Christian cousin of his, whom he'd hosted in our home years ago, posted a rant rife with anti-Semitic slurs on his wall. "He's finished!" my husband called out to his iPad. He was still shaken from a phone conversation with his sister in Israel. A missile had landed on her terrace. The cousin got an explanation before he was deleted, but he was nevertheless gone from my husband's "friend" list.

And the next day, my husband discovered how it felt. After a heated exchange on the conflict with a close Jewish friend sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he was the one unceremoniously dumped.

Perhaps it's time to accept that Facebook is a lousy medium for political debate. People seem to be much more interested in making statements rather than asking questions or seeking out diverse opinions. As much as we might like to think we enjoy pluralistic feeds with multiple views, our "friends" tend to be those with whom we agree. The rest, we shed. A recent study from the University of Colorado Denver found that "polarizing posts" are one of the most frequently cited reasons for unfriending someone on Facebook.

I hadn't expected those posts.

When I joined Facebook six years ago, it was as though someone had lit up a social Christmas tree in my desolate living room. I giddily accrued friendships — primarily with colleagues but also and most enthusiastically with old schoolmates. We'd all been part of a tightly knit expat community in Caracas, Venezuela, and I immediately envisioned Facebook as an Eden of reconnection with that past, where my former BFF from fifth grade would follow our brief exchange of mutually posted pleasantries with solid plans for a tearful reunion.

Needless to say, this didn't happen with any of my old acquaintances. Without the dimension of live contact, we were simply apparitions beaming at one another from flattering photos. It took me a while to absorb the obvious — we weren't the same children enthralled by our teachers and blood-pledged friendships. We were parents and professionals, married and divorced. And some of us were unrecognizably political, particularly whenever events surrounding Israel flared up.

Before logging on to Facebook during the latest Gaza conflict, I braced myself for the warring opinions I'd find. And that was a good thing. There were the usual Holocaust-referenced condemnations of Israel. There were my sister's harrowing photos of the destruction in Gaza. There was a Venezuelan childhood friend defending the Israeli Defense Forces.

I added to the cacophony with my own posts, which revealed my stake in Israel — my father's country, where I spent summers listening to Simon and Garfunkel in my aunt's Jerusalem apartment. That same aunt had suffered a permanent eye injury decades ago when a grenade exploded under her restaurant table in East Jerusalem.

The woman who defriended me was someone I once cared deeply about. We used to sprawl in each other's bedrooms after school in the late 1980s, laughing over the quirks of teachers and students. Her mother made the best kibbe in Caracas. Our fathers — both businessmen, one Israeli, the other Lebanese — would occasionally chat in Hebrew. Personal and political differences sometimes flared between us, and as adults we took separate paths, but a mutual affection had always bound us.

Facebook seems to have ended that. When she kicked me off her friend list (a conciliatory card I mailed a year later got no reply), I vowed never to post a political word again. I have broken that vow in the last two weeks, but to no fruitful end.

The Israel-Hamas quagmire won't be solved with posts meant for a narrowly self-selected crowd of people who share our views. In times like these, Facebook becomes a bizarre, cultural Rorschach test, where subjects are bombarded with endless YouTube videos sent by people hoping for a "like."

For me, the initial fantasy of being restored to my 1983 history class with my favorite teacher, surrounded by a clutch of passionate and competitive students — Christians, Muslims and Jews — debating issues with goodwill and youthful enthusiasm is gone. I'm determined to settle for the measured graces of online communing — the annual birthday greetings, the "likes" on photos of our children, the collective agreement to witness each other move tentatively from one year to another in this online hall of mirrors.

Then war will erupt again, and, in the quiet of our wounded hearts, we'll mutter to ourselves, "Off with her head!" and hit the unfriend button.

Tal Abbady is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid. She wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.

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