Social media environment discourages political discussion


art by Maddy Mueller

Nicole Schroeder

Social media sites are quickly becoming one of the most popular pastimes in the United States with approximately 121.8 billion minutes per month spent on social media in 2014, according to
With such a constant stream of connectivity among people, the sharing of ideas and opinions has become much simpler and more common phenomenon online. However, according to a study in August 2014 by Pew Research Center in conjunction with Rutgers University, nearly 86 percent adults surveyed said, in the case of the Edward Snowden scandal, they would be willing to share their political opinions in person, compared to only 42 percent of people who would share their opinions online.
Undergraduate Director of Political Science William T. Horner from the University of Missouri-Columbia said he doesn’t like to share his political opinions on social media sites, particularly because of the possibility that it could interfere with the opinions of his students in the Introductory American Government course he teaches.
“If I shared my personal views, either in class or in some other public way, such as online, I might energize some [students], but I’d make others angry,” Horner said. “I really am interested in the students in the middle. People who say they are moderates tend to be less politically active. I want them to know there is plenty for them to get excited about too and I don’t want my personal views to get in the way.”
Despite getting on sites like Twitter and Instagram often, freshman Danielle Schneider agrees and said she doesn’t often share her opinions online either. She said the possibility for offending someone is simply too great for her to justify sharing her opinions online.
“I don’t know. I feel like it’s not something I want to share with the world. If you ask me, I guess I’ll tell you, but I don’t like to post it on the internet,” Schneider said. “It just makes people mad at each other and it’s not face-to-face since you’re doing it on the internet and I think that’s stupid.”
Not everyone agrees with Schneider’s beliefs about sharing political opinions. In fact, she said she often sees others posting their political opinions on social media sites and it can even lead to arguments on the site.
“I’ve seen people get into a fight over their beliefs. I haven’t personally been in one,” Schneider said. “It probably does happen often, but I don’t see it very often. I think it happens often because a lot of things in the news are controversial so people want to write about it and then they fight about it.”
While Schneider doesn’t often post her political opinions online, junior Abe Drury said he shares his beliefs on social media sites fairly regularly, particularly on sites like Twitter and Instagram.
“I share my opinions if they aren’t on very controversial issues,” Drury said. “I do so because the people that follow me on social media are likely interested in what I am thinking, as long as it is not a serious issue.”
Such practices aren’t necessarily ones to look down upon, either. Horner said he believes it is beneficial for people to share their ideas with one another, whether it be face-to-face or on a social media forum. It is only when people post their beliefs with a negative connotation that they begin to “shout past one another” and the discussion “immediately deteriorates into personal insults.”
“I think people simply disassociate themselves from what they post, somehow. I don’t think they really think that what they are posting reflects on them,” Horner said. “People say pretty outrageous things without giving much, or any, thought to who it might impact…. Frequently, they’re just re-posting things from other sources, but when you do that, it makes a statement about you.”
Drury said he finds similar patterns in the ways people share their political alignments online. With a large number of people posting and the inflammatory remarks that are made, he said it can very easily turn from a calm discussion into an argument.
“I think [social media] is a good environment in theory [for sharing opinions], but in practice doesn’t accomplish anything,” Drury said. “I have seen everything from a well-reasoned argument to a fanatical decree in under 120 characters. The exchange can be positive, but the masses on social media to prefer to be negative and unpleasant.”
Even though she agrees about the negativity that is seen online when people share their opinions, Schneider said she doesn’t think there is a way to prevent it from occurring.
“I think, in a perfect world, that [preventing cyber negativity] would happen but I don’t think you can really do anything about it,” Schneider said. “I think it’s just the people’s right. If they want to post about it, they can and if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. I feel like if you feel really strongly about it then it doesn’t matter. They will share it either way and it’s just one way you can share your opinion.”
In line with Schneider’s beliefs, nearly 67 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 engaged in political activities on social media in the past year, according to another Pew Research Internet Project published in April 2013. However, Drury said he feels social media sites are simply not meant for the political discussions that take place there.
“People are more aggressive and offensive online than in person, likely because of a lack of consequences for what people say,” Drury said. “Social media is great for many things and could facilitate the exchange of intelligent ideas, but in practice, does the opposite.”
Horner agrees with Drury and said people are not willing to listen to one another’s opinions enough for such discussions to take place. Horner said he believes the compromise that was once essential in politics is now lacking, contributing to the incendiary comments that occur.
“Our political system was designed by the framers to work on compromise. No law can become a law without passing in identical versions in the House and Senate and being signed by the President. It is, by definition, a product of compromise,” Horner said. “Now, if you change your mind or compromise with the other side, you aren’t praised as you should be. Instead, you are called weak, a flip-flopper, or a traitor.”
Horner said political discussions, if handled calmly and in a polite manner, are much more beneficial than the argumentative ones taking place on social media sites and in fact are still very important to the political atmosphere of the community.
“I think social media could be a nice way for people to engage in discussion. Discussion of political issues is engagement in the political process and that is always good,” Horner said. “We live in a democracy and we should want to be involved in it.”
By Nicole Schroeder