It’s cool if you don’t agree, yo, we can still be friends

I blog when my baby naps. As a result, I sometimes see something I want to write about, but don’t get time to actually write for a while – but which point, it’s less topical. I also often fire off quick blogs, but I tend to prefer the ones that I can take some time over, to make sure I’m saying what I want to say.

This blog is about a piece that Karl du Frense wrote more than a month ago on the influence of social media in the tenor of election debates. The gist is that social media promotes tribal clustering of ideologues, who are then nasty about their opponents. He concludes by saying “Champions of the Internet applaud the fact that public comment is no longer controlled by gatekeepers in the mainstream media, and they’re right, up to a point. But the gatekeepers were a civilising influence whose absence from social media we may come to regret.”

Sir, I respectfully disagree.

Among my facebook friends (i.e. my real life friends and acquaintances), there is a current National candidate and a current Labour candidate, there are corporate lawyers and union organisers, there are people who like and share posts from the Young Nats, and people who like and share posts from the Greens. There are people who share news articles about how Israel is unfairly maligned in the mainstream media, and people who attend Free Palestine rallies. There are people who are passionate about politics, people who have some interest in politics, and people whose attitude to politics is similar to my attitude to rugby (my brother has tried to explain it many times, but it’s just not my thing). There are people who say “they’re all the same!”, people who say “I genuinely don’t know who to vote for!” and people who have spent the last three months leafleting and door knocking for a cause they believe in. There are people who think that childhood deprivation is the fault of poor parenting alone, and there’s someone who had Susan St John as his dissertation supervisor. Whenever I log in to Facebook I see a random assortment of their views. There is no real-life equivalent to this melting pot. In real life, it is often considered impolite to discuss politics. We had an antenatal group catch-up the day after the budget, and no-one brought up the extension to paid parental leave: politics is something that people might disagree on, disagreement can cause offence, in some social situations it’s easier to leave it alone. 

But democracy requires debate. Social media may provide a platform where it is possible to be rude, but it also provides a platform where it is safe to challenge different views. Put me in a room with Karl du Frense, and I’ll be worried he’ll look at me and think “pffft young woman: dismiss everything she says”. Give me a blog, and I don’t have to feel my confidence ebbing away under a patronising look. Social media also allows us to reach out and find people we agree with, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If your views are the most prevalent views in society, you can take it as a given that people agree and so you can openly argue against people who disagree without compunction. But a plurality of views is a good thing, and new ideas are more likely to be properly considered if the people who hold them can back each other up. I can’t speak to the time Karl du Frense wistfully remembers; I don’t know what the world was like before the internet. But I do know that Facebook has enabled me to keep in touch with a broader and more diverse circle of friends than I see day to day; and as a result, the worldviews I’m exposed to are less same-same-samey than they would otherwise be. And I know that when I post this blog on my timeline, it will get lots of likes. But not as many as that recent photo of my baby eating mashed carrots.