While some Clinton voters picked up the phone and knocked on doors this election, others chose to display their support in more glamorous ways: by deleting their Trump-supporting friends on Facebook.
It’s a familiar trend, heightened in the past few weeks as the election draws to a close and as Trump’s insults and allegations have magically grown even more hysterical and repulsive. While Twitter activists fight for their cause using hashtags, Facebook users most commonly execute the nuclear option: defriending.
It’s an irresistibly fun weapon and a sometimes necessary defense but inspires no lasting change, and ultimately only helps one person: the person behind the post.
If you’ve spent any time on Facebook in the last 18 months, chances are you’ve written, witnessed or been the subject of a post announcing this crackdown. All tend to follow a very similar, mildly irritating formula:
Starts with: “I don’t normally talk about politics on Facebook, but . . .”
Links to The Washington Post Trump takedown of the day
Somewhere includes the clause, “This election is different,” and a strangely nostalgic reference to Mitt Romney
Ever-so-subtly references the Holocaust/Hitler
Labels Trump as one of the following: racist, misogynist, demagogue, sentient creamsicle, water-logged Ken doll, leftover sack of liposuction skin with a mouth
Concludes that anyone who supports Trump is also one of these things, and is therefore not worthy of their esteemed Facebook friendship
Promises to violently delete anyone they come across who support Trump: no f*cks given.
While the structure of these posts may feel annoyingly familiar to some, the writers behind them often come from an understandable place. At this point, there are so few groups left untouched and unharmed by the Trump campaign, it’s truly boring to recite them: immigrants, women, people of color, queer people, war heroes, people with disabilities, my mom. Even crying babies have experienced the wrath of Trump and sadly do not have the social media/SEO skills to speak out against injustice.
Some Clinton supporters just don’t want to keep someone in their Facebook family who’s willingly voting for a man who’s bragged about sexual assault and wants to deport whole populations of people. For some Clinton supporters, voting for Trump isn’t just wrong: it’s evil, demonstrating a profound lack of character, judgment and good fashion sense.
Sure, as pundits have repeatedly noted, Clinton supporters have little chance of dissuading people from voting for Trump.
“There’s probably nothing that can change a Trump or Clinton supporters’ mind,” the data gods at FiveThirtyEightwrote in July. A study conducted last October found that Trump supporters were more likely to evaluate a Trump’s statement as true even when it was patently false, leaving little room for growth.
Still, while it may feel thrilling and moral for a progressive to excise Trump voters from their Facebook feeds, it’s an inherently ineffective form of social activism, a grand rhetorical exercise that hardens hearts and minds instead of changing them.
For one, there is no gap like the information gap between conservative and liberal readers. The two parties read vastly distinct publications (if you want a migraine, spend ten minutes on Breitbart, then Salon) and gather their data from wildly disparate sources. By “bravely” kicking Trump supporters off their Facebook feed which takes the full strength of one finger they only serve to further isolate Trump voters from the data and stories both parties need to actually broaden their worldview.
Defriending is a grand rhetorical exercise that hardens hearts and minds instead of changing them.
Facebook compounds this information segregation by only promoting ads and friends that are likely to appeal to the user, i.e. those that most closely match their political affiliation. Sometimes, it’s not even that Trump or Clinton voters disagree with you it’s that they don’t have access to the same information, and literally don’t know what you’re talking about.
So while it’s most likely impossible for a Clinton voter to persuade a Trump voter at this point (or vice versa), it’s plausible that to the extent that Facebook will allow these disparate animals to intermix Clinton voters can expose some Trump supporters to new ways of thinking, different facts and divergent stories.
There are other risks. By publicly expunging Trump fans from their feed, Clintonistas only legitimize some Trump supporters’ biggest complaint: that they’re a persecuted minority, victimized by the liberal elite. Progressives, by their account, are out to destroy free speech, labeling anyone who disagrees with them racists and sexists, before silencing them.
Clinton voters, in some of their minds, are only interested in hearing diverse voices when the voices sound exactly like them; a public Facebook defriend only confirms that lurking, popular suspicion.
Of course, there are exceptions, times when defriending a Trump supporter is the healthiest and safest option. There’s a difference between advocating for your candidate and harassing someone for their views. If a Clinton supporter suddenly finds one of their Trump friends flooding their wall with pics of disembodied fetuses burning in a dumpster, then defriending them is easily the safest (and only) thing to do.
And keeping someone in your Facebook family doesn’t mean you have to keep them in your actual family. If you’re a queer person and one of your closest friends is a big fan of Mike Pence’s decision to withdraw funding from AIDS research and redirect it to conversion therapy, then a friendship breakup, not just a Facebook friendship breakup, might be in order. Close friends are not distant sexist uncles who occasionally post misspelled Hillary Clinton email memes. These are two different levels of intimacy, with two disparate levels of expectations.
It might seem impossible for Clinton supporters to keep those who disagree with them in their Facebook feeds but how hard is it, really, to listen? Part of the liberal vision is to hear, though not necessarily accept, all voices, as hateful as some of the voices may sound. Trump voters are their neighbors, however alien they may seem to some. And before some of these Clinton supporters throw stones at the “racist Trump thugs” in their network, some degree of self-examination is in order. New York City, for example, is home to one of the country’s largest population of progressives and one its most segregated school systems. Imagine if conservatives in the South (where schools are often less segregated) were to defriend all their progressive friends in New York attending segregated ones.
Who would be left to be friends with?
So if you’re a Clinton supporter, and you’re thinking about writing an emo Facebook post defriending all the Trump supporters in your life, stop for a second and try to imagine who it is, exactly, you’re helping. There are plenty of ways to help your candidate and your country but they require boots on the ground, old-fashioned volunteerism, and listening. Breaking up doesn’t change minds it just makes you feel better about yourself.