Everyday is Festivus on social media in 2016.
Frank Costanza would scream at the top of his lungs in dismay. The irascible “Seinfeld” character concocted his anti-materialism holiday in the ‘90s, when Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram were just a twinkle in a future billionaire’s eye. Festivus was a one-day spectacle for the Costanzas, featuring an “airing of grievances” among friends and family, every Dec. 23. Frank greeted his Festivus dinner guests with a stern warning: “I got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it.”
That sums up the Campaign ‘16 season online. By Dec. 23, there won’t be any grievances left to air.
If any of the 35 percent of Americans without a Facebook account is ready to finally give in and join “the internet” — simply to reconnect with long-lost friends and relatives, or to see pictures of grandchildren, cute puppies and recipes — consider waiting a few months. Circle Nov. 9 on your calendar, the day after the election. Try it then instead. Otherwise, prepare to scroll through an escalating political foodfight, with a dear great-aunt or college fraternity brother shockingly leading the charge.
The “unfriending” of Facebook friends has reached a peak in the divisive presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to an Associated Press report last week.
More than 1 billion campaign-related posts flooded Facebook in July, the month of the political parties’ conventions. The angry tone, outlandish claims and nasty rhetoric mirrors the campaign’s atmosphere, often going beyond lively, healthy debate. Thus, friends have been unfriended, a drastic online step that basically disconnects a person’s access to a user’s account. Such decisions could come from hurt feelings or just political exhaustion.
Jessica Myrick, assistant professor of media at Indiana University, confirmed that trend. She studies emotions and communications at IU.
“I’ve anecdotally seen a lot of unfriending,” Myrick said by phone Wednesday.
Emotions play a role. People identify with a candidate and his or her stances, subjects that can be “close to people’s hearts,” Myrick explained. When they go online and see rants or ridicule about their candidate, temperatures rise. “When we feel like somebody is attacking something in our core, we get really emotional about it,” she said. So, they respond with equal fervor. Both sides receive encouragement from like-minded friends, and the exchanges heat up and continue.
“When we get that little boost of reinforcement,” Myrick said, “we’re likely to do it again.”
Facebook and Twitter weren’t around for elections before 2008. Before that, people inspired to get political views off their chests wrote letters to the editor of their local newspaper, which remains an ideal forum for ideas. That writing process involves more time and forethought than a social media posting. People typically think twice about their words.
“Now, in literally seconds, you can tweet 140 characters of vitriol,” Myrick said.
And that rash statement lingers for, well, ever. “Even if you delete a tweet, it’s always out there on the internet,” she added. “So be mindful about it.”
Myrick suggests internet users pause and think before they post a comment. She emphasized the useful tool that social media has become. It offers instantaneous reporting, the opportunity to share stories and opinions, connections with people worldwide and fun opportunities, like seeing a great-niece take her first steps or a squirrel riding a skateboard. (The journal Computers in Human Behavior published her article on the psychology of watching cat videos.) Still, as the Trump-Clinton discourse shows, that immediacy has a negative side, too.
For those determined to post political statements, Myrick provided a reminder about the limited power of persuasion. “Research shows, you’re not going to change people’s minds by being a jerk,” she said.
People weary of reading angry or wild campaign posts could decide to “unfollow” a Facebook friend, a click that essentially hides their postings from your view. It’s not as final as unfriending, but effective. “It’s a balance between being a citizen in a civilized democracy and being a human being wanting to go through the day without having a stroke,” Myrick said.
Then, on Nov. 9, you can resume following that person. Or, wait to catch up with them at dinnertime on Festivus.
Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.