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Facebook has changed the face of political discourse

Date: 11/2/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

I'm convinced the 2008 election cycle was the "election of the blog" and this contest will be dubbed the "election of social media."

If you are old enough to think back through a number of past elections you might recall that friends or neighbors would engage in conversations about their candidates, slap a bumper sticker on their car or display a yard sign. There was an element of distance and control much of the time.

I remember growing up being told religion and politics were two subjects that were off-topic for most conversations. There was a sense of differences, but also a sense of privacy and respect.

With the advent of Twitter and Facebook, though, people who call each other "friends" a word with increasingly less specific meaning now digitally rub each other noses in their political opinion.

I understand the need for people to express an opinion and about the best thing I can say about Facebook is that people have to identify themselves. They can't be like the nameless bomb-throwers found on newspaper forums. At least your Facebook friends will directly tell you that you're "slow" when you ask a question about a viewpoint or express displeasure with phrases "that's what happens when you talk with the liberal."

At least they are willing to take the somewhat conflicted position of criticizing your beliefs while saying they like you as a person.

If there has been a way to disengage from any meaningful political discussion it has been the Facebook meme those items shared by people that include a graphic and some pithy sentiment.

I don't trust memes. They are a form of political shorthand and believe they are simply a very lazy way to express an opinion.

What I also don't like about them is how people on Facebook routinely pass them along without checking if they are true. If a meme underscores a belief embraced by someone that is the only test needed.

I've routinely researched some of the claims made by memes that are shared on my Facebook page and I've found that while some reflect a fact, many do not. This is to be expected in the era in which so much of the mail that flows into your computer is just plain crap.

What worries me even more, though, is the blind acceptance some people have of these graphics because it affirms their own political beliefs. They are not willing to question issues or records, but instead hit the "share" command because the meme made them feel good.

A meme popped up on my page that stated the federal government is so inept that it failed to make a profit from running a legal brothel in Nevada seized from non-payment of taxes and other criminal offenses. I looked up a number of newspaper accounts to show that was simply not true. When I noted the outcome of my research there was no response from the person who posted it.

I saw an anti-Romney meme, thought it was suspicious, researched it and posted about it. Again, there was no response.

This is all fascinating to me on the level of media theory. I have to be responsible and as accurate as I can in my role of writing stories and columns for this newspaper. The tools offered by the Internet have now democratized media to the point that anyone who blogs or posts on Twitter or Facebook can have a large following of readers, but apparently the same rules that govern people like me in my public discourse do not apply to others.

A friend of mine from very long ago recently "friended" me. I had to pull the plug on her after she said the president should be killed and that I should "grow up politically." How she used Facebook may be acceptable to some, but I like to hold people to the standards to which I'm judged.

Instead of Facebook providing a forum of discussion, it has simply become a place for too many people to repeat talking points like obedient parrots. The meme lays everything out in black and white. It's often a hate-filled haiku. There is no acknowledgement that politicians are human, no respect for the many moving parts of the way we govern ourselves and little sense of reality and context.

The political process is daunting enough with political action group money flooding battleground states with ads that simply are not true. I commend Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren for agreeing to reject that kind of support here and it has made their race a far better one.

I wonder what some of my Facebook friends will speak about after Election Day. Will they attack the winner of the presidential and senatorial races? Will they drop out of sight for a while? Will they find other topics to discuss?

I'm not willing to guess, but I will tell you I'll be discussing movies even more.

Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.