The first week of the Trump presidency was eventful. The President signed orders that will have an immense impact on both a local and global scale: There is a vague order allowing for the eventual repeal of parts of the Affordable Care Act—but no clear next steps have been outlined for the people who will be affected; the authorization of the construction of a 1,900-mile long wall along the Mexican border—although it remains unclear how the wall will be funded and what the long-term economic impact will be; two orders that advance controversial pipelines; the threat to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities” if they continue to shield undocumented immigrants; and he has voided visas from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, effectively banning travel from these countries and placing Muslims in general under intense scrutiny—and also temporarily blocking green card holders from re-entry into America as well. His actions have prompted huge, almost daily protests on American and foreign soil and drawn condemnation from leaders within his own party as well as leaders around the world.
However it bears noting that despite these very public showings of dissent, Trump’s approval rating stands at 43% at the time of this writing. That’s half of the American public. And while this half may not be marching in opposition to the opposition, one of the places they are making their voices heard is online. It's changing the fabric of people's core social networks as they grapple with opinions that are immensely different from their own.
According to the Pew Research Center 66% of Facebook users connect with people they know personally. Twitter users on the the other hand skew in the other direction: 15% follow people they know personally with almost half following people they do not know. The connection between our behavior on the two platforms is that we select for those who are similar-minded or interesting to us. It's a natural tendency for us to try to avoid people with whom we have strong differences of opinion. We want to be with like-minded people who reinforce our views and support the ways in which we see the world. This sense of cohesiveness is the basis of community. But given the norms of accepting contacts within our online social networks, the people we are connected to online constitute a diverse representation of opinions. We share varying degrees of commonality in different areas.
Despite our inclination toward similarity, the nature of how we interact and connect online leaves the door open for tenuous connections. There plenty of people who connect with others indiscriminately online but even for those who carefully curate their online networks, there are tiers of connections. If the network is a series of concentric circles, the core will contain the people who are most similar in ideology to us and that similarity will drop by degrees as we move farther away from the core. We are shielded from potential conflict that may arise from these differences because there's a social code that has come to guide online interactions online. With regard to Facebook, we seem to interact more closely with the people we know well—these are the statuses that we tend to Like or comment on or otherwise engage in conversation. Otherwise, the path of least disagreement leads us to skip or avoid content that we dislike. And of course we have the option to "mute" or "unfollow" people from whom we want to see less from while maintaining the veneer of friendship by staying connected. (Approximately 31% of social media users have changed their settings in order to see fewer posts from someone in their feed because of something related to politics, while 27% have blocked or unfriended someone for that reason.) On Twitter people seem more inclined to call out differences. The reason for this very likely has to do with the types of connections we have and degree of connectedness we have with each other on these platforms.
The general tendency toward similarity leads us to create echo chambers where we are presented with and recycle information that is meaningful to our core group. The echo chamber generally drowns out dissenting opinions, however the current political climate has created fractures in this barrier as we find that some of our closest connections may hold different opinions on the political agenda/actions of Donald Trump.
Gallup reports that seventy-seven percent of Americans believe the nation is divided on important national issues. And the public is pretty evenly split as to whether Trump will ultimately be able to unite the country (45%) or drive the divisions deeper (49%). With these percentages, it is hard to imagine that our echo chambers will not be infiltrated. This weekend alone I've watched two distinct family members engage in separate debates online over support of Trump and the validity of the protests that have occurred. The stress and frustration that these encounters have generated within the group are apparent and threaten the makeup of the core network as people we believed are essential members of our communities indicate that they hold strong beliefs in opposition to ours. This schism causes us to question the validity of the connection and the authenticity of the person—did we really know them at all?—which in turn threatens the support networks that we have built.
Online interactions and behavior (such as the pages we choose to like or the people we choose to follow) can reveal aspects of our personality that we might not otherwise share because we can say and do things online that we might not say or do in real life due to social prohibitions. Data indicates that 40% of social media users believe this is particularly true with regard to discussing politics but we know this to be true given anecdotal support from other online spaces where people have been targeted and trolled relentlessly. But there is something else at play here. Typically, people will ignore content that does not appeal to them and engage with close connections to maintain the network that they've built. This assumes that most people will think as we do and agree with our thoughts and the dissenter is an outlier. In this case, we need to go back to the first stat presented in this article: forty-three percent of Americans approve of Donald Trump's political agenda (which includes these gentlemen). The dissenters are not outliers in either camp. In almost all networks, there will be people who support Trump and people who do not in our core groups. Depending on the general theme of our echo chamber, we will see more news relating to one or the other relating to that theme (e.g., pro-Trump, anti-Trump). But once the theme is challenged by someone from the core of our network, it opens the door for the outer rings of our network to voice their dissent as well. The folks on the outer rings have a greater incentive to share their perspective because they have less to lose: as they're not members of the core group, the social risk of alienation is less damning. It opens the door for potentially breaking away from the social network.
That the potential for this to occur exists strongly suggests that the very foundation of our social order has been shaken. For dissent to occur within our core groups indicates that our faith in our social institutions is unstable. We buy into a notion of what society is by agreement. In this case, Americans ratified and lived under a document that set the foundation for this country, it’s government, and our social code. Now it appears that we are at a crux where we will either ultimately agree to continue to live under the Constitution or accept a reinterpretation. Reinterpretations have happened—there are Amendments. However some of the challenges that our core networks are grappling with are potential threats to those Amendments themselves.
Whatever the outcome, it is very likely that our core networks have been irrevocably changed. What that means for us and for our social order remains to be seen.
How are you dealing with dissenting opinions in your news feed? And within your circle of friends and family? Have something to say? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
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Image Credit: frankieleon