Like many others I experienced the events of Friday 24 June 2016 as something of a watershed. Not only because the UK electorate decided to leave one of the most successful organisations for peace and prosperity in the history of humanity, but because it did so in a climate of apparently wilful misinformation.
On a personal level, I’ve felt uneasy about Facebook for a while. Like everyone I’ve had the feeling that others are having more fun than me, and have been guilty at times of paying more attention to Facebook than to the real people right in front of me. I’ve also noticed lately that Facebook encourages me to skim across the surface of a large number of friendships without really investing enough time in the people who matter to me most. But in terms of the exchanging of ideas and access to information, until recently I bought into the idea that Facebook circumvented many of the limitations, privileges and political slants of newspapers and TV, for example.*
Nevertheless, it appears that we live in a political era that is ‘post-factual’. Some figures (e.g. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage; David Cameron during Scotland’s indyref) now seem to be unburdened of their responsibility to tell the truth and are apparently free to make unfounded promises and threats with very limited consequences. How can we be living in a post-factual world when social media has made information more accessible than it’s ever been?
Firstly, I suspect that information overload is exactly the problem, and that for some people the only political messages that cut through the noise are those that resonate with them on an emotive or even visceral level. (The proliferation of conflicting reports from ‘experts’ ultimately cancels itself out, leaving only soundbites.) Secondly, I think Facebook encourages the creation of ‘filter bubbles’: micro-communities of like-minded people, who are rarely exposed to points of view that challenge their own. On Facebook I was interacting with people who already had a similar outlook on life to me – which is fine for sharing photos and funny stories, but not conducive to any kind of debate. Meanwhile, those who inhabited other social media bubbles were proposing (again, relatively unchallenged) their own extreme arguments about, for example, the perceived threat of immigration in the UK and elsewhere.
And this is where I think it gets dangerous. Whereas in the past, such people might have proposed extreme views in the company of a small number of friends, they now have access to very large communities of apparently like-minded people. This, I’d argue, normalises extreme viewpoints and leads to the perception that everyone would share your view of the world if only they had the courage to express it.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to do this, and I’m not suggesting that Facebook is responsible for Brexit in any way. But I am saying that it’s not something I want to be a part of any more, and that the energy I’ve put into Facebook has been wasted on both personal and political levels. So on Friday I deleted my account.
I’m still on Twitter – I’ve tweeted a link to this post – and I can see that this might contradict some of the sentiments I’ve expressed above. In my defence I’d say that I need to maintain a presence on Twitter for work and study purposes, I use it selectively, and I don’t share anything about politics or my family there.
I’m not under the illusion that quitting Facebook will bring about any seismic change to my life. But I could use the time I previously spent scanning my news feed to call or text a friend and ask how they’re doing, or arrange to meet up face to face. If I wanted to be politically active, then I could do so in the old-fashioned way (by handing out leaflets, talking to people or driving them to the polling station). Maybe I won’t do any of these things. Maybe in a few months I’ll succumb to curiosity and go back. But at the moment, I don’t miss Facebook at all.
*See Gillespie (2010) for a withering analysis of how tech firms hide their corporate motivations behind the language of democracy: Gillespie T. (2010) ‘The politics of “platforms”’, New Media and Society, 12 (3), pp. 347–364.