As this past weekend’s Super Bowl clearly exemplifies, within the past year or two, politics has made its way into almost anything and everything. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the combative tone of the presidential primaries and presidential election, as well as the evolution of social media, have greatly contributed to this. According to www.statista.com, the number of monthly active Facebook users has more than doubled since our last election, while the number of monthly active Twitter users has more than tripled. This type of growth has not only helped provide more people a political voice, but created an environment where users can engage people around the world in political discussion with a few taps of their phone.
In the days before social media and the Internet, if someone came across something that could be construed as leaning towards one side of the political aisle, that same person would likely be forced to think, process, and reflect on what they had just seen prior to discussing it with others. While doing all of those things is no guarantee of civil discourse, the fact that there was at least a reasonable amount of time between viewing and discussing means that one could take the time to be more thoughtful about the issue rather than simply using their gut reaction to what they saw. Nowadays, after viewing something that may or may not be politically charged, a Twitter or Facebook user can reach for their phone and share with the world their very first reaction to what they just saw.
The resulting question: Is being able to share your gut reaction to anything and everything you see immediately with the world a net positive? In a politically divisive climate like today, I’m not so sure the answer is yes. A great example of how quick people are to react to something not meant as a political statement is the 60 second “Born the Hard Way” Budweiser commercial shown during the Super Bowl. In it, Budweiser recounts the difficult journey of immigrant Adolphus Busch from his arrival to the United States until his eventual meeting with future partner Eberhard Anheuser.
The immediate reaction to the commercial, which was posted prior to the Super Bowl, was about as binary as possible. Given the content of the commercial and the strong opposing views by the public of Donald Trump’s recent executive order to temporarily ban foreigners of seven majority-Muslim nations, it’s not hard to imagine why the commercial was viewed as Anheuser-Busch InBev taking a position on a touchy political subject like immigration. Some supporters of President Trump’s executive order immediately launched a #BoycottBudweiser movement in response to the commercial, while some of those who oppose the ban staunchly supported the company. This, obviously, has led to plenty of strife online and likely has contributed to furthering the division between those with differing politics.
The most interesting part of this situation is that AB InBev had already released statements about how the commercial is not a political statement, and in fact was conceived of and shot before the presidential election last November. This, obviously, has not stopped people on social media from reading into the motivations behind the commercial and letting the social media universe know how they feel. If everything else in the world was the same besides the existence of social media, would the conversations we have about the Budweiser commercial be the same? Maybe. Would we be able to view the commercial objectively and reflect rather than draw immediate assumptions based on what the Internet is telling us? I hope so.
So what are things that we, as individuals and as a society, can do to make sure that we use social media in a way that facilitates thoughtful discussion about sensitive issues? As individuals, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to work towards using social media as a way to connect and further conversations beyond what our immediate reactions tell us. This likely means avoiding our impulses to post to Twitter/Facebook the first thought that comes to our mind, especially about subjects that could be construed as controversial. Even implementing a simple rule for oneself such as “I’m going to reflect on what I saw and the purpose of my post for one minute prior to posting” would create a culture that allows us to be more thoughtful instead of impulsive.
As a society, I think it starts with our education system. It’s imperative that we teach children critical thinking skills that allow them to engage in conversations (both in-person and over social media) that are more involved than just the first thoughts that come to their mind. Additionally, as the generation that has never known the world without social media, children today need guidance and education about how to successfully navigate and use social media personally and professionally. Once we can create an online culture of reflection and discussion, I think we, as a society, will be able to find ways to engage and learn from each other rather than revert to our basic instincts.