How politics ruined Facebook: Can't we go back to puppies and food photos?

  • TECH
  • Friday, 10 Feb 2017

Facebook, once a depository of puppy videos and kids' photos, has been taken over by political posts. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Not too long ago, your average Facebook feed was a pleasantly fluffy mix of cat videos, photos of your friends' kids, and celebrity gossip, occasionally infected by some viral contagion – the relentlessly upbeat 100 Happy Days, say, or the inexplicably popular Mannequin Challenge.

But in the two weeks since President Trump took office, that's changed and drastically.

It's prompted posts like this one, from Josh Rosenberg, a Philadelphia IT professional: "Can someone please make a website where we can go to hang out together and not talk about current events? The loss of that is hitting me quite hard."

He said his feed, like pretty much everyone else's, has been devoured by political news: cabinet appointments that are alarming to his friends in this majority-Democratic city, and executive orders like a temporary ban on immigrants from mostly Muslim countries that sent thousands of protesters to the airport.

There are reasons for the deluge of political posts: For some, it's just that nothing else seems quite as important these days. Others hope the unending political conversation will galvanize resistance. But many social-media users say logging on leaves them racked with anxiety; some are installing filters to quiet political feeds or uninstalling social apps from their phones.

For Jill Ivey, 33, of South Philadelphia, it's all of the above.

"In some ways, social media is not fun anymore," she said. "But in other ways, it's amazing how communities are developing and resistance is building through social media. I've gotten like five invitations to various rallies that are happening around the city in the next week, all on Facebook."

The politicisation of Facebook has, of course, been a long time coming.

Last summer, a Pew Research Center survey found that more than a third of social-media users were "worn out" by the torrent of political content, and more than half were frustrated by online political debates. Almost a third had curated their feed to block political posts. And that was well before Trump took office.

But since the inauguration, "social media has changed," said Dena Driscoll, a South Philadelphia resident known on Twitter for posts about urban biking, community issues, and her kids.

"Someone said recently, 'Urbanist Twitter was great while it lasted.' Now, we're all political Twitter. All those different parts of Twitter _ bicycling Twitter, urbanist Twitter, Philly Twitter _ all of a sudden everyone is talking about the same things. And, it's depressing," said Driscoll, 32.

(It can also get contentious. Driscoll recently took her account private after her sister-in-law, a Trump supporter, began "trolling" her.)

These days, some see posting on Facebook as a civic responsibility.

"There comes a time when you need to stand up and say, 'This is not OK,' " said Paige Wolf, a publicist and author who lives in Center City. "I even wrote out a statement for my mother to write on Facebook. It feels stupid and silly to say that everyone must make their statement on social media, but that's how I feel."

She's grown dismayed with friends who continue to post exclusively about everyday life, sidestepping politics.

"I'm sorry, but that's like the silent neighbors in Nazi Germany," she said.

Such posts have almost preempted all other content for her but not quite. "I felt weird posting a picture of my daughter in ballet class Saturday morning. I feel weird posting promotions for beauty products. But I have to continue to celebrate the joyful moments, and I have to continue to promote my clients because that's my job."

Melissa Lucchesi, 35, of Media has noticed a divide between those who want Facebook to go back to what it was, and those who are adamant it cannot.

"I see people saying, 'I just want to go back to the puppy and food pictures.' That's a heck of a lot of privilege," she said. "I've had friends say, 'Enough with the negativity today.' But it's not negativity. It's reality."

Lucchesi, a sexual-assault survivor and founder of Voices Inc., a nonprofit that supports survivors, worries the Trump administration will follow through on plans to slash funding for Violence Against Women Act programs.

Lucchesi feels that the tone online has grown more acrimonious in recent weeks even despite the so-called filter bubble that makes users less likely to see posts by people with disparate political views.

Ashley Chiechi, 32, a Center City paralegal and a Trump fan who often posts with the hashtag #MAGA (that's Make America Great Again), can't disagree.

"I had to be silenced before Donald Trump was elected. I couldn't post anything," she said because she'd face backlash from friends, family and even her husband, a liberal. "But I realized that after he became president I had no reason to be fearful."

So, she posts about how the Women's March was a "joke," about boycotting Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka Trump's line, about how she was assaulted by a man who yelled "**** Trump!" _ and has seen friends unfollow and unfriend her as a result.

She's found solace in a Facebook group called The Deplorables. "That was my safe space, as the left would say," she said. It doesn't make up for what's lost, though. "I think it's incredibly sad that we can't sit down and be on opposite sides and have a civil dialogue."

Those who unfriended people they disagreed with following the election have not necessarily found that it's made their online lives more pleasant.

"I am one of those people who said, 'If you voted for Trump, I don't want you in my life,' "  said Rachel Zatuchni, 28, of Cherry Hill.

Even so, she finds Facebook exhausting right now: People are angry there, and hyper-vigilant. Her feed is almost entirely political (and "the nonpolitical posts have some kind of disclaimer like, 'I want to be focusing on politics now, but here is this other thing.' ")

The site is her primary means for staying in touch with far-flung family and friends. But, she said, "I've been thinking seriously about taking a break."

And for someone like Marilu Garofola, a Hillary Clinton voter who lives in Lancaster , Facebook has become downright harrowing in the last few weeks.

Garofola, 47, was more or less apolitical until this election cycle, but she dislikes Trump and took her 14-year-old daughter to the Women's March on Washington.

"I've even been called a terrible mother for taking her to experience that," she said. "Yet if I say something against the administration, it's like I'm personally attacking people (I know). It makes it difficult to express your frustration and fear and there is so much fear right now."

So, she tries to keep it light while making her point. She's been posting an "alternative fact a day." For Chinese New Year, she posted that Trump had announced his Year of the Rooster would be bigger than China's.

There are countless others, sure, like William Faulls, 51, of Blackwood, NJ, who just don't understand what people are getting so exercised about. He's pro-Trump, and has posted a few things to that effect but his goal, he said, was to unite.

"Some friends that post anti-Trump things, I never get involved in that. I'm not going to respond. I'm not going to unfriend you. I'll wait to see your next picure of you with your newborn," he said. "I'm more of a kumbaya kind of guy."

For others, such a zen outlook feels impossible. Some, to mitigate the anxiety, have even put themselves on social-media diets. Ivey, who often uses social media at work as a communications professional, said even she's trying to cut back.

"My husband told me the other day that he's worried about me, because I'm constantly fueling the fire," she said. "It's so easy to go down a rabbit hole of outrage."

She's tried to limit her hours on Facebook, and she's continued a months-long "battle of cuteness" against her husband: seeing his surprised-cat video and raising him a baby-elephant snapshot.

But for her, those are moments of levity to ease what she views as a grueling, but necessary, daily practice of online political engagement.

"There's a lot going on in this world to be genuinely worried about," she said, "and if we're not acknowledging it, then we're ignoring it."  – The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service

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