Six Ways to Keep Your Social Media Sanity in an Election Year

By Elliott Potter

The turn of the calendar to 2020 brings us to an intersection that most people would just as soon avoid, as the approach of a watershed election crosses paths with our experiences in social media.

While online communication has improved our lives in many arenas, politics isn’t one of them. Rather than connecting us, politically speaking, social media have torn us apart. They have spread the influence of extremism, bad information and even foreign interference. Worst of all, the negative influences often are shared by the very people we’ve loved and respected.

In a recent blog, I wrote about the pitfalls of political hyperactivity. Conspiracy theories, lies and tribalism have contaminated the landscape. Our civic consciousness is under attack. “Real harm is being done,” I wrote. “Practically every election turns into a choice between the lesser of evils. Not only has political discourse suffered, but personal relationships are taking a real beating.”

Not much has changed; in fact, we’re in a full-fledged crisis.

As much as people want to get involved and stay informed, the onslaught of strife and misinformation forces them to run and hide. The threat is pervasive. How-to articles during the holidays offered instruction on steering clear of politics at the family meal instead of the usual recipes for a fabulous pot roast. New Year’s resolutions have focused on staying away from online bickering as much as going to the gym.

Democracy won’t survive this way. If decent folks head for cover, who’s left to put our politics back on track? Remember the axiom usually attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Here are six suggestions for surviving this election year. Maybe they will help turn the tide against the forces of evil that are shredding this nation’s civic connections.

Remember, you are now the gatekeeper. During my 30-plus years as a newspaper editor, I saw gatekeeping as my most important and challenging role. With limited space in a newspaper, deciding what articles were printed – and which ones weren’t – helped set the readers’ agenda. With so many different news sources available these days, and many of the once-trustworthy gatekeepers now in steep decline, news consumers are on their own in traipsing through the forest of information. It’s a role that requires constant awareness if the lions and tigers and bears are to be avoided.

Start with a self-exam. If you want to stay healthy, you have to keep an eye on those lumps and blemishes. Few people are so smart and aware that they can avoid deception all the time. Recognize how your own filter works. Examine your own biases so you can keep them in check when it comes to processing information. Strive for balance and multiple sources.

Keep in mind that low-hanging fruit could be rotten or at least tainted. Some of the most readily available information can also be the least reliable. Memes, for example, are notorious for conveying bad information and outright lies. Sure, they can be funny; and they are a tempting shortcut to actual research. But the source may be a foreign government or a domestic bad actor, if the source can even be traced. Memes can be dangerous in political discourse because they plant a seed of unknown origin.

Separate friendship from partisanship. Without a doubt, the loss of a good friendship rates as the worst byproduct of political hyperactivity. It can be avoided – often not by changing minds but rather by agreeing to steer clear of certain topics; politics is a prime example. We use avoidance techniques every day in personal conversations. They become even more necessary online. Breaking off a channel of communication need not mean the end of a friendship. If necessary, explain the situation – and convey that it’s not just one relationship at issue; it’s a path you have decided to follow for your own overall well-being. A true friend will understand.

Sometimes it’s simply wise to keep your thoughts to yourself, or at least within a tight circle. It’s a natural tendency to pull the trigger and fire back, particularly on issues that you feel strongly or have knowledge about. If you are driven, at least consider keeping your response short and to the point. Perhaps you simply want to correct a fact. My advice (which I don’t always follow, by the way): Do it, then step away. It’s easy and time-consuming to get caught up in a back-and-forth that goes exactly nowhere, especially if strangers are involved. There’s more satisfaction to be found in a face-to-face conversation with friends or acquaintances who have shown they value your opinion.

Maybe it’s better to play an Avett Brothers song and sing along: “Your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected. If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected.” Politics plays an important role in our lives; we have a responsibility to care and to participate. But the real beauty of our lives is found elsewhere; don’t be distracted from what matters most.

Elliott Potter is a staff columnist and blogger for HERStory. He is a former newspaper editor and publisher who lives in Jacksonville, N.C.

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