How social media almost kept me from voting

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When I was younger, I had no filter. I felt compelled to voice every thought and judgment that popped into my mind, no matter where I was or who could hear me. When I was four, I even told my great-aunt that she needed to see a dentist. That made my mother quick to stick a finger to my lips and say, “There are some things we just don’t say to people.”

She also taught me there are some topics too delicate to discuss in mixed company. Topics like how much money someone makes or spends, what religion they practice, and, most importantly, politics. That last one wasn’t something I worried about until this election.

I have never been the most politically savvy individual. Admitting my lack of competence in the world of politics, like confessing that I’m not sure about where I stand on immigration laws, just invites everyone to bombard me with their thoughts and opinions. And in this era of social media, that’s exactly what happens. It’s overwhelming. I feel like it’s easier to just say nothing at all.

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But a few months ago, I sat down and told myself that in order to vote in my first presidential election, I needed to better educate myself about the issues, the candidates and their policies. I, like so many Michigan State students recently polled, am concerned about the economy and whether there will be jobs when I graduate.

I started in the most obvious place for a 21-year-old college student: an online quiz that claimed it would help me discover which candidate best supported the issues I care about.

I took the quiz, but unfortunately it wasn’t the all-inclusive solution that I was hoping to find. And I felt silly for putting the fate of my country in the hands of a quiz designed for millennials. Admit it, you’re cringing at the idea, too. But I didn’t know where else to start. All of the information that I found on the Internet was contradictory or so simple I knew it wasn’t the full story or so dense I couldn’t get through it. It all contributed to my confusion.

While surfing around trying to find answers, my finger slipped and somehow Facebook appeared in my browser. As I scrolled through the posts from friends and family about babies, upcoming Spring Break plans and four or five cooking videos from “Tasty,” I couldn’t help but notice how many people were arguing politics. Comment after comment, post after post criticizing not just policies and candidates, but each other. I felt very overwhelmed.

I suspect a lot of us are. Nearly 40 percent of those who use social media like Facebook and Twitter to promote their political ideas and values, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s a lot of people out there having their say.

In fact, the more I read my friends’ and family’s views online, the less comfortable I felt voicing my opinions – or confusion – in the real world. I certainly wasn’t going to be telling my great-aunt what I thought about her politics! I feared that my confusion about where I stood in terms of which candidate I supported would complicate my relationships and cause discomfort that could be avoided if I just said nothing at all.

The one time that I did say something, after being asked point-blank who I would vote for, a person that I trust told me it was a good thing I hadn’t voted in the primaries. That just reinforced my fear about speaking up.

It turns out that I’m not alone in feeling conflicted about voicing my opinions. Keith Hampton, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University, says political discussion on social media can be connected to how comfortable a person is engaging in conversation offline. His research shows that social media can negatively impact users and make them less likely to voice their opinions in the real world.

That behavior is known as the “spiral of silence” The theory explains that when someone knows the views of people in their social circle, or they feel that their opinion is in the minority, they are likely to remain silent.

“It does seem to extend to settings like Twitter and Facebook, largely because there’s this context collapse because you don’t know who you’re speaking to when you’re speaking on Facebook,” Hampton said. “You put something out there, anyone can see it, and not only that, but because of the algorithms behind the scenes, you don’t know who actually saw it.’”

The spiral, however, only really impacts people like me. Hampton’s research shows that this fear is not as frequent among people who have strong political opinions. They are likely to voice them no matter what.

My friend Ben Schroff, a senior at Michigan State University studying social relations and policy and comparative cultures and politics, is someone Hampton might classify as strong in his opinions. Ben is a senator in the James Madison College’s Student Senate and the treasurer of the MSU College Democrats. We’ve been Facebook friends since freshman year when we met. Whenever I’m scrolling through my news feed, it’s almost impossible not to see his name attached to a political post – most frequently about LGBTQ issues.

“I just, I guess, have a lot of opinions, so when I feel the need to say something, then most of the time I do,” Ben said.

He even has a method for deciding how to respond to other people’s posts. First he reads through the post and if he agrees, he shares it. If he doesn’t agree but doesn’t see the post as a poor representation of the facts or another person’s views, he’ll post something a bit argumentative.

“If it’s something that’s like unfair, in a way that I see is unfair, or like bias, then I will really go after it,” he said.

I have never felt targeted by Ben’s posts, just a little confused perhaps — especially in the early stages of this election cycle when I was still developing my own views.

One thing that Ben said that encouraged me was this: “I just think people use their opinions and the weight of their opinions differently.”

The importance of his statement acknowledges that while my opinions might be unlike my mom’s or my best friend’s, or of the other people who I am connected with on social media, they are still valid and have power because they are mine and I can use them however I choose.

And I discovered that I really am not alone: More than one-third of social media users say they are worn out by all the politics talk, according the Pew Research Center.

But while we’re exhausted by our Facebook and Twitter feeds, I realize what a privilege I have to vote. I have to tune out the noise, focus my fingers, study the platforms and then cast my ballot. I may have learned this a little late, but I believe I’m a worthy a first time voter.

As I stand here preparing to check the box, I cannot say that I am not still afraid of the outcome. I have no doubt that the Facebook yelling will continue long after the polls close. And that the political unrest and separation that our country has been experiencing will exist long after the results for president are revealed. No matter what the outcome, one side will be disappointed and angry and will likely share those feelings on social media. So, it doesn’t end here, but for me, I have made it through the initial barrier and it’s clear that no matter the way you show your opinion, you have one and it counts.