On Discussing Politics

10 minutes, 15 links

On Discussing Politics

A Gallup poll concluded that “although the U.S. is divided politically, most Americans do not commonly discuss politics or public affairs with other people,” after finding that “34% of Americans talked about public affairs—including politics, issues and news.”* “Don’t talk about politics” is a mantra many uphold offline.

However, political conversations run rampant on Twitter, which has a heavy presence of politicians and political journalists. It’s commonly known that politically motivated aggression can be some of the most negative content taking up your Twitter feed. According to 2019 Pew Research, heavy Twitter users frequently discuss politics while light users are less likely to get political:

  • “Heavy users spend more of their time tweeting about politics. 22% report discussing politics on Twitter within the last 30 days, compared with just 6% of light users.”
  • “For comparison, 42% of those in the top 10% of tweeters say they have tweeted about politics in the last 30 days.”
  • “74% of those in the light user group say they never tweet about politics, compared with 46% for heavy users.”
  • “28% of users in the top 10% of tweeters say they never tweet about politics.”*

Of course, conversations about politics extend beyond politicians and journalists whose jobs are dependent on their political commentary and analysis. Academics, technologists, and everyone in between can use Twitter to discuss politics and adjacent topics, and should consider the impact of doing so. The expanded definition of politics has come to mean wildly different things to different people. A narrow, more traditional definition might refer to electoral and political processes, political parties, and political and elected public servants.

On Twitter, discussing politics directly might look like this:

  • Endorsing a particular candidate (i.e. #YangGang, #ImWithHer)
  • Condemning a particular law, ruling, or piece of legislation (i.e. #MuslimBan, #TransBan)
  • Revealing a political affiliation (i.e. “Republican vs. Democrat,” “Right vs. Left”)

However, politics—who makes the rules, what laws get passed, which issues get addressed—impacts people and the natural environment. Politics have become inextricably bound to a host of social and environmental issues including human rights, homelessness, global warming, immigration, green energy, mass shootings, and much more. These matters, which are impacted by politics, have come to be seen as politics (or a part of political ideology), and have become equally as polarizing online as traditional party alignments.

As a consequence, these important subjects are often relegated to the “Don’t talk about politics” pile. People are routinely accused of “getting political” on Twitter in simply addressing or discussing these topics—even if they’re directly related to professional matters.

  • Dan Abramov (@dan_abramov), a prominent software engineer, co-creator of redux and co-author of the Create React App, posted a tweet condemning “misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and white supremacy” in the React community as a response to #Reactgate. While the reception to this was largely positive, a sizable number of people accused him of making a “political declaration” or “bringing politics into this.” Others pondered “Can’t we just focus on technology?” or suggested “keep YOUR politics away from me.”

This level of polarization and this contention between “politics” and “social issues” is extremely commonplace on Twitter. People often choose not to discuss politics because they feel it can’t be done constructively under 240 characters. They’re on to something. An article in The Atlantic suggests that “political discussions online are perceived as less respectful, less likely to be resolved, less civil, and more angry than discussions in other forums.” It’s important to understand what they can yield and what they can displace. If you’re using Twitter for professional growth, there are pros and cons to discussing politics on the medium, and, if you choose to engage, guidelines to help keep you safe, personally and professionally.

Pros

  1. Personal dimension. Often, people want to “bring their whole selves to work,” and when you’re using Twitter for professional growth, that means the political beliefs you hold or conversations you want to have can extend to your online life. Limiting yourself to only talking about work can mean you’re actively omitting topics you’re passionate about and interested in, including political ones. With a 24-hour news cycle, for some it can feel like an omission to only discuss issues within their single industry. For some, representing yourself as a whole person, beyond your professional interests, means discussing political and social issues. Often (and some might say always), political and social issues are inextricable from business or industry.

  2. Impact. The impact that tweeting about social issues has or does not have is hard to quantify. On one hand, people often reside in filtered bubbles, tweeting to their online acquaintances and friends, who largely agree with them already or share the same views. Furthermore, it’s been observed that people only become more polarized when exposed to opposing views. So what might the impact of discussing politics on Twitter be? Is Twitter legitimate activism or just a form of “Slacktivism”? While opinions are mixed, a Pew Research study titled “Activism in the Social Media Age” found that a majority of Americans note social media is “important for getting politicians to pay attention to issues, creating long-lasting social movements.” It’s also been noted that online activism can spawn real-life action.

  3. Finding like-minded people. Posting about certain political and social issues can act as a magnet to draw in like-minded people. Often politics and profession collide and you can find subcommunities like “Ethics in AI” or “Diversity in Tech” that open conversations about how we work and live, and that emphasize the ethical and political responsibilities of companies. Additionally, as founders and companies are increasingly taking social stances, having politics aligned with somewhere you might want to work for, and expressing this through your account, could be helpful for showing that you share a company’s values.

Cons

  1. Polarization. Politics, or perhaps the discussion of politics, is polarizing. A New York Times article notes that “Americans are open to people with all sorts of political and partisan opinions, our research shows—as long as they keep those opinions to themselves.” Sharing about politics on Twitter doesn’t meet this criteria. Unfortunately, this can cause people to view your feed as polarizing. This may stop people from following you (people routinely note not following or unfollowing based on political tweets). Alternately, they discount or diminish your professional contributions.

  2. Leaves you open to discrimination. Publicly sharing your political views can make you an easier target for hiring discrimination if you’re searching for your next role. Companies whose leadership or culture have a particular political affiliation may show a bias against those whose views don’t align.

  3. Can make you a target of harassment. Discussing politics on Twitter can make you a target. Responses to tweets about politics can become abusive and turn into wide-scale harassment.

Guidelines for Discussing Politics

If you opt to discuss politics and social issues on Twitter, use the following guidelines:

  • Attack ideas and actions, not people. Despite the existence of bad actors, try to criticize and discuss ideas rather than individuals like politicians or other public figures. Don’t resort to ad hominem attacks which can diminish your arguments and flood your followers with negative content.

  • Go to the source. Clickbait headlines and out of context quotes and videos can spread like fire. Not to mention, the era of deep fakes may be upon us. When tweeting about politics and social issues, always do your best to look for primary sources or trusted secondary sources. If something sounds incredibly inflammatory, it might be designed that way. If people are sharing something that sounds too ridiculous to be true, that could be the case. Routinely getting hoaxed can damage your trustworthiness when it comes to discussing politics and, by extension, your credibility as a professional.

  • Go beyond words. Twitter users are increasingly starting and participate in charity matching initiatives, leveraging their following to raise money for causes like family separation, gun violence, and women’s reproductive health. For example, Ashley Mayer (@ashmleymayer), Head of Communications at Glossier, frequently starts Twitter charity campaigns including the charities Everytown and YellowFund.

    • Many people decide to post about these collections of topics and issues, while some choose to opt out. Neither choice is really right or wrong—one doesn’t imply virtue while the other suggests callousness. Rather, it’s key to recognize that people have different ways of addressing and reacting to issues, some public and on Twitter, some private and off the platform.
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