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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

September 22, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Hide your politics at your own risk

Facebook handed out Uncle Sam squeezable stress relievers at the 2012 Republican National Convention in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Thursday, August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

The week of the Democratic National Convention, I read an article that compared what was on Bill Clinton’s teleprompter with what he actually said onstage. Almost everything he changed improved his delivery on the spot. The jealous writer in me had to share it.

There was just one problem. This particular syntax lesson was wrapped in politics, and I never share politics. So to a post calling writers’ attention to the article on Facebook, I made an edit of my own. I sneaked in the phrase, “All politics aside …”

The evasion got one of my friends’ attention.

“We’ve seen social media at its best when it has helped people organize around causes and political expression,” he wrote, citing social movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. “Yet here we’re more welcoming to meaningless media than meaningful conversation about the views that will impact the direction of the country.”

Yikes, I thought. What if he’s right? What if not sharing our politics, at a time when sharing anything can be so powerful, is actually, ultimately, bad?

Much was made a few months ago about a statistic from the Pew Internet and American Life Project that surprised no one: One of five Facebook users block or unfriend people over political posts. I have to wonder if that figure has — I don’t know — doubled in the past couple months. There’s nothing like an election season to spawn expressed views in some and repressed views in many. You know that tug you feel when you hear a heated political argument and want to jump in with a case so crystal clear it brings everyone to your side? People have only so much patience for the attempt.

So there’s an etiquette: No politics at the dinner table. Or out with your friends. Or, God forbid, in those spaces online that manage to be civil, where the nuance of what you mean is still represented only by the few words you have time to say. You have no idea who might read it, shake their heads, and decide that, in one small way or another, you’re not the person they thought you were.

Of course, that hardly stops everyone, thank goodness. More people than ever are weighing the risks — doing what one local government official called the “social calculus” — and choosing not to leave their digital yard signs blank.

Campaign managers on either side of Referendum 74, the ballot measure to approve or reject Washington’s law allowing gay couples to marry, told me they’re grateful for the tens of thousands who have shared their positions online, acknowledging what’s become old news at this point — that social media have become one of the most powerful tools to mobilize political support and wage political battles. If there was ever a time for Washingtonians to broadcast passionate appeals for or against gay marriage, both campaigns say, now would be it.

As Chip White of Preserve Marriage Washington put it, “There’s a place for paid, traditional media, but it doesn’t come with a personal touch.”

That personal touch can make a big difference. A groundbreaking study released earlier this month suggested that 340,000 more people may have voted in the 2010 elections because of a single Facebook message. And political tweets are thought so indicative of momentum in the presidential race that many news media track tweets mentioning Romney and Obama like a scorecard.

It’s a question as old as democracy itself: Do we have not just the right but the responsibility to talk about the issues, just as we have not just the right but the responsibility to vote? It was a heavy choice before the Internet, and is arguably even heavier now, when we can reach so many so quickly and something as easy as the click of a “Like” button can move our political hopes even a little closer to the goal.

So what does it say when we take our passions to the polls, but not to our networks? We have our reasons (“If I share on Facebook that I support gay marriage, it’ll make for a very awkward Thanksgiving dinner,” one friend told me). But what if, because we don’t advertise our beliefs to the people we can influence, the thing we vote for doesn’t happen? Are we cynics? Cowards? Hypocrites who think we’re on the sidelines when we’re actually in the way?

Political winds shift not just on stages or on streets, but on digital channels, where each of us can use our voices to blow things our way, or take shelter in civility and hope the storm is strong enough.

“All politics aside?” Only at your own risk.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or subscribe to her on Facebook.

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