About 3 years ago I began to notice people I considered to be good friends were no longer Facebook friends. I would go to post something to their wall but they didn’t pop up in my search or my Google calendar would show me it was their birthday but when I signed in FB didn’t show it? A vast majority of the time they had no idea why we weren’t friends because they claimed they didn’t remove me and I had no reason to believe otherwise. For my part, I’ve had folks who thought I removed them reach out to me asking why they were removed and I had to explain that I had not removed them. Something in Facebook seems to be randomly dropping friends and this has been widely reported by others (here). But there were a few times people removed me and we corresponded over why. And those discussions I think are worth revisiting not to “spill the tea” but to ask when does removing disagreeing voices become dangerous?
Here’s Why You Just Got Unfriended
Back in 2014, Christopher Sibona did an interesting survey about why people unfriended others on Facebook. Methodologically speaking it’s dubious, but the results were nonetheless fascinating. Vox examined his results and provided the following charts:
About 2 years ago I noticed I had messages in a “Message Request” setting I had never seen before. When I jumped into that hell hole I found dozens and dozens of messages from Indian “bless you brother Matt” accounts and a few from people I knew that apparently had been removed as a friend - again not by me. This caught me a bit off guard because apparently my privacy settings did this and I was not aware (see here). This gets more confusing when switching between the mobile apps and the desktop login. I cannot imagine how many people I’ve blown off accidentally because Facebook made the switch without me noticing the change.
I do not know if some of my former FB friends have not responded to me because of this setting but it’s worth mentioning because I’m operating with the understanding that this is the reason some have not responded to my messages. Now, let’s talk about a few examples of people who did respond.
My first friend I corresponded with I’ll call Audrey (not her name). Audrey is not a Christian and is a lesbian. She explained she always appreciated I was not the typical “anti-gay” Christian she knew all too well (even though she knew I hold a biblical view of sexuality), but my posts about religion and politics were hard to deal with emotionally and mentally. I asked her if she had considered just doing the “hide” feature but she said explained that wouldn’t work because curiosity would bring her back too much. She apologized but said it had to happen and I explained that I understood, said I wished her well and I’d be happy to accept any future friend request from her.
There are plenty of Audrey’s in my life. And if I’m honest, it’s something I’ve struggled with for a while when it comes to social media. People I have respected have told me to tone it down, challenged my motivations, or even gone as far as to say I’m hurting the gospel. I take these challenges seriously and some I’ve taken to heart. But I also found that sadly, more often than not, some of these folks just don’t agree with me, and instead of saying that they are trying a more subtle approach to censoring speech or thought they don’t like. And, the fact is, that for every one of these types of interactions I have half-a-dozen saying they’re grateful for my posts and for challenging them to think. Why the one voice outweighs those will forever be a question I struggle with.
Before 3 years ago, these types of discussions were not that often in my life, but in the age of Trump, everything escalated. The Atlantic examined this phenomenon in-depth:
Over the past five years, many other Americans have found themselves in a similar position, measuring the gap between what a relationship was like before Trump entered politics and what it was like after.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted a couple of months after Trump’s 2016 victory, 16 percent of respondents said they had stopped communicating with a friend or family member because of the election. Four years later, many such relationships are still in disrepair. Corin Goodwin, a 53-year-old communications consultant in Seattle, hasn’t seen her dad since October 2016, when they had a falling-out over the presidential race, in which he supported Trump and she supported Hillary Clinton. Since then, they’ve had only occasional email contact. “When he passes, I don’t know if I will even be informed, which really freaks me out,” Goodwin told me. (Goodwin and others mentioned in this article were not comfortable putting me in touch with the friends and family members with whom they disagreed, so I was unable to hear the other sides of these stories.)
I was not a Trump supporter and was very vocal about it in 2016. I know I lost Trump-supporting friends over that. However, because I am a traditional, small-government conservative many friends associated me with him (guilt by association), and when I talked with them about why they defriended me this came up often. When I provided examples of why I was not who they thought I was some sent me a friend request after. Others did not. This conversation accounted for a majority of my Audrey-type interactions over the past 3 years.
In March of this year, I had my first “defriending” over the vaccine. Sadly, Jacob provided an explanation but there wasn’t much interaction after that. He explained that being pro-vaccine was buying into the systems of this world and that I was enabling the swift rise of the anti-Christ. He further explained Paul commanded that he disassociate from me for abandoning and teaching a false gospel. Pretty heavy stuff.
Contrast this with another friend who defriended me because I provided an article breaking down how mask-wearing had become theater. This friend went out guns-blazing, accusing me of being anti-science, shaming him for trying to protect a loved one, and finally not giving a platform for discussion. Ironically, he removed me as a friend after commenting before we could discuss his objections.
About a month ago I had a message exchange with someone I’ll name Karen. I did not initiate this discussion. Karen explained she could not be friends with me anymore because I taught at a school that trained women to be pastors and missionaries. Subverting the role that God had prescribed through Paul and the book of Genesis. She took issue with a post I had shared regarding common objections to women in ministry and she believed I had forsaken inerrancy and infallibility and could not associate with me anymore. We had a few back and forths but not long after she started her messages with ALL CAPS she just blocked me.
This next Karen discussion was quite the contrast from the other one. A year ago I shared an article from the Gospel Coalition and this Karen messaged me that I should not share articles from that publication because they did not support women in ministry. She explained sharing this was comparable to sharing an article from a website that did not believe black people could be pastors. When I would not agree to take down the article, she defriended me.
The Danger of Algorithms and Echo Chambers
The thing I found fascinating about many of these interactions is that they so often contradict each other! One month someone will say it’s a problem I’m pro-vaccine while the next month someone will say I’m anti-science. One will message me it’s a problem that I’m pro-women in ministry while another will say I’m not an ally to women in ministry. How does this happen? I believe the algorithm is at play.
What I mean by that is that I think friends are only seeing certain posts because of their own preferences and it creates a sort of false-narrative reality because it hides other ones from their feed. So I could share multiple different viewpoints, but the algorithm will only show what it deems a friend would want to see and engage with. And what do we engage with the most? Things we disagree with. How many friends have I lost to this algorithmic bias?
At the beginning of this post, I asked when does removing voices you disagree with starts becoming dangerous? This question stemmed from a paper I came across from 1996 entitled CyberBalkans which ended up being quite prophetic:
“Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases. Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own.”
This past year I removed over 200 friends who I considered acquaintances after I found out my wife was pregnant. I realized that I did not know these folks well enough or didn’t usually like engaging with them for them to have access to my daughter. We all have reasons for removing friends and not all of them have to be analyzed or hunted down to get a reason. But is removing people you disagree with healthy?
For my friend who needed the mental break from seeing opposing posts - sure. I support anyone doing what they need to to take care of themselves and their health. And often they have to decide what that looks like. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about isolating oneself from opposing viewpoints or immediately associating opposing viewpoints as extremist.
I get removing disagreeable people or people who argue in bad faith. 2 years ago I blocked someone for the first time across all social media platforms because of her bad faith actions towards our disagreement on Twitter. However, I’m seeing more and more people doing it over what is tantamount to a small disagreement.
It’s easy to lay the blame on whatever cultural zeitgeist we chose, but perhaps before doing that we can turn the mirror on ourselves first? What unhealthy motivation is causing us to isolate, prefer confirmation bias vs. being challenged by new ideas, or the comfort of our echo chambers vs the possibility of finding friendship outside of those chambers? The fact is we’re going to encounter opposing viewpoints and the danger of living in the echo chamber is in the volatile reactions we see over and over again to people presenting new ideas. We can’t keep this up.