The Case for Unfriending Your Relatives
Make Facebook Good Enough Again
We’ve all got them: those relatives, usually of a certain age, who seem like perfectly normal people in real life, but spew hatred and disinformation when they’re behind a computer screen. Or maybe you, like I, also have those relatives who have no qualms about saying offensive things in real life too. These keyboard warriors can turn any innocuous post into a days-long event involving content moderation, self-defense, and apologies to those who got caught in the middle.
While those relatives could attack users on any social media network, Facebook is by far the most popular platform for users 56 and older. And Facebook is the platform where I first started removing those relatives from my social media world.
My foray into unfriending relatives started with unfollowing a few of them. This seemed like a logical first step. It allowed me to miss their inflammatory posts, but still keep up with my family, on my terms. This tactic worked for several months, until they took their fight directly to my wall.
A couple of years ago I posted an article from the New York Times about the family separation policies at the border, and the conditions of the internment camps in which the children were being held. When I first read the article I was horrified. I wanted to raise awareness about this issue because it wasn’t common knowledge at the time, so I posted a link to the article on Facebook. My commentary with the post only stated how it broke my heart to see what life was like for the children in those camps.
Within minutes my phone started blowing up. Some of those relatives posted comments attacking me for being un-American and told me that if I didn’t agree with the policies of my country, that I should leave. Unfollowing those relatives may have insulated me from seeing their posts, but it hadn’t changed their opinions or their behavior.
You would never have known it from their rhetoric, but those particular relatives had never said anything remotely offensive to me in real life. I was disappointed to see this side of them and embarrassed to be related to them. How could I ever look at those relatives the same way again?
As the day went on, I found myself getting sucked into moderating the comments between those relatives, and other family members and friends. I worried about my colleagues seeing the post and mentioning it in a future meeting. I replayed the comments in my head, trying to imagine those relatives lobbing those same insults at me in-person. I stewed about their general callousness and the contempt that dripped from their responses, treating me like I was just another faceless voice on the internet.
That evening I decided I didn’t need to devote so much time or energy to those relatives. I no longer cared if they found out I ended our Facebook friendship. I wasn’t erasing them from my life completely; I was simply setting boundaries. I was taking back control of my own social media experience.
As I clicked that “Unfriend” button, I braced myself for impending backlash, but the backlash never came. In the subsequent days I felt so much more relaxed. And when it came time to see those relatives at a Christmas party later that year, they never mentioned our public spat, or the fact that I unfriended them. In fact, we have never discussed Facebook or politics since.
Let’s fast-forward to 2021. On the 6th of January, our Capitol came under siege by a mob of brainwashed Trump supporters whose goal it was to start another civil war. I shook with anger as I watched a hoard of armed rednecks storm the People’s House, and violate this icon of democracy as they hunted for our elected officials. The juxtaposition of the casual, mall-cop-level police presence at this attempted coup, compared to the tactical gear and tanks at the Black Lives Matter protests just months earlier, was the climax of the shitstorm that was 2020.
I impulsively opened Facebook to see how others were reacting. The infractions of the day seemed too obviously wrong to me for anyone to defend them. Much to my dismay, I saw two more of those relatives defending the terrorists, posting about conspiracy theories, and attacking other family members who posted about their own anger or sadness. I was furious.
As I obsessively refreshed my feed looking for the latest crazy post, I felt myself sinking into that familiar dark place I’d been in several years ago. Before I could second-guess myself, I opened those two relatives’ Facebook profiles and unfriended both of them. And while I didn’t feel that same rush of relief in the following days, I also didn’t feel the same initial guilt because I knew I had done the right thing for me.
These experiences have made me think about unfriending people differently. Since unfriending those relatives, my relationships with most of them, as well as social media in general, is much healthier. Next time I see those relatives, my first thoughts won’t be about something vile they posted on Facebook. I can base my relationships with them on our face-to-face interactions, like people did in the days before social media.
Sure, I will still have to contend with those relatives who enjoy a baseless in-person political rant. Those are the same relatives who have been starting political fights at family gatherings since before Facebook was even invented. The difference with that situation is, I know I can leave the party later and not have to deal with them again until next year.
Today I view my social media platforms as a way to create an environment I enjoy. I follow accounts that inspire me or make me laugh. I follow people I love and support, and who love and support me in return. I know that by doing this I’m insulating myself from opinions that contradict my own, but the way I see it, those relatives I unfriended weren’t trying to learn about different points of view either. A Facebook comment thread is not the place to have a productive exchange of ideas.
Even if we’re not friends on Facebook, I’m not erasing those relatives from my life; I’m simply setting boundaries. I’m no longer allowing their rhetoric to occupy unearned space in my brain. Now I only have to deal with mad political rants at family gatherings, like the good old days; where those relatives have to look me in the eye to insult me to my face, and where other family members can tell them to shut up so we can all get back to the pleasant parts of having a family.