Rules of engagement for discussing Election 2016 on social media

Emotions are running high, and it’s tempting to lash out on social media. As a former Capitol Hill staffer, here are my rules for keeping the discussion civil.

During the 2008 presidential election, I wrote an article about how to have a civilized political conversation. It included earnest advice from Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama emphasizing the importance of “listening … putting country first … being respectful.” But during Election 2016, my social media newsfeed looks more like a dumpster fire than political discourse. Nearly every day now I witness friends and strangers of all political persuasions seeking less to understand and more to spike the ball in victory. I’ve witnessed friendships destroyed in the last few months, and a recent report finds that up to 40 percent of Americans are experience tension with friends and family over the election.

But it hasn’t all been a complete loss. I also have noticed the friends and strangers who are respectfully sharing their views and keeping their cool when antagonized. Sadly, they are a rare breed. This election season, I’ve been largely silent, not because I’m ashamed but because I have no interest jumping into the fray.

MORE TO READ: Should you vote for Trump, Clinton or someone else? Your conscience has the answer

I haven’t always been a political bystander, having worked on Capitol Hill and then as a lobbyist for several years. One of my earliest memories as a child is sitting on my mother’s knee at an enormous rally for a presidential candidate.

I no longer work in politics, but I’m still actively interested: I start my days with the news and commentary and check it several times throughout the day. (Once a political animal, always a political animal!) However, just because I have chosen to keep a low profile on social media regarding Election 2016, doesn’t mean I think everyone else should. In fact, I’m often interested in your posts, whether I agree with them or not.

But I do have a few suggestions on how we can add value to the political discussion instead of pouring gasoline onto the dumpster fire. Before you post, consider these three steps:

1. Is this informative? Some things really make our blood boil. But an unfocused rant often will influence people in the opposite way that you hoped. Stay factual.

2. Am I basing my opinions from sources that always agree with my knee-jerk point of view? It can feel like a real hardship to read or watch news sources that don’t seem to share your values. However, your opinions will be based on firm ground when you make the effort to get your background information from a variety of sources.

3. Maybe this post isn’t informative, but it’s a really funny meme you want to share. Who hasn’t enjoyed a big laugh over a politician? But realize half the people getting it on their newsfeed will think it’s hilarious and the other half won’t. If it’s going to offend your Aunt Sally, maybe send that one in a direct message to friends who will love it.

4. Ask yourself: do I really care enough about this issue to post about it? If you’re not sure, wait an hour. If it’s still important to you, then follow steps one, two, and three.

And if you’ve followed all the rules of engagement and are getting personally attacked for your views, try these steps:

1. Resist the urge to immediately respond. You may feel hurt and angry, especially if the criticism is coming from someone you know. First, vent your rawest feelings with your best friend, your mom, or your spouse.

2. Consider the possibility the criticism isn’t personal. Read it again. Perhaps they just have a different point of view.

3. Consider the possibility, that despite your well-meaning attempt, maybe you didn’t follow the rules of engagement as well as you first thought. Be open. Maybe you messed that one up.

4. After you’ve taken time to regroup, decide whether this is something that requires your response. If you believe the criticism is personal and unwarranted, calmly tell them and resume the factual discussion. If you owe an apology, make it in the same forum where the offense occurred. Don’t hide behind a direct message.

5. Some comments are so awful, the best course is to ignore and possibly block that person’s account. Take care out there, folks!

Do you have any positive strategies that have helped you and your opinions thrive during Election 2016? Let us know in the comments!


Written By: Ellen Willson Hoover

Ellen Willson Hoover is a freelance writer and former Capitol Hill aide and lobbyist. She writes about travel, healthy living, parenting, and social issues and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine and others.

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