Technology Column

Trump supporters were just hiding from liberal feeds

There’s no way to undersell the shocking reality of Donald Trump’s presidential victory and the consequential main takeaway from Election Day: There are people in this country who have such little regard for the many people who make up the rest of it.

If you’re engaged in politics on social media, you’ve probably had these common experiences in dealing with Trump supporters: unfollowing a high school classmate on Twitter, unfriending a cousin on Facebook for their election night posts, or, at the very least, wondering for the whole election cycle whether Trump’s online support is a vocal minority or a dangerous majority.

Let me dispel a point you may think is being made here: Unfollowing and unfriending people is a perfectly legitimate response to this election and to Trump in general. It’s downright irresponsible to pretend Trump hasn’t proven himself a hateful person, who has helped normalize public expression of hatred for women, Muslims, sexual assault survivors, the LGBTQ community, the black community and Jews, among countless others.

But with that being said, there’s something else here that’s shielded us from how Trump’s rhetoric resonated with so many Americans: how social media can distort our own perceptions of reality.

A good part of Trump’s support stemmed from Reddit, like Facebook pages, alt-right news sites, viral conservative personalities among many others. And many from the anti-Trump side either avoided reading these takes or dismissed them as irrational, uneducated and irrelevant.

If you’ve viewed your own feeds or timelines at all since the results came in, you’ve inevitably seen a lot of backlash to Trump’s victory from many of your friends. The #NotMyPresident hashtag has reached all corners of Twitter, as anti-Trump users expressed a sentiment felt all over the country in these troubling hours that the man elected as president doesn’t represent every American.

And if you looked at online profiles on the other side of the aisle last night, in the posts tagged “#MakeAmericaGreatAgain” and their ilk, you likely saw nearly the opposite in a jubilation that a president finally represented beliefs free of corruption and Washington influence altogether.

In our communities, we’re more likely to associate with people like-minded to us. And that translates to the people we follow on social media as well, forming what some call a “social media bubble.” When our networks are made up overwhelmingly of people that side with us, we get the false impression that those beliefs may be more common than they actually are. And when those perceptions are challenged by viewpoints from the opposite side — as inflammatory and viscerally offensive as those viewpoints may be — we’ll tend to write them off as a small exception. A vocal minority.

There’s already anecdotal evidence that this group we perceived as an outspoken minority turned out being the “silent majority” they claimed to be after all. And this silence goes beyond not being outspoken about their beliefs — this silence is reflected in a lack of representation on our social media.

We didn’t see Trump coming largely because his supporters didn’t show up where we thought of looking for them. Polls missed them because they didn’t show up where we’d normally find them. The silent majority stayed silent from us all. Maybe it was because of how ashamed they are of their hateful beliefs. Maybe it was because they weren’t being reached out to by pollsters. Or maybe they’re so different from the rest of us that that they couldn’t show up on our segregated news feeds at all.

Brett Weiser-Schlesinger is junior newspaper and online journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bweisers@syr.edu.

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