When Melbourne re-entered stage 3 lockdown, I posted a “Bunnings Karens” status and the consequent 81 comment argument saw me Marie Kondo my friends list to only those who spark joy. I went from 2,600+ to 997.
The unique bubble of Covid-19 isolation and anxiety led to me pulling the trigger on culling my personal and professional network down to a closer circle. It was simple enough to click “unfriend” whenever my mouse hovered above an unfamiliar face, but not so simple when my cursor was above an image of a friend or family member.
I wasn’t alone. An American survey conducted in April of 2,031 people by Digital Third Coast reported 24% of respondents had argued with someone on social media over Covid-19; 20% of survey respondents reported having unfriended a friend over their disagreements, and 15% unfriended a family member.
In a pandemic where we daily fight isolation and anxiety, social media’s role as a tool for connection has been reinforced – but so has its ability to divide. “People do have that rebound effect, of going there to seek out connection, but what it actually does is make them feel more isolated,” says Dr Bec Jackson, consultant psychologist and executive development and leadership coach.
Felicity, who grew up in regional Victoria, says she used to argue with people “from the country town where I used to live, sharing and posting about racist and sexist topics”. She’d “start Facebook debates and what not but it never got me anywhere, and those people never changed their opinion. I just got so sick of seeing these stupid opinions on my feeds so I just decided to delete people.”
Felicity’s unfriending spree is easy to empathise with. “But from a pragmatic perspective, closing yourself off from a perspective different from your own, I think, is not wise,” says Dr Caitlin McCurrie, a UX researcher and experimental psychologist. “I wouldn’t moralise it is right or wrong … If connecting to people that feel the same way as you makes you feel better and healthier, then do that.” But, she adds, “I think if we can engage in respectful dialogues with people that have differing beliefs from ourselves, then that’s a really positive thing that we can do.”
The consequences of less-than-pleasant online encounters do not always remain purely digital, either. Faye, who lives in the US, says her aunt “used to be like a second mum to me”. However, Faye’s aunt and her husband “were full-on 24/7 Fox News watchers … for a decade and the hateful rhetoric essentially has turned them against me”. The relationship disintegrated when “her husband blocked me”, says Faye. “Now she and I barely talk.”
Jackson observed a similar, though less politically motivated, falling out with one of her clients. Six years ago the woman “noticed that she no longer had her sister-in-law’s profile in her list [on Facebook]”. When she raised it with Jackson during her therapy, “We sort of spoke through how she might confront that with her sister-in-law. She brought it up with her husband, the brothers then had a discussion about it. It caused them to have a big falling out.” Even now, years later, Jackson says “they don’t speak”.
Hitting “block” or “unfriend” creates tangible proof of something that might otherwise go unspoken. McCurrie suggests that “in general, people overstate the role of technology in changing things”. Rather than being the cause of conflict, McCurrie suggests social networks “just sort of heighten things a little bit and makes them more visible”.
She says: “We tend to moralise a little bit more when we’re online … When we just see abstract versions of things, and when we think in an abstract way, we tend to be more moral in both extreme good and extreme bad ways.” McCurrie says fighting this tendency is the most productive way forward. “I think we should all be good scientists, if we can, and get perspectives of others that are different from ourselves, and just be open to changing our minds.”
However, Stacey Sargison, an online visibility and business coach, thinks it can be healthy to unfriend your way out of toxic social media situations. “I would strongly suggest users look at who they follow and really connect with their own values and consciously choose … who gets to grace their news feeds.” She notes that “ads and algorithms are all based on who you follow, what you’re consuming”, so if you tighten your boundaries to create less conflict, it might reshape your social feeds well beyond a single source of conflict.
That was the case for Erin, who deleted a childhood friend from Facebook after years of ignoring her anti-vaccination posts. “I had become exhausted and alarmed by her hourly conspiracy theory posts regarding coronavirus and vaccinations,” she says. “It was becoming harder and harder to ignore all her strange posts. If I didn’t unfriend, I knew that I would give in one day and get into an argument with her.”
In situations like this, Jackson recommends a culling process of incremental steps: “Go down that decision tree of: if you do cull this person, unfollow, unfriend or block them, how are they going to interpret that and what’s going to be the ramification?” She adds: “It can actually destroy your real-world relationships with those people. So it’s almost like if you’re going to cull them online, you’ve got to be prepared that you’ve actually culled them in the real world as well.”
Erin says she has not seen her “crazy anti-vaxxer” friend offline in over a decade, so disconnecting felt right. “I was sad that I would no longer get updates on her life and children, but it was worth it.”
But what about for closer ties? Jackson suggests it might be better to try temporary measures like “muting” people who are upsetting you instead of removing them altogether.
A more cautious approach chimes with McCurrie, too. She believes we need to be mindful of how we use social media, not just the content of what others are saying. For instance, you’re far more likely to have a productive conversation with someone via direct message rather than in the comments of a post. “Spend less time browsing, spend more time being active, get rid of Facebook, but keep messenger,” she suggests. “If people need to make steps to avoid those that are making them feel worse, for whatever reason, do that … Find the healthy middle ground. It’s an awesome tool and I think it has a lot of potential. It’s just, we need to use that tool in a way that helps us.”
What my unfriending spree taught me was accepting accountability for the harmful social media use that got me to that point in the first place. I opened myself up for trouble by amassing 2,600+ Facebook friends, like I was collecting Pokemon. Now I’m taking a more proactive approach, remembering I have more control over what I see and how I interact.