I’m not generally in the habit of deleting people on social media. I have done it before, but circumstances need to be extreme. Or they did. Now I find myself considering it a lot. It was different a few years ago. Things just weren’t so much like this. Brexit and Covid have changed everything and polarised people.

Then there’s all the weird QAnon shit. I have a friend who shares conspiracy theories constantly, and has a bizarre mix of extreme right and left views: Corbyn for PM, Trump will save the world, the pandemic is a scam. I used to spend a lot of time with this person and I wonder what happened. I have nearly unfriended him on more than one occasion. But then I don’t.

I don’t want to live in a bubble. I want to be aware that not everyone shares my opinions. Before the last election, I had to explain to a friend who stated as fact that Labour were going to win that he lives in a bubble of young, educated left wing liberals and that in fact Jeremy Corbyn was possibly one of the most hated people in the country.

The trouble is, in part, that people are poorly educated and gullible. They are not necessarily lacking in intelligence, they just don’t have enough knowledge to be able to filter their sources. And news spreads like wildfire. News, fake news, any news. It doesn’t even need to be presented as such. You can literally just say something and people will latch on. I would imagine much more so in these days of social media, but even before that, it apparently wasn’t all that hard to start a conspiracy theory. If I wanted to spread some misinformation, all I would need to do would be to post something like ‘Vitamin supplements cause cancer’ (they don’t, I just made it up) and somebody would pass that bit of nonsense on to someone else. That would be in spite of the long thread that would inevitably follow, where I would be asked to provide my sources, and I wouldn’t have any to provide, and the whole thing would be discredited.

People believe and spread bullshit. In fact, civilisations have been built on it. But not to be flippant, some people enjoy having something to focus their anger on, it makes them feel good when they don’t really know what they are angry about. Other people just like having something to say. Others genuinely believe that what they are told, saying, standing for is right. They live in an echo chamber and have had no opportunity to question what they are told. The hard part is that these people who drive me mad on social media: a grandchild of the windrush generation who proudly voted for the Tories and Brexit, another friend who I remember being a massive hippie and now keeps posting weirdly transphobic stuff – these people all used to be my friends. And I know for a fact that if I was to sit down and have a pint with any of them right now, we’d probably get on pretty well. And we wouldn’t even talk about any of that stuff.

Not that it shouldn’t be talked about. I can’t help but reply when these people share their opinions. I kick myself as soon as I do it because I realise that I’ve now locked myself into a debate on social media that will last days and I’m busy enough with actual things. But I can’t help but speak my mind and I am angered by the spreading of misinformation, particularly misinformation that either causes prejudice, or endangers peoples’ lives. That is not on.

But I don’t delete these people and they are still my friends. And, to be fair, they don’t delete me when they get a preachy rant in their comments. And sometimes we have other conversations, where we talk about baking bread, or rock climbing, or have a more benign debate over, say, music. Life continues.

I have struggled the most with the transphobic guy, and I don’t know how that will end. It’s really sad because a long time ago we were very close friends. I haven’t seen him in real life for a few years though. It’s also bizarre because he used to be all about peace, love and understanding. And as well, I’m pretty sure that one of his friends from school transitioned from female to male. So who knows why his opinions are as they are, but some of the stuff he’s posted is pretty offensive and I’ve questioned whether I can continue to have any social contact with a person like that. We’ve ended up in some pretty heated debates. You can’t get your point across, either. I’ve linked him to explanations of how genetics or exposure to hormones in the womb can cause people to be born misgendered, I’ve even commented with links to research papers, but he still won’t have it. The worst time (there have been several) was when he replied with a statistic about how there is a much higher suicide rate amongst trans people, which in his mind proved that they must be mentally ill. I pointed out that of course there is when trans people are continually having to deal with people like him.

I had a similar conversation with a girl a while ago, who is a friend of a well known pop singer. The singer had recently come out as non-binary, and the girl was angry that he had told a tabloid journalist before he spoke to any of their friendship group about it. Initially, I thought this was a reasonable point, but then when she went on to say some extremely bigoted and questionable things, I had to say that I wasn’t surprised that he felt more comfortable revealing the truth in the way he did than by speaking to his friends about it.

I don’t know if she understood what I meant. She wasn’t a friend, and I never saw her again. But a lot of these people are, or at some time were, my mates. Obviously, people are entitled to their opinions, and it makes life interesting when people think different things and can debate ideas and issues, but there’s a line you have to draw when peoples’ beliefs are way extreme and result in harm towards others. Like if you lived in the 1930s and suddenly found that one of your friends supported fascism. Or at any point in history, for that matter. I mean, I tend to always tell people exactly what I think – I can’t help it – but I rarely exclude people from my life. You drift apart from people, but you’d have a drink with them if you happened to be in the same place, wish them a happy birthday on Facebook. All that. Someone has generally had to do something pretty bad for me to actually cancel them. To decide I do not want them in my life at all in any way. That’s an extreme decision to make. There have been a lot of times, though, when I’ve seen this guy’s transphobic posts and thought ‘fuck it, I’m deleting you’ and then I’ve not been able to. I always end up thinking back to how good friends we were once and I can’t do it. And every now and then we’ll end up in another debate or argument.

The funniest part is that I don’t even scroll much. I’m too busy to occupy myself too much with social media, and it’s usually quite boring. So fuck knows what else is out there. Probably better that I remain ignorant of it. I don’t even want to become engaged in these discussions half the time anyway. I reply before I have a chance to realise what I’m doing and then it’s too late.

I wouldn’t mind if it led to some kind of intelligent discussion, or if I learned anything from it, but with a few rare exceptions, this is not what happens. Whatever point you try to make, you don’t tend to get through anyway. There is, at times, a certain element of fun in arguing with people who hold what I see as wildly ludicrous beliefs. But ultimately it’s like the fun you have with a BB gun and a picture of Priti Patel. Satisfying, but it achieves nothing.

The worst thing about the strange political atmosphere of the past few years is the polarisation of us all. Suddenly, someone you were at primary school with, and always found quite pleasant when you saw him around, suddenly that person is the enemy. It isn’t right. I did go through a stage where I thought about loads of people that I used to know and thought ‘I could never be around those people again’. But that actually wouldn’t be the case, and to think like that – well, that’s the worst thing ever. Because we all know how divide and conquer works. Not that I’m saying that there’s a conspiracy at work here. I don’t believe there is, it’s just the result of several things all happening at the same time. The effect, however, is the same. The more divided we become, the worse things will become. It isn’t the way. But can I really maintain any kind of civil dialogue with people who continually spout views that I take such issue with? That I feel are morally questionable? Can we still be friends, in spite of it all? I don’t know.

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