Since national elections in 2019 when we saw a new era of politics in Namibia, we saw a lot of new aspects and challenges that we have never had to deal with since independence on this scale.
Social media is much more prominent and widely used now, especially since the state of emergency was implemented in March; we see a lot of posts discussing politics, political parties and politicians. Many have been encouraging others to sign up for voter IDs, and a lot of them have been posting their photos with their voter IDs with all the information visible, making it easy for identity thieves to see all the data and their signatures. Moreover, they are also posting photos with their political party affiliation cards.
As it has happened in other countries with a more developed political scene, our political polarisation is going to divide friends and families and actually causing stress to a majority of the population. We’re feeling anxious and irritable, preoccupied and distracted, quicker to anger and generally overwhelmed. We’re eating poorly and losing sleep, and our relationships with those on the other side are fraying. Given that it’s an assembly election year, sentiments are only going to get more inflamed.
The solution to dealing with this, on and off social media: understanding.
Social media posts
by friends and family:
I know that some people reading this might think that suggesting one-word solutions to complex problems is not feasible. But we tend to think we understand other people, especially friends and family, far more than we actually do. The better we know someone, the more confident we feel in our ability to assess their point of view without asking them - and the more prone we are to getting it wrong. Understanding doesn’t happen automatically, even for therapists. You have to want to understand a person, to approach them without assumptions and with an open mind, and to ask questions without judging the answers.
When you say, “On occasion I’ll debate one of them but I rarely do that because it’s a waste of time and ultimately unsettling,” you’re falling into the same trap most people do — hoping a debate will resolve your differences and bring you closer. Debates are not about understanding someone better. They’re about winning and trying to change someone’s mind. That’s why debating your friends/family leaves you unsettled and why it’s probably no treat for them, either. It doesn’t increase understanding for either of you.
So, here’s what I suggest. The next time the people who matter to you post angry messages that upset you, try to view it as an opportunity to seek understanding. A recent study about managing political differences on social media found the most effective way to minimise conflict is to highlight past interactions and shared interests. Ask them to tell you why they feel the way they do, and then help them understand why you feel the way you do by following the below steps (adjust the phrasing so it sounds like you).
• Start by taking a moment to comment on a recent post of theirs that you genuinely liked or appreciated. For example: “Hi! The pictures of the twins’ birthday party were hilarious. Who knew they could get that much icing in their hair?”
• Frame politics as an interest that you both share rather than as a point of disagreement. For example: “I know how passionate you are about being a [member of X political party] and how deeply you care about the issues. I’m passionate about them as well.”
• Invite them to a conversation. For example: “I’d love to understand more about your feelings/beliefs, and I’d love to tell you more about mine. This isn’t about me changing your mind or you changing mine – it’s just so we can understand each other better. This is important for us to learn from it and keep the relationship separate.”
• End by giving them permission to decline your invitation – and also use it as an opportunity to ask them to limit their use of offensive terms. For example: “If you don’t want to chat, I understand. But I’d like to ask you to not use terms like ‘idiot’ and ‘dumb’ when posting about [X political party]. It makes it hard for me to enjoy your other posts, which I really look forward to seeing.”).
• If they accept your invitation, thank them for agreeing to chat. Ask them an open-ended question that’s specific to them. For example: “I can tell that supporting (X political party) is really meaningful to you; I’d love to hear more about that.” Let them reply, and make sure to not interrupt them and tell them why supporting your party is meaningful to you. Then, invite them to ask you a question.
If they decline your invitation to talk or refuse to answer, don’t be discouraged. Wait to see if they continue to post inflammatory messages – while some people won’t acknowledge their wrongdoing, they will change their behaviour. But if they ignore you and keep up the hate, back to unfollowing them you go.
What I’m suggesting you do is by no means easy. But given the peace-making power of understanding, I believe that investing the required patience, maturity and emotional effort will be worthwhile. If even a small percentage of your attempts to seek understanding resulted in conversations and acceptance of differences, you’ll not only salvage meaningful relationships but you’ll significantly reduce the stress and anger to which you’re exposed and that you yourself must feel.
Dealing with employees’
political expression on
social media platforms:
This can be tricky. For employees who use social media and regularly post political content in them, here are a few things to remember:
The Namibian constitution prohibits the government from abridging freedom of speech – a limitation against government incursions into a person’s right to political speech. However, the constitution does not/may not apply to non-governmental actors such as private employers. In certain instances, your employer may have some say in what you can and cannot say, in what platform, and which time.
Having said that, there are legal protections for employees. An employer’s right to discipline or fire employees for the latter’s posting online is limited in the following situations:
Expressions of political beliefs
Employers cannot control the political activities or affiliations of its employees. Employers cannot enforce a policy that forbids employees from participating in political acts. Employers cannot force or influence employees to follow any particular course of political action by threatening employees of termination. Employees cannot be fired for engaging in political activities, including expressing their political views online.
Conduct during non-working hours
An employer is prohibited under labour code from engaging in any adverse action towards an employee, such as demotion or termination, if the employee engaged in “lawful conduct” during non-working hours and away from the workplace. This means an employee who posts messages online outside of work hours may be protected from discipline. There are exceptions to this law, however. Even if they are doing the posts while off work, employees may still not post information pertaining to company trade secrets or finances, confidential client or customer information, or posts that are homophobic, racist, sexist or discriminatory.
Social media has drastically changed how people engage in political discourse. Some may see this as a gift, others a curse. But for those who believe in the value of speaking up, and who do speak up, they can rest assured that there are laws that protect them.
It is always a good idea, however, to be proactive and not wait for a crisis to erupt to decide which types of off-duty conduct – including social media posts – are unacceptable. Company leaders, human resources professionals, and other stakeholders and decision-makers should be in agreement about what the company’s core values are, so that they will be clear about which behaviors violate these values. A social media policy and related training can help employees better-understand what types of online conduct is contrary to these values.
A good social media policy should ask employees to, among other things:
Preface posts about their industry, employer or work duties with a disclaimer stating that the views stated in the post do not necessarily represent the employer’s, and refrain from identifying themselves as representing, or speaking on behalf of, their employer and/or their employer’s views unless expressly authorised to do so.
Ensure that their post does not contain anything that could be reasonably construed as threatening, harassing, bullying or defamatory, or that could contribute to a hostile work environment by disparaging others on the basis of race, gender, disability, religion and any status protected by law or company policy.
Avoid sharing any proprietary or confidential information about the company or its customers, prospects, partners or suppliers.
As with any workplace policy, the social media policy should be revised periodically, and employees should receive training on it every time it is revised.
To the extent possible, decision-makers and supervisors within the company should be discouraged from verbalising their political views in the workplace, and employers should be mindful that any political opinion expressed by a decision-maker or supervisor could, in the future, be misconstrued as discriminatory or an attempt to intimidate employees. Employers are also encouraged to review all their policies, to ensure that they appropriately safeguard their right to ensure employee productivity while protecting their employees’ rights and, if uncertain about what social media posting is protected, consult legal counsel.