Let’s see if we can find 1,000,000 people in support of flying by clicking their heels together

You’ve seen these Facebook groups:   “1 million strong for [fill-in-the-blank].”  These are almost always political, in support of the President, against the immigration bill, whatever it might be.  I views these updates with a growing sense of ennui.  My basic question is: what’s the point?  Certainly 1 million people who “want the old Facebook interface back” might demonstrate to the Facebook powers-that-be that there is some considerable disapproval to the changes they are making.  But what’s the point of 1,000,000 strong against the Arizona immigration bill, or health care reform?  Presumably politicians aren’t spending the bulk of their time reading Facebook updates, and parsing out those names who are constituents for their districts.  (Though I could be wrong here.)  As an expression of opinion, it is harmless, but opinion for important matters shouldn’t be harmless.  It should force issues, educate the public, convince people that change is required.

I see several problems that arise out of these statements:

  1. Argument by numbers.  The implication with each of these statements is that the more people you can get to agree with the statement, the more powerful and true the statement is.  Anyone who has received the most basic instruction in logic will see the fallacy here.  It disturbs me, therefore, that so many people seem to miss it.
  2. Magic numbers.  What is so magic about 1,000,000 people, anyway?  In the United States, it represents less than 1/3rd of a percent of the overall population, and perhaps only 1/50th of a voting majority.  Setting argument #1 aside for a moment, why do the creators of these groups set their sights so low?  Why not go for 5 million, or 10 million people?  Not that it would make a difference in the outcome, but it does illustrate a seeming lack grasp on the scope of a problem.
  3. Opinion-in-a-box.  These statements offer pre-packaged, opinions for the taking.  They are the fast-food equivalent of opinion.  They require no personal investigation.  Clicking a button, it seems, has become the de rigueur method of expressing one’s opinion without having to actually form one.  The danger here, clearly, is that by putting opinion in a neat little box, you neglect everything outside that box.

There are other more powerful and persuasive ways to express opinions.  Write a letter to your representative.  Writer a letter to the editor.  Volunteer for a cause.  Or how about (dare I say) take the time to better educate yourself about the issues of the day.  The problem, of course, is that each of these alternatives takes considerably more effort than clicking the LIKE button on Facebook.  When you get right down to it, it seems to me that it is not so much the opinion that matters as it is the time and effort it takes to express it.