Facebook flag wars. Where should the conversation happen?

The recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage and the debate over the legitimacy of the Confederate flag have saturated social media sites with images. Are these symbols fostering productive conversation? 

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    In this Friday June 26, 2015, file photo, a man holds a U.S. and a rainbow flag outside the Supreme Court in Washington after the court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
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The June 26 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states has had an immediate impact on millions of Americans: It prompted them to add filters to their Facebook profile pictures.

The theme this week is flags. Rainbow flags for same-sex marriage supporters, American flags for same-sex marriage opponents, and Confederate flags for those who see the Confederacy as a vital part of American heritage.

Each of these symbols has been plastered across Facebook and Twitter.

But is the social media banner wave fostering constructive conversation? Is it creating a new normal? Or, is this asking too much of a symbol – which often has a different meaning for different viewers?  

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, expressed his approval of the Supreme court decision in a post on his profile, accompanying a map of the US showing the growth in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups today and 2008.

"I’m so happy for all of my friends and everyone in our community who can finally celebrate their love and be recognized as equal couples under the law," he wrote. 

Soon after the news broke, Facebook released a "celebrate pride" option that allows users to add rainbow filters to their profile pictures. Over 26 million people had implemented the colorful filter as of June 29., a conservative news service, responded with an option to "American flag" your profile picture in opposition to Facebook's feature. 

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However, The Independent pointed out that being American and supporting LGBT rights are not mutually exclusive – an argument that opponents say clashes with the Judeo-Christian foundation of the United States. Some on Facebook have merged the American and rainbow flags.

On Twitter, there were over 10 million tweets that included the hashtag #LoveWins on the day of the decision. 

One popular political sketch that circulated around Facebook features a Confederate flag being lowered and a gay pride flag being raised. 

The Guardian argues that to compare these two issues – gay rights and racial oppression – is illogical and pits "two important, but very different, struggles for equality against one another in the cheapest way."

Does it really matter whether someone takes a Confederate flag down or puts a rainbow flag or an American flag filter on Facebook? It may. As social psychologist Melanie Tannenbaum explained in 2013, humans tend to be influenced by symbols. 

We're all too susceptible to the powers of peer pressure, or social proof. Our friends, family, and the people around us exert strong influences on our attitudes and behavior, whether intentional or not.

One of the big ways that the people around us exert these influences is through the use of norms, those messages that we send out about what's acceptable, appropriate, and...well, normal....

We don't really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.

Dr. Tannenbaum was writing about a marriage equality symbol on Facebook. She goes on to say why it might be an effective campaign tool:

.. based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn't to tell people what they should do – it's to tell them what other people actually do.

And you know what will accomplish that? That's right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious.

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