In these last few weeks leading up to the election, the nastiest debates aren’t between the candidates, but instead between people who call themselves “friends” on Facebook and Twitter.
With the presidential election on the horizon, you’ve probably seen your share of Facebook political arguments and sloganeering lately. After a few too many barbs, taunts and arguments, you may have even unfriended or hidden some particularly contentious Facebook friends, because you’re sick of the bickering and name-calling.
The good news: the election is in two weeks, and the in-fighting over candidates may die down after. The bad news: Facebook’s growing political influence means that people will continue to use the site as a soapbox for some time to come.
Rules of Polite Society: No Longer Applicable
Politics and religion have always been controversial subjects — everybody’s mom has said more than once never to discuss the two topics in public. But Facebook puts a fine line on what’s public and what’s private, and many who use the social network don’t have much of a filter when it comes to what they think and what they say in polite society.
The resulting arguments aren’t just simple exchanges where people agree to disagree with each other. They’re testing social media relationships and breaking up even offline friendships as people passionately defend the candidate and issue of their choice. But, do those arguments accomplish anything beyond hurt feelings, depleted friends lists and the possible loss of real-life friendships?
How the Arguments Start
It doesn’t take much to begin a political argument on Facebook — often, just a simple statement of any political opinion and a few related comments are enough to get the ball rolling. With a political season as contentious as this one, and with a race that’s running neck-to-neck, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal, it should come as little surprise that people are worked up over this election.
The contentious political climate is also dovetailing with a change in the way people are communicating on Facebook. What used to be a selective space of light-hearted status updates, TMI and pictures of babies and kittens is now a public forum for engagement, complete with in-depth discussions. And as the nature of Facebook interaction changes, people use it to debate the issues that are important to them, including politics, said Laura Simpson, global director of McCann Truth Central, to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
McCann in September conducted a survey about social media and politics and found that Facebook users think of the site much differently now than they did four years ago.
“Facebook is evolving into more of a debate space for issues,” Simpson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Before, it was a much more personal record, or archive, of your social life. Now, there are [updates about] weddings and babies, but you’ll also see political views and videos about topics that people feel passionate about.”
It can be compared to the soap boxes of old, when people gathered on street corners to hear others shouting out opinions or speeches. Those messages only reached a limited number of people, but in contrast on Facebook, a user can get his or her message to thousands of people within seconds, without leaving the comfort of their homes — and without the dangers that come from angering people face-to-face.
Meanwhile, the very immediacy of Facebook lends itself to heated arguments as well. In person, two people might slow down and think before they speak, but on Facebook, you’re only limited by how fast you type, and thousands of people can see even the most argumentative post before you’ve had a chance to delete it.
Mobile technology also makes it easy and quick for users to update their political arguments. With most people accessing the Internet through their cellphones, the days when users had to wait until they got home to shout out their viewpoints, denying a contentious poster a bit of a cooling-off period and time to think about what he’s saying are gone.
Facebook’s user interface also makes it difficult to get rid of what you’ve said, even if you want to. Users can now edit their own comments, but if you’ve made the initial post that starts a political argument, you can’t go back and edit it to better reflect what you wanted to say.
More people seeing and commenting on their friends’s posts is fueling arguments exponentially, and could make a difference on Election Day.
Who Argues and Why Does It Matter?
As annoying as the political posts are, they can make a difference in how people vote. According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than 66 percent of social media users go online to post thoughts about civic and political issues, react to others’ postings and to press their friends to act on issues and vote.
The Pew Center found more than a third of social networking site users say the sites are important to them in keeping up with political news, and several admit that people’s political postings can sway their minds on issues or candidates.
Of course, not everybody is posting political commentary. One in six users say they’ve posted about politics, says Pew, but of the other users who don’t post political content, about one-fifth say they don’t because they’re worried they will upset or offend someone.
Those fears are very valid, Joseph Burns, a professor of communication at Southeastern Louisiana University told Businessnewsdaily.com.
“Political punditry has become so prevalent — and sometimes so mean — that people are being ‘unfriended’ until the election is over,” said Burns.
Burns, who conducted his own survey, asked 24 of his friends, half Democrats and half Republicans, about their political postings. Most said they posted to point out falsehoods, correct media stories they thought were wrong and to share their personal opinions. More than half said they believe their posts will affect how others cast their ballots.
“My friends who believed they were having an effect said they hoped to encourage people to follow their lead,” Burns said. “A number generally agreed with one friend’s statement that ‘You can sway people’s voting decisions based on good, factual discussions.’ They wanted to bring to the table an angle that others may not have considered or to ‘strike a chord with those who may not agree but are open to interesting ideas.'”
How Politicians Benefit
Political arguments, just like fights over religion, are subjective and have no clear winner. One person’s beloved leader can be another person’s worst fear.
But while people argue, they’re getting politicians’ messages out there, including quoting their speeches, referring to their websites, and otherwise giving them free publicity through word of mouth.
Tech-savvy campaigns already use social media to mobilize their volunteers and sway voters over to their sites. One way is through targeted ads, which work through cookies based on people’s “likes.” Liking someone’s comment on Medicare, for instance, can prompt a series of targeted campaign ads to appear on the side of the page on your next click.
Politicians also depend heavily on social media to spread the word about their campaigns. Romney and Obama have strong Facebook and Twitter presences, as do their wives, letting supporters feel like they have a close, personal connection with the candidate of their choice.
The Burns poll revealed Democrats who use social networking sites say the information they gather there is important when deciding political issues, but the Republican Party also increased its online presence this year to satisfy the party faithful and sway people who remain undecided.
Organizations also seed content to Facebook to keep the political campaign going. They know Facebook users pay more attention to people’s updates than political ads, so they create content such as photos, video and statuses that can be picked up and quickly go viral.
How to Get Around the Arguments
The election is just a few weeks away, but it’s likely the arguments will continue to escalate, particularly since the candidates are in a dead heat.
But those stuck between wanting to see a Facebook friend’s new baby and also putting up with their constant postings about the evil of whatever political party she hates will tread a fine line between maintaining a friendship and unfriending that person online and in real life.
Some unfriend political posters, because they don’t want to fight about posts and they don’t like how people are calling each other names. But it may be easier — and you may be able to preserve your real-life and online friendships — by using Facebook’s privacy settings to hide would-be pundits, who won’t know they’re hidden from your wall. By using the privacy settings, users can ignore the political arguments without losing friendships that they may have had in real life for several years.
Meanwhile, if you’re the one posting all the political statements and then sitting back and enjoying the fireworks, your own reputation may be harmed. People who rarely socialize with Facebook friends offline find themselves making assumptions about people from their posts, and people who post incessantly about one topic — even if it’s not political — risk sounding obsessed and annoying.
In addition, people who argue without keeping tight privacy controls on their pages can risk their bosses or business associates seeing their names associated with political viewpoints they don’t subscribe to.
And Burns, in his survey, found that most of the respondents say they plan to stop posting about politics after the election, so if you can hold out until a few weeks after the results and outcry — whichever way the vote goes — dies down, you may be able to preserve your sanity, plus your lists of connections.
Just remember, it’s only two more weeks of earnest campaigning, and then the election will be all over with — just in time to debate those deadbeat, no-count, cheating, lying, criminal idiots that everyone else (but not the poster) put into office. ♦
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