The 2012 election seems like ancient history now but some of the friendships damaged by political posturing on Facebook linger on.
Bob, a retired military officer in Washington, D.C., who voted for Obama, said it remains hard to read some of the posts by Facebook friends who supported Romney. He says the Facebook experience has begun to color his real-life relationships.
“It got nasty,” he said. “Instead of enabling relationships Facebook is destroying them.”
Carla Naumburg, a Massachusetts blogger, posted a plea last Election Day for peace on both sides of the Facebook political divide.
“I started getting concerned when I noticed friends announcing that they will unfriend people on Facebook who are voting for the other guy,” she wrote. “I saw the same trend on Twitter, and on the news. And I realized that relationships are falling apart all over the country, not just in my community.”
It's not just consumers and bloggers who have noted this disturbing trend. A new study from Georgia Tech examines how politics divides people on social media. People who think their friends have opposing opinions engage less on Facebook, they discovered.
For those who stay logged in and express their political views, the researchers found they tend to stick to their own circles, ignore those on the other side and become more polarized.
In an effort to be helpful, the researchers came up with a few suggestions for Facebook. They say that by displaying shared interests between friends during their politically heated encounters, Facebook could help defuse possible arguments and alleviate tension. In other words, people need to be reminded of what they have in common, despite political differences. They say increasing exposure and engagement to weak ties could make people more resilient in the face of political argument.
“People are mainly friends with those who share similar values and interests. They tend to interact with them the most, a phenomenon called homophily,” said Catherine Grevet, the Georgia Tech Ph.D. student who led the study. “But that means they rarely interact with the few friends with differing opinions. As a result, they aren’t exposed to opposing viewpoints.”
The researchers fault Facebook’s algorithms. Newsfeeds are filled with the friends a person most often interacts with, typically those with strong ties. Grevet would like to see Facebook sprinkle in a few status updates on both sides of political issues. That, she says, would expose people to different opinions, which are typically held by weak ties.
“Designing social media toward nudging users to strengthen relationships with weak ties with different viewpoints could have beneficial consequences for the platform, users and society,” said Grevet.
Grevet's study examined more than 100 politically active Facebook users in the spring of 2013 amid debates about budget cuts, gay marriage and gun control regulations. The majority of participants were liberal, female and under the age of 40, reflecting the traditional Facebook user.
More than 70% of participants said they don’t talk about politics with their friends with different opinions. When they were presented with a post they didn’t agree with, 60% said they ignored it and didn’t comment. When they did, sometimes it made the person question the relationship and drop the friend.
“Even though people could simply unfriend someone with different opinions, and there were certainly those who did that, there were many relationships that were able to be maintained,” said Grevet. “Through a combination of behaviors on Facebook like hiding, tuning out, logging off or avoiding certain conversations, people negotiated around those differences to stay connected.”
But Grevet thinks Facebook users should embrace their differences and that the social media site could make that happen if it would remind friends of their shared interests.