In the days before social media stretched its digital web across every home and phone, it was relatively easy to avoid knock-down, drag-out battles over politics with friends and family members — avoid the topic or agree to disagree.
No more. With 7-in-10 Americans now using Facebook and a polarization in political positions unseen since the Vietnam War era, avoiding political rants and the conflicts they ignite is nearly impossible. That causes rifts among friends and family members so deep that the passage of years may not be enough to heal them.
“(These are) not hairline cracks; not cracks that can even be repaired,” wrote Carol B. of Reno, in response to a Facebook request for comments for this story. “These are deep fissures, the kind that divide continents. There is no ‘respectfully agreeing to disagree.’ I have no reason whatever to respect anyone who supports Trump. The weird thing is …I thought I knew these people.”
Carol and others quoted in this story are identified by first names for privacy reasons, and also to avoid exacerbating the estrangements they referenced. The request for comments yielded dozens of responses. Everyone, it seems, has a story about “snoozing” (temporarily hiding people from a social media feed), un-following (so the person’s posts don’t show up on a feed), or “un-friending” people, completely cutting social media ties with the offender.
Such online reactions to political talk occurred during the 2016 election cycle, but gained momentum over the last four years. Research by a social media expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, indicates that people passionate about their political positions are cutting ties not just with Facebook friends, but severing relationships with real-life friends, coworkers and even family members.
Debates over politics go nuclear
Natalie Pennington, an assistant professor at UNLV who studies politics and social media, wrote a new study that analyzes what motivates people to engage in political talk on social media, and examines why some people are more willing to broach the subject, as well as the factors that make others hold back. Pennington collaborated with Kelly Winfrey, an assistant professor from Iowa State University and the research coordinator for the Catt Center for Women in Politics.
The political polarization and the venom it conjures is dangerous for the nation’s stability and democracy in general, Pennington said. It’s further complicated by the pandemic, which put all Americans under added stress and created more time for people to interact online rather than in person.
“A poll from the Pew Research Center indicated 55% of social media users were already worn out from political talk online in July,” Pennington said. “That suggests that one possible difference from 2016 to 2020 is political talk surrounding the election started earlier, and is occurring more often, leading to this frustration… This isn’t helpful for anyone involved.”
In the 2016 election cycle, she said, social media users might cut off online friends that they didn’t know in the real world or who were just acquaintances. Now, though, the knives seem to be out for close friends and family as well. Those wounds may never heal.
Friends ‘snoozed‘; parents blocked
“I have snoozed four cousins, one childhood friend and I have come close with my aunt and another two childhood friends,” wrote Dianne R. “Their posts are ugly and racist. I’ll check after the election, but they may stay snoozed forever.”
Joni R. wrote that she un-followed her parents a few years ago because of “their rabid Trumpishness.” She didn’t purge them from her friends list, but no longer sees their posts on her news feed. “I used to go (to their page) and look occasionally so I could comment or like the cutesy stuff, but it’s all Trump or “Libtard” stuff all the time. It makes it hard.”
Most of the responses came from Facebook users who reacted to Trump supporters, but there were some from the other side of the divide: “When I see any anti-Trump memes or whatever, (that person) is gone, I don’t care who it is,” wrote Tom K. “I think there’s a lot of Trump derangement syndrome on social media. No matter what he does, they hate him. He could cure cancer and they would still complain.”
Making both sides shut up
Alex P. said that he has pulled the plug on Facebook friends on both sides of the aisle: “If the person posts something civil, a reasoned argument, OK. But if it’s just nasty, they’re gone.” If the person is an acquaintance, he will un-friend them, he wrote, but if a relative or close friend is involved, he taps the “snooze” button, which disconnects the user from his news feed for 30 days.
“I have probably 50% of my friends muted,” wrote Liz M., who said she doesn’t want to see political arguments from either side. “I like them as people but I don’t want to get into politics. I typically snooze someone, I remain friends, but don’t see their posts. Some of the most wonderful people have definite opposite views.”
Now, ‘they are dead to me’
The deep animosity often seen on political posts carries over to how some people described their actions against users who posted the comments. Several people, in describing their broken ties with former friends or family members, used the phrase that they now are “dead to me.”
“That’s sadly how a lot of people feel,” Pennington said. “That’s such a shift from four years ago. People who (cut ties) then had the closeness of their relationship dictate how they would react. They would (cut off) people who weren’t really close to them. But now, we see it happening with friends, family and romantic relationships. It’s hard. Politics affects everyone and all politics are personal. There’s been a shift on both sides… And with Trump, there are a lot of issues there to talk about.”
The president’s tendency to be combative, insulting and often crude has set the tone.
The age of the Twitter President
“He views himself as a social-media-based president,” Pennington said. “He tweets all the time. People are modeling his behavior from the top down and it’s not just his supporters. There’s a really strong anti-fandom against Trump. So the other side also is modeling that very strong and very loud behavior. People that don’t like Trump are much more vocal than those who didn’t like George W. Bush or Mitt Romney.”
Many anti-Trump Facebook users who responded to the RN&R’s requests for comment wrote that politics isn’t the point anymore. The issues, they wrote, have to do with human decency and the fate of the nation.
Close relationships unravel
“I ended a 42-year friendship with my freshman-year college roommate because he supports Trump,” said Bob F. “It hurts like hell. But damn it, this is about defending democracy against authoritarianism and lines must be drawn.”
Dennis D. of Reno wrote that he un-friended his brother, who lives in Maine, even though Facebook was his primary method of communication with his sibling. “I’m (a Trump supporter), but I don’t make an issue of it (online),” Dennis wrote. “But my brother wouldn’t let a day go by without an anti-Trump rant or meme or whatever. I asked him to put a sock in it and he wouldn’t, so to hell with him.”
Others wrote that racism, misogyny and stupidity are the targets of their complaints, not a political ideology or party. “If you are still for (Trump) at this point, then you are as bad as he is and I want no part of you,” said Dan A. The other side also cited perceived threats to the Republic that transcend policy issues, including a fear of socialism, “antifa” rioters, media bias and the corruption of the “deep state.”
“I had a new friend who I thought was an amazing person. We’d had some great discussions about politics in the past and we knew we were in different camps, she red, me blue. She was so much fun and we seemed so similar. Then one evening she cancelled a dinner date because ‘there’s nothing for us to talk about.’ Later that day I saw posts that were so full of hate, name calling and threats toward (Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak). I had to un-friend her. Funny how we are seeing the ugly truth of how people hide who they really are until they feel safe enough to let it out. Glad I know the truth. “ – Brooke K., Reno Facebook user.
The end of civil discussion?
“Will it end when Trump is gone? I hate to say it but I don’t think so,” Pennington said. “We’ve become so polarized as a country that no matter who wins, four more years of Trump, or Biden in the White House, there will be some sort of push back. The next few months will be kind of crazy.”
It’s a lot easier to be nasty online than it is in person. Social media comments also are more open to misinterpretation than when people are talking face-to-face. Online, there are no facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice or other social clues that help clarify what’s being communicated, Pennington said..
“People misinterpret texts and posts all the time,” she said. “You make one comment and people think you’re fighting with them, and then it is a fight, but it doesn’t have to be. If the people are on your feed, you can’t avoid seeing all the fights.”
The rule of thumb was formerly that people ought to avoid discussing religion or politics. But is that a healthy stance, either in person or online? The way to end polarization is through “civil dialogue across party lines,” Pennington said, and that has to start somewhere.
Weighing consequences, changing tone
“Decide what battles you want to have,” she said. “Sometimes it is best to avoid the topic and just have a nice visit.” But she said that political policies affect everyone and when they have a profoundly negative affect – as in the case of someone with an illness who is worried about losing their health care – “it’s hard for them to talk about anything else and it’s hard to keep a civil tone about that.”
For those who fear losing relationships, Pennington’s advice is to “recognize that the people you love are the people you love, and what that means to you. But you also have to recognize that some political choices put those people at odds with you, and you have to weigh that as well.”
“One way to deal with (contentious speech) is to change the tone of the conversation. A big part of that is modeling. The first person who talks sets the tone. If that tone is negative, that sets the tone of the entire conversation. Start out productive. People are more likely to model the positive.” — Natalie Rose Pennington, social media expert.
When not playing is winning
Another way to cope with the bile on social media is to quit the platforms, she said.
“Will this ever calm down? Sure, but I don’t know when,” Pennington said. “The political climate is at the point where these types of comments are inevitable. I’ve interviewed people who quit (social media) entirely. They were really happy. They now go to major news sources and shop around for news and opinion. They got out of their bubbles. Remember that social media is not a be-all, end all.”