Facebook Friends and the Partisan Divide


When I was growing up in Alabama, my Dad warned me to never talk politics in public.

I didn't listen. Fast forward to my adult life in New York City and I think it's big fun to sit home and have two or three glasses of red wine while watching a Republican debate meltdown into Donald Trump's pants. But, maybe I should let my thoughts gestate a bit before I shout out three or four snarky Facebook status updates onto the internet as if I'm some cheap armchair pundit.

It's not as if my ridicule is going to challenge anyone to think outside their own partisan sandbox. If I'm lucky, I'll get a few "likes," affirmation that I'm preaching to my own choir.

But there is all kinds of vitriolic shouting coming from across the partisan divide on Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram this campaign season. Even among left leaning friends, I've seen comment threads devolve quickly from healthy debate into junk filled bombastic tirades over Hillary and Bernie.

Beliefs get shredded, insults hurled and intelligence questioned. Then come the threats to "unfollow" or "unfriend." Exactly how does cutting off contact with someone with opposing ideology further discussion, debate and democracy?

Around two years ago, Pew Research Center spelled out how deep the partisan divide in America actually is. They surveyed 10,000 Americans and found that "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines -- and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive -- than at any point in the last two decades."

The 2014 report confirms that "ideological silos" are now common on both the political left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions -- especially conservatives -- are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views.

Take me for example. I was born and raised in the reddest of states, Alabama. But for most of my life, I've lived here in very blue New York City, and I'd wager that the majority of my friends, including those on Facebook share my progressive values. That said, I know I have a few friends who are proudly conservative, and scattered in that mix, I'd bet there are a few moderates.

I'd like to believe social media could play a role in furthering democracy. But are we more likely willing participants in increasingly segregated partisan echo chambers? I wanted some perspective so I sought out some political experts to help me understand.

"There's no question that we are self segregating by ideological perspectives more than we have before, at least in my lifetime," said Brian Balogh, a co-host of Backstory with the American History Guys, the public radio program and podcast that brings historical perspective to current events.

Balogh says he thinks social media hardens the divide because communication online is so instantaneous. People says things they might not have, face to face, and define themselves as being "against" the opposing view. This adversarial political dynamic is nothing new.

"For much of the 19th century, the metaphor most commonly used for politics was war. You didn't pick and choose your political preference. It was deeply embedded in both you and your family's identity. It was just men who voted and you voted the way your father did. Your political party and ideology was as much a part of your identity as your ethnicity," says Balogh.

The political parties characterized themselves as armies. They would gather at massive torchlight parades where citizens would speak, argue and debate all through the night, Balogh says.

Social media is the modern-day version of all that, Balogh says with a caveat: "In general I believe in free expression. But, I do think we need a safe space in social media for constructive political discussion and debate, a place where people's patriotism, integrity and persons aren't threatened," because they hold opposing views"

He also says people might want to take a few minutes and think about what they are writing in a Facebook update, before posting it online for the world to see.

Balough said his Dad once told him to never write a letter in anger before waiting one full day before mailing it. And that got me thinking about some of the comments I've made on Facebook during Republican debates.

"If you had to do it again, do you think you might have made a more effective and slightly more dispassionate post if you had waited a day?"

Balogh says he finds it useful to read and understand opinions written by intelligent people who hold different political views than his, that knowledge and understanding helps him defend and argue his own viewpoints more effectively.

After all, what we say or share on Facebook has the potential to elicit an instant response from an acquaintance, friend or relative who might be opposed to our political viewpoints.

"We all have that conservative or liberal uncle that will chime in and start a war with your left-leaning friends via a Facebook comment thread," said New Jersey-based Democratic Party political operative Michael Embrich, who is also former spokesman for the internet freedom group TestPac.

He said he steers clear of confrontation in those situations.

"The unwritten rule about this type of situation is, keep your mouth shut, avoid conflict, don't get sucked into the Facebook rubicon," said Embrich.

Embrich says he has a few political friends, including people embedded in a U.S. senator's office, who claimed they would delete any Facebook friends who "Like" or support Trump.

"The post did not go over smoothly. I think the threads are up to about 500 comments, if it hasn't been deleted already," said Embrich.

There are actually tools that enable Facebook users to see which friends have "liked" Trump.

But Florida-based political strategist Mary Anna Mancuso, founder of the conservative blog Politicalhype.com says when people post threats to "de-friend" or "unfollow" those who do not support their candidate, or share in their political beliefs, it does not help bring people together for healthy debate.

"When people post their comments about various political topics they're not necessarily contributing to the political divide, rather, they are engaging in an ongoing discussion utilizing Facebook as their sounding board. This election cycle for better or worse has gotten people talking and engaged on some level with a candidate or campaign," says Mancuso.

She contends that the 2016 Presidential election is not more heated or divided than campaigns past, but it is more amplified as a result of both parties having their own "extreme" candidates in Trump and Sanders.

Mancuso says constructive debate and discourse is great, but when people launch into personal attacks and take shots at one another, the exchange becomes a problem and is no longer constructive.

Political strategist Maria Katrien Heslin says when "adding your two cents" online, come armed with facts and logic.

"Differences of opinion on any topic should be welcomed by us all -- when the opinions are delivered and received with respect, and when they are backed up with facts and logic," said Heslin, who was also Bloomington, Indiana's first female Deputy Mayor.

Heslin says when it comes to politics, a lot of people are not terribly well informed, yet feel the urge to share what they think of as their truth.

"They allow their self-identity to be so enmeshed in their particular viewpoint, so they cling fervently and lash out at others who may disagree with them," says Heslin.

And, she says, understanding why people think the way they do is critical to having a civil and adult dialogue.

"The rules on social media should be simple," she says. "Know your facts, communicate your positions with solid reasoning and encourage others to do the same. Be open to learning what others think and why."

Truth be told, maybe I need to get out more and have these discussions in person, with real people and not my Facebook feed.

As Jennifer M. Grygiel, communications professor at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University told me if you were having a heated political discussion with a friend in real life you might sense that you've struck a nerve due to their body language, lack of eye contact etc.

"This might allow you to nudge them quick or change the topic so that they understand that you want to be friends."