The Facebook election: Is it tearing us apart?

Jeff Jones
Engagement Editor
Public Insight Network
A delegate poses at the Facebook photo booth at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., during the 2012 Republican National Convention.

A delegate poses at the Facebook photo booth at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Florida during the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP | Getty Images)

Remember 2008? A record number of votes were cast in a historic presidential election. And only 8 percent of Americans were on Facebook. Can you imagine?

These days, more than half of Americans over age 12 have Facebook accounts; collectively, we now spend the equivalent of 100,000 years on the site — each month.

That’s a lot of time friending, liking and tending to Farmville plots. And it means that social media has the potential to dramatically change the experience of this election for the millions of Americans who are connected to their families, friends and neighbors in a completely new way this time around. Sounds like a great leap forward for democracy, right?

Not so fast. It might actually be pulling at the seams of our social fabric.

“Until this year, I had no idea how divided my Facebook friends were,” said Public Insight Network source Joan O’Connor of Orangevale, Calif. “I have muted some and even de-friended a couple because I found their postings to be offensive. These are normal people who are my acquaintances (hairdresser, workmates) and I wasn’t aware of their political persuasions until they started posting on Facebook. Now I can’t help but distance myself.

PIN is collaborating with This American Life to collect stories about the practical, ground-level effects of the red-blue divide in people’s lives.  We’ve heard stories of newlyweds fighting , church-goers ostracized and neighborhood relationships frozen. But the most common denominator in the hundreds of stories we’ve heard about relationships altered by politics? Facebook.

Here are a few examples.

Dawn Hansen of Kennewick, Wash., told us about an old friendship she chose not to renew:

“My best friend from high school and I have been pretty good about staying in touch since we graduated in the mid-’80s. She lives across the country from me and has moved a couple of times. As a result, we have lost each others’ cell phone numbers. I was motivated to get hers, and even messaged her on Facebook to get it. In the meantime, I saw several posts she had made that seemed kind of hateful in a right-wing sort of way. It totally turned me off to wanting to talk to her.

“This was something that just never really came up in high school; as a matter of fact, I hadn’t grown into my beliefs politically at the time. But now, it kind of feels like I don’t really know her and even though she has messaged me with her number and encouraged me to call, I haven’t. Even though I know she didn’t mean to do so, I was really offended by the remarks she made [on Facebook].”

Steve Weinstein of Milwaukee explained how a current friendship ended:

“I de-friended a close friend [on Facebook] because of our political differences. I “Liked” Mitt Romney on Facebook, and my friend’s response was that my action made him ‘spit up a little bit.’

“It’s too bad. We’d been friends for 20-plus years, and the upcoming election drove a wedge into that friendship.

We also read plenty about families and Facebook. Andrea Rhodes of Hoffman Estates, Ill., explained why her daughter can’t see her grandparents anymore.

“It all came to a boil when [my stepmother] posted something about gay marriage, and an argument ensued between her and my husband. This ended with my husband asking her if there was a place at ‘the table’ for people like him (atheists) or Jews, Muslims, Rastafarians, etc. She responded to that question with: ‘CHRISTIAN NATION!!!’

“We took this to mean ‘YOU ARE NOT WELCOME!!!’ As such, our 3-year-old daughter will no longer be allowed to stay with my dad and stepmother, nor is my stepmother allowed in our house. More immediately, we will not be seeing them over any of the upcoming holidays. Because of this, whatever relationship I had with my father is gone. I’ll cry to my husband about it at least once a week because I have to take this stand and do not want my daughter around that kind of hatred and bigotry, but it’s my DAD.”

Alison Swihart, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., simply relayed how the red-blue tension between her and a family member is causing anxiety for others in the family.

“Currently, I have had to ‘unfriend’ and ‘block’ [a family member] from Facebook because of political differences. This is someone I love very much, but he was stalking me on Facebook and when I comment on posts of people he doesn’t even know, he would get on that post and try to pick a fight with me. …

“We family members will all get together over Thanksgiving, as we traditionally do, and my mother is afraid none of us will be speaking to each other. I hope after the election — no matter who wins — we will be able to speak to each other again and our relationships will be restored. Ironically, as recently as six years ago, we were all basically on the same ‘team.’ The negativity that Obama and Romney have thrust upon us has carried into relationships with those I love.”

Only a few people who responded to our questions admitted to being the agitator among their Facebook contacts. But Kyle McRory of Pittsburgh calls himself very opinionated and argumentative and he takes pride in rocking the boat — even with strangers.

“I regularly post things on Facebook with the intentions of sparking a debate or comment on friends’ posts to start arguments with their friends whom I’ve never met. I have argued everything from economics to health care to religion. In many of these debates I have flat-out strongly argued with many of my good friends and sometimes times this has even resulted in them taking personal shots at me, something I make sure never to do back.

In one instance an argument with one of my friend’s friends’ moms got so heated he blocked me on Facebook and we didn’t talk for weeks. I have been doing this so often and have actually gotten quite good at debating I now am actually asked on a consistent basis to argue on a friend’s behalf in many scenarios. I have had moms email me and tell me they love my writing and asked me to comment on something of theirs. …

“All of this seems like petty social network bickering but the reason I continue to do it is because I feel like I am honestly making a difference. I have changed the political views of many of my friends.”

Whether or not you like to argue with other people’s mothers, we’d really like to know how the red/blue divide has affected your relationships — at work, at home, in your community, or on Facebook. Share your story with us and This American Life.




Jeff Jones Engagement Editor
Public Insight Network

Jeff Jones is the Engagement Editor for the Public Insight Network. He’s worked for Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media since 2003, including producing and directing MPR’s “All Things Considered” with host Tom Crann from 2006 to 2010. He has edited hundreds of broadcast interviews, but the most memorable ones feature “regular folks” with surprising stories to tell.

Jeff strongly believes that places have stories, too. So he created MPR Sound Point, a mobile phone-based audio tour of interesting places in Minneapolis and Duluth that gives listeners a chance to “talk back” via the PIN.