Facebook, unfriending, and the great echo chamber

Would you unfriend someone on Facebook, because of political views?

Facebook users are fed up with political grandstanding. A September 2016 Monmouth University Poll said, “More than 2-in-3 voters say that this year's presidential race has brought out the worst in people.”

Kelly Adrian of Eagle River said, in a recent email interview, she Facebooks “to keep in contact with family that live out of state.” Adrian is unsurprised friendships are strained by social mediapolitical postings.  Looking back on the election season, she said some have made Internet posts they likely regret, and have “lost good friends because of it.”  

“People end up looking very bad, when maybe they typed something in the heat of the moment,” Adrian said.

The Monmouth poll revealed 7% of voters reported losing or ending a friendship because of this year's presidential race.  This included 9% of Clinton supporters, and 6% of Trump backers.

Facebook helps birds of feather flock together

A March 2016 poll by Edison Research reported 25% of Americans aged 12 and up get political news from Facebook.

Facebook uses algorithms to control what stories appear in a user’s news feed. News feeds are the product of connections and activity, including likes, comments, and shares. Facebook’s goal, to keep site users happy, skews news feeds to include only information a user receives positively.  Unfriending decreases exposure to opposing viewpoints. 

Dr. Christopher Sibona, Assistant Professor of Management and Information Systems at the Cameron School of Business in the University of North Carolina, has researched unfriending. In 2014, Sibona published a landmark study on effects of social media unfriending.  He said in a recent interview that some users take disconnection to a more drastic level, and deactivate. It’s often temporary. 

"(Facebook) is quite a ‘sticky’ site,” Sibona said, “so I suspect people may take a break and come back. Discontinuance from a social networking site is hard."

As far as unfriending, Sibona said, "Polarizing posts are the second most common reason for unfriending - after posting too frequently about inconsequential information.”

Nicholas John and Shira Dvir-Gvirsman researched politically motivated unfriending and unfollowing on Facebook. In 2015, they published their paper in the Journal of Communications, “I Don't Like You Any More: Facebook Unfriending by Israelis During the Israel–Gaza Conflict of 2014.” 

John and Dvir-Gvirsman surveyed 1,013 Jewish Israeli Facebook users.  They found, “a total of 16% of users unfriended or unfollowed a Facebook friend” during the Conflict.  They also concluded that unfriending was more prevalent with “ideologically extreme” and “more politically active” Facebook users.

“The two main reasons given for unfriending or unfollowing someone were that they had posted either offensive posts (52%) or content with which the unfriender disagreed (60%). A total of 17% unfriended someone who posted content that might offend other of their Facebook friends and 7% unfriended someone for arguing with them about the conflict,” according to the study.

Unfriending, the Israel-Gaza study found, is “seen as aimed at creating a “clean” environment where there are no (or fewer) voices that you would rather not hear.”  That is an echo chamber.

A.E. Weisgerber began her reporting career in 1999 as an entertainment and features writer.  She was a 2014 Reynolds Journalism Fellow at Kent State University.  Her reporting has appeared in New Jersey Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, The Courier Press, and many more. Follow her @aeweisgerber.

11/26/2016 - 4:19pm