Everyone claims to care about diversity, individualism and tolerance. Very few people (R.I.P. Pete Seeger) really do. Instead, they want their beliefs affirmed and they want to demonize the opposition at every turn
The remoteness and anonymity of social media makes aggressive and cultural political posturing easy - that is why people who think the majority of their friends have differing opinions than their own engage less on Facebook. Politically active tend to stick in their own circles, ignore those on the other side and become more polarized.
A new paper suggests that politics remain the great divider - your grandparents told you never to talk politics or religion at a party and that holds true for the Internet also, people just ignore the advice these days.
Academics aren't likely to have much to offer to Facebook in how to be successful but they do anyway, saying that displaying shared interests between friends during prickly conversations could help diffuse possible arguments and alleviate tension. The paper also notes that increasing exposure and engagement to weak ties could make people more resilient in the face of political disagreement.
Currently, Facebook's news feed instead highlights people they interact with the most. It's trivial to figure out where people are politically so the authors suggest sprinking in a few opposing ideas. Though other research has shown that people are quick to 'un-friend' anyone with opposing opinions anyway (who is quickest to do so? Sorry, liberals, this time you are the least tolerant.)
"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. 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."
The paper was based on surveys of more than 100 politically active Facebook users in the spring of 2013 amid debates about budgets cuts, gay marriage and gun control regulations. The majority of participants were liberal, female and under the age of 40, mirroring the traditional Facebook user. More than 70 percent said they don't talk about politics with their friends with different opinions. When they saw something they didn't agree with, 60 percent said they ignored it and didn't comment. When they did, sometimes it made the person question the relationship and disassociate and from 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."
Grevet will present the results next month at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing conference in Baltimore.