Hiding on Facebook: Online Election Talk Gets Nasty

By Barbara Mannino Features FOXBusiness

A Facebook page is displayed on a computer screen in Brussels April 21, 2010. Over the past six years, social networking has been the Internet's stand-out phenomenon, linking up more than one billion people eager to exchange videos, pictures or last-... minute birthday wishes. To match feature: INTERNET-SOCIALMEDIA/PRIVACY REUTERS/Thierry Roge (BELGIUM - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS) (Reuters)

The 2008 presidential election was the first social media campaign, but the 2012 race has been taken to a whole new level with Facebook comments and Twitter updates of contentious, unfiltered political posts.

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The Barack Obama and John McCain race had a different tone that was less competitive and aggressive on both sides than what we are experiencing now, says Andrew Stephen, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business

A recent poll from VitalSmarts shows 62% of Americans have found themselves in heated debates this election season, and become either the victims or the perpetuators of verbal attacks and manipulative behavior when discussing politics—and a considerable portion of these disputes take place with family and friends online.

The stakes are high this election cycle with people becoming less comfortable in face-to-face conversations, says Kerry Patterson, VitalSmarts, cofounder and co-author of Crucial Conversations. He says that 86% of respondents want to avoid a conceptual in-person fist fight.

But they feel safe online to write their political pandering and opinions.

Pent-up emotions lead to arguments that come out more aggressively online, says Patterson, but be warned a good rant rarely leads to catharsis. “Do not write under the influence of adrenaline venting,” cautions Patterson. “The action has the opposite effect.”

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Bonnie Russell, a California PR executive, says knee-jerk reactions to events on the campaign trail can unintentionally hurt feelings, create tension and even hurt one’s online image that has become more involved in the hiring process.

Russell says she sometimes defriends contacts out of kindness before posting and deletes her own Facebook postings the morning following each of this year’s campaign debates.  But that might not be enough. Chris Crandall, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, cautions that Facebook postings have a long tail and a life of their own—even after being deleted.

“When you say it online, it’s there forever. When you say something stupid, you’re more likely to get caught.”

Online and Out of Control

According to a recent study of online behavior, browsing Facebook and your network populated by strong ties momentarily increases self-esteem but reduces self-control.

Stephen, who co-authored the study with Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, says the research did not intentionally seek to connect a lack of self-control with politics.

He says when friends—particularly those with stronger ties to their network—debate politics online, they often let their guard down and speak their minds forcefully. The assumption of like-mindedness of friends they’ve known forever affords comfort; users are thinking, “We’re all in the same boat.”

Communicating via computer creates that distance of safety absent from face-to-face conversation, says Crandall. “People can more easily be cruel to others. A friend would be shocked and dismayed if she said aloud what she posted on Facebook.”

Social networks also make it easier for people to manipulate facts to meet their own opinions. Kerry Beyer, a photographer and filmmaker ,says Facebook will caption an image to substantiate a claim, but a  quick Google search will reveal the image had different origins altogether and the post has nothing to do with the original claim.

Sometimes these images get liked and shared by thousands of people. “Odds are, many accept these statements as fact—a casualty of the sound-bite culture,” he says.

Inaccurate facts do not win arguments or move a dialogue forward, says David Renza, co-author of Military Education Benefits for College and adjunct instructor and assistant director of military admissions at Post University. Renza frequently posts on Facebook and Twitter about issues regarding military education benefits.

He says some of his followers respond to his posts by blaming the ideologies of one party or the other.  He says at times they make legitimate points, but when they use negative connotations about one or other political party, things get dicey.

“Sometimes, I keep the post because it encourages lively political discussion. But incendiary postings tip the envelope for him. “Hurling insults and images waters down a discussion.”

Inaccurate and vulgar postings have resulted in damaged relationships, which according to the VitalSmarts survey, take a long time to heal for two out of three respondents.

Even worse, says Patterson, 14% of those surveyed say their relationship never truly recovered, noting how one respondent described how she refrained from responding to negative postings to diffuse controversy with a relative who shared opposing political views. Then she got “sucked in” to a Facebook feud with the relative whom she subsequently defriended—which resulted in a currently three-year family rift.

There are also broader social consequences for users. A lot of people get information about the world from Facebook and Twitter which are also sources of business leads, says Stephen.  “If you don’t play fair on Facebook, you may lose access to people who are valuable information conduits.”

Saying something stupid can go as far as your employer who may well be unlikely to cut you all the slack you think you deserve, says Crandall. 

Staying politically neutral comes from a personal belief in separating my business and personal personas, says Beyer. “If you want to keep working, it's best to accept different viewpoints.

“Besides, arguing politics rarely changes someone's mind... politically speaking, the only thing that really matters is exercising your right to vote.”