The Great Debate: Sharing Political Opinions on Facebook

As we race toward election day, it seems like our feeds on social media sites are increasingly dominated by political stuff — links, rants, and photos of Obama and Romney switching hairdos — and there’s some disagreement about just how appropriate this can be. Is Facebook the place for your political points to be scored? Are you better off than you were four years ago … now that you know your great-aunt is a birther? The Globe‘s Beth Teitell has a great piece documenting the irritations of people who say they are learning too much about the politics of friends and family on Facebook. Teitell notes that this web cartoon is going viral on Facebook, becoming a kind of rallying call for the aggrievedly apolitical social networkers of the world:

Teitell’s piece focuses on people who are annoyed by political postings. But she notes that the message of this card — that no one is convinced by their friends’ posts — isn’t strictly true. According to a September Pew survey, 16 percent of social media site users say they’ve changed their mind on a political issue because of their friends’ postings. Twenty-five percent consider social networking “somewhat” or “very” important for debating or discussing political views. It might not be a majority of Facebook users, but it is a decently sized minority. It seems Facebook is suffering from the tension of a community with a difference of opinion on what the site is for.

Perhaps the rage of the non-political is coming to a head, but it’s an issue that’s plagued us before. “Do Facebook political rants make you want to UnFriend?” asks a headline in Entertainment Weekly back in August.  We think the best solution here might be one put forward by LifeHacker in September. The site gave step-by-step instructions for Facebook users who want to filter out posts that contain words like “Romney,” “Obama,” and “Democrat.” In other words, it allows us to sort ourselves into groups: those planning to engage and be convinced by each others’ political opinions. And those of us who want to unfriend the former group until November. It means we can all get along without having to actually end our online friendships with people we like, but whose political opinions we hate (or about which we just don’t care.) And those who opt in can continue to use Facebook as a source of political news and a soapbox. Sort away, Facebook.