Left or right? Social Media sites filled with political posts

Contact: Rene Abadie
Date: October 9, 2012

      HAMMOND –As the presidential campaign intensifies leading up to election day in November, social websites such as Facebook are filled with posturing from individuals representing all ends of the political spectrum.

     And that can sometimes rub friends and colleagues the wrong way, according to a Southeastern Louisiana University communication specialist.

     "In fact, political punditry has become so prevalent – and sometimes so mean – that people are being 'unfriended' until the election is over," said Communication Professor Joseph Burns.

     The trend intrigued Burns considerably, tapping into both his own curiosity, as well as his professional interest in the online communication that is characteristic of social media.

     "I wondered why some of my Facebook friends have become so politically vocal for one side or the other," he said. "So I decided to ask them."

     In a friendly and admittedly unscientific poll of 24 of his more vocal Facebook friends – half left-leaning, the other half inclined to the right – Burns asked for their motives and anecdotes in posting their political thoughts or links to sites that support their positions or candidate.

     One common theme was that friends on both sides believed their posts were pointing out fallacies, righting media wrongs, and getting out their version of the "truth."

     Their comments included a general feeling of righteousness:

     -- "How can everyone not see the rationality of this? Why does anyone buy the BS the other side is spewing when this makes so much sense?"

     -- "They need to know there's bias and misinformation out there."

     -- And "I have seen so many false and unfair posts about (Candidate) and (Party) that I felt a need to correct the inaccuracies."

     Burns' friends who stated they were not out to right wrongs characterized their posts as a simple "thumbs up" or cheerleading to the people who believe and feel as they do.

     But does anyone really believe their posts will have an effect on others? Burns said the responses comments to his informal poll suggested more yes than no.

     "My friends who believed they were having an effect said they hoped to encourage people to follow their lead," he said. "A number generally agreed with one friend's statement that 'You can sway people's voting decisions based on good, factual discussions.' They wanted to bring to the table an angle that others may not have considered or to 'strike a chord with those who may not agree but are open to interesting ideas.'"

     But those who did not believe their posts would have an effect were just as adamant. "Not a chance," said one, while another proclaimed "Politics is like religion ... deeply held by those who believe."

     Regarding responses to postings and comments, about half said they continued to argue with those who disagreed. Some said they returned because they needed to defend their post, while another stated that it is in the comment section where the real manipulation takes place, and that he has been able to get people to think about topics more objectively.

     It was the uglier side of political debate, however, that made some simply turn away, Burns explained.

     "They didn't like the name calling," Burns said. "Another stated he learned the hard way not to argue with what he termed 'trolls.' Yet another said there was too much chance for misunderstanding because Facebook doesn't allow 'the lilt of the spoken comment' or the 'ability to see the sly smile or raised eyebrow.'"

     Burns also asked his associates if they planned to continue political postings if their particular candidate lost. All but three stated no.

     "Those who intend to keep posting said they must continue to speak out and make statements that keep the media in check," he added.

     Burns said his informal survey indicates those who post on Facebook truly believe in what they are posting, more than half believe they can change political positions, most don't want to fight about it, and -- except for a couple of stragglers – all intend to stop after the election.

     His advice: "Keep your friends ... wait it out."

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