Ironically for a website aimed at helping users maintain old friendships and forge new ones, Facebook is actually quite good at facilitating their destruction. Users seem to forget the old maxim about avoiding discussion of politics and religion. It might sound odd to the denizens of New York and Washington, but most people naturally avoid conflict, and the prospect of getting into heated political debates, particularly with friends or colleagues, is a major turn-off. But on Facebook, shielded from the inherent anxiety of personal contact, many can’t resist the impulse to speak whatever is on their mind. When that person you thought you knew quite well actually turns out to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, is it possible to still stay friendly with them?
A recent survey confirmed my suspicion. Earlier this year, the Pew Internet & American Life project released the results of a poll it had conducted among over 2,500 adult users of social networking sites. 38 per cent said that they ‘discovered through a friend’s post that his/her political beliefs were different than the user thought they were’, and that 18 per cent had blocked, unfriended or hidden a friend due to politics. The trend is exacerbated by the fact that those people who are most active in posting and commenting about politics on social networking sites fall on opposite extremes of the political spectrum.