Is Facebook a waste of time for political parties?

One of the questions during this ‘social media’ election is, can Facebook, a social networking site that was developed as a venue for friends and family to stay in touch and strengthen personal connections, also be used as an effective platform to engage in political discussion? Most of the political parties and candidates running for office in Canada seem to think so. But are they wasting their time?

One of the main characteristics of Facebook is the lack of anonymity. This encourages more civility and mature behaviour than other social sites like Twitter. The majority of Facebook users use their real names, and people who are on their ‘friends’ list are ‘known’ to them at some level.[1]  Because of this, when politics are discussed on Facebook, the users no doubt have an idea of what would be too controversial to their group of friends and post accordingly. As a result, when strong opinions are posted on Facebook they are generally greeted with agreement from friends, who are likely to share similar opinions.[2] This effect, observed on social networking sites such as Facebook, is a perfect example of the old English saying; birds of a feather flock together.[3]  Below is an example of such behaviour found on Facebook.[4]

When statements are posted that friends take issue with, they may spark a discussion with much back and forth. What’s interesting is the level of documentation people are posting to back up their ideas. Links to news articles and clips are often included to add more credibility to an opinion. When it’s clear a discussion will not come to an agreement in terms of political opinion, one of the posters will often include something funny to diffuse the situation, and reinforce the friendly relationship between the two (or more) people in the ‘argument’.

Some brave posters (or serious extroverts) have taken the current Canadian election as a hot topic for discussion on their Facebook walls. Their open promotion or criticism of a party or leader often results in heated discussion among friends that disagree with their statements.

But do any of these discussions lead to defriending or blocking?

Research suggests discussions on politics are among the top reasons people delete friends from their Facebook accounts. In fact, it’s the second most popular reason for defriending, after constant ‘uninteresting posts’, according to some studies [5]. As users can usually gauge their audience on Facebook, any posts promoting or criticizing a party that would lead to heated debate, is usually avoided. Even ‘Liking’ a party or leader who doesn’t have a good reputation among your Facebook friends can lead to contention among friends. When I ‘Liked’ all the electoral candidates on Facebook (so I could ‘follow’ them for the purpose of our Lab’s studies), some of my friends commented on this and clearly disagreed with the open promotion of certain leaders. In my case this has not led to any defriending, but this is likely because I too avoid open promotion on Facebook of any one specific party.

So is Facebook an important venue for parties to focus campaign resources on? New evidence suggests that due to the ways people perceive and use Facebook today, it can inhibit people from expressing their true feelings and thoughts on political matters. However, as Naheed Nenshi’s unlikely win of the mayorship in Calgary last fall has shown, if used correctly, it can be a very powerful and effective tool to build a community of like-minded individual to help raise funds and bring out volunteers.

Have you ever self-censored your political views on Facebook?  Leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts.

*Anatoliy Gruzd and Philip Mai contributed to the writing and commentaries for this post.

Footnotes

[1] Nyberg, S (2010). Fake accounts in Facebook – How to counter it. Retrieved on March 27, 2010 from http://ezinearticles.com/?Fake-Accounts-in-Facebook—How-to-Counter-It&id=3703889

[2] Lewis, K., Kaufman, J., Gonzalez, M., Wimmer, A., & Christakis, N. (2008). Tastes, ties, and time: A new social network dataset using Facebook.com Social Networks, 30 (4), 330-342 DOI: 10.1016/j.socnet.2008.07.002

[3] McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. (2001). Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks Annual Review of Sociology, 27 (1), 415-444 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415

[4] Facebook status updates in this blog post have been accessed through youropenbook.org and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the socialmedialab.ca

[5] Anas, B. (2010). CU research reveals top reasons for facebook defriending. ColoradoDaily.com. Retrieved from http://www.coloradodaily.com/ci_16291317?source=most_viewed#axzz1JzZJZgrb

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