Divisive presidential campaign roils Facebook

Many ‘unfriending’ over contentious politics.

It was 2 a.m. and he couldn’t sleep, thinking about the comments people had made in reaction to a story posted by his wife on the social media network after GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s criticism of fellow Gold Star parents, the Muslim parents of Iraq war casualty Humayun Khan.

Olivas, the former Republican mayor of Hamilton, is also a Gold Star parent. His son Nicholas, 20, was killed on Army patrol in Afghanistan in 2012.

Comments made by those he considered to be justifying Trump’s words, were the last straw, he said.

“I could not be there and keep my cool. So I deactivated my account,” Olivas said.

The giant social network has emerged as a virtual town hall for political debate, an easy place to share opinions — and vitriolic attacks — about the two polarizing presidential candidates.

Facebook told the Associated Press that from Jan. 1 through Aug. 1, 100 million people on Facebook in the United States generated 4 billion posts, comments, shares and reactions about the election. More than 1 billion of those came in July, the month of the national conventions officially nominating Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Facebook counts 205 million active monthly users in the United States.

Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director, said in a statement to the Associated Press that the network “is giving more people a voice in the political process, enabling a robust two-way dialogue between candidates and voters the likes we haven’t seen before.”

Facebook didn’t have “unfriending” numbers, but that online action of cutting off communication appears to be on the rise this summer along with other election-related activity.

That doesn’t surprise Cedarville University political science professor Mark C. Smith.

People are used to division between political parties, he said, but “are less able to handle it from people they normally consider ‘friends.’ ”

“When Facebook friends link to alternative points of view, or make pronouncements that are out of step, it is probably jarring when compared to the relative uniformity of the rest of the Facebook feed,” Smith said.

For Olivas, the political commenting on Facebook has gotten worse during the election season because many people “can’t state their opinion without control or abusive language.”

Scott Talan, an American University communication teacher who studies social media and politics, said the popularity and ease of use on Facebook combined with two candidates with remarkably high negative ratings among voters fuel “very visceral” debates that go to people’s strong personal values and identity.

“They range from pretty harsh, graphically laced attacks upon people … to statements of ‘if you support this person, you can no longer be my friend,’ ” he said.

Tuning out the other side of a political argument can also be seen in other media forms, said Miami University Hamilton political science professor John Forren.

“We see it in the world of talk radio, and it’s clearly there in cable news,” he said of more conservative-leaning and more liberal-leaning stations on radio and television. “More recently, this same tendency of many people to just listen to voices that reinforce their own pre-existing views has emerged in social media.”

This is troubling, Forren said, because “it is very important in a democratic society for people to be able to hear competing arguments and to compromise with those who disagree with them. But compromise is very difficult when one is not really even aware of what other people are thinking — or not even aware that there are people out there who hold different views from one’s own.”

“Simply put, if you spend all of your time just talking with people who think just like you do — whether on the left or on the right — it becomes very easy to just assume that everyone thinks the same way,” he said. “And it also tends to convince the person that their view must be correct: ‘after all, everyone I know agrees with me.’ ”

Olivas said eventually he may return to Facebook, but not until well after the Nov. 8 general election.

This article contains reporting by Dan Sewell of the Associated Press.

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