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The Politics of Facebook

With a mere eight weeks left before the 2012 presidential election, my Facebook feed, like others’, has become a stream of political rants and rages. Popping up amongst the usual smattering of baby photos (Junior turns 84 weeks old!) and snapshots of last night’s dinner (Spaghetti!), friends and acquaintances on both sides of the partisan line have been sharing articles, photos, and political cartoons with feverish intensity.

To be honest, I usually scroll past most of the political posts on my feed – I’ve seen the (doctored) photo of Mitt Romney’s family accidentally spelling out “MONEY” more times than I can count, and don’t have any interest in debating the merits of Chik-Fil-A’s stance on gay marriage (or Wendy’s… or McDonald’s…). I’ve tended to assume that posting political messages on Facebook isn’t very effective in terms of advancing one’s politics in any meaningful way – after all, isn’t the audience inherently self-selecting? Can anyone really be swayed by a couple of status messages ranting about Obama’s foreign policy missteps or Romney’s mysterious tax records?

The Politics of Facebook

As it turns out, yes, they can.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Company has proved my cynicism to be unwarranted: of the 2,253 U.S. adults surveyed, nearly half of Democrats (48 percent) and one-third of Republican and Independent voters (34 and 33 percent, respectively) said that social networking sites are “very” or at least “somewhat” important in keeping up-to-date on political news.

And even more telling is survey respondents’ attitude towards the impact that such political posts can have: 25 percent of social networking users say that they have become more active in a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on a site. And 16 percent (!) of respondents assert that they have actually changed their views about a political issue in response – 360 people of the 2,253 surveyed.

Interestingly, Democrats and liberals who use social networking sites are more likely to claim a higher incidence of political influence from reading or discussing issues online than their conservative counterparts: 39 percent of liberals say that political posts have motivated them to get more involved in an issue, compared to just 24 percent of conservatives and 21 percent of moderates.

So while posting political screeds on Facebook might prompt a few of your “friends” to block you – 18 percent of survey respondents said they have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone in response to unwanted political postings – chances are that your audience is not only reading your rants and raves but is actively being influenced by them. Particularly if your politics lean to the left.

Consider my skepticism curbed. I may scroll past your political posts, to the latest updates about how long it took Jimmy to run a mile yesterday or which team scored a touchdown in overtime – you know, the important life milestones – but, as it turns out, I’m in the minority. Somewhere, someone is listening.

The soapbox endures.

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