Social networks make politics hard to avoid

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Emily Ransom, 29, described political sentiment during the presidential elections of her college days as somewhat hidden — the discourse was there for those who sought it out, yet it wasn't in your face.

But Facebook was just emerging when the South Bend resident attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and she didn't create an account until she graduated.

As political commentary on sites like Facebook and Twitter explodes during this election season, some say social media causes emotional politics to ooze into their lives like it never did before.

In college, Ransom was involved in both an evangelical Christian club, which tended to attract conservative students, and a black student movement, often attracting those more liberal, she said.

"I was surrounded by all these different voices," Ransom said, though she noted she may have been unique in that. "Now anyone on Facebook, which is basically everyone, is going to be as surrounded as I was.

"There are pluses and minuses to that," she added.

Glenn Sparks, a communication professor at Purdue University, told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/SKIA56 ) that political self-expression on Facebook can surge into people's faces in unwanted ways.

"It's a cultural truism that you don't talk about politics and religion if you're with people you don't know very well," Sparks said. "You navigate that with caution."

Yet a politically charged Facebook message could reach hundreds or even thousands of acquaintances with no way to know how the post could be received, he said.

In response to a question posed on the South Bend Tribune's Facebook page, a handful of readers reported hiding posts from certain people, or even in some cases, removing a friend, because of that person's political posts.

Others, though, said political discussion on Facebook enhances their election experience.

A survey published earlier this month by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that about 40 percent of American adults have used social media to express a political thought in some way.

According to the study, 60 percent of American adults use a social networking site, and of that percentage, 66 percent have used the site politically.

"I find it painful," Ransom said, on sometimes seeing friends slamming each other for their political views on Facebook. She said she has hidden particularly harsh posts from her feed, though she never un-friended someone on Facebook.

Sparks said a message on Facebook lacks verbal and facial cues that help guide a political conversation to avoid hurt feelings, anger and misunderstandings.

"People can monitor how a message is received instantly," Sparks said of face-to-face talks, noting that the brain can pick up small cues and use them to adjust communication if necessary.

"It helps guarantee the emotional charge of an interaction is kept in check and doesn't spiral out of control."

Perhaps the old-fashioned way of discussing politics face to face is more constructive, he said, though social media offers new ways for people to learn about and participate in government.

Chris Wegnerowski, 37, said he has both experienced enlightened conversation on Facebook, sometimes connecting with people he rarely is able to see in person, and seen those conversations degenerate into vitriol.

"I have had some good discussions with friends and family over politics, some peaceful, others where I've been called names I don't want to repeat," the Mishawaka man said.

Wegnerowski said he was laid off of a union job, so the subject of unions tends to grow heated in his Facebook threads with others.

"I ain't going to change my views and you ain't going to change your views, but it's nice to talk about it in civil way," he said, of when the conversations remain constructive.

Sparks, who is also associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue, said political posters on Facebook often use the networking site as a medium for self-expression.

The site presents a delicate balance for users between healthy expression and avoiding harming personal relationships, he said.

"(Self-expression) gives them a sense that their stance on an issue or candidate has consequence. That may have an empowering effect," Sparks said. "That may be a very healthy thing for democracy."

High schoolers Keith Jones and Mya Perry, both 18, said they always see streams of Facebook posts from their friends after a presidential debate.

"I think it's really interesting to see people's different opinions," said Perry, who attends the South Bend Career Academy. "You get a different perspective."

"It keeps me updated," Jones, who attends Adams High School,

added, of the numerous links and comments his friends have posted throughout the election.

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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