As the marathon campaign season wraps up researchers confirm what many have suspected: civility has taken a vacation
If the political postings you've seen lately on Facebook and Twitter seem particularly outrageous, it's because they are.
From the beginning of the political conventions to the eve of the final debate, social media and blog postings about US presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been relentlessly negative, according to a new Pew study.
"We found social media very harsh," Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, told the Guardian. "We also found it fairly insensitive to events. It moved some but was pretty relentlessly negative about both candidates, particularly Romney."
There is no doubt mainstream media coverage influences what is being said on social media, especially on Facebook, where users tend to be more politically engaged and often more partisan. In the Pew analysis, two outlets in particular were clearly slanted in opposite directions: for every 23 stories published by MSNBC about Romney, only one is positive. At Fox News, only about one in every eight stories published about Obama is positive.
With coverage of this campaign markedly more negative than 2008, it's leaking over into what we're sharing. By all accounts we're going stir crazy: everything's offensive, outrageous, or both at once. And, sometimes, the constant pot-stirring results in the breakdown of friendships between people of differing political stripes.
The tension is especially palpable on Facebook. Pew's team found that conversation about both candidates hit overdrive on the social network after the 3 October presidential debate, an event considered a solid victory for Romney. Since that evening, the conversation has gotten decidedly less civil, perhaps because social media conversation is already more partisan than what is found in public opinion or in mainstream media, according to Rosenstiel.
When this writer posed a question about political clashes on Facebook, Chicago attorney Walker Lawrence said Thursday he'd been "unfriended" for "my support for Obama … happened this year and in 2008.
"As for Twitter, a comparatively smaller, more self-selecting network, negative statements about Obama outweighed positive by less than 2-to-1. For Romney it was close to 4-to-1.
"It is a great way to learn about events," Rosenstiel added, "but it is not, certainly at this point in history, a proxy of the electorate."
Patience is boiling over on both networks as Americans near the end of a marathon election cycle. Earlier this year, Pew's Internet and American Life project found that 18% of users have unfriended or blocked someone online due to political issues. With only a few days to go until the election, don't be surprised if the number rises – if only just until sometime in mid-November.
But even as tempers flare this week and next, an increasingly rare story sparked by social media is bringing people together instead of tearing them apart. After many months without anything like it, a viral video of Fort Collins toddler Abigael Evans emerged on YouTube this week.
"I'm tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney," the red-eyed four-year-old blubbered into an NPR reporter's camera, and charmed millions of jaded YouTube viewers as she was literally bored to tears.
Thousands of exhausted people smiled knowingly and hit the share button.