Coffee House

‘Vote for Romney and I’ll unfriend you': why I won’t debate politics on Facebook

20 December 2012

On July 4, 2009, the day Sarah Palin announced that she would step down from the Governorship of Alaska, the perfect quip popped into my head. As we are wont to do in this age of social media, I immediately logged onto my Facebook account and typed the most famous line from Gerald Ford’s inauguration speech into the status update box: ‘Our long national nightmare is over.’

Minutes later, a distant acquaintance (the older brother of a high school friend with whom I had long ago fallen out of touch), posted a comment that I found surprising given what I knew (from earlier Facebook comment discussions) to be his radically left-wing political views. ‘Look, I completely disagree with most of Palin’s politics,’ he wrote in the way of political throat clearing. ‘But can we at least applaud the fact that unlike 90 per cent of Americans, she chose to keep Trig rather than killing him in the womb? She made the right decision, she struck a blow for the culture of life, and she deserves our praise for that regardless of what our politics may be.’

Another ‘friend’, a young woman who had been a senior while I was a freshman in college, and whom I barely even knew at the time and hadn’t spoken to in over five years, was having none of it. ‘Where is that completely bogus statistic from?’ she demanded to know from my other ‘friend’ whom she had never met. ‘Last time I checked, 90 per cent of Americans don’t support abortion and 90 per cent of women haven’t had them. Throwing out ridiculous numbers like that really doesn’t help your argument.’ What followed was an online argument lasting past 2am, in the course of which no less than the medical journal Prenatal Diagnosis was cited.

I doubt either one of my ‘friends’, a term I use loosely in this context given I have over 2,000 of them on Facebook, changed their minds due to this exchange, which had quickly degenerated from a blithe comment about Sarah Palin’s governing abilities to a debate over the proportion of women who abort fetuses with Down Syndrome.  Nor, I presume, did any of the other acquaintances who followed the discussion on my Facebook wall. If there was one thing that the two antagonists agreed upon, it was likely, ‘How the hell does Jamie know such crazy people?’

It’s because of exchanges such as this that I recently decided to stop posting, or engage in any debate, about political matters on Facebook. This was not an easy decision to make, at least from a professional standpoint. I am an opinion journalist, and make a living by reporting and commenting upon politics and international affairs. Many, if not most, of my friends are also passionate about current events, something that became annoyingly apparent around election season as my Facebook newsfeed filled with endless political commentary. Facebook is also a powerful tool to publicise one’s work, providing a useful platform for writers to share their latest articles or blog posts with their network of friends, colleagues and remote acquaintances. But it can also be a harbinger of estrangement.

As the over 1 billion people who are members of the site can attest, Facebook is an incredible tool for staying in touch with people. It has been particularly useful for me as a writer in engaging with readers in far-flung locales; a handful of people whom I consider genuine friends I met in person via Facebook. But as much as the site allows me to interact in a fruitful way, it also has a knack for getting people pissed off at me, not to mention creating furious discord among my diverse friendship groups, which range from out-and-proud gays to no-holds-barred right-wing polemicists.


Take for instance, the time I posted a comment about Ted Kennedy receiving the presidential Medal of Freedom. ‘How about we award one posthumously to Mary Jo Kopechne and call it a deal?’ I impishly suggested, referring to the young woman who died as a passenger in the car that the former Massachusetts Senator drunkenly drove off a bridge in 1969. ‘I guess you plan to be the Perez Hilton of Politics,’ sneered one college friend, a fey and fabulous gay man from the Deep South working as a model and professional dancer. A flurry of conservative friends rushed to my defense, leading my school chum to cite a Quebecois Feminist author:

‘“The main engagement of the writer is towards truthfulness; therefore he must keep his mind and his judgment free.” – Gabrielle Roy,’ he wrote.

‘“What a load of horseshit’ – Non-French person,’ a conservative magazine editor instantly responded.

Or then there was the time I posted an article about the captured Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic, now standing trial at The Hague. ‘It feels great that Mladic is arrested (and is going to be put on trial),’ a liberal Serbian friend wrote, adding, ‘much better than killed and thrown into the sea,’ tacitly referring to Osama bin Laden, who had been assassinated by a Navy SEAL team just a few weeks prior. A childhood friend of my Mother’s, whose friendship request I probably would have rejected had I the ability to foresee all of my Facebook friends he would manage to offend, was outraged. ‘It felt pretty good that Bin Laden had his head blown off,’ he wrote.

‘sounds more like vengeance than justice to me,’ the Serbian responded.

‘OK, so its vengeance. Nothing wrong with vengeance. He was among the most horrible of histories [sic] mass murderers. And vengeance can be quite sweet. Was [sic] wasn’t guilty of overtime parking.’

(Facebook’s content rules, lamentably, do not require proper grammar).

As I receive an email message for every comment posted on my Facebook wall, I watched this exchange fill up my inbox with ever-increasing horror. Should I intervene and tell both of them to stop? Block their ability to comment on my wall? Delete the original post, and all of the attendant comments? I’m not a censorious person by nature, and think that the multiplicity of voices enabled by the internet is a wonderful thing. Yet I had to reconsider my commitment to the principle when my mother’s friend, having done the cursory research of his interlocutor’s Facebook page, dropped the proverbial bomb:

‘the people in the Balkans have no power to stop. There has been warfare in the Balkans for hundreds of years without end. The end of it was imposed from the outside. You have never demonstratd [sic] the power to control yourselves. sorry.’

Ironically for a website aimed at helping users maintain old friendships and forge new ones, Facebook is actually quite good at facilitating their destruction. Users seem to forget the old maxim about avoiding discussion of politics and religion. It might sound odd to the denizens of New York and Washington, but most people naturally avoid conflict, and the prospect of getting into heated political debates, particularly with friends or colleagues, is a major turn-off. But on Facebook, shielded from the inherent anxiety of personal contact, many can’t resist the impulse to speak whatever is on their mind. When that person you thought you knew quite well actually turns out to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, is it possible to still stay friendly with them?

A recent survey confirmed my suspicion. Earlier this year, the Pew Internet & American Life project released the results of a poll it had conducted among over 2,500 adult users of social networking sites. 38 per cent said that they ‘discovered through a friend’s post that his/her political beliefs were different than the user thought they were’, and that 18 per cent had blocked, unfriended or hidden a friend due to politics. The trend is exacerbated by the fact that those people who are most active in posting and commenting about politics on social networking sites fall on opposite extremes of the political spectrum.

Facebook doesn’t notify users when someone has de-friended them, so I have no way of knowing how many have decided to cut me off over the years, whether due to political posting or other reasons. But one can easily find out by checking his friends list. I just realized the other day, for instance, that my college acquaintance, the one who got into an argument with the conservative writer over Ted Kennedy, decided to unfriend me. It could not have been that long ago, however, as I noticed that, on Election Day, he showed up in my newsfeed declaring something along the lines of, ‘If you vote for Romney either unfriend me or I will unfriend you.’

Amid the red-hot passion of Facebook political commentary, which saw an uptick last month due to the recent inflammation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, some of my friends manage to keep a balanced, even light-hearted perspective. ‘“Thank you for changing my views about the situation in the Holy Land with your post,” said no one ever,’ a Lebanese friend, with whom I disagree passionately about the Middle East, just posted the other day. A political animal, I have no plans to stop opining about the issues of the day. Just don’t expect me to engage with you about them on Facebook.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor at The New Republic and columnist for The New York Daily News

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  • valedictorian16

    Being member of an honoured estate, I would have thought you, of all people would encourage, be happy, about the debate

    All you say here is , you have too many ‘ friends’ and don’t like it if they question your pearls of wisdom, and knowing. Oh: and don ‘t like it if they might disagree, or run away with your show.

    Perhaps you could cull, just stick with the few that drool at your feet, or plaint like you as a friend, if it doesn’t fit in with the new * last bastion of free speech* personna, at work.

    Why let politics, or press – get in way, of good frienship: face book, or otherwise? is my first question.

    Much less, or is it more? the next one: outing them, as part of your work? Very Strange. Most people like and love their friends for who they are, not who they vote for, so don’t use facebook to mold, or slot them for special treatment, in right categories. And spew in public why this happened.

    If one o’ mine did what you just did, I’d unfriend ’em, forever. Yours must be all fellow journalists: who don’t mind, being prostitued for a story

    .Except the poor chap: with a heart, who found something he liked about SP and said so. He’s perhaps struggling, about wht you did..

    I had a friend,once, in media setting who said, young Trig, was the result of SP’s stupidity and wrong politics…. who I ditched immediately..

    You’ve not likely thought about, taking work home, or mixing work with pleasure. It’s hard on your family and real friends when you pleasure youself in public, this way. Unless, they all be fellow journalists, that is… Spectator might do well, to be be looking at ordure on own doorsteps, before pointing fingers of blame about terrible events in society. Why not just stick to reporting news, in fair manner, instead of analyzing everything for us, in case we be too stupid to think for ourselves..

    I find that insulting, quite frankly, especially to the ones you want to mold into the
    image of your opinions.

    Wasn’t it W>H> Auden who said : in the sixties, BBC interview

    the signs of coming war were all there, for 10 years before. Could have been averted, if press and writerly people had not been too scared to look: and playing wirh trivialities and naval-gazing, while coosing sides.
    Pardon my paraphrasing, but better to get his thoughts out , of my head, than not at all… and I’m wondering if he was having a dig at ethics, or lack of, in press settings..
    which might be a bit of deja-vu , with my coffee this morning.

  • ProgressiveHeretic

    An old girlfriend posted that exact message, “If you’re voting for Romney, unfriend me”, on my newsfeed a couple of weeks before the election. I was more than happy to oblige. As someone whose political beliefs are way out of line with my social networks, I see quite a bit of exactly what you’re talking about. If you post something political on Facebook, you can wind up arguing with and then alienating people that you haven’t even thought of in years.

    The flip side, however, is that compared to posting a blog or a comment somewhere, on Facebook people actually read what you have to say, and are inclined to engage. That’s scary but also attractive in its own way.

  • A Smith

    But see, all my Facebook (and actual) friends–who tend to be gay Unitarian Ph.D’s living in Boulder, the Upper East Side, or work for Google–live in such a pathetic leftist bubble that they need a voice of conservative reason, and a sense of humor, to let some unwelcome light into their smug yet humdrum lives.

  • Stephen Zeigler

    Stir the pot I say. Better to let the steam out than boil over. FB allows people to do what we can not do elsewhere. Shout out and demand the world listen to our most profound statements of wisdom. Our congress no longer listens, assumeing they ever did. Our parents seldom listened, and my boss sure isn’t going to listen….ahhh but FB I am the king of my keyboard.

  • Steve T

    Feel Good Story of the Day: “Layaway Angels” return to Kmart…

  • Sexism is a social disease

    Palin leaving the governorship is a “nightmare that is over?” wow, she had an 85% approval rating because she successfully neutered Big Oil from continuing to crush the people of Alaska. She also routed out corruption from the governorship in Alaska after she won. She governed in a bipartisan way If that’s a nightmare I wonder what the writer thinks is a dream? Oh, I know what is a dream to him, a male candidate who kowtows to corporations and screws the electorate. As long as a candidate sounds and looks like a guy, I guess it’s okay with James Kirchik. this is why politics stays corrupt. When men are more comfortable with any man, rather than a woman who actually creates change innpolitics.

  • The Aged P

    Time was when “opinion journalists” like Mr Kirchick could proclaim their opinions with no risk of any comeback. The internet, not just FB, has ended that monopoly. It can be a savage, unruly world but who would ever want to go back to the days of dead tree press overlordship when the likes of Kirchick & Toynbee could opine without fear of contradiction. Still at least Mr K got a bit of money from posting a meaningless piece about Facebook – but personally I don’t give a tinkers cuss about him or his views on FB.
    Sounds like a classic piece of Dead Tree Press Polyfilla to me

  • tomdaylight

    …you know you can turn off email notifications, right…?

    Really, the rudeness, hysteria and “unfriending” over political views says more about the people you were friends with on Facebook than it does about the service itself.

  • AdemAljo

    There is another problem with social media that goes hand in hand with the point of your article and that is the total and complete lack of tangible responsibility that someone has to face as a result of of expressing their opinions.

    I got involved, recently, with a facebook (for it was it) argument over the comments made by Daniel Lemberger Cooper, the current Vice-President of the University of London Union, a student body. You can read his comments here, but the gist of it is that Cooper decided not to attend a Wreath-laying service for Remembrance and there was an ensuing mass hysteria, with a multitude of people expressing their disbelief and disappointment, including me.

    However, the real difficulty was had when a large number of what I would call extreme-left-wing students and commentators started to defend Cooper’s remarks and declare any other opinion, valid or not, as intolerant. These people were not afraid of having to stand, face-to-face, with any one. They were quite happy to insult and desecrate a long held and worthy tradition, as well as the charities that go along with it, because they knew full well that they were doing so from the comfort and security of their own homes, not having to express their opinion to a paraplegic soldier, or worse, the family of a dead soldier that has been left fatherless or motherless.

    It’s a stark comment on our current climate and culture that people have foregone the soap box and jumped straight onto the facebook plinth and feel that they can say anything, even it is inherently wrong to do so.

    There was an event held to discuss the views that Cooper held. Many of my friends attended in protest. I didn’t. When it comes to Remembrance and the respect that the tradition must be shown, I don’t believe that there is anything to discuss.

    • C Cole

      Whether you agree with it or not, nearly 100 years on Cooper’s analysis of the Great War and subsequent developments is well worth reading and the debate about how we should view that conflict well worth having. The RBL shouldn’t be immune from scrutiny either.

      • ronchris

        Is the Khmer Rouge-like behavior of Mr. Cooper’s supporters who were ready to go forth and hold a pogrom against those who disagree with Cooper ok?

      • AdemAljo

        You are quite right. The Royal British Legion should not be immune from scrutiny. and so it isn’t. This is the whole point, which I believe you’ve missed. If the RBL was to start suddenly saying “we’re not going to continue to help victims of war simply because they have partaken in it” it would rightly be lambasted, and dismembered for making effectively illegal comments.

        However, some gittish student leftist feels he can just ignore a long held tradition, which means a lot to millions of people in this country, and by default assume the opinion of hundreds of thousands of students in London and act on their behalf.

        So you are in fact entirely wrong to suggest that Cooper’s ‘analysis’ is anything but slanderous. Yes, it’s legitimate, but it is not the view of the student body that he represents, a position which he abused in order to further his opinion.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    You haven’t really got 2,000 friends, you know.

    • HooksLaw

      I think the content of his article reveals that he does know that. Indeed that is the whole point of his article. Stop confusing being facile with being clever.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Well, why didn’t he admit he was an airhead in the first line so no-one would need to read the rest? In which we learned nothing new about Facebook and nothing worth knowing about him.

        and don’t you mean facetious?

        • Stephen Zeigler

          I laugh. You Rhoda ask why he did not admit to being an airhead and save you the time, at what point do you realize that makes you the airhead for having read “the rest”.

  • MirthaTidville

    Well if you wish to engage in the juvenile (very) world of silly social media what exactly do you expect?????

    • HooksLaw

      You do indeed have a point there. It strikes me Facebook is more used for commercial promotions as much as anything else. Apart for close family (and even then!) links it will probably be a fad that will fade.

      • MirthaTidville

        I do so hope you are right and we soon seen the end of it…Its so unregulated thats its implications are truely frightening…

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