Southie gym owner John Clarke is a social liberal and fiscal conservative. During election season, that means one thing: When he scrolls through his Facebook feed, he’s well positioned to be annoyed by almost everybody.
“A lot of people are stupider than I thought they were,” Clarke said over lunch at a West Broadway sub shop. “That includes relatives and close friends.”
In other words, when it comes to social media posts from your nearest and dearest during election season, read at your own risk. People of all political leanings say they’re learning far too much about the beliefs and attitudes of friends and relatives.
Clarke’s one-man focus group is backed up by data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Almost 40 percent of adults who go on social media sites told Pew researchers that they’d made incorrect assumptions about their friends’ political leanings, according to a March survey. And the vast majority — 73 percent — of those online users “only sometimes” or “never” agree with their friends’ political postings.
In the good old days, politically divided families would battle it out once a year at the Thanksgiving table, and offended relatives and friends would then retreat to their own lives for another year. But now that 59 percent of all adults use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter it’s possible to become infuriated by people you rarely or never see in person.
“Social media is surfacing the interior lives of people that might not have come up in conversation,” said Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet & American Life Project.
Many people have no desire to talk about politics, but posting a link to a political website or story can be so easy and feel so nonconfrontational. In addition, said Rainie, politics are not at the center of most people’s lives.
“They build relationships around lots of things. They talk about movies, social situations they’ve been in, mutual friends.” But then a person makes one or two political posts, “and all of a sudden, it’s entered the fray.”
That’s a situation Karen LeCompte, a Cambridge resident, knows quite well. She was scrolling through her Facebook feed one morning when she discovered something about her own brother. “It turns out he’s a Romney supporter,” said LeCompte, who’s a registered Democrat. “He keeps ‘liking’ Romney pages.”
That fact had never come up in any of their conversations, she added.
Regardless of for whom they plan to vote in November, almost one in five social media users — 18 percent — have blocked, unfriended, or hidden a friend because of political differences or a distaste for the sheer volume of the friends’ political posts, according to the Pew survey.
Clarke, the owner of South Boston’s Jiu-Jitsu and Fitness, is one of those who have shunned pals online. But he says he hides friends’ Facebook posts in order to save relationships, not to end them.
“These are people I like personally,” Clarke said. “I don’t want the simple way they regurgitate information to affect the way I perceive them.”
Needless to say, there’s a cartoon — making the rounds on Facebook — that addresses the issue. “Your relentless political Facebook posts finally turned me around to your way of thinking,” it reads. “Said nobody ever.” It’s funny — but not completely true. Sixteen percent of social media users report changing their minds about a political issue based on a friend’s posts, according to a September Pew survey.
That’s encouraging news in a polarized society, but changed minds are certainly not the most common response to the rants, links, likes, and retweets that fill social media sites. Here’s what most people do when an offending opinion shows up in their feed: keep their mouths shut.
As LeCompte said as she and her 6-year-old daughter strolled to a honey store in Harvard Square: “I’m not going to say anything [to my brother].”
Melissa Threadgill, a student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a progressive activist, experienced the disconnect between online and real-life conversations recently, when she attended a cousin’s wedding in New York State.
In the months leading up to the wedding, she’d privately disagreed with relatives’ posts about the health care debate and presidential race. But when she arrived at the event, nary a political word was uttered. Their political beliefs changed her perception of them “a little,” she said, somewhat sadly. “But it’s a wedding, so you try not to think about it.”
“A few years ago, you would never have had any idea about the politics of your distant relatives,” she added. “These are people you see once a year. But now it’s right there in front of you.”
And as people’s online social circles grow, opinions once known only to a few ripple out to shores previously unimagined. Austin Walters is well aware of Facebook’s wide reach. He’s a Romney supporter who was dating a woman from a liberal family. The Harvard Business School student posted a negative analysis of “Obama-care” that was read by his then-girlfriend’s politically active and engaged relatives.
“How can you put up with this?” several of them asked her.
But no one said anything to him, Walters added. “We all got along great in person.”
Hard as it can be to keep quiet, people don’t fire back online for all sorts of reasons. Recent college graduate Alexis Jasek says she has been surprised and annoyed by a former supervisor’s anti-Obama screeds, but she’s disciplined herself not to respond.
“I still want to use him for references,” she said.Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.