When this week’s snap general election was announced back in April, we knew what was about to ensue because we’d already been through it with Brexit. Multiple Facebook posts with a now-familiar tagline: “If you voted [insert party or opinion here], unfriend me, now!” Because, despite aiming for connectivity, when politics mixes with social media, it can sound the death knell for friendships – and as we reach the deciding week, it’s more pertinent than ever.
Tamsin Roberts*, 32, a lawyer who lives in Liverpool has experienced this first-hand. “Every morning, I scroll through my Facebook feed on the way to work like most of us do,” she explains. “But last week a close friend posted a really offensive video. It was basically saying: ‘Why should we give all kids free school meals [like Labour are pledging]? If you can’t afford to feed your children, you shouldn’t have them.’ And she echoed those sentiments in her comments. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” Tamsin was appalled.
“I’ve known this girl since school – we have different lives now that I’ve moved away from my hometown, but we’ve remained close. I saw that post and just thought, ‘We have nothing in common and I don’t want to be friends with someone who thinks like that.’ I used to volunteer at a food bank and she knows I feel very strongly about the issue, so it felt personal and I unfollowed her as a result. We’re seeing each other at a friend’s birthday in a couple of weeks and it’s going to be a really awkward conversation.”
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Chances are, you too will have had at least one friendship tested over the airing of political opinions of late. According to a recent study, the main reason we’re currently likely to unfriend someone on social media is because of political differences. In fact, 28% of us have hit the ‘unfriend’ button so far this year because someone said or shared something political we took offence at.
Things are particularly tense now – as a nation we are the most politically divided we’ve been in years, thanks to a host of post-Brexit worries, not to mention radically opposing ideas on everything from security and immigration to childcare and education.
And now we have more platforms than ever before to voice our opinions on. Because while in the pre-digital age, a drunken argument at the pub about opposing political views would have been the end of the discussion, the sobriety and permanence of social media means we keep reading and re-reading comments, plus anyone else can chime in and inflame the situation at any point. Political statements on social media platforms ramped up significantly post-Brexit.
Recovering from the shock of a Leave vote in the EU referendum, urban millennials in particular, who felt like their movement and liberties had been restricted, turned to the likes of Facebook to vent their frustrations.
Anna Frankowska, originally from Poland, saw this play out first-hand on her social media feed. Although disappointed by the referendum outcome, she was more disappointed by her former colleague and close friend Martha’s* thoughts. “We got on really well socialising a lot when we worked as investment bankers together, but politics never came up,” Anna says. “It was only after the Brexit vote when she started posting things about immigrants on Facebook that I became concerned. I couldn’t help feeling hurt. I saw her at an office reunion and tried to broach the subject with her, to explain why I thought immigration was good for the economy, but she flatly rejected my points and we haven’t really spoken since.”
Anna’s is not an isolated incident by any means.
“After the referendum a lot of my clients were talking about the arguments they were having on social media particularly and the impact the vote had on their relationships,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke (hildaburke.co.uk). “It was unsettling for a lot of people. There seemed to be this questioning going on, both on a macro level – ‘Is this my country any more? Are these my values?’ – and also on a micro level – ‘Why are these people I love, that I live with or I’m friends with, not of the same opinion as me?’”
And all of it was playing out online for the world to see. “It seemed like people were expressing views they hadn’t felt confident about before, a lot of it about race,” says Natasha Hassani, 38, MD of a PR agency from Brighton. “I remember there was one woman I was friends with online, and her immediate reaction was, ‘Yes, we’ve got our country back, foreigners out.’ As someone who is married to an Iranian man, whose children are mixed heritage, it deeply affected me.”
People who voted to leave were shocked by the anger levelled at them too, both online and in person: “I’d told people how I was going to vote and the day after, I really wished I hadn’t,” says Charlotte Brookes, an accountant from Bristol. “I went into work and the first thing I heard was, ‘If you voted to leave, you’re a racist, I don’t care what anyone says.’ I could feel my ears getting hot and I wanted to say, hang on, the EU is crippling farmers in Africa, that’s why I voted out. But I was too intimidated.”
And in the 12 months since, political venting has continued apace – from the women’s protests and March For Science through to now as we prepare to enter the polling booths once again.
That fact in itself is significant – we shouldn’t underestimate the role that frequency has in all this digital political antagonism. Since 2015, in the UK we’ve had a general election, local elections, a referendum, a new PM and now another general election with two polarised leaders. It’s no wonder we’re feeling fractious and need to vent about the state of the world. “Ordinarily, the vast majority of regular citizens aren’t that engaged in politics – it is something in most people’s peripheral vision,” says Nick Anstead, assistant professor in media and communications at London School of Economics.
“So when certain high-profile events come along it can engage people very rapidly and potentially in quite divisive ways.” But the truth is, most of us aren’t that well equipped to deal with this much political chat, let alone have reasonable conversations about it with our friends. “Most schools don’t teach students how to debate properly, so our level of political literacy is shockingly low in the UK,” says Matteo Bergamini, founder of political news site and network Shout Out UK. “There’s a big difference between debating and arguing with someone. In debate, it’s heated, but never personal. It’s a genuine exchange of ideas.”
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So when we’re debating online – with an added level of separation from the person we’re engaging with – a healthy respect for the ‘other side’ and their perspective is in very short supply. Instead, “There’s this prevailing narrative of paranoia of each other,” says Bergamini. When we see biased newspaper headlines and political extremes, we’ve been primed to be on the defensive immediately – and thus it feels like such a trigger when a friend posts saying, ‘I don’t agree with your views at all.’
Due to the time we spend on it and the ways we communicate, social media has become our central form of expression. Many of our daily relationships are maintained online, our thoughts expressed there – which is why our political views are grandstanded and displayed more too. Social media has fundamentally changed how we display our political stripes.
“In the past, you used to have to be incredibly dedicated to a party to outwardly show your allegiance to them, wearing a rosette or a sticker. Now it’s as easy as adding a filter to your profile picture,” says Esme Noble, strategic planner at customer engagement agency TMW Unlimited. “Showing you back a particular policy or ideology is as easy as clicking a ‘share’ button on a piece of politically charged content.” Even if it’s just a seemingly harmless comedic meme.
And it’s not just the things we post – it’s the way we react. We speak to each other online in ways we wouldn’t dream of if we were face-to-face. (According to research, we are less inhibited but also less empathetic when we communicate digitally. The effects of this online disinhibition are even stronger on platforms where we can remain anonymous, such as Twitter.)
“I left a pretty moderate comment on something my uncle posted on Facebook in praise of Theresa May last week. One of my friends saw it and launched into this aggressive tirade against my uncle, having never met him,” says Hannah Evans*, 26, a teacher from London. “I don’t share his political views, but he’s a lovely man and it was mortifying to watch.” Social media algorithms also help to make our beliefs even more entrenched. “They take the content you’ve shown interest in, either by interacting or spending time viewing it, and serve you similar content,” explains Noble.
This creates an echo chamber that just mirrors our own tastes and political views back at us – the result being that we seldom listen to the opposite side’s opinions.
And even the adverts political parties buy are tailored to very specific audiences. “At a time when we should be having a national debate, it’s increasingly hard to get a coherent picture of what’s really happening because everyone’s seeing such different things presented as truth,” says Anstead. You might be staring at something your friend has retweeted in disbelief, wondering how they could even think that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote wasted, or that Theresa May isn’t trying to sell off the NHS. But you’re not seeing exactly what your friend is seeing in her feeds – and that’s part of the reason we’re becoming more polarised in our views.
So, should we all go back to the old rule: never talk money or politics with friends? The experts say no – and that we’ve gone too far now to come back. “Politics is one of the best and most exciting things we can talk about,” says Bergamini, who now runs political literacy courses in schools to teach children how to discuss politics more effectively. It’s just a question of how we do it. The first thing we must do is stop shutting out the people we don’t agree with – so don’t hit unfollow on friends whose views you find unsavoury just yet.
“If we don’t challenge ourselves, if we can’t expand our view of the world, that’s not very healthy,” says Burke. “We have to remind ourselves that no matter what our political affiliations, our underlying motives can be the same. You can have people on both sides of the debate who genuinely want the best for their community. But the way they choose to express it can be very different.”
The bottom line? Look at their values, not just their politics – especially when it comes to close friends. There may be some people in your online network whose views you find repellent. Even then, don’t let your first action be to pile in on them. Ask them why they think a certain thing. “For most people, it’s actually about personal stories and experiences,” says Burke. Yes, when you see unbalanced political views in your timeline it’s really hard to cope with – let alone to temper your rage – but what’s more likely to get that person’s attention and potentially change their opinion: a rant, or an invitation to discuss? As abhorrent as those views can be, what’s more likely to make you feel better? Demonising them, or humanising them?
Just remember you have a choice to talk, rather than shout. Of course, there is a time to unfollow people, to leave that conversation and, yes, maybe to rethink why you’re friends with somebody if you can’t talk about things in a progressive way. But few of us are entirely blameless when it comes to what we post, share and talk about politically. And while we want to make our opinions heard, it’s worth noting that it shouldn’t be in order to drown the sound of others out.