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Election year to test Facebook friendships  
January 4, 2012 

Like many other Americans, David Bickham joined the Facebook party in 2009 and began reconnecting with long-lost friends.

But talk of kids and sports often gives way on the social network to posts about politics — and for Bickham, that’s where the party ends.

“I actually unfriended one of my best friends from high school and college because of his need to constantly spew his political beliefs, and the hate with which he did it,” said Bickham, a 48-year-old Lancaster resident. He hasn’t heard from his friend in about two months.

It will be a full-Facebook presidential election this year, the first national vote since the website began occupying such a huge part of American life. Sixty-two percent of voting-age Americans are Facebook users; 64 percent of voting-age Americans are registered to vote.

So if the issue hasn’t hit you already, it soon will: A lot of those high-school buddies, third cousins and former co-workers on your ever-expanding friends list think some pretty wacky things.

For Bickham, a Republican, it was a Democratic friend who turned every conversation into a political debate.

For David Jones, a 47-year-old Ohio native who lives in New York City, it’s the Republican friends who join Facebook fan pages for controversial conservatives.

“I’ve never unfriended somebody for political reasons, but I admit to shaking my head if someone ‘likes’ Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin,” Jones said.

Eight years after Facebook’s founding and four years after it began expanding beyond a college-age audience, we’re still fuzzy about the social network’s place in political debate, said Aaron Smith, senior research associate for the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Candidates and causes abound on the website, and it’s a major source of information for voters. But the average user has

130 Facebook friends, and our social-media circles often include a mix of people. There are relatives and close friends with whom we’re comfortable talking politics, Smith said, and also the casual acquaintances and professional contacts with whom politics is a more-guarded subject.

“The same posts that are seen by your group of friends who share your political views might be seen by people who don’t share your views,” Smith said. “With emotionally charged issues like politics, people are figuring out how to navigate those relationships.”

In 2010, one in five adults with Internet access used a social-networking site such as Facebook for political purposes, Smith reported in a study on that year’s midterm elections. Twelve percent revealed online which candidates they supported.

In 2012, he expects politics to be a hot topic. And the virtual soapbox will be huge.

More than 157 million Americans use Facebook, and about 75 percent of them have signed up since 2008. Twitter, founded in 2006, grew from an estimated 1 million U.S. users in 2008 to 17 million in 2011.

Margo Seyboldt of Lewis Center said she is always up for a good debate, whether or not her friends agree. She’s certain that some have deleted her from their Facebook lists because of what she writes, although she said she believes in discussion that’s based on “facts and tact.”

“I am very conservative, and all of my friends know,” she said. “People don’t have the nerve to tell me why I get deleted, but they do tell me or my friends that I should not post my political views on Facebook.”

Richie Frieman, a Baltimore-based writer who pens an online advice column as the Modern Manners Guy, said Facebook is fraught with political minefields.

Simply clicking the “like” button for a candidate, cause or someone else’s comments will be seen by others, he said. And people who share their opinions tend to make bolder statements in writing than they would when speaking with someone face to face, he said.

“My golden rule for all social media is ... if I were standing in a room in front of everyone I know in the world, would I feel comfortable saying it?” Frieman said. “That’s really what you’re doing. Facebook is not a private site.”

Deleting someone from your list of Facebook friends isn’t rude, he said. Facebook also gives users the option of ignoring friends’ updates without ending the online connection.

Tom Perry, a Powell resident who described himself as “in the middle-ish politically,” has purged both Republicans and Democrats as Facebook friends, “and in 2012, I expect to quietly unfriend a few more,” he said.

“Online forums are like a cocktail party. If someone irritates you with their blabbering, you excuse yourself from the conversation, right?”

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