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Politics prompts Facebook fights and social media skirmishes

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While Mitt Romney and incumbent Barack Obama slug out their visions for America's future in public debates, their supporters are now engaged in fisticuffs on social media, prompting all kinds of ruffled feelings and virtual stompings off.

A survey by the Pew Research Center released in May showed that 9% of those who used social networking sites had unfriended, blocked or hidden someone because the person had posted content concerning politics or social issues they disagreed with or found offensive. Another 10% copped to doing so simply because the person had posted "too frequently about political subjects."

Impassioned wonks have struck back with the circulation of e-cards such as, "Oh, I'm sorry. Are my political posts bothering you? I just figured choosing the next leader of our country was worth a little discussion. By all means show me another picture of your dinner."

Amanda Mauer's cyber flight followed postings by pro-Romney anti-Obama high school class mates she left behind in Cincinnati, Ohio.

"Politics is really important to me and I just get annoyed," by Republican sentiments, said the 27-year-old Greenwich Village resident. Rationalizing she is unable to change the minds of the people posting such things, "I just hide them. I know you're supposed to hear both sides, but the Republicans are so extreme, there's just no point," said the Teacher's College student. She acknowledged her updates may also fall on blind eyes: "I'm sure they're annoyed with me, too."

The majority of people who dumped or shunned someone did it to a distant acquaintance or friend, though 18% of those who slammed the virtual door did so to a family member. Liberals were the most likely to have taken steps to block, unfriend or edit their feeds as a result of a politically offensive post. Eight percent of all respondents said they had taken one of these actions due to arguing on the site with the other user or someone else the user knows.

"People don't know how to disagree without things degenerating into 'you're an idiot!,'" on line, which echoes the polarization of Washington D.C., complained Jessica Warren, 26, a project manager from Brooklyn Hts., She is less offended by political content than repetitive, excessive and self-righteous statements and opinions by zealots who don't seem to realize they have an obligation in social media to be entertaining and brief. (Researchers did not ask about measures taken against the excessive posting of baby pictures, gastrointestinal fitness updates, or generally inane observations.)

One valuable life skill is learning to agree to disagree, but the individual also has the right to adjust settings so social media works for their own purposes, said Shamir Khan, a midtown psychologist who has counseled people on how to handle Facebook fights.

Sharing ideas about incendiary topics such as gay rights, immigration, abortion and equitable taxation on social media can become rancorous quickly, especially if your politics is entwined with your identity "and wrapped up in how you see the world," said Khan. A good guideline on whether to engage or ignore a discussion one finds offensive - or that can become a regrettable time suck - is to ask oneself, "can I learn something from this?" Khan said.

If the other person's views are "very, very fixed," engaging could just be a waste of time. Too, he noted, raising sensitive issues is best done after a period of reflection, and in person, sandwiched between positive remarks in the spirit of goodwill.

Social media users are also well advised to remember that whatever they say in political posts is being preserved for posterity, and might come back to haunt them professionally in any number of ways. Therapists, for example, tend to be very cautious about posting their social and political views because "people can go after you," as Khan noted.

Indeed. Carol Reitz-Butler, the owner of Queen City Cupcakes in East Patchogue, was very vocal on a local internet site about her support of the hamlet's mayor and his plan to build affordable housing. Her store, she said, got savaged on line by opponents ("boycott cupcakes!")

The self-described liberal Democrat is unfazed, though. "Nothing," she said, "could make me stop saying what I believe."

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