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Red, white and blocked

Research finds people have less tolerance for political posts on social media now than ever before.

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By ERIN MCCARTHY | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: October 7, 2020

As Emma Finucane scrolled through Facebook a few months ago, the post of a close family friend caught her eye.

The 22-year-old did a double take: Could these words, railing against Pennsylvania’s coronavirus restrictions, really have been written by the kind and reasonable person she had spent countless hours with since she was a child? Someone she thought she knew well?

When the family friend shared a campaign video for President Donald Trump weeks later, Finucane almost struck the “angry” reaction, one of Facebook’s alternatives to the “like” button, but jerked her hands away from the keyboard.

Breathe, she thought, as she talked herself down from potential relationship destruction.

Instead of detonating the relationship with a few furious keystrokes, Finucane made a mental note and clicked away from the screen.

“It shows me who they are as a person and where their values are. And as a person of color, it’s saddening,” said Finucane, 22, who is Asian and lives in Malvern, Pa. “It is frustrating to think they support Trump, and they don’t support Black Lives Matter.”

Everyone on social media has had this experience to some degree: Maybe you have a nice conversation with your neighbor, or bond with a friend of a friend at a barbecue, or hit it off with a relative of your significant other at a family event.

Next time you log onto Facebook, you take the all-knowing platform up on its offer to send the person a friend request, and for a few innocent moments, their acceptance floods your brain with dopamine.

“They like me; they really like me!” you think.

Then, you become filled with dread and regret. They flood your feed with cat videos that aren’t even funny or posts in which they overshare every deeply personal detail of their lives. They saturate your timeline with false information, or nonstop political posts that devolve into fights, or rhetoric that is problematic at best, and racist, homophobic or misogynist at worst.

“Wow, I liked you better before we were ‘friends,’ ” you say to yourself.

Sometimes, this phenomenon can occur suddenly with longtime friends and family members, causing users to question how they could learn about these staunch beliefs for the first time on social media.

As the presidential election approaches in battleground Pennsylvania, and the return to a post-pandemic “normal” remains elusive, people are more fed up and less ambivalent about political posts on social media than perhaps ever before, even in the lead-up to the 2016 election, research indicates.

“There’s no middle group” on Facebook, said Luanne Spencer, 60, a Republican from Eddystone, Pa. “There’s very pro Trump, and then there’s people who — he could cure cancer tomorrow and they still would say negative things.”

“I can’t look at Facebook,” she added, during a recent conversation about the interests of Philly’s suburban voters. “I don’t engage with certain members of my family.” She said she worries about losing them completely because she supports Trump.

Matt Radico, 54, of Springfield, Pa., said one of his Facebook friends recently shared a video that purported to show Joe Biden supporters rioting and attempting to break into a children’s hospital. He couldn’t help but laugh to himself as he said, “That cannot be true.”

Upon further research, he determined the video was of an unrelated gathering at an office park. While Radico said he will correct misinformation like that, he tries not to judge the poster. He admits it’s easier said than done.

“I would like to say that I’m bigger than that, but in the back of my mind, it does affect the way I think of that person,” he said. Often, “I still like the person, but that’s in the back of the mind.”

Sharee Page, 36, said she only reacts when the posts are extreme and offensive.

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, she stumbled upon a Facebook post in which a high school classmate called Black people “animals.”

Page, a Black woman who recently moved from Philadelphia to Delaware County, said she was so angry that she couldn’t not respond. She wrote a comment, saying “animals” is a “cover word” for the N-word. Page was soon unfriended.

She was shaken once again when a close relative posted a comparison between the Ku Klux Klan and Black Lives Matter, she said. In that case, she let him know the post deeply offended her, she said, but she forced herself not to let it weaken their friendship or cause strain.

“I don’t want to lose him,” she said. “But had he not been my blood, I would’ve unfriended him.”

TJ Deluca, 33, said a few relatives and some fellow parishioners at his Delaware County church blocked him on social media and then stopped speaking to him after he posted this summer that he would be a Democratic National Committee delegate.

“Most of them are just offended by the fact that I’m a practicing Catholic and I’m a Democrat,” said Deluca, who serves as the president of the Pennsylvania Young Democrats. (The Pennsylvania Young Republicans did not return multiple requests to be included in this article.)

Deluca said the views of his family and fellow parishioners did not surprise him, but their expression of them did.

“I would’ve assumed that they were pro-life Republicans,” he said, “but I would not assume that they would have that kind of bottled-up anger or hatred toward people that were not Republican.”

It’s interesting, he said, because in-person debates — even with people with whom he vehemently disagrees — are, in his experience, more civil than the arguments that happen in online comment feeds.

In person, “it does not get that heated. It does not get that personal,” Deluca said. “I think that when people are leaving comments on the internet they forget that they are talking with another person.”