Do more popular people shy away from controversial Facebook discussions?

by on February 7, 2014 at 5:22 am in Data Source, Political Science | Permalink

There is a new paper by Jang SMLee H, and Park YJ, here is the rather depressing abstract:

Abstract Although previous research has indicated that Facebook users, especially young adults, can cultivate their civic values by talking about public matters with their Facebook friends, little research has examined the predictors of political discussion on Facebook. Using survey data from 442 college students in the United States, this study finds that individual characteristics and network size influence college students’ expressive behavior on Facebook related to two controversial topics: gay rights issues and politics. In line with previous studies about offline political discussion, the results show that conflict avoidance and ambivalence about target issues are negatively associated with Facebook discussions. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that users who have a large number of Facebook friends are less likely to talk about politics and gay rights issues on Facebook despite having access to increasing human and information resources. Theoretical implications of these findings and future directions are addressed.

The link to the paper is here.  Of course one possibility is that popular people do not want to endanger their popularity with controversial discussions.  Another is that non-controversial people are simply more popular to begin with.

Hat tip goes to @Neuroskeptic.

prior_approval February 7, 2014 at 5:26 am

Or a third possibility is that Facebook popularity is much like high school popularity – of immense importance to those involved, but considered trivial by others.

Axa February 7, 2014 at 5:38 am

Non-controversial people is more popular, remember the post a few weeks ago on how activists alienate the very same people that should support them?

Ryan February 7, 2014 at 6:54 am

One doesn’t become popular by imposing their world view onto others.

Z February 7, 2014 at 8:28 am

Barak Obama says hello.

IVV February 7, 2014 at 9:53 am

…who is very unpopular with those who feel imposed upon.

(There are others who don’t feel imposed who like him lots.)

Z February 7, 2014 at 11:04 am

Maybe, but that very unpopular guy just won an election. The fact is people are wired to push each other around. That’s why there’s never a shortage of prison guards. It is a terrible job, by any measure, except you get to push people around all day. Humans love imposing their values on the rest. It is why liberalism is so dominant and libertarianism is a fringe cult. It’s why Christianity has collapsed. Not only do people like pushing others around, they like being pushed around.

Thor February 7, 2014 at 11:17 am

Imposing their values? God(s) say hello.

Z February 7, 2014 at 11:43 am

@Thor: I suggest you go outside. God’s been dead for a very long time. Today’s religious fanatics got their start on Rue Saint-Jacques.

Mr. McKnuckles February 7, 2014 at 12:37 pm

The more popular guy won the election.

And the rest of your wild-ass assertions (liberalism is popular because you get to push people around?? this is why Christianity has collapsed??) depend upon this initial statement.

Rahul February 8, 2014 at 6:10 am

There’s never a shortage of dishwashers & janitors either. So people like to be pushed around all day too? People need to earn a living; some jobs are unpalatable: doesn’t mean people take them up because they are sadists.

dearieme February 7, 2014 at 7:03 am

“cultivate their civic values”:what a puke-provoking phrase.

Mark February 7, 2014 at 7:16 am

Part of this may be from manners: in general, among acquaintances, controversial topics are unwelcome.

I think another part may be that online communications are less expressive and leave more room for misunderstanding and escalation than face-to-face communication. Vocal tone and body language can’t be conveyed over Facebook. Maybe younger people better understand that its too easy to get into a flame war.

Age Of Doubt February 7, 2014 at 7:59 am

Grad students goofing off on Facebook is not science!

Rahul February 7, 2014 at 8:53 am

It seems a big assumption that talking about politics and gay rights does much if anything to help those causes. Maybe the “talkers” do more harm?

Dan February 7, 2014 at 8:53 am

Another possibility is that students who engage in controversial discussions are unfriended by many of their former friends who grow tired of seeing their views.

FredR February 7, 2014 at 8:58 am

The kind of person who likes going online and getting into intense and often abstruse political discussions isn’t the kind of person who likes going out into the world and making friends.

DMS February 10, 2014 at 9:23 am

FredR.
Are you an expert in this subject matter?

quiksilver February 7, 2014 at 9:02 am

I’ve noticed this in my personal life as well. Popular people with high EQ tend not to get caught in these kind of facebook discussions and take active measures to avoid “controversial” topics alltogether.

Timothy February 7, 2014 at 9:24 am

> people with high EQ tend not to get caught in these kind of facebook discussions

I think as a teenager I had to learn something about EQ. I would come around arguing on the Internet frankly and forcefully. One day someone messaged me that they had felt upset by our vicious argument, and I was just flabbergasted that people were feeling compelled to participate in Internet arguments when it was making them unhappy rather than amusing them. Tried to tone it down, realizing my interlocutors may not be approaching this in a psychologically sound way or having as much fun as me.

John Smith February 7, 2014 at 9:08 am

Fourth possibility: increased quantity of Facebook friends indicates decreased quality of actual relationships.

People are more likely to discuss these issues amongst people they have actual relationships with, where there arguments are more likely I be judged fairly.

Mitch Berkson February 7, 2014 at 9:11 am

Do people really engage in discussions on Facebook? It is not an interface conducive to following the threads of a dialogue.

Ted Craig February 7, 2014 at 9:18 am

I’ve noticed people used to engage in more debates online, but since most people’s peers thinks they do, dissenting voices were drowned out. Also, it’s not a very good format for discussions like this. So, today posting is just for mood affiliation, signaling and amens.

BruceB February 7, 2014 at 9:22 am

I’m surprised that our host finds this depressing. This quote of his from the Ezra Klein post the other day essentially predicts the Facebook result:

“First, a lot of us out there who write, or who do economics, or who blog, know each other. We get on together, or not, based on a lot of factors but not mainly whether we agree on a bunch of political questions. Personally, I find taste in food, music, and movies to be better predictors of a sense of mutuality than politics. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/page/2#sthash.KSM8mUnE.dpuf

I suspect that much of the popularity of this blog comes from its moderate tone (not moderate on the left-right axis but moderate as in not flame-throwing). It’s not hard to figure out the politics of the hosts but you don’t get as much of the “this is what must be done” or “that economist is an idiot” that you find at other econ blogs. This helps keep the comments relatively civil and more of a community. Sure, the polemicists attract a lot of fans, but Facebook is primarily social, and I’d rather share a meal with the hosts here than the ranters who I might actually lean more towards politically.

And regarding “Of course one possibility is that popular people do not want to endanger their popularity with controversial discussions. Another is that non-controversial people are simply more popular to begin with.” these are not mutually exclusive but more of a chicken-and-egg situation.

Fallible Me February 8, 2014 at 11:55 am

Brilliant assessment.

dz February 7, 2014 at 9:54 am

This result very much agrees with my experience. I don’t know how they measured popularity on Facebook (just number of friends), but in general, you’ll never see the most popular kids getting in long political debates on Facebook, because they don’t have time for it.

Fallible Me February 8, 2014 at 11:57 am

Or perhaps they can’t. Enlightenment either way doesn’t just happen. And oftentimes geography between “friends” makes face-to-face dialog prohibitive. Methinks you all are over analyzing it.

Genet February 7, 2014 at 10:11 am

Well, the people with the most friends might the one who traveld a lot, lived abroad etc. (this is usually the case in Europe at least).

And those people usualy:

a) have enough “physical’ relationships to discuss without relyig on facebook;
b) understand this kind of discussions on facebook does not bring anything (at least for most of the open discussions);
c) think that facebook is very old-fashion and use it only as a way to organize events and send private messages.

Das February 7, 2014 at 10:59 am

Today on facebook, tomorrow in the NSA database, in the future a club to bludgeon you with – because who knows what perfectly acceptable opinion will be a thought crime 20 years from now?

MMK February 7, 2014 at 11:05 am

Arguing on the internet is like the special Olympics; even if you win you are still retarded.

jeff February 7, 2014 at 12:19 pm

The kids these days are replacing retarded with regarded. Retarded is a very offensive term (don’t use it on facebook)!

Erik M. February 7, 2014 at 11:53 am

A third possibility: the same person, enjoying the same level popularity in other venues, feels freer to take part in controversial discussions with 75 friends shortly after joining Facebook than with 600 friends later. Adding new categories of friends (older family members, co-workers, potential future employers) makes you feel more and more limited about what you feel you can say without giving offense to someone.

Jake February 7, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Isn’t it at all possible that those who are “more popular” on facebook use it as a different type of tool to those who are seemingly more opinionated and less “popular”. For example, people collecting facebook friends might see facebook and the relating friendships as a means rather than an end and those having indepth debates perhaps view facebook and its relating discussion view facebook as an end unto it self. Maybe what we are seeing here isn’t a relationship between controversy and being “liked” but a relationship between values

Ryan W February 7, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Two things:
- more Facebook ‘friends’ could mean more professional and/or family contacts, and users will censor themselves more than if they were talking to peers only
- more Facebook ‘friends’ means a more spam-filled, less predictable news feed, which makes it easier to ignore other people’s discussions rather than take part

Ad Nauseum February 7, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Of course! Popular people are too busy living their lives to sit around and trade useless verbal blows with others. The two rules to remember about a controversial facebook discussion are:
1) Everyone has an opinion (even if the opinion was fed to them)
2) The chances of changing said opinion are next to nill (even if you have the most logical, well thought out position with a plethora of facts and statistics to back up your opinion)

Errorr February 7, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Sometimes you see a study like this and you want to yell at people for being slow.

The question itself shows the researchers are unable to grasp how Facebook is not the right network to look into these questions. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what social apps are and how they are used. Perhaps, a few years ago things were still yet to shake out but Facebook isn’t good for the type of communication talked about here.

There was a great post on stratechery (http://stratechery.com/2013/socialcommunication-map/) that outlines the different nature of various social media apps. Facebook isnt ephemeral enough to garner the symmetrical discussion of issues amongst groups. (Asymmetrical social communication of this type is done on Twitter). The real study should be focused on whatsApp, Vine, WeChat, etc…
Worldwide these message apps are far bigger than facebook for the types of sharing and discussion of political issues. Only in the US is facebook of any volume and that will probably change as Whatsapp will probably become the dominate messaging app even in the US as it is close to crossing the 450 million user mark with over 30 billion daily messages.

Facebook is inherently a flawed way for political discussion. To have permanent records of discussions sent out amongst massive groups of acquaintances isnt ideal way of building dialogue.

Zach February 7, 2014 at 5:05 pm

So these people were surprised that people who have lots of friends don’t spend all of their time arguing about politics and gay rights on Facebook? Not to be mean, but do they have any friends themselves?

Speaking from my own experience, people who post a lot about controversial topics on Facebook have high levels of interpersonal aggression. They tend to enjoy drama or making rude jokes that get a rise out of people, and the political posts tend to be “Look at the terrible thing that [the other side] did.” The point isn’t to discuss an issue, it’s to make people feel uncomfortable for disagreeing with you.

The interesting exception is the friend who actually is a (very minor) politician. His posts are much more akin to someone talking about work. Lots of local issues that are unlikely to get big emotional responses from his group of friends.

Steve Sailer February 7, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Facebook is a non-anonymous Permanent Record. Anybody who goes on Facebook and expresses any skepticism about anything gay is likely to find himself in trouble in the future if he achieves any prominence. Facebook is a spectacular tool for enforcing conformity.

Rahul February 8, 2014 at 6:13 am

Has there been a case of someone getting in trouble because Facebook ratted on him using a hidden / deleted comment from its archives?

josh February 9, 2014 at 9:08 pm

I read about a teacher getting fired for saying that he believed sodomy was a sin.

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David Sucher February 10, 2014 at 9:40 am

I wonder what stats show.
That is, for example, average length of post/comment?
I bet it is very low on FB…Tweet-sized but not as compressed.
Would be good grad student investigation.
Clearly posts/comments on any decent blog such as this one are much longer.

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