Social media platforms have become political battlegrounds as the end of a long election cycle draws near.
For those who are constantly plugged into their Twitter and Facebook feeds, political fatigue is starting to set in.
“More and more, the political discourse is intruding into people’s day-to-day lives,” Vincent Raynauld, an assistant professor at Emerson College’s Department of Communication Studies, told Healthline.
Raynauld cites various studies showing that many American adults constantly have their smartphones within easy reach — even when they’re sleeping.
While many people use social media as a way to unwind, view images, and keep in touch with friends, election season can turn this on its head.
The 2016 presidential election has broken new ground for social media engagement, a trend that’s poised to reach a fever pitch by the time Americans head to the polls on Nov. 8.
According to USA Today, both the Clinton and Trump campaigns have bested personal records for Facebook engagement during the month of October, generating online conversations at a record-breaking rate.
Political engagement is a good thing for any democracy, but the relative anonymity of online conversations has a tendency to make things turn nasty.
“In this contentious political climate, I’ve received feedback on a daily basis from people who are offended by what is being said on social media,” Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, told Healthline. “While they might even agree with the sentiment, the manner in which their message is delivered and the aggression that is often used is unsettling and off-putting.”
It’s also worth noting that many who post their political opinions online aren’t interested in a debate in the first place.
“What we’ve noticed in recent years, and there’s been a shift with this new generation, is that there’s a need for self-affirmation, so people will turn to Facebook and Twitter for self-affirmation,” Raynauld said. “It’s a way to be a part of the political process — not to engage with people but to affirm themselves.”
Raynauld points out that one’s ability to be exposed to opposing views can vary based on the social media platform they use.
“Every social media platform has different technical properties,” he explained. “Some are more likely to incite debate, others are less likely. Twitter and Instagram are more about broadcasting while Facebook is more about debate.”
Experts say it’s probably best to stay out of political debates online altogether, but sometimes it can be difficult.
For those who wish to wade into the debate, it’s important to stay on topic and keep it respectful.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but they must understand that one-upmanship and snarky comments are seldom effective in convincing someone else that their opinion is better or wrong,” said Gottsman.
Arguing with strangers online is one thing, but the social complications can be difficult to navigate when debating an actual friend or family member, she said.
Sending a private message or taking the conversation offline entirely can be the best way to defuse things.
“If someone is ranting, and you want to call them out, don’t add fuel to the fire by striking a match and tossing it into the bonfire,” Gottsman said. “If they are a close friend or family member, contact them personally. Message them privately or talk to them offline. Person-to-person, a phone call, or even a text is better than an aggressive online message.”
Kevin Curry, director of Integrated Media at Linfield College, agrees.
“I think it comes down to civility,” he told Healthline. “Be polite and position your statement as another way to look at an issue. Instead of saying, ‘You’re wrong!’, try saying, ‘Another way to think about this issue … ’ Also, realize that you probably aren’t going to change the person’s mind, and that’s OK. Strive for civil discourse.”
There are many fixes for those who wish to steer clear of online political squabbling.
Experts say the first, and most obvious, answer is to simply give social media a rest and commit to spending time offline every day.
It’s also worth exploring the ways to customize your social media feeds.
Facebook offers various ways to curate the content you see online. Friends and even specific posts can easily be unfollowed.
On Twitter, it’s possible to follow specific users but hide their posts by opting to “mute” them.
There’s always the nuclear option: unfriending someone and cutting ties with them completely. Many social media users are hesitant to go this route, but sometimes it can be best for their well-being.
“If the tirades are consistent, you may consider unfriending them,” said Gottsman, “Yes, it might cause tension if you unfriend a friend or family member, but you have to weigh your options. Hourly or daily exposure to their comments and remarks may already be causing a rift in the friendship.”
For those who are experiencing political fatigue, there is the consolation of knowing that the end is in sight.
Come Nov. 8, the fever pitch of online discourse will die down. At least until the next president takes office on Jan. 20.