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Connected ‘Friends’ again, after the election

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

By the time this column appears, the election will be over.

Or, at least, I hope it’s over.

Really over.

It’s clear from reading our social media feeds that we all have election fatigue.

This is because the campaign for president has been particularly divisive thanks, in part, to a sharp increase in social media use.

Unfortunately, that increased use damaged a lot of close relationships. Family members abandoned each other, lifelong friendships are broken.

In a recent Research & Politics article, Leticia Bode, assistant professor of political communication at Georgetown University, examined the end of personal relationships on social media for political reasons.

“Political unfriending is most common among those who talk about politics, but importantly it is not common for any group,” Bode said.

Bode’s study identified the “unfrienders” are those with strong political ideologies and those learn about politics through social media.

Still, Bode noted, “there is a great deal about political unfriending that we don’t understand.”

If those relationships were damaged because of the election, it’s time to reconnect.

If they were damaged for other reasons, it’s time to call Dr. Phil.

“We know that political views are deeply tied to and embedded in cultural values, personal relationships and communities,” said John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism, Northeastern University. “This is true both online and off-line.”

Wihbey’s work focuses on political participation and civic engagement on social media.

“Often to express one’s views or change one’s mind means risking losing community ties,” Wihbey explained. “I suspect that many ties have been broken in this election. And yet we are all part of a social contract that makes us part of a society that is inherently political.”

While visiting my polling place early yesterday, I was surprised to see people clearly on opposite sides of the political spectrum chatting with each other, shaking hands, smiling, even hugging.

This was a stark contrast to the negativity and bitterness observed on social media over the last year. But it was also a sign that people may be ready to put this election in the past and reconnect.

“We need to make space for holding differing, even seemingly irrational political views, recognizing that we are all flawed,” Wihbey said.

Of course, the process of reconnecting has deep roots in U.S. culture.

“There is a great tradition in American history of coming together around moments of great trial,” Wihbey said. “At a practical level, on social media we should express the things that we are grateful for as individuals still with immense personal freedom.”

To begin the process, we should start by focusing on the things for which we are most thankful, like those family and friends who may have been lost in the seemingly endless election season.

Adam Earnheardt is chairman of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Read his blog at adamearn.com and follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.