Unfriending Among Denison Students

By Oliver Gladfelter

Okay, I admit it. I did it. I unfriended someone on Facebook because I didn’t like a political post they made. But I’ve only done it once, I swear! And you would have done the same thing if you saw what they said. Or would you?

As the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reported after the 2016 election, 13% of Americans have unfriended, blocked, or stopped following someone on social media because of what they posted about politics.

We asked Denison students a similar question last month, so we can compare our average to this 13% finding.[1] Astonishingly, over three times as many Denison students – 40.9% to be exact – reported the same behavior.

The PRRI also found a significant gap between Democrats and Republicans in their tendency to unfriend others because of political posts – nationally, 24% of Democrats reported blocking or unfriending, compared to just 9% of Republicans and 9% of independents.

This partisan gap can be seen on Denison’s campus as well. Nearly half of Denison Democrats (47.9%) unfriended or blocked someone on social media, compared to 31.9% of Denison Republicans. Recently, we found that Denison conservatives also have more ‘grit’ than Denison liberals, so this isn’t entirely surprising. At 27.7%, Denison independents were the least likely to engage in this behavior.[2]

Both samples also had substantial gender gaps. Nationally, women were more likely to unfriend or block than men were (18% vs 9%). We see the same result at Denison – 47.9% of women vs 30.3% of men. This may be because women use social media more and thus are presented with more situations in which unfriending someone may be a tempting option.[3]

Figure 1 – Denison Unfriending is Far Above National Rates

All of the above findings come from asking about unfriending or blocking because of what the other person posted. But we didn’t stop there – after all, if I were trying to get myself blocked on Facebook, there’s a whole lot more I could do than just make one offensive post. In addition to disagreeable-posting behavior, we asked about three other reasons for which someone may give their social media connections the boot.

Figure 2 – The Varieties of Blocking

So there you have it. If you want to go around picking arguments on social media, you probably won’t lose too many friends. But if you’re trying to keep your insta ratio up, be careful how often you’re posting about politics.

You may notice that unfriending due to disagreeable or offensive posts and unfriending due to heavy frequency of political posts were both admitted to by roughly 40% of the sample. I suspected these were the same people doing both types of unfriending, while the other 60% did neither. Yet, it’s much more mixed: only 28% of students did both and 29.9% did one but not the other. This leaves just 41.6% of Denison students who can honestly say they’ve never unfriended someone because of their political posts.

Finally, it’s useful to return to the partisan gap we saw earlier. Since Democrats are more likely to unfriend someone after seeing a disagreeable or offensive post, we may expect them to lead the scoreboard across all four categories. In reality, Republicans have the lower tolerance when it comes to those pesky, frequent posters, and both parties are equally likely (or unlikely) to take such action when it comes to verbal arguments.

Figure 3 – The Partisan Divide in Blocking Behavior

It’s no secret that social media acts as an echo chamber, mostly showing us content which only validates and reinforces our own viewpoints. If Denison students are routinely ‘cleaning’ their newsfeed of anything they find disagreeable, we’re worsening this problem and essentially locking ourselves inside the echo chamber. It’s the equivalent of refusing to listen to the other side, a mark of close-mindedness and definitely not what we want to see from ‘active citizens of a democratic society.’ Granted, we really don’t know the extent of the problem. Plenty of people who admitted to unfriending for political reasons may just be one-time offenders, which probably isn’t too big of a deal. But unfriending everyone who they disagree with is a lot more problematic. So how concerned should we really be? How frequently are Denison students unfriending out of political spite? If more often than not, it may be time to sound the alarm.

Oliver Gladfelter is a huge advocate of procrastination and spends most of his time finding new ways to waste time. He also studies political science on the side.


Notes

1 – Both the national sample and the Denison sample were asked similar questions, although the question wording varied slightly. Public Religion Research Institute asked, “After the presidential election, did you block, unfriend, or stop following someone on a social networking site because of what they posted about politics?” The Denison senior seminar survey asked, “When using social networking sites, have you ever blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because they posted something about politics or political issues that you disagreed with or found offensive.” It should also be noted that PRRI conducted their survey in December 2016, while the Denison survey was conducted in October 2017.

2 – There was a small yet significant relationship between political party identification and social media usage. Not all Denison students use social media – 4.2% of Democrats, 7.7% of independents, and 9.6% of Republicans, to be exact, do not. Because Democrats are using social media more than independents or Republicans, this may account for some of the differences in unfriending rates.

3 – In a survey conducted in 2015, Denison students were asked, “How many times a day would you say you update your social media?” The average response was 2.6 for men, 3.4 for women, a significant difference (p-value = .043).

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