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Political Debates Make for Heated Atmosphere on Facebook in Germany

The tone of many posts has changed, users say

February 2, 2016

For years, Facebook has been the primary online mirror for millions of people around the world—a repository of events, emotions and opinions. Inevitably, it’s also an arena where political views are displayed and debated, and personal dislikes aired.

Facebook Users in Germany Who Participate in Political Discussions on Facebook, by Demographic, Jan 2016 (% of respondents in each group)

To what extent does Facebook reflect the world’s current political and social turmoil, and how might this affect users of the network? In Germany, the ad industry periodical W&V commissioned the Munich Digital Institute to find out. The Institute polled 1,271 Facebook users ages 13 and older online in mid-January 2015; the sample was designed to be representative of all users in the country.

Not surprisingly, large numbers of Facebook members did take part in political discussions on the site. At least half of those ages 40 and older said they did so, for example. Younger people were less inclined to participate in political exchanges; nearly 70% of members in their twenties said they didn’t get involved in these discussions.

It was also clear that users’ news feeds have become more serious and more aggressive in tone, and more political, with less emphasis on entertainment. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said increasingly extreme political opinions had appeared in their feeds, and more than one-third said they’d seen more personal attacks than previously.

Planned Change in Facebook Usage Among Facebook Users in Germany, Jan 2016 (% of respondents)

The implications for Facebook itself are unclear. But the survey does point to potential dangers. For one thing, 20.7% of Facebook users polled said that because of the fraught political atmosphere on the site, they planned to use it less in future. In addition, almost half said they would un-friend connections with certain political views.

For brands, the possible fallout is also a worry. According to Christian Henne of the Munich Digital Institute, “a heated mood on Facebook could increasingly deter brands from investing more on the site—either because it will be harder to get through to users with less weighty subjects, or because users will be in a more negative emotional state, which isn’t a good foundation for brand communications.”

In one respect, Facebook is working hard to defuse any suggestion that the network fosters extreme political opinions or facilitates communication between users with incendiary views. On January 18, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg announced the launch of the Berlin-based “Initiative for Civil Courage Online.” Founded in collaboration with a number of human rights and research organizations, and operating with a Europe-wide remit, its aim is to combat extreme, defamatory content and all forms of hate speech on the internet.

It remains to be seen how much this program will limit the expression of extremist views on the web. Most likely Facebook will also need to police its own pages and users more rigorously if it hopes to avoid dangerous escalations of debate online—and drive some users away.

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