Trump Facebook feuds: You thought arguing about the 2016 election was bad? Brace yourself for 2020
In Florida’s deep-sea blue Broward County, where Donald Trump won less than a third of the vote in the 2016 presidential election, Andrew Brett is used to making waves.
Whenever he strolls into a local bar wearing his MAGA hat for an after-work cocktail, eyes roll and some patrons leave. Even when he's not a walking billboard for the Trump campaign, some people still recognize and accost him, he says.
And then there's his dog, a French bulldog named Trumpster, who sports a Trump2020 T-shirt and has his name tattooed on his belly. Brett says one person threatened to turn him in to the ASPCA for animal cruelty.
As politically polarized as the electorate is in the Fort Lauderdale area, it’s on Facebook – Brett’s online home since 2012 – where the war of words is the most inflamed. And the closer the country moves toward election day, the more caustic it gets.
You thought 2016 was bad? Just wait for the full-blown partisan warfare of 2020.
With less than a year to go before the election, the Trump-obsessed left is getting "100,000 times worse,” says Brett.
From political smackdowns to sniping ads, the election is wall to wall on social media, from Google's YouTube to Twitter, the president's favorite online hangout. Arguments rage over immigration, racism, guns, abortion, all the easily triggered fault lines in American life, and, of course, over Trump himself.
Rapidly escalating hostilities are already showing up in surveys of social media users, says Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. And Americans are bracing for even more Facebook feuds with family and friends.
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Why are we at such political odds? Increasingly Americans view their political party as more of their tribe than their loved ones, social scientists say. And that extreme polarization can be very isolating. Making polite conversation at family get-togethers is a bit awkward once you’ve pulverize someone’s political views on social media.
It wasn't always this way. Until political spats spoiled baby pictures and cat videos, Facebook used to be one of the friendliest places on Earth. But as Americans split along party lines over two polarizing candidates, Trump and Hillary Clinton, civility was permanently placed on the endangered species list.
During the last presidential election cycle, extreme partisanship raged as Facebook and other social media platforms amplified inflammatory content. Hoaxes, conspiracies and disinformation spread much faster and farther than real news, making it far easier for Russian operatives to stir up even more discord on hot-button issues.
Then there was the unnervingly precise targeting of political ads on Facebook, allowing campaigns to sway small but critical segments of the population, especially in swing states. And don't forget the white-hot controversy over the misuse of the private information of tens of millions of Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, the firm that claimed it helped Trump win the White House.
Even after the last ballot was cast in 2016, the corrosive fallout continued to coat our lives like radioactive dust after a nuclear blast. Painful rifts festered. Family members stopped speaking to one another. In 2018, a political dispute over Trump that began on Facebook ended with one man shooting the other in the thigh and buttocks in Tampa, Florida.
Now Trump’s presidency is the powder keg threatening to set off even more squabbles on social media, which has already turned into a primary battleground for the upcoming election.
“I think social media really do have their hands very full,” says Trump supporter Gayla Baer-Taylor, a small-business owner from Knightstown, Indiana.
Aggressive efforts to root out bad actors have nabbed some surreptitious disinformation campaigns but have not stopped them. And the whack-a-mole strategy deployed by Facebook and others to remove fake or outrage-inducing content still relies on too few fact checks and gut checks.
“It’s like trying to be recess monitor for a billion people,” Baer-Taylor, 52, says.
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Nearly half – 46% – of adult social media users say they feel “worn out” by the number of political discussions, 9 percentage points higher than in the summer of 2016, Pew Research Center found in August. Roughly two-thirds of these users describe the minefield of political posts on social media as “stressful and frustrating.”
“This far from even one vote being cast, people are feeling the levels of distress they were feeling at the tail end of the 2016 campaign,” Rainie says.
Count among them Ricky Cobb, 48, a Kentucky native who teaches sociology at a community college in Palos Hill, a suburb of Chicago. He says the unfiltered way people bicker about politics has made his Facebook timeline more uncomfortable than that dreaded moment when talk at family dinners takes a wrong turn into politics and the sharp knives come out.
For Cobb, scrolling through Facebook is like watching a horror movie; he keeps one hand partially covering his eyes. The more political posts he spots, the more frustrated he becomes, whether he agrees with the opinions being expressed or not. His cardinal rule: Never get sucked into political arguments and never, ever comment.
“It seems we all have the same gripes and grievances that both sides had four years ago and now we’ve just added to it the controversy surrounding Trump’s presidency and these impeachment hearings,” Cobb says. “I kind of think it’s going to be a train wreck.”
With each new revelation from the White House, from migrant families being forcibly separated to the president’s effort to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political rivals, Lee Ann Moyer says she copes by talking politics more than ever with close friends, but never on Facebook.
"I feel there are so many pointless political arguments on social media that it makes it hard to tolerate sometimes. As a client of mine once said, 'You’re basically never going to convince someone of anything in a Facebook comment,’” says Moyer, 40, a small-business owner from Portland, Oregon, who wore a pantsuit on election night to show her support for Clinton. “That has stuck with me, and I now generally just try to avoid getting involved."
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Not everyone thinks keeping your political opinions to yourself is the answer, but the price of breaking your silence can be personally devastating, as L. Shay Bradham discovered.
A 51-year-old writer from outside Boston, Bradham never used to wear her liberal politics on her sleeve, but she says the outcome of the 2016 election drove her to become more of a social justice activist and to be more vocal on social media, rankling her deeply conservative and religious family in the south.
“Part of the problem is that I kept quiet for so long, trying to keep the peace and not rock the boat, and I realized that’s a mistake,” she says. “We have now gotten to the point that we need to speak of these things. The stakes are too high.”
Over the summer, a Trump-loving, Fox News-watching family member disowned Bradham after she refused to take down a post showing the president, draped in the American flag, giving a Nazi salute on the controversial cover of a popular German magazine.
Bradham says she still reaches out on special occasions, but her texts go unanswered as the silence stretches into the holidays.
“I think 2020 is going to be very divided, very loud and very long,” Bradham says. “It’s just a very different election cycle. It’s a very different world.”
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Florida's Brett, an openly gay, lifelong conservative who opposes abortion and higher taxes and supports military veterans and national defense, says conservatives are targeted by hate and intolerance on Facebook.
And, Brett says, liberals have repeatedly reported him to Facebook, landing him again and again in "Facebook jail” – the punishment of being locked out of your account for violating the company’s rules.
A post he shared about George Soros led to his most recent suspension which Facebook reversed when contacted by USA TODAY. In another example, Brett says he was temporarily booted off Facebook in 2018 for a post about Valerie Jarrett after Roseanne Barr tweeted the former President Obama adviser was the offspring of the “Planet of the Apes” and the Muslim Brotherhood. The 11-word tweet was widely denounced as racist and prompted ABC to cancel Barr’s popular show.
Brett says in an email that he’s done nothing to deserve these company-mandated timeouts and has “ONLY CALLED OUT THE DUMMYRATS ON THEIR LIES AND CRAZINESS.”