Jason Perlow thought it was just a spirited debate.
A friend posted some negative information about presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Facebook, and Perlow, who considers himself a moderate, pointed out what he saw as flaws in that commentary.
That online disagreement escalated into an offline disintegration of their more-than-10-year friendship.
"He got really angry with me," says Perlow, 43. "He defriended me on Facebook and told me not to send him any more e-mails. He also defriended my wife, who had nothing to do with it."
Most people know the social dangers of discussing politics at family gatherings, cocktail parties and the workplace. But the rise of Facebook brings about a tempting -- and treacherous -- territory to engage in such commentary.
It takes just a few posts to inadvertently damage a friendship, put a rift in family relations, alienate a once-friendly neighbor or infurIate a colleague.
Mix together a divided country and hot-button political issues and Facebook commentary can become an online landmine. The conventions, as well as debates such as Thursday's duel between Vice President Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, have prompted Facebook users to argue over topics such as the economy, foreign policy and female reproductive rights.
Politics is "one of the most polarizing topics discussed on Facebook," says Ron Schott, a senior strategist at social media marketing agency Spring Creek Group.
Yet as divisive as those Facebook comments can be, they can have an influence.
One in six social network users say they've changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on a social networking site, according to a Pew Research Center survey fielded in January and February.
As the number of Facebook users expand, the amount of political commentary has followed suit.
One in six social media users say they have posted about politics recently, according to Pew.
Of the two-thirds who don't post political content, about one-fifth don't do it because they are worried they might upset or offend someone.
TMI? (Too Much Information?)
During the 2008 presidential race, Facebook had about 100 million users. Now, it has 10 times as many.
Facebook doesn't break out U.S. participation, but more than half of Americans use social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, according to Pew.
Those digital ties can expose previously unknown political affiliations.
Despite the risks, many Facebook users still talk politics. With Election Day less than a month away, the site is brimming with controversial candidate quotes, provocative headlines and personal commentary.
"People get mobilized by the elections and they start posting things they don't usually post," says James Fowler, a University of California-San Diego political science professor who specializes in social network research.
Among the reasons political posts are profuse on Facebook:
- Political strategists seed the site. Operatives for President Obama and Romney know that Facebook users typically pay more attention to a friend's updates than political ads, so they create evocative content that can quickly go viral, Fowler says. They post quotes, videos and pictures that are "designed to get people's attention," Fowler says.
- It's easy to spread candidate news as well as personal commentary. With the increased use of tablets and smartphones, Facebook users can disseminate their opinions at any place at any time. Facebook's "share" button makes it simple to recycle content from political parties and like-minded voters. "You see something and it makes you laugh and you hit the share button and off it goes," Fowler says. "But if you had three seconds (to think about it), maybe you wouldn't have shared it."
- Users assume others are like-minded. "We think people are more similar to us than they are," Fowler says. So the user spreading the "NoObama" or "Anti-Romney" message assumes that most people in his or her circle agree with that stance, when that isn't necessarily true. "People sharing things on Facebook probably feel safer than they should," he says. "They think that everyone generally agrees with them."
- There's no in-person accountability. "On Facebook, we share all sorts of stuff that we would never share in normal conversations," says social media expert Schott. At a dinner party or family gathering, users have to defend their position to others who disagree. On Facebook, they can just ignore, or even delete, contrary comments.
How Facebook users think of the site is much different now than during the election race four years ago, says Laura Simpson, global director of McCann Truth Central, the research unit of the McCann Erickson ad agency. In September, McCann Truth Central conducted focus groups and an online survey of 1,000 Americans on topics such as how technology and social media can play a role in politics.
"Facebook is evolving into more of a debate space for issues," she says. "Before, it was a much more personal record, or archive, of your social life. Now, there are (updates about) weddings and babies, but you'll also see political views and videos about topics that people feel passionate about."
And with that shift, users are more apt to jump into controversial conversations, Simpson says.
Words as swords
Rich McMahon, 60, from Montclair, N.J., has vigorously disputed political statements that were posted on Facebook by someone he's known for 25 years.
"He would put up something that I thought was incorrect and I would point out how I thought it was incorrect," says McMahon, who eventually defriended that man on Facebook but remains friendly with him in real life.
"We never talked politics face to face," he says. "But when we got into Facebook, it was swords out."
Nearly a quarter of Internet users are more likely to voice extreme political views online than in real life, according to the McCann survey.
The Facebook user who frequently shares controversial candidate content -- or posts personal commentary -- may not realize that those actions can shape how others feel about them, Schott says.
For those who rarely socialize with Facebook friends outside the site, "it leads others to make assumptions about them as a person," he says. "When people interact with you in real life three to four times a year, but see your stuff on Facebook a lot more, often that's who you become in their minds."
Over-the-top posts can also turn off non-Facebook friends. Those who don't keep tight privacy settings on their profiles can influence the perceptions of snooping managers, potential employers and even prospective dates.
How business professionals respond to provocative posts matters, says marketing consultant Michael Byrnes. He has an extremely conservative client who recently decided to defriend any Facebook friends who made comments supporting Obama.
"He just didn't want to be connected to that," says Byrnes, who counseled his client to simply hide those friends' newsfeeds rather than fully severing the Facebook ties. The man didn't take his advice.
"It's really going to impact his business over time," Byrnes says.
Learn to set boundaries
Perlow, a technology expert and blogger who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area, lost a friend to Facebook fighting. He has tinkered with third-party plug-ins that can create word filters on a profile, such as SocialFixer. But he has another idea on how to keep people from getting sucked in when they want to stay on the political sidelines: Facebook should create a way for users to filter their feeds and weed out politically oriented commentary.
"I kind of think of Facebook as a no-nastiness zone, and I don't want to see tons and tons of political objectives," he says. "I'd rather see a picture of someone's cat or their kids or what they did today, rather than (posts of) 'Oh my God, look at all the horrible things that are going to happen if Romney becomes president or if Obama becomes president.' "
Until that time comes, Schott suggests that those who want to limit the political discourse go to Facebook's settings section and hide a friend's posts so they don't come up on a newsfeed.
"It's not as permanent as unfriending person, so you're not insulting them by unfollowing them," he says. "You can hide them and then unhide them after election season when they are talking about something else."
Jerry White of San Leandro, Calif., took a more proactive stance.
He upset some friends when he weighed in on political topics. At the same time, he noticed politically oriented remarks on Facebook that were "mean, negative and untrue." He saw posts that baited others, as well as criticisms that seemed trivial, such as disparaging comments about the vegan sloppy Joes that Michelle Obama served children at a White House luncheon.
"Finally, I just said that I've had enough," says White, 50. "Facebook is supposed to be fun, and I don't enjoy getting into arguments with people. I'm not changing my opinion and I'm not changing their opinion."
He opted out of the political commentary.
"I am turning over a new leaf," was his Aug. 21 status update. "No political posts on my wall and no comments on other people's political posts (except maybe a like.)"
Instead, he said he would focus on "family, motorcycles, and fun stuff." He didn't defriend those who took to the public pulpit but hid the updates of overzealous political posters.
His public statement earned him 34 "likes" from his friends, he says.
"Now my life on Facebook is so much nicer."