The arguments on Facebook regarding Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement that she was running for president began politely at first but slowly grew more vitriolic with each back and forth.
Eventually, Madison Payne, a 27-year-old from Tyler, Tex., had had enough. So she took revenge against the Clinton opponents, simply clicking “unfollow.”
“If I see somebody that is just so hateful, then of course I’m going to unfollow them,” said Ms. Payne, whose “friend” count on Facebook has dwindled since Mrs. Clinton’s announcement. “I’ve lost touch with many great childhood friends of mine due to social media providing a platform for political discussion.”
With the presidential race heating up, a torrent of politically charged commentary has flooded Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, with some users deploying their “unfollow” buttons like a television remote to silence distasteful political views. Coupled with the algorithm now powering Facebook’s news feed, the unfollowing is creating a more homogenized political experience of like-minded users, resulting in the kind of polarization more often associated with MSNBC or Fox News. And it may ultimately deflate a central promise of the Internet: Instead of offering people a diverse marketplace of challenging ideas, the web is becoming just another self-perpetuating echo chamber.
As users slowly whittle angry and adverse viewpoints, Facebook’s news feed algorithm, designed to highlight content similar to what users engage with most, kicks in. Those who like puppies see more posts from their puppy-loving friends; those who like to debate climate change see more climate-change chatter.
Facebook does not track the reasons one user unfollows another. But in thousands of comments and emails that were shared with The New York Times, users admitted to muting acquaintances, friends and even family members as political postings grew too repugnant for their tastes.
Unfollowing is a polite way to shut out unappealing political opinions — under Facebook’s user interface, people technically remain friends with those they unfollow but are simply not subject to seeing their posts again.
Ashlyn Knaur of Huntsville, Ala., recently unfollowed some friends after Mrs. Clinton’s announcement. She also removed the actress Anne Hathaway from her Instagram feed after Ms. Hathaway shared a posting supportive of Mrs. Clinton. Julie Ruby of Normal, Ill., is on the brink of unfollowing her daughter’s mother-in-law for negative comments regarding Mrs. Clinton. And John Thrasher of Cumberland, Md., lost touch with his father over his politics postings on Facebook.
“The regular contact between us has been cut because of politics and social media,” Mr. Thrasher said.
Mike Massaroli, from Staten Island, says that his postings are often ignored and that he is occasionally unfollower even by his fraternity brothers, who playfully cast him off as “the dude who is voting for Bernie Sanders” for his frequent praise of the Vermont senator.
In theory, Facebook’s algorithm provides for an overall better experience on the site, ranking the number of posts likely to be ignored by the user lower in the news feed. But in the realm of politics, that sometimes has the unintended consequence of engineering the political discourse on Facebook toward the user’s political leanings.
“The fundamental principle underpinning news feed is the more you interact with specific types of content and content from specific places, the more likely you are to continue to see” that kind of content, said Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook.
For example, users who “like” Mrs. Clinton’s page will be presented with more posts about the candidate, probably generating more “likes” on posts and photographs and the chance to comment on new campaign memes. Conversely, these users would probably not also “like,” say, a Senator Ted Cruz page. Facebook’s algorithm would recognize that, and rank content regarding Mrs. Clinton higher on those users’ sites than content about Mr. Cruz.
“Everybody’s behavior is different, so that the content that they are eligible to see is rank-ordered differently for each of them,” Mr. Stone said.
Zac Moffatt, a founder of Targeted Victory, a digital strategy firm, said that Facebook’s organic reach, like candidate pages, was starting to be limited for campaigns, in part as more users self-selected an experience, and that could affect their news feed and the ads they saw during primary season.
“If you’re a known Democrat, if you publicly post that you’re a Democrat, you probably aren’t going to see” Republican ads as well, Mr. Moffatt said. “You could conceivably, in the primary, have that process where you’re completely bifurcated where liberals see things that are liberal and Republicans see things that are Republican.”
But an exception, he said, are the campaigns that target voters based more on issues than on party; their message will cut across the divide.
Facebook announced April 21 that it would be introducing changes to its news feed, including reducing the prevalence of content “liked” by others directly in a user’s feed.
But at the same time, more partisan political videos may trickle into news feeds as campaigns deploy Facebook’s new video advertising platform to reach specific groups. A video by the Clinton campaign, for instance, would probably not be targeted toward those using Mr. Cruz’s campaign logo as their avatar. And Facebook is ready to tap these intensifying political passions as a revenue stream.
Some campaigns are proving particularly nimble at steering the conversation on Facebook. Vincent Harris, the chief digital strategist for Senator Rand Paul’s campaign, equipped the candidate’s many followers with avatars, photographs, videos, memes and links to post on their Facebook walls on the day Mr. Paul announced that he was running for president. Tagged correctly, the posts were intended to bombard others’ news feeds as well.
The rise of political chatter on Facebook does not mean the site has become as polarized as Texas is red or California is blue. Some actually do use the site to stay informed about the other side.Mr. Thrasher, who had the Facebook falling out with his father, created a separate list of conservative friends from his hometown to keep tabs on what “Republican friends were saying about the latest craze.”And Facebook counts its vast user base as evidence that it is much more than a political echo chamber. “Even if the majority of people that you’re friends with have opinions that are similar to you,” Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said last year, “your network of friends and friends of friends who you’ll hear from in your news feed is going to bring you more diverse opinions than you would have from any other type of media that you would have consumed.”
But as the passions about the presidential race ratchet up and more people click the “unfollow” button, the discussion on the site tends to mimic the chatter of often-derided partisan news organizations on television, where like-minded audiences follow like-minded viewpoints.“Facebook has educated me about many things and is a great device for expanding our sense of connection with one another,” said Lindy Tucker of Bradenton, Fla.“Right now, it is also a mirror of the divisiveness in our society.”“But there are glimmers of hope, and I will continue to try to use it occasionally to open a dialogue,” she said. “And then go back to the cat videos and talking dogs.