Monday, November 12, 2012

Puppies Not Politics: A Social Experiment

Its been almost a week since the election, and the political posts seem to have finally died down, replaced with talk of Christmas, Day-After-Thanksgiving sales, and the end of the year (nothing yet on the “End of the World” so many were/are expecting - but we’ll have to wait and see if more 2012 apocalypse talk surfaces). Is it just me, or do the election cycles just seem to get longer and longer, with political advertising starting earlier each time? A columnist for CNN joked that, now that the election is over, it’s time for politicians to get back to what they do best - campaign for the next election.

This year, as a response to all of the political posts I observed from friends on Facebook, I decided to try a little experiment - starting August 26, I posted one puppy picture for every post I saw.

One of the many PNP puppies; you can tell he's trustworthy, because he wears glasses.

The rules were pretty simple:
  1. One picture per post I saw. The keyword here is saw - I did not seek out posts purposefully, but only counted ones that I either saw while scrolling through my news feed or that I happened to see when visiting someone’s profile page. If Facebook lumped similar posts together - e.g., X of your friends posted about Barack Obama - I would only count however many were displayed, and did not expand posts. 
  2. The picture could contain one or more puppy. I use the term “puppy” pretty generally, to refer to any dog, regardless of age. I have to admit, though, to play on the word “puppy”, I posted a picture of recently born Mongoose puppies from the Brookfield Zoo. Pictures could also contain other animals - several contained cats/kittens, a couple contained fancy rats, and one even had a pig. 
Overall, what I got was a conservative estimate of all the political posts I saw on Facebook between August 26, 2012 and November 6, 2012. The final count: 469 posts. I decided to do the math on exactly how often I saw political posts. The Puppies Not Politics album was up for 73 days or 1752 hours or 105,120 minutes. If I remove the time I spent sleeping (rough estimate - likely an overestimate, considering my life-long battle with insomnia - of 584 hours or 35,040 minutes), I saw on average one political post every 149.4 minutes, or 0.8 per hour, or 6.4 per day. Obviously, this is averaged across the whole period and doesn’t get at the variability in frequency; some days, posts were far more abundant, such as after debates.

As I said, this is a conservative estimate, since I didn’t purposefully visit Facebook just to count political posts - it was only when I wanted to visit Facebook anyway to see what was going with my friends, post a status update, etc. Some days, I didn't have the time or energy to look. I also did not bother counting advertisements, seen either on Facebook or elsewhere. The overarching lesson here is that we see a lot of political ads, and comments - not a surprising conclusion, but still. When one’s newsfeed is packed with information about a certain thing, we often start to block that thing out and gravitate instead to what is unique in the bunch.

If we do happen to notice all those political posts, we are most likely to pay attention to posts with which we agree already, and tend to ignore the ones that run counter to our beliefs or expectations, especially when we don’t feel like engaging in systematic thought (see previous post about Facebook and "when thinking feels hard"). So liberal posts are unlikely to reach (and “convert”) a conservative, and conservative posts are unlike to reach/convert a liberal. Why, then, do we spend so much energy posting political information if it is unlikely to change anyone’s mind? There are a few explanations; this list is not mutually exclusive:
  1. The poster may be unaware that their posts are not changing anyone’s mind, and perhaps believe that, if this [insert type of person] just knew this information, they wouldn’t be a [type]. That may be true, but good luck getting that person to even notice the post, let alone click on it, let alone read it, let alone consider what they’ve read.
  2. The poster may be completely aware that their posts are not changing anyone’s mind, but instead share the link or post because they think their like-minded friends will see it and enjoy it. Facebook is one of many ways we can share “things we think are cool” - in fact, this notion of social bookmarking has spawned other services, like Pinterest - and we can share them just in case other people will think they are cool too. 
  3. Posting political information that matches with our beliefs is a way of declaring our membership in a group. Group membership is a very important source of our self-esteem. By posting information that declares, “I am a liberal”, or “I am a conservative”, etc., we get the boost in self-esteem that comes with belonging to a group. Of course, research specifically on Facebook status updating shows that comments/likes have a strong effect on self-esteem, so if I posted something and then received largely negative feedback on it, my self-esteem would probably suffer. Would it cause me to distance myself from the group? Like so many things in psychology, it depends. I may actually strengthen my ties to the group, if I believe the derision is unwarranted. 
  4. This may be a bit cynical of me, but I have to throw it out there - some people may post political information to appear intelligent and cultured. We’ve all done it, not just with political posts. I’ve certainly shared something that gives me the opportunity to, say, show my knowledge of space exploration TV show (e.g., Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica) captains. Or posted one of the “Grammar Nazi” e-cards (only to discover there’s a typo in one’s comments on the picture). Am I calling Facebook users hypocrites? Maybe, but aren’t we all? 
These are just a few of the potential reasons off the top of my head. What do you think, readers? What are some other reasons for all the political posting?

Thoughtfully yours,


  1. I think #1 is more cynical than #4. If #1 were true then half the people who teach in public schools would quit.

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