Facebook unfriending after the Orlando mass shooting

Major events of national importance reverberate throughout many levels of social life. They are discussed in the corridors of formal power, and in conversations by the water cooler. They also inspire an intensification of activity on social media. One of these activities is unfriending. Unfriending is a relatively under-researched social media practice, but it would appear to be becoming an integral part of major political events. Moreover, if looked at closely, it might be able to shed fresh light on our lives in social media. The following is a very preliminary attempt to say something about the kind of unfriending that follows significant events, taking as a case study the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in the early hours of June 12, 2016.

I do not know how much unfriending there was in the days following the Orlando shooting. Indeed, one problem with studying unfriending is that the digital traces it creates are inaccessible to researchers (Facebook won’t share that information and its API doesn’t give us access to it either). So even when there is a great deal of media chatter about unfriending we are limited in our ability to collect data about it. One response to this is to survey social media users, which is what I did after the Israel-Gaza conflict in 2014 and after the Israeli general elections in 2015 (for more see this article in the Journal of Communication, and this piece elsewhere on this very site). Alternatively, instead of trying measure unfriending, we could try to see what people are saying about it, and to this end I’ve been collecting tweets that contain the string, unfriend (this includes ‘unfriending’, ‘unfriended’, etc.). The volume is not enormous—about 3,000 tweets a day—but it means that when something happens that might spark a wave of unfriending, I’m able to see one aspect of that.

In Figure 1 we can see the slight rise in Twitter chatter about unfriending in the days following June 12 (we can also see a much steeper rise on the day the Brexit results were announced).

Sheet 1

Figure 1: Tweets including ‘unfriend’, June 2016

These are not “big data” by any means. In fact, of the 7,173 tweets between 2am on June 12 and 2am on June 16 that included the string ‘unfriend’, only 1,387 were about the Orlando shooting (this is based on my judgment, which I think is good enough for now). Figure 2 shows the distribution of these tweets in the days following the shooting.

Sheet 2

Figure 2: Tweets about Orlando shooting

So what kind of tweets about unfriending were posted in the aftermath of the shooting? The first kind involves an individual addressing a collective, but in two different ways. One way is to say, “Anyone who truly feels that the people killed in the Florida gay nightclub deserved it or are in hell, please unfriend me or stop following”, or “If you think the main tragedy of the #Orlando Pulse shooting is that not enough of ‘those’ people died, unfriend me and move on w/your life”. Another is instantiated by tweets such as these: “If you post anything negative about gay people today you will without a doubt be getting unfollowed and unfriended”, and “The problem is gun control in this country and bigotry,&if anyone from fb tries to disagree with me I s2g u will be unfriended and blocked”. In the first instance, the tweeter requests that people with certain views unfriend them, while in the second the tweeter warns that people who express certain views will be unfriended. In both cases, the people talking this way are publically expressing their strong desire not to have people with certain views in their social media milieu. Unfriending thus seems to be a practice aimed at maintaining boundaries of the self.

This is a kind of talk that many of us will have seen in relation to the US elections, where versions of “If you support [Trump/Clinton], then unfriend me” have been doing the rounds for a while. There is some evidence, by the way, that these calls to be unfriended are sometimes answered: “Just saw the first official gun-nut “unfriend me now if you’re for more gun control” graphic. Okay! Mission accomplished!”, or “Just unfriended my brother who posted if you support more gun control unfriend me now. You have asked me to listen to you for 40yrs. #Nojoke”. One user even posted the following: “I made a FB post 25mins ago asking supporters of Orlando shootings to unfriend me. Over 15 people did. What the ACTUAL fuck, people”.

In any case, this is by now such a recognizable trope that some Twitter users are pushing back against it, posting tweets such as the following: “Those suggesting others “Unfollow” or “Unfriend”: Closing door to others is the same as the phobias you are shielding yourself against”, or “If you call for those with different opinions than yours to unfriend/unfollow you, it’s time for you to grow up”. Through these tweets, users are showing an awareness of the promise for debate extended by social media, alongside the ease with which such debate can be prevented.

Once enough time had passed for people to start posting their responses to the shooting on Facebook, Twitter users started reporting concrete instances of unfriending: For example, “Just unfriended a dude on FB because he went on a vile rant against Muslims. I have no room for that type of person in my life”, and “Already unfriended one person whose main concern today is not for the victims but for the poor defenseless guns”.

The tweets I find most interesting, though, are those that point to the way that unfriending has established itself in the repertoire of social media responses to major events. Thus, it would seem that people are by now familiar enough with the dynamics of unfriending around significant events that they are able to report their expectations of a wave of unfriending: “Unfriend mission Start…”, tweeted one user, while another wrote “Looking forward to unfriending FB friends today”. Some of them take unfriending to be an integral (and sometimes even pleasurable) part of events such as this shooting. This is precisely because they inspire social media responses by which people’s true selves would seem to be exposed: “[…] started to unfriended them today. Showed their true colors”, or “Time for a round of bigots to unmask themselves, followed by me unfriending them […]”. Sometimes, this kind of opportunity is actually welcomed: “[…] glad they showed their disgusting true colors”, or “In a glass is half full sense I can now unfollow/unfriend secret/crazy NRA supporters from social media #sheep”. Another use tweeted that “Today is one of those days you can easily to go through and unfriend people on Facebook”.

There is a sense, then, in which unfriending is part of the whole mass shooting “package”, along other familiar aspects of such events (the news coverage; the profiles of the killer; interviews with people who knew him; etc.). As one Twitter user posted, “First unfriending of this mass shooting: ✔”, as if it was just a matter of time until there was an unfriending “of this mass shooting”, and as if there will be more to come. Another user puts the unfriending within a time frame—“Don’t be afraid to block and unfriend people this week”—as if to say that there will be plenty of discussion about the shooting in the coming days, and that unfriending will (or should) be part of that. One user tweeted, “I can’t wait until “unfollow/unfriend me if. . .” season is over”, which also suggests that this is going to be a time of unfriending. Similarly, one user simply posted, “It’s that time again… #unfriending #idiots #droppinglikeflies”. Reinforcing this suggestion that unfriending is part of the routine of tragic events for some social media users, another Twitter user tweeted: “The amount of people I have to unfriend on Facebook following any tragedy containing gun violence, queer community, and/or racial identity..”.

One notable aspect of the tweets about unfriending in the wake of the Orlando shooting is their use of the very language of the mass shooting. The word “spree” offers one example: “The only way I can keep having a #Facebook is after a thorough unfriending spree”, or “Going on an unfriending spree of anyone who says anything stupid about Orlando”. Other instances include the word “mass”, as in: “Nothing warms my heart like a mass unfriending on Facebook”, or “In addition to today being a mass shooting day, it’s also a mass unfriending day. #Orlando”. This kind of talk also serves to strengthen the tie between the event and the subsequent unfriending.

If the impression from the above is that liberals were talking more about unfriending conservatives following the Pulse shooting, then I have successfully conveyed the political leanings of most (but by no means all) of those tweeting about unfriending. Nearly all of the retweeted tweets expressed views in favor of gun control and against homophobia, Islamophobia, and Donald Trump. Of course this does not mean that conservatives were not unfriending liberals—maybe they were—but only that liberals were talking about unfriending more than conservatives. Having said that, one Twitter user offered this telling observation: “if you unfriend/unfollow someone because they have different political views than you.  then you probably voted for Bernie sanders”.

This brief presentation of some of the tweets about unfriending following the Orlando shooting raises a number of questions. To start, we might want to know how much Facebook unfriending or Twitter unfollowing there actually was, and who was doing it. Also, tapping into discussions of filter bubbles and echo chambers, we might want to know if it has an impact on the quality of online political debate. We should also try to find out what the act of unfriending means for the people doing it: Are they trying to convey a message? Or are they exercising their power to choose with whom to associate?

What is clear is that unfriending is becoming part of major events (and also micro-level social dramas too). Despite the considerable methodological challenges in studying it, I think there is much promise in paying greater attention to unfriending, and especially to the process of unfriending becoming a symbolic act of identity management.