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How a Facebook Political Spat Ruptured a Family

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 12/15/2019 Julie Jargon
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Members of the Laurendine-Scanlan family of suburban New Orleans always held differing political views. Some are liberal and others are conservative. Like many families, they didn’t talk politics during gatherings. Then the 2016 presidential election came and a flame war erupted among some of them on Facebook.

Aunts, uncles and cousins who once celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together haven’t done so since 2015. Neither side can remember exactly what post started it all—they couldn’t find the old posts and think they deleted them. But both sides recall that Lisa Laurendine, a 60-year-old registered nurse in Metairie, had made her support for Donald Trump known when she shared a post from a conservative account she followed, which offended her sister-in-law, Joan Scanlan, 71, a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter who lives about 35 miles away in Slidell.

It was a comment Lisa posted the day after the election that really set Joan off, resulting in a rapid-fire Facebook exchange that left both feeling hurt.

The family rift that followed underscores the role social media has played in political divisiveness and the ugliness that can occur when otherwise civil people get behind a keyboard. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, 40% of social media users strongly agree with the idea that people say things about politics on such platforms that they would never say in person. And roughly half the respondents said they feel political conversations on social media are angrier and less respectful than in other areas of life.

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There’s no telling how many family relationships or friendships have become strained as a result of political arguments on social platforms, but stories about such disagreements are plentiful. I’ve witnessed several such spats in my own Facebook feed.

The Laurendine-Scanlan feud has been particularly long-running, continuing to this day. And with the 2020 election nearing, it isn’t clear if it will ever end, despite each side’s wishes to put it behind them.

“The last time I saw my dad’s entire side of the family was in 2015—multiple aunts and probably 20-some cousins,” said Travis Laurendine, Lisa’s son, who hasn’t taken sides and wishes they could reconcile. “There have been no real efforts at reconciliation between my mom and aunt. Hopefully I can start to bridge the gap.”

Joan’s youngest daughter, Angele, who had been born with cerebral palsy and later died from leukemia, was an advocate for people with disabilities. Angele had always been close to Joan’s brother and his wife, Lisa. And so Joan couldn’t believe it when her sister-in-law showed support on Facebook for a candidate who had mocked a reporter with a disability during a campaign speech. The fact that Lisa didn’t disavow Mr. Trump for that, she said, felt like “a stab in the heart.”

Lisa said she was hurt that Joan turned her support for Mr. Trump into something personal. The day after he was elected, Joan said she wrote on Facebook that she was afraid for the country. She said that Lisa typed this reply: “Don’t be a sore loser.”

Lisa said she doesn’t recall writing those exact words but rather something along the lines of, “Can’t you just give this guy a chance? Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think it will be.”

Either way, both agree that is when things got ugly. “She comes back with this firestorm, saying what a terrible person I was and brought up the episode of Trump picking on the reporter with the disability and how could I support him—didn’t I love my niece?” Lisa said. “I was shocked. I loved my niece very much. I typed something like, ‘How dare you say that to me?’ ”

“I ripped her to shreds,” said Joan, a clinical social worker. “I just went into complete attack mode. It was awful. It didn’t occur to me, ‘What are you going to do when you see them at Christmas?’ ”

When the exchange was over, Lisa unfriended Joan on Facebook.

The night of the argument, Travis recalls his mother telling him they wouldn’t be going to his aunt’s house for Thanksgiving because of it. “It really hit me in the gut. How is it that this has come between my family and I’m never going to see my cousins again?” he said. “As families get older you see them less and less, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only guaranteed times you see each other.”

Travis, a 36-year-old who votes Democratic and is politically outspoken, has participated in many debates on Facebook with friends and even other relatives. But he always felt there was an understanding that the internet has its own rules of civility, which are often different than those people follow in real life.

When Facebook in late 2017 developed a tool that allowed people to check whether they followed accounts linked to a Russian-backed propaganda group, Travis used it to look into his mother’s Facebook account and discovered she was following five such accounts. He suspects that the offending post she shared had come from one of them.

“I’ve created startups and produced hackathons. I get the internet. My mom is very innocent and doesn’t understand how an algorithm works,” said Travis, founder of a hackathon production and consulting company.

“When I turned off those accounts and many others I thought were crap, she was seeing so much less inflammatory stuff on her page,” Travis said.

Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment. The company last month said it is taking several steps to prevent the spread of misinformation and to eliminate foreign interference on its platform by disclosing the organizations and countries behind Facebook pages, labeling media outlets that are under the editorial control of their government and labeling content that has been rated false by a third-party fact-checker.

Lisa said she voted for Mr. Trump only because she disliked Mrs. Clinton more. “It’s sad how this has broken up our family.”

Lisa and Joan said they have made a cursory attempt at detente. Last December, Joan’s children invited Lisa to Joan’s surprise birthday party. The two hugged, and both Joan and her husband apologized to Lisa, who suggested they get together again at Christmas, but they never did. Joan has since spoken to her brother by phone but hasn’t spoken to Lisa.

Both said the episode hurt them so much that it is hard to move past it. Joan said she is considering inviting Lisa and her family over for Christmas this year.

Whether or not she does, Travis said he plans to go to his aunt’s house himself on Christmas, even though mending the rift might be hard.

Joan said the whole episode has been one of the most regrettable of her life. “It’s caused me a lot of pain and emotional upset,” she said. “Maybe that will be my New Year’s resolution—to put this all behind us.”

But Joan worries the coming election could reopen old wounds. Lisa said she hasn’t yet decided how she will vote. But one thing is for sure: She plans to no longer post anything political on Facebook.

“Hopefully we can get past this divisiveness as a nation, not just as a family,” Lisa said.

Write to Julie Jargon at julie.jargon@wsj.com

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