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Facebook's whistleblower is prompting some users to log off — forever

Saying goodbye to an old friend, even one who has disappointed and angered you over and over, is difficult.

On Tuesday, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in front of Congress about the ways she says the social media giant is, to generalize a bit, making America worse. Her allegations helped support a Wall Street Journal “deep dive” into Facebook that reports the company has ignored warnings about the negative impact of its platforms and, in some cases, hidden facts about those impacts from the public. (Facebook, not surprisingly, objects to such characterizations.)

Many spoke of how much they would miss the way Facebook facilitated interpersonal connections and helped friends keep up with each other’s lives.

Haugen, who was also interviewed by NPR this week, seems to be making an impact. I have seen multiple friends post — yes, I see the irony — on Facebook that they were signing off permanently. Many spoke of how much they would miss the way Facebook facilitated interpersonal connections and helped friends keep up with one another’s lives. Nevertheless, a company that has misused its power for its own gain presents a real conundrum.

Facebook represents some of the most difficult and complex conflicts of our time. The concerns are not new, but they have taken on new power in recent days, underscored by Tuesday’s congressional hearing and Sunday’s “60 Minutes” segment. As Haugen, a data scientist who has worked at Facebook and other social media giants, told CBS interviewer Scott Pelley: “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”

The conflict between self-interest and public interest is not exclusive to Facebook, of course. But the decision to stay or leave the site is made harder by the fact that attachment to others is a basic human need, and Facebook has offered an opportunity for many of us to meet this need. So do we stay to feed our personal need for connection? Do we leave to make a “statement,” or because we can no longer stomach being part of an organization that, through self-interested manipulation, is contributing to some of society’s worst problems?

We humans crave simplicity, but humanity is “infinitely complex,” as the developmental psychologist Fred Pine wrote in his book “Developmental Theory and Clinical Process.” In our efforts to simplify the complexity, we often use a mechanism psychotherapists call “splitting,” or dividing things into “all good” and “all bad.” We might use this mechanism to view behaviors, individuals, or groups of people. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. And in fact, according to evolutionary scientists, diversity and complexity is the only way that organisms get strong and survive.

One of the significant criticisms aimed at Facebook is that the administrators were aware of research showing that adolescent girls are often harmed by images of other girls and women on the site, but did not take action to try to mitigate these effects. This is a painful reality for our culture generally, and according to this research, Facebook’s failing may have been particularly egregious. Still, as researcher Danah Boyd found in her own studies of adolescents, social media is simply one more platform on which many normal developmental dynamics and conflicts play out. While Facebook and Instagram do promote unrealistic body images, many advertisers and more traditional media forms have been doing the same thing for decades — way before the rise of social media.

The decision to leave Facebook is as complicated as the decision to end a longterm friendship — again, the irony isn’t lost. And certainly, many people worry that leaving the site will damage or even sever a key social connective tissue.

But separating from these connections isn’t all that’s going on here. Facebook itself is like an old friend, someone who knows us well and reminds us of past events in our lives. “It the history of my last 15 years,” said one ex-Facebook user. “It feels like major a loss not to have that available anymore.”

Adding to the confusion, there is evidence that despite the problems associated with the social media giant, for many teens it has also been a tool for connecting in positive ways. For example, during the pandemic, researchers found, Facebook helped lonely teens stay in touch with peers.

So do you stay on Facebook because it feels like an important part of your life? Or do you leave because it feels like it’s feeding something harmful in our society?

Saying goodbye to an old friend, even one who has disappointed and angered you over and over, is difficult. But on the other hand, leaving a painful, hurtful relationship can sometimes be incredibly freeing. “I don’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I would,” said a recent Facebook “defriender.”

Whether it’s a relationship, a job, a church group or a political party, the decision to leave something you once found important — and even loved — will always be difficult. But either way, it’s healthier and, ultimately, more productive to remember the reasons you were attached even while you also remember the reasons for leaving.