A Facebook timeout? Some say they need a break

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A Facebook timeout? Some say they need a break

Some members of Facebook Nation are taking time after a contentions election.

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A Facebook timeout? Some say they need a break

Jon Swartz , USA TODAY 9:52 a.m. EST November 17, 2016
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Ben Galbraith plans on staying away from Facebook until 2017.(Photo: Sakshi Verma, for USA TODAY)

SAN FRANCISCO — Some members of Facebook Nation are taking time off from the social network, or leaving it outright, after a contentious election that has left nerves frayed and tempers short.

“I need a breather for my personal sanity,” says Beth Swinson, 40, a stay-at-home mom of four in Charlotte, N.C., who voted for conservative third-party candidate Evan McMullin. Scathing comments from both sides and wide-scale misinformation left her "angry and frustrated." She plans to take a month off from the social network.

“None of it is positive. It’s exhausting, and the election seemed to last forever,” says Donald Trump supporter Lydia Fielder, 49, who manages a social-media platform for paper crafting in Austin. She’s unfollowed all but 50 of her 2,033 Facebook friends.

Lydia Fielder has unfollowed all but 50 of her 2,033

Lydia Fielder has unfollowed all but 50 of her 2,033 Facebook friends. (Photo: Lydia Fielder, for USA TODAY)

Ben Galbraith, a Google executive who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., has vowed to skip Facebook until 2017.

"I'm seeing lots of posts that fill me with anger and require several moments of conscious relaxation to prevent me from writing something that I’ll regret. I’m tired of expending so much mental and emotional energy," he says.

In interviews, Facebook users cited frustration and fatigue over vitriolic political comments from friends and acquaintances, compounded by fake news, news slants and conspiracy theories, as various reasons to take a break.

Scott Clark, 45, a financial adviser in Brewer, Maine, who voted for Trump, says the rancorous discourse left him disappointed with Facebook. “My wife has taken it off her phone and I’ve taken a break,” he says. “Rather than engage in aggressive, heated conversations, I’d rather not use it.”

Any hiatus by a cluster of politics-weary U.S. Facebook users isn't likely to do much to dent Facebook's massive and rapidly growing user base. Of the 1.79 billion users, 88% come from outside the U.S. A year ago, Facebook had 1.55 billion members and 1.35 billion two years ago.

But the anecdotes reflect how Facebook had become synonymous with the election, and how big a role social media played in determining its winners. President-elect Trump has credited his use of Facebook and Twitter with helping him win races where his Democratic rival heavily outspent him. President Obama, a day before the election, blamed social media for deepening political divisions.

Beth Swinson needs a break from Facebook for her "personal

Beth Swinson needs a break from Facebook for her "personal sanity." (Photo: Beth Swinson, for USA TODAY)

The abrupt decision to turn off the social media spigot of news — 62% of U.S. adults get their news from it, says the Pew Research Center — as well other media that covered the polarizing election resembles reactions people have after a car crash or assault.

“It’s almost like a trauma response,” says Dr. Suzanne Wallach, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “This election has prompted a level of denial in people. They feel traumatized and ostracized.”

Facebook says 115.3 million members worldwide generated 716.3 million likes, posts, comments and shares just from election day, Nov. 8. By comparison, it took two weeks for the Summer Olympics to generate double that interaction, or 277 million people to post 1.5 billion likes, posts, comments and shares globally.

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See why these stars decided to taking a break from the social media spotlight. USA TODAY NETWORK

The election, the No. 1 topic of conversation on the social network last year, undoubtedly will be again this year, according to Facebook.

The campaign was all there in Facebook News Feeds every minute of every day for months, the frequently toxic tone a reminder that President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were among the least-popular candidates ever.

"Whether Facebook wants to accept it or not, it became as influential as a TV network or national newspaper," says Drew Margolin, a communication professor at Cornell University. "It can't hide from the influence it has."

Facebook says it does not keep data on unfriending and unfollowing, and it is unaware of any significant migration of members up to and during the presidential election. According to Pew Research, more than half of Facebook users, 53%, say that there is a mix of political views among the people in their networks.

But any diversity may have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of like-minded posts.

Clinton supporters, who had expected a victory, were especially jolted. They say they were misled in their view of the election from the protective cocoon of their like-minded friends and cultural reinforcement.

"I’m realizing now that I was in a bubble — it was an utter shock to realize that so many people don’t share the ideals that were so prevalent in my Facebook feed and my real life social circle, of course," says Colleen Wickwire, 38, a marketing consultant in San Francisco. "It felt like my entire worldview collapsed, and Facebook really contributed to that."

Judi Rosenthal is signing off Facebook for a while.

Judi Rosenthal is signing off Facebook for a while. (Photo: Judi Rosenthal, for USA TODAY)

Whether sports, politics or religion, members have aligned themselves with like-minded people friends, affirming their belief systems and views of the world. But when events collide with that protective view — as it did with Trump's win — it can be jarring and deflating.

After five years of continuous use, Judi Rosenthal, a 44-year-old financial-services consultant in New York, is taking an extended break.

On Monday, Rosenthal posted: “I am signing off facebook for a little while because I really need to focus on my kids and my work. I need to reclaim all the time I have been spending on social media, so I can think of what I want to actually DO about my feelings for my country and the people I want to see served #nomorehate.”

A proliferation of fake news contributed to polarized views of the world. In the weeks leading up to the election, it was a breeding ground for stories that were quickly fact-checked as wrong — but not before they were shared thousands of times. Among the most prominent: Pope Francis' endorsement of Trump.

With criticism mounting, Facebook and Google vowed to pull ads from fake news sites appearing on their platforms. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has acknowledged such news may have influenced Trump’s win, though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the notion as “crazy.”

Backlash over Facebook's surfacing of fabricated news has sent shock waves through its Menlo Park, Calif., campus, prompting an insurgent task force to put an end to the practice.

"I do blame Facebook sand Twitter for this election outcome," says Wickwire. "Trump spread his message through social, and what people see is all very one-sided."

Dessa Brennan has taken time off from Facebook several

Dessa Brennan has taken time off from Facebook several times the past few years. (Photo: Neil Gates, for USA TODAY)

There is a historical precedence for taking a breather. Just ask Carol King, 56, a book editor of London who supported Clinton from afar. "I backed off Facebook during Brexit," she says.

All the name calling and cyberbullying during the most divisive of elections fed into what Obama, the first social media president, calls social media’s corrosive effect on people.

Quitting Facebook is old hat for Dessa Brennan, who's ditched it several times the past few years.

"There is nothing wrong with finding a cohort of like-minded people and connecting and sharing with them, as Facebook enables," she says. "However, when it comes to social and political issues, there is something very scary about only getting feedback from and exposure to people just like you."

Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz @jswartz on Twitter.

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