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Facebook has become ghoulish, so I'm taking a break

Credit: AP/Richard Drew

Bored with the pandemic, my neighbors are going all out for Halloween.

One yard is covered with skeletons — pushing their way out of the ground, walking skeleton dogs, driving a carriage pulled by a skeleton horse. In other yards, there are ghosts dancing around trees, and witches gathered around kettles.

It's pretty scary, especially when you're out for a walk at dusk.

But the scariest thing about Halloween this election year is Facebook. It terrifies me every day.

Beloved relatives and old friends are saying false and ghastly things, making it hard to recognize people I thought I knew.

One kindhearted young lady posted something long and weird about how the coin shortage, stimulus checks and pandemic public safety measures are part of a conspiracy to steal our freedom and turn us into communists.

These weren't her own words — she had copied them from somewhere, and was getting "likes" from people I know to be otherwise sentient beings.

Another relative, a poetic man who loves nature, posted a meme blaming the California forest fires on a law protecting owls.

Another relative posted a meme with a picture of a pretty baby that claimed that Kamala Harris was fine with killing infants after their birth.

After the vice presidential debate, a cousin called Harris a "ho," and another agreed and claimed that liberals were overreacting to a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans.

I get on Facebook to look at vacation pictures and see how people's tomato crops are doing, then leave it hyperventilating, fists clenched, heart pounding. If I don't respond to these outrageous posts, I feel bad, but if I do respond, I feel worse because I'm fighting with family.

The scariness is not just coming from the right. Liberal friends also post misleading memes. Many bewail every goofy thing Trump says and then proclaim, "If you support him, you're a moron and can unfriend me now!" Which isn't a great way to win over hearts and minds. One acquaintance said she had "unfriended" 45 people during this election season. Ouch.

I joined Facebook with reluctance 15 years ago, because the newspaper that employed me said it would be good for promoting stories. I was afraid it would kill letter writing and Christmas cards, and make parties duller because the anecdotes and photos had already been shared online. I also feared it would hurt newspapers, by making everyone a publisher.

While all this has proved to be true, Facebook has its merits. I enjoy catching up with college friends who were never good letter writers. I like seeing kids grow and talking about books and movies. We've connected with friends in Ireland and England. Social media has been addictive during the pandemic, because we can't see many people. It's an ersatz social life.

It's ironic that this medium, which started as a dating site intended to bring people together, has become such a big source of misinformation and a means to pull us apart.

This is not an accident. An internal 2018 Facebook report found that the company knew its algorithm cultivated divisiveness and tribalism. Facebook also has admitted that Russian operatives spread false stories on the platform during the 2016 election, and is at it again this year, using fake accounts.

But you can't blame everything on Russia and Mark Zuckerberg, as tempting as that is. Your use of Facebook is a personal choice. Just because trolls and liars lay out trays of poisoned candy doesn't mean you have to eat it.

So what do you do?

When people post bad information, I sometimes respond in public or by private message, pointing out the issue and giving correct sources. But this is starting to feel like a lost cause — like trying to throw all the starfish back into the sea. There's so much junk, and it's depressing to be the Facebook cop.

There's the option of quitting Facebook, which is appealing, but then I'd miss all the baby pictures and marriage and death announcements.

I don't usually unfriend, or unfollow, because I like to see different points of view. And I genuinely like some of these people who right now are imitating the back bumpers of their cars, screaming slogans instead of having real conversations.

Instead, I'm going to take a Facebook break, at least until after the election. Maybe even longer. If you have a baby, send me a snapshot in a Christmas card.

It's not giving up on your family and friends to give up Facebook — it's just stepping away from a party that has gone wrong. Inside, people are screaming, and wearing faces that don't really belong to them.

Outside, you can get a breath of fresh air, look at the moon and take a walk. And maybe you find somebody to talk to, in real life.

Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and the author of "Algren: A Life." This piece was written for the Chicago Tribune.