Coronavirus outbreak brings back people who ran away from Facebook

#DeleteFacebook goes out the door when you're social distancing.

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie award for consumer analysis
Queenie Wong
5 min read

Facebook users who left the social network are flocking back because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Image by Pixabay; Illustration by CNET

Fed up with seeing political lies on social media, Scott Erickson deleted his Facebook account last year as the US headed into the presidential primary season. Leaving the world's largest social network, he thought, would help ease his mind.

But Erickson's Facebook hiatus came to an end earlier this month when the 47-year-old technical account manager developed a fever and cough, symptoms associated with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. After self-isolating as a precaution, Erickson created a new Facebook account to connect with extended family.

"It really showed me that for a lot of people, Facebook is the only way they know how to stay in touch with people," said Erickson, who lives in Texas. "So now I'm using it very resentfully."

Erickson is far from the only Facebook quitter to reluctantly return amid the coronavirus pandemic. As more states issue orders for residents to stay at home as much as possible, people who fled Facebook have begrudgingly boomeranged back to the social media giant. Some have taken to social media rival Twitter to announce their U-turns:

Calls to leave Facebook began percolating two years ago, as more people grew concerned about the social network's protection of their privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which millions of users' data was scraped without their knowledge, for political campaigns. In a tweet that went viral, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton urged his more than 44,000 followers to #DeleteFacebook -- a hashtag that's still used on Twitter -- to encourage Facebook users to cleanse themselves of the social network. (Facebook owns WhatsApp.)

The #DeleteFacebook movement, as it came to be known, gained supporters like Erickson, who was tired of the political disinformation that flows through the site. Still others left because of the ties between excessive social media use and mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Some simply said they didn't find it useful. 

Now some of Facebook's harshest critics are rushing back because friends and family they can no longer see in person remain active on the social network. 

"For most of us, social media is a primary source of rapidly delivered news, updates from friends and a general method of connecting to the world," said Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, who wrote a book about the addictive nature of technology. "This is a unique situation," he said of the pandemic, "the fear of missing out on updates might be more extreme than it usually is."

It's hard to quantify how many people have returned to Facebook after dropping off the platform. Facebook didn't respond to a request for information on how many users have rejoined the social network since the coronavirus outbreak began. Usage data, however, suggests the social network and its services, including Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, have seen a surge in traffic since the virus outbreak started. Facebook Messenger has seen a week-over-week spike of roughly 70% in the number of people participating in group video calls. WhatsApp voice and video calls have more than doubled year-over-year in places hit hard by the virus, such as Italy.

Tiffany Briggs, a 42-year-old telecommunications supervisor in New York, returned to Facebook because one of her friends told her about a local COVID-19 group with more than 700 members who volunteer to assist each other during the pandemic. Through the Facebook group, Briggs has helped people get items they need, such as cat food and cat litter, and picked up homework for kids. 

Briggs originally joined Facebook in 2007 but deleted her account two years ago to improve her mental health. Her family was posting anti-immigrant remarks that angered her every time she read them on Facebook. She also became annoyed by the "fakeness" of posts on the social network, which seemed like highlight reels of people's lives. 

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Briggs attempted a Facebook comeback last year to share vacation photos with her family. But it didn't stick, and she quickly deactivated her new account. As coronavirus headlines swirled this month, however, she reactivated it. 

"I hate the platform, but I feel like I have no choice," Briggs said. "If I can help that one small group of people, that's really all I care about."

Facebook isn't the only social network people are flocking back to after the coronavirus outbreak.

Annemarie Navar-Gill, an assistant professor of communication and theatre arts at Old Dominion University in Virginia, deactivated her Instagram account about two years ago. It was never her favorite social media platform. Facebook-owned Instagram wasn't professionally useful, and she didn't have an interest in following celebrities.

Her opinion changed after the coronavirus outbreak. Navar-Gill, 32, said she returned to Instagram last week to see how people were using the social network to connect with strangers. One Instagram account, called loveisquarantine, chronicles a project where people match up with strangers through a Google spreadsheet and date them by calling them on the phone. The experiment plays off Love Is Blind, a reality TV show on Netflix in which single people get engaged without ever seeing their partner face-to-face.

"I'm just observing this from an academic perspective because this phenomenon of how the internet connects us to strangers was very much something that we're afraid of," Navar-Gill said. "It's the center of a lot of moral panics about the internet."

Erickson, the Texas account manager, joined Facebook shortly after the social network opened membership to the public in September 2006. But when he found out a Black Lives Matter event he'd shared had actually been created by Russian trolls, Erickson started to reconsider his use. He didn't want to be part of another country's efforts to sow discord among Americans, particularly during an election. He was tired of seeing "poorly informed" political information shared by family members.

"I didn't want people who I know and love to think that I viewed Facebook as a cool thing to use in an election year," Erickson said. "I wanted them to view it as something that was, frankly, dangerous."

The coronavirus outbreak lured Erickson back, though he now limits his use of Facebook. He has 97 friends on the social network, about a tenth of the roughly 1,000 people he'd friended when he first joined. He tries to stay away from a lot of political chatter, a tough feat during an election year. And though he lost a lot of connections during his Facebook absence, it was "the best feeling in the world" not having to "hear the opinion of every person" he'd known since high school. 

"Yup it's me," Erickson's Facebook profile intro reads. "I still don't like facebook but I want to stay in touch with you suckers who can't quit."

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