Nancy Boucher has updated the status of her relationship with Facebook: It’s complicated.

The teacher from South Portland feels like Facebook has allowed her to forge some deep connections with people, plan events and stay involved with her favorite activities. She’s in a running group and an arm wrestling group on the platform. But she loathes the site’s commercialism and incendiary content, including racist remarks and content damaging to the self-esteem of young women.

Many Facebook and Instagram users across Maine and the nation are reconsidering their use of the social media platforms, owned by the same company, after a whistle-blower told Congress last week that company executives know about the harm the services can cause but have chosen at times not to stop it. Those dangerous effects include inciting ethnic violence and worsening body-image issues and suicidal thoughts among teenage girls. While some say the allegations have led them to wean off the sites, others say the services provide business and social connections that are too crucial to cut, even though they’re put off by the company’s alleged practices of putting profit over people’s safety.

Boucher says she probably will delete her Facebook account in November, after she uses it one final time to set up a cook-off she’s been running for 10 years. But the decision is not easy, as she still feels the platform has incredible power to connect people and spread information and ideas.

“It really makes me sad, because I think it has value. It has the power to bring us together,” said Boucher, 33, who teaches English-language learners in Lewiston. “It’s been used in some countries to help promote free speech. It’s great when it brings people together for justice, but it also brings out hate in people. I’m not sure how to reconcile that.”

It’s also played a role in promoting violence in Ethiopia and genocide in Myanmar, whistle-blower Frances Haugen said in her testimony Tuesday. Her wide-ranging allegations, coupled with an hours-long Facebook and Instagram outage on Monday, helped reveal both the harm the platforms enable and our dependence on them. Small-business owners across Maine rely on Facebook and Instagram accounts as a free way to attract customers and provide important information about hours, directions or menu items. Many people use the apps to stay connected with work, school or social groups, including sports teams. Others have to be on Facebook or Instagram as part of their job, either to connect with people or promote their work.

Dennis Ross, 63, of Portland would like to see the spread of hate speech on Facebook stopped, but he says his use of both Facebook and Instagram are crucial to the success of his Portland radio station, WJZP. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Haugen, a former product manager for Facebook, in her testimony Tuesday accused the company of actions that knowingly helped spread misinformation or harmful content, backed up by tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit. She had first shared the documents with The Wall Street Journal, which used them as the basis for its Facebook Files investigative series. But her identity was not revealed until Oct. 3, by The Wall Street Journal and during an interview she gave which aired that evening on “60 Minutes.”

Haugen’s accusations include that the company failed to make changes after internal research revealed that Instagram was worsening body image issues among teenagers and young women and that Facebook amplifies hate and political unrest, but the company has chosen to hide its research on that topic.

She also told members of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection that Facebook did not have “the capacity” to stop the spread of false information about COVID-19 vaccines. Republican and Democratic members of Congress at the hearing said federal action was needed to address some of the accusations, especially about the harm being caused to teenagers. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a public statement that Haugen’s testimony was “not true.” Zuckerberg said the company’s work and motives had been mischaracterized in media reports and in Haugen’s testimony and that the company would continue its research into the potential harm social media can cause.

For many people, Haugen’s accusations merely reinforce their own misgivings about the power of Facebook and Instagram and the problems they can create.

“When I heard (the accusations) I was not surprised at all. It makes total sense to me that a big corporation would do what they can to try to get more money,” said Sara Carlson, 17, of Cumberland. “I’m really disappointed, though, in what they’ve done. ”

Carlson says she’s grown up using Instagram, and uses it mostly to share moments and milestones with friends and to promote causes she supports. But she thinks she may now begin trying to wean her way off of it. She belongs to a statewide group called Hardy Girls Healthy Women, which has a mission of empowering girls and gender-expansive youth, so she is especially troubled about the fact that Instagram and other social media contribute to body insecurity, depression, anxiety and eating disorders and that the company allegedly hasn’t done much to change that.

“It’s complicated, because (Instagram) can be used for activism, but I don’t know if I want to support some of the things they do,” Carlson said.

Calle Lamarche, 16, of North Yarmouth is also a member of Hardy Girls Healthy Women and shares Carlson’s concerns about Instagram’s potential harm to women and girls. She said she would definitely join a widespread boycott of Instagram or Facebook – she uses the latter mainly to check her swim team schedule and communicate with out-of-state relatives – if one was organized as a protest. But she’s not sure if quitting the platforms on her own would effect change.

“Mental health-wise, it would probably be a good idea. I will probably work on using it less,” Lamarche said.

Calle Lamarche, 16, of North Yarmouth said she would join boycotts of Facebook and Instagram, but is not sure quitting on her own would make a difference. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

The accusations of Facebook and Instagram executives turning a blind eye to harm caused by their platforms is especially problematic for business owners who rely on social media and feel they can’t just stop using those platforms. Dennis Ross, founder and president of Portland radio station WJZP (107.9 FM), says both platforms are crucial to his ability to spread awareness of his small nonprofit station. People can listen directly to his station through Facebook, allowing people anywhere access to its programming. Ross also says the platforms help him spread the station’s mission, which includes connecting the area’s Black community and promoting its music and culture. Ross is active in the business group Black Owned Maine.

While Ross deplores the hate speech enabled by the platforms, as a businessman he doesn’t like to see too much government interference in free enterprise. He’ll continue to use both platforms because he feels he has to, for his business, but hopes that a combination of self-control on the part of users and some content regulation by the government will bring improvements.

“I use them an awful lot for education and for promoting the station, even though I don’t agree with their practices,” said Ross, 63, of Portland. “I understand wanting to make profits. But I feel they’re being greedy. They could make enough money and still do things the right way. They’ve basically got a monopoly.”

Michaela McVetty, owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli in Portland’s Monument Square, says she’s seen firsthand the hurtful impact images and content on Instagram can have, including on young women who have worked at her restaurant over the years. But she needs to continue advertising her restaurant on Facebook and Instagram because both draw customers for her, probably more than her website. She says social media feels more personal to people than a website, and she regularly gets comments and questions from customers on both platforms.

“I worry about girls looking at these posts and thinking they have to be skinny, or worry they don’t have the perfect life or the perfect boyfriend,” said McVetty, 30. “Eventually, I’d like to live in a world where I could delete them entirely, but for now, I have to keep using them.”

Wendy Decker, a reflexologist from Bath, says she feels “stuck” in her relationship with Facebook. She joined a few years ago but gets very little benefit out of it. She would quit entirely except for the fact that she’s on the board of the Reflexology Association of America and has been tasked with running the group’s Facebook page. When she’s on Facebook to work on that page, she gets “sucked in” to looking at posts and political discussions, and wishes she could do a better job ignoring them.

She said she does find the recent allegations about Instagram and its effect on young women concerning, especially since she has granddaughters who use it. She also uses Instagram for her quilting hobby, to share quilting information and follow other quilters, and will continue to do so. But she said she’d quit Facebook if not for her obligation to her professional peers.

“I’ve wanted to get out of Facebook for the last two years. I’ve become exhausted from the constant battles of opinion,” said Decker, 66. “If I wasn’t the only person managing our Facebook page, I’d be out of there.”

Marianne Bowen of Topsham gave up Facebook several years ago and never looked back. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Katelyn Ordway of Sanford runs two Facebook pages for a photographer, so her livelihood relies on the platforms. But she also has two children under age 3. Based on what she knows about Facebook and Instagram and what she’s learned recently, she will try to keep both of her children from using those platforms “for a long time.”

“I’ve read about how they just cause more hate and anger. I don’t want my kids exposed to so much hate and anger,” said Ordway, 30. “If I can help it, they won’t be having any social media for a long time. Then I’d want the password.”

For people considering kicking Facebook or Instagram cold turkey, it can be done, though it might take some willpower and a job that doesn’t involve social media.

Marianne Bowen of Topsham quit Facebook in 2018 and has not looked back. She works for online retailer Wayfair and doesn’t need to be on Facebook for her job. She used it mostly to stay connected with people and liked catching up with former high school classmates. But she found that, more and more, she was checking the app and being drawn into posts. After a while she decided it was just “a big waste of time.”

“I was reading posts mostly from bored people recycling jokes and information,” said Bowen, 59. She said, since quitting Facebook, she spends more time outside, taking walks, and talking to friends, former classmates and family on the phone – voice to voice. “I realized that when I had an hour to spare, instead of going on Facebook, I’d rather be doing something or engaging with someone.”

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