Everyone should stop Facebook. Everyone is not going to stop using Facebook this week. That’s OK. There’s a middle ground between deleting your account forever and between spending all of your waking, earthly hours refreshing your Facebook feed. And we should be telling our relatives and friends about that middle ground, instead of telling them they have to stop using Facebook right away.  We can counter the sense of helplessness that many people feel about their relationship to Facebook and to other social media platforms – but we’re going to need to do it in an incremental, careful way. 

You’re reading this and you don’t live under a rock, so you’re probably very much aware that Facebook is under an immense amount of heat right now. Last weekend, the world found out that the eminently-creepy (albeit over-hyped) Cambridge Analytica voter profiling company scraped 50 million Facebook users profiles, information that they used to on behalf of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It was the latest in a year and a half long succession of failures and embarrassments for Facebook, from their widely derided failure to do something about Russian bots to their ham-fisted attempts at fighting fake news to their disturbing treatment of their underpaid moderators.

Facebook seemed invulnerable for a very long time, but this latest scandal, on top of all the others, actually seems to have wounded it: Facebook’s stock valued dropped by as much as 8 percent in the US and the UK, and Mark Zuckerberg had lost already $9 billion of his net worth by Tuesday. The leviathan has been hit, there’s blood in the water, and it’s easy for us privacy paranoiacs to feel like Captain Ahab.  For the first time that we can remember, there’s an opportunity to take Facebook down, or at least to weaken it by reducing its user base. 

“You’ve got to delete your Facebook profile, it’s the only way!” we tell our friends and relatives, waving around our harpoons. Whereupon our friends and relatives smile (so as not to provoke us) and back away. They don’t want to delete Facebook entirely, or maybe they can’t due to their job, or because it’s the only way to communicate with their families. It’s not like it matters, they think. Facebook already has all my information. 

The Captain Ahab approach is not a good way to get people to alter their social media habits, and it’s not a good way to convince people to better protect their privacy from companies like Facebook. When we get all Captain Ahab, we’re forgetting some important realities about human beings and how most human beings feel about Facebook. 

 

“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!

First: we forget that most people don’t know much about how their Facebook data is used and abused. Endless news stories about the evils of Facebook may fill them with unease and distrust, but they’re not getting much good information on what to do about it.   A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 47% of Americans lacked confidence in their knowledge of what companies actually do with their personal data.  This 2016 survey from the UK found that while 74% of Internet users believed that they adequately protected their online data, only 28% of respondents had actually turned off location tracking on the platforms they use, and only 31% had changed their social media privacy settings. This confusion is  in part because Facebook and other social media companies have done a bang-up job of obfuscating what they’re up to: another recent study found that Facebook’s privacy policy became much less transparent and much harder for mere mortals to understand in the decade from 2005 to 2015. 

Your conflicted Facebook-using friends and relations are living in what frustrated security researchers call the “privacy paradox”: most people will swear up and down that privacy is important to them, and then will continue to share their personal information widely on the Internet. This is not because they are stupid.  It is because they believe that they live in a dark, howling Internet panopticon from which they cannot escape. (I’m exaggerating, but only kinda). This 2016 focus-group study found that young people were aware of the risks of sharing their information online. They just didn’t think they could do anything about those risks: they felt that “privacy violations are inevitable and opting out is not an option.” They’ve  fallen prey to privacy cynicism, which is defined rather succinctly by these researchers as ” an attitude of uncertainty, powerlessness and mistrust towards the handling of personal data by online services, rendering privacy protection behavior subjectively futile.” 

I met a traveler in an antique…look, you get it, hint hint.

Many people also feel powerless because they think Facebook is unkillable. The average person viewed Facebook as a doofy college-kid rumor service back in 2007: now, most see it as a bit like an unstoppable, inescapable international hive-mind. I’m sure Facebook would be just fine with being viewed sometime decades hence as an inscrutable but appeasable deity: provide your data tribute, and the crops will flourish! Withold your tribute and face its wrath! Facebook knows no past or present or death! 

Thankfully, this is horseshit.

In the last 20 years, we’ve watched former juggernauts like AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, Ask Jeeves, and many many more weaken and die. From one point of view, Facebook is already dying: young people have correctly identified that Facebook is now dominated by their elderly and incoherent relatives, and they’re ditching the platform in droves.  For the first time in a decade, Facebook usage has decreased amongst Americans, dropping from 67% to 62%,  while Google and YouTube usage continues to grow.

These people might be backing away because they’ve lost trust in Facebook. Trust is everything for social media companies like Facebook: people’s willingness to share the data that social companies must feast upon to survive is dependent upon how much they trust the platform not to wantonly abuse it.  A 2017 study from the UK found that only one in four Britons trust social media, and a majority believe that social media companies aren’t adequately regulated. A mere 35 percent of Bay Area residents say that they trust social media companies. A study from October found that while a majority of responders do believe that Facebook’s effect on society is positive overall, they also trusted Facebook the least of the “big five” tech companies (and only 60% knew that Facebook owns Instagram). We can work with this. 

Yep, that’s a hideous dolphin figurine.

Second:  People are absolutely horrible at going cold-turkey at things.  Look, I’ve spent many, many hours of my fleeting and precious life sitting slack-jawed on my couch, refreshing Facebook like a Skinner-box trained rat. I know that it’s fiendishly hard to stop using social media. Some scientists now believe that social media can be the focus of a true psychological addiction, just like World of Warcraft or gambling or collecting hideous dolphin figurines. A PLOS One study found that heavy Internet users exhibit physical “withdrawal” symptoms and anxiety when they suddenly stopped using social media. 

Changing your relationship with the Internet and social media is particularly difficult because they are such fundamental parts of modern life: abstinence isn’t really an option. You can live a normal, productive life without WoW or cigarettes, but it’s just about impossible to live normally without the Internet. It can also be hard to go without Facebook: many people do need it for their jobs, or to stay attached to relatives who may not be as up for getting off Facebook as they are. 

So what can we ask people to do? What are some realistic, relatively easy things that people can do to better protect their privacy? How can people scale back their Facebook usage and the data they share with Facebook, without deleting their profile entirely? Here’s some suggestions. 

  • Figure out the motivation behind your compulsion to use Facebook. “Cyber psychologist” John Suler (what a great job title) suggested this type of scrutiny in a Quartz article: “Is it a need for dependency, to feel important and powerful, to express anger, to release oneself from guilt? In compulsive behaviors, people are expressing such needs but rarely does the activity actually resolve those needs.” If you know why you’re spending hours combing through your colleague’s second-cousin’s dog photos, you’ll have a better sense of what you need to do to stop. You can also try restriction apps, like Self Control – they’ve helped me reduce my own “pigeon pecking at a button” behavior immensely. 
  • Turn off location sharing. I do not use location sharing on any of my devices. There is no good reason for Facebook to know where you are. 
  • Turn off Facebook’s platform feature. This feature is what allows third-party apps and other websites to integrate with Facebook, and it’s also what permits these third-party apps to slurp up lots and lots of your data. Shut that sucker off. No, you won’t be able to play Farmville anymore, you deviant. 
  • Review your third-party app settings. If you don’t want to take the nuclear option of turning off Facebook’s platform –  though you really, really should – you can still review your third party app settings and revoke access to apps you distrust. (Don’t trust any of them). Buzzfeed has a good guide here. You should do this for all the social media sites you use, not just Facebook. 
  • Stop liking things. “Likes” give Facebook useful information on how to advertise to you. Do not do that. 
  • Stop Facebook from tracking you across the Internet. Facebook extensively tracks users, both on the platform and on sites that have a Facebook “like button” – yes, they’re following you even when you aren’t on Facebook itself.  There’s a number of good ways to stop this tracking, on your computer and on your phone: I like the uBlock Origin browser plug-in, and the 1Blocker app for mobile devices. 
  • Lock down your privacy settings. Review your privacy settings at least once a month: Facebook has an infuriating habit of resetting them. 
  • Delete as much information as you can possibly stand from your Facebook profile. Delete as many old posts as you can possibly stand. You can download your Facebook archive if you don’t want to lose those memories entirely. 
  • Facebook targeted ads are majestically creepy, and you should opt out of them right now. You can do this in your Facebook account settings. HowToGeek has a nice guide to opting out of these ads on multiple platforms.
  • Read these other guides to protecting your privacy on Facebook. Here’s a good one from the Guardian. Here’s one from CNBC. Here’s one from Motherboard,

Don’t get me wrong. We do not live in a perfect world. Us Captain Ahabs are not going to convince every Facebook user to rise up and delete their profile as one in a Glorious Attention Revolution, in which Facebook evaporates into a puff of dark and oily mist, and all the Facebook money is redistributed to the world’s privacy-loving children, and Mark Zuckerberg is forced to live in penitent exile in a hole in the forest on a very remote island. We are not going to harpoon this stupid privacy-hating white whale right now. 

What we can do is slowly starve Facebook: by cutting down on our time using Facebook and the amount of information we share with it, we can reduce its ration of nutrient-rich data krill. Facebook’s advertisers are dependent on your attention and knowledge about you, and their job gets a lot harder if you provide less of it. By starving Facebook, we reduce its power over us and its power over our government and over our minds. It’s absolutely true that users can only do so much: we are going to need regulation with teeth to truly loosen Facebook’s grip over our societies. Still, we can help bring about that regulation and help alter how our communities approach Facebook by altering our own behavior and helping others do the same.

I don’t necessarily want Facebook to die (though I’m not sure I’d be very sad). I do want it to be humbled. I want Facebook and its leaders to realize that we do live in a world where actions have consequences, and where the actions of gigantic companies that control mind-exploding quantities of data have some of the most important consequences of all.  We can do our small part to make this happen. In short: Facebook users of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but constant interaction with your racist uncle. 

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