People are mad at Facebook, and they should be. The company allowed thousands of app developers to extract their data through time-sucking games and pointless online quizzes. And now, thanks to a whistleblower and two stunning reports in the Observer and the New York Times, we know that one of those developers siphoned data on more than 50 million Facebook users and shared them with the Trump campaign’s voter targeting firm, Cambridge Analytica—a company that has bragged it has psychological profiles on 230 million American voters, which it uses to target people online with emotionally precise digital messaging to influence elections. This was the trade-off for logging in to see baby photos?
Whether Cambridge Analytica’s claims are inflated (only about 139 million people voted in the 2016 election, after all) is fair to debate, but the heart of the controversy is harder to dismiss: It now feels time to reconsider Facebook’s bargain. We gave the company the trust it asked for, along with our photos and thoughts and likes and shares. We all knew of course, that this information helped Facebook sell us to advertisers; fewer were probably aware that until a few years ago, app developers also had access to our data, even if it was there in the terms of service. Many certainly didn’t think that those app developers could break those terms and sell that data to whomever they wanted, including political operatives. This may not technically be a “breach” of Facebook’s platform, as the company has stressed. But it is a breach of trust.
Hence: #DeleteFacebook. The Twitter hashtag emerged in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, and began to feel like a movement Tuesday night when WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton—a man whose company was sold to Facebook for $16 billion—tweeted that “It is time.”
The #DeleteFacebook instinct is understandable: Just be done with it. Put your phone to your ear and call people. Use Twitter or Instagram—the latter of which is owned by Facebook, but hey, at the least it’s mostly made up of sun-dappled vacation photos. Write a letter! Talk to neighbors! Whatever you do to fill that void of connection, just walk away from Facebook. If you’re angry about what Facebook is doing, the logic goes, you should take your business elsewhere.
I understand this reaction, but it’s also an unfair one: Deleting Facebook is a privilege. The company has become so good at the many things it does that for lots of people, leaving the service would be a self-harming act. And they deserve better from it, too. Which is why the initial answer to Facebook’s failings shouldn’t be to flee Facebook. We need to demand a better Facebook.
I say all this as someone who basically did walk away from Facebook a few years ago. I still have an account, but I tend to just log on out of curiosity, to report a story, or to write the occasional life update. I don’t have the app on my phone, and I probably log in once a week. But I could afford to leave Facebook—and I did pay a cost for it. I’ve lost touch with friends. I don’t go out much anymore and don’t know when cool things I might like to go to are happening. I’m pretty much not a part of any scene anymore. I don’t know when old friends are in town I’d love to see. Back when I promoted art openings and booked music shows, I always had to make a Facebook event; if I wanted to do so again, I’d still have to go through Facebook. Leaving Facebook was a retreat. But not everyone has the luxury of making one.
Unlike broadcast television and radio, which are also free for the price of having to endure ads, on Facebook you can’t change the channel. If you leave Facebook—which is where your friends, scene, and community already is—you’re alone, because for many people, Facebook is becoming the internet and the internet is becoming Facebook. Your business could have trouble reaching customers; your family might not gather on another social network; no one posts any events anywhere else. All of which means that leaving Facebook simply doesn’t make sense for many people. It’s a network effect, a kind of natural monopoly; migrating to another social network would only work if enough people migrate there, too. In other words, if you want to be a part of any social life or local political conversations or want to promote your work, that simply means being on Facebook.
Even when I left Facebook personally, I didn’t professionally. That’s because media outlets rely on Facebook, too. A huge chunk of the readers of my articles find them through Facebook—and if they like them, they share them on Facebook, so others can read them. But my work depended on Facebook before I was a journalist, too. When I was an activist working to defend online privacy and protect people from digital surveillance at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we would post our blog posts and events … yep, on Facebook. It’s one of the main ways we got the word out. The same was true at previous jobs. Every campaign or issue I was organizing around needed to have a presence on Facebook. Before Facebook, activists sent a lot of emails and made a lot of phone calls. It worked, but as soon as everyone started using Facebook, we had to be there too. Otherwise we risked invisibility.
Likewise, if you have a small business, sometimes a Facebook page is your online presence. If you’re not operating in the service industry or with a storefront, Yelp might not make sense. Facebook, for all its problems, has become a necessary part of life for people, one that they can’t afford to shed, personally or professionally.
And in countries with lower internet adoption, Facebook is often people’s foray onto the whole internet. Facebook’s Free Basics program is operating in 63 countries and municipalities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America—and with that, people get free access to Facebook and a small handful of websites that partner with Facebook, though they can’t access other sites or email. For those users, Facebook is, in a sense, the whole internet.
So sure, delete Facebook if you can. The company may not deserve your trust or your business, and you’ll have more free time to do other, better things. But if you can’t quit, that’s OK, too. That’s why #DeleteFacebook is the wrong message: It frames this as an issue of individual consumer choice. But it’s really a problem in search of a solution either from Facebook itself—changing its service so that its users really can feel safe—or from the government, which may need to step in and blow the whistle on Facebook’s entire business model.
If you think Facebook is worth deleting over its issues, then call your elected official to regulate the company, as well as other companies, like Google, that profit from harvesting our personal details to sell ads tailored to us across the internet. Because it’s becoming clearer that we can’t trust these companies to regulate themselves, and these conversations about user privacy, security, and well-being are incredibly important for those who can’t afford to not be on Facebook.
There’s no comprehensive federal online privacy law in the U.S. Meanwhile, these companies have become some of the most powerful and wealthy entities in the world in large part thanks to having few checks on their data collection. The more we learn about that corporate surveillance, the less simple it is to dismiss it. It was only a few months ago that journalists learned that Facebook let advertisers target people based on hateful keywords, like “Jew haters” and “How to burn Jews.” And Facebook knew that Cambridge Analytica had wrongfully obtained tens of millions of their users’ data without saying a word publicly—and even then, it took two years and teams of journalists to write major stories about how bad the whole situation was to get Facebook to fess up.
So I’m with you, Facebook deleters, but only to a point. Because as constituents of Facebook, we also need to advocate for a safer platform for anyone who’s unable to hop off.
One more thing
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