People are rightly angry that a company they trusted with some of their most personal data had breached that trust — and Facebook’s response so far has only upped that rage. There are growing calls for a boycott of the platform, including the #DeleteFacebook Twitter movement.
But the call to simply abandon Facebook leans on the assumption that disentangling yourself after years of engagement is a simple task. For many users — myself included — it isn’t. And suggestions that Twitter, the phone, or email could serve as an appropriate replacement to the expansive social network ring hollow.
Because Facebook has become central to so many people’s lives, simply walking away is a privilege not everyone can afford. “For many people, Facebook is an important gateway to the internet. In fact, it is the only version of the internet that some know,” wrote Safiya Noble, the author of Algorithms of Oppression. “It plays a central role in communicating, creating community, and participating in society online.”
There is absolutely a case to be made for turning the platform into a ghost town. The company has wreaked havoc on our politics and media and has been an outright poisonous presence in some countries, such as Myanmar, where it has been credibly accused of contributing to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. And there’s an increasing amount of research to suggest that Facebook — as well as other social media — makes people depressed and lonely.
I’ve been a vocal detractor of Facebook for years. I’ve criticized its content policies and how they contribute to the sexualization of women’s bodies. I’ve lambasted its insistence on forcing users to identify with their “authentic” names, and gone after its executives for promoting a culture of snitching. I believe that the company needs to make serious changes or face inevitable regulation. And yet, I remain on Facebook, and I understand those who find that leaving isn’t a viable solution.
While Facebook is used first and foremost for entertainment and easy distraction, it also serves more serious purposes. When a friend was diagnosed with a rare chronic illness, she found Facebook was one of the only places where a support community of others with her illness existed. Like me, she finds it troubling that Facebook requires its users to log in with their “authentic name,” so she set up a second profile to interact with that group, so as not to risk outing herself to friends or employers (or insurance companies). Still, she says, the support she receives there is invaluable, and convincing others to move has proven difficult.
In other parts of the world, the stakes may be even higher. In some countries, Facebook is said to be seen as the internet, and in places where Facebook offers Free Basics, people spend more time on the platform than they do in any other part of the web. In low-income countries, Facebook has made it possible for small business owners to maintain an easily accessible web presence, and in communities where extended families are split across borders and diasporas, Facebook (and WhatsApp, which it owns) has made group conversations cheap and seamless.
So what can you do? If you can’t walk away — or don’t want to walk away — from the networks we’ve built, what are your options?
First, everyone can take basic steps to protect their privacy. Facebook offers “Privacy Checkup,” a feature designed to help users adjust their settings to knock off unwanted third-party apps, make changes to who can see their photos and other information, and even change the privacy settings of past content in one fell swoop. It’s an easy step, but it doesn’t go far enough, and users should know that there are other, less obvious settings they can change as well, including the ability to opt out of API sharing entirely.
Second, if you want things to change you need to be willing to agitate for it. You can put pressure on the company, its advertisers and shareholders to put more effective privacy measures in place. You can advocate for government regulation. And, of course, you can choose to vote with your feet by moving to another platform and leaving Facebook behind.
Finally, this is an excellent time build awareness. Rather than advocate for “privacy veganism” (a term coined by my colleague Eva Galperin), you can meet people where they are and help them understand the impact of sharing so much of themselves with an unscrupulous megacorporation.
Facebook and a number of other platforms prompt and encourage us to share as much as we can, but we have other choices: We can choose to share our thoughts and images in more private spaces, we can ask for consent from our friends (whether they’re on the platform or not) before posting group photos, and we can mark down events we find on our personal calendars rather than RSVP'ing on Facebook itself.
An easy way to think about this — and to talk about it — is that it’s time to return to the Facebook of 2010. Remember that? You probably enjoyed Facebook just as much back then, connecting with friends old and new, posting on walls, sending the occasional poke or sharing a random dog photo. What you weren’t doing was scrolling for hours a day through a News Feed populated with endless viral videos and constant requests to hit that Like button.
You can go back to 2010 Facebook whenever you want, and in the process you can diversify your app diet, get your news and videos from other places, and still enjoy the bits of Facebook that got you hooked in the first place.
You can also start using messaging apps that are better and more secure than Messenger, like Signal or Wire. And you can indeed choose to call or text friends when they share important news, instead of commenting on their walls. Choosing to cut back on what we share — and how much time we spend on the platform — is undoubtedly a healthy choice.
And it’s achievable, right now. Standing up to Facebook isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Leave if you want, but if you don’t, there’s a lot you can do beginning today to protect your privacy and the privacy of the people you care about.
Jillian York is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Her work focuses on state and corporate censorship.