My breaking point came over the summer of 2018. A series of events happened that made me realize I could not morally justify being on Facebook any longer:
- The Cambridge Analytica scandal and realizing Facebook’s role in eroding democracies.
- Learning that the massacre of the Rohingya people was fueled and encouraged by fake news on Facebook and Facebook’s inadequate response to genocide.
- Facebook refused to take down videos of child abuse even after they were reported multiple times.
I don’t know about you, but when child abuse, genocide and upending democracies are the side-effects of a company’s business model, I can’t continue to engage with that company if I want to sleep at night. The only way to take a stand against Facebook was to stop giving them the one thing they need to survive – personal data and information.
I admit that even knowing these disturbing truths about Facebook, it wasn’t easy to leave. I did not immediately jump on the #deletefacebook trend after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Deleting Facebook would feel like deleting my life. All my friends and family are there. At least a decade of my life is housed there. I promote my business and my writing there. Let’s say I had an intense case of FOMO (fear of missing out) that kept me clinging to Facebook even though some of their practices made me literally sick to my stomach.
For me, leaving Facebook started with a baby step. I deleted the app from my phone. I assumed my productivity would improve once I stopped checking Facebook notifications hundreds of times per day, and it did. What I didn’t expect was how much better I felt mentally. I didn’t realize how stressful it was to be constantly looking at angry banter or memes meant to make me feel outrage at one thing or another. But not viewing negative news, outraged posts and angry attacks across people’s pages was like lifting an iron blanket off my psyche. I slept better at night. I was less agitated during the day, and I started being a kinder person.
Oh sure, there were some fun times on Facebook and some funny videos and memes that made me laugh. (I will always be grateful for the “If Google was a Guy” video series.) But I didn’t realize the mental toll all the bad was taking on me. So, I took the next step and de-activated my account. De-activation is the pre-#deletefacebook step. You get to try out life without Facebook, but you have the safety net that all your data is still there if you want to reactivate the account.
I changed my Facebook status to let everyone know I would be leaving Facebook on a specific date. I gave reminders and countdowns to the final day. During that time, I downloaded all my Facebook data so I wouldn’t lose all the photos and videos I had posted over the years.
On D-Day, I de-activated my Facebook account. That’s when things got interesting. There are numerous apps that I thought I had disconnected from Facebook, but apparently, they don’t really disconnect. When I signed onto my Airbnb app, I immediately got a notice from Facebook that I had reactivated my account. Whoa! I didn’t mean to do that. Airbnb did it for me. So, I had to re-do the disconnection and in the end, create a new ID for Airbnb to fully disconnect from Facebook. To this day, I can’t use Airbnb without it pushing me to re-connect with Facebook.
Over the past couple of years, I’d noticed that I could no longer sit and write for extended periods of time, which is concerning since writing is my profession. I was constantly distracted by my phone or with my Facebook page online. After being off Facebook for a week, I was able to concentrate for more extended periods. Sure, it took time for my brain to accept that no one was “liking” me online or “commenting” on something witty and brilliant I said. In fact, no one would know the genius of my Facebook posts ever again.
Which brings me to the other thing I had to face – narcissism. I used to take selfies and post pictures of my every move. Why? Was I really delusional enough to believe everyone really wanted that much information on my daily life, or let’s face it, my fake daily life because we all know Facebook is really Fakebook. Only the good pictures get posted.
Rest assured, people won’t forget you if you’re not on social media. I may not see updates every day, but my friends and I have returned to the old-fashioned way of communicating. We speak on text or pick up the phone and call each other. I haven’t missed any important news. I have not lost touch with friends and family. In fact, people proactively schedule lunches or dinners with me now, which I’d much prefer to a Facebook post.
Honestly, I was surprised to find that I haven’t been even tempted to go back on Facebook. In September, when I heard of the latest Facebook data breach, I was relieved that I’d left the platform. In November, when I learned of a child bride being auctioned on Facebook, I was proud to not be supporting a site where such hideous activities could take place. During the mid-term elections, I couldn’t have been happier to be off Facebook. All that stress of the election season is mostly brought on by social media spats. I missed all of it. Instead of reading memes and posts, I took the time to research the candidates and measures. I used Ballotpedia to get an overview of all the ballot measures as well as the candidates. I haven’t had such a stress-free election cycle in a long time.
Just last month, I read about another new side-effect of the Facebook business (and Google) – the AI-generated deepfake porn which takes photos from Facebook or Google and generates a very realistic porn video with your face on some actor’s body. The creators then blackmail you for money by threatening to send it to your family, friends, employers. But I suspect there will be new applications for deepfake videos, such as political candidates creating fake videos of their opponents saying hideous things or deepfake videos of people supposedly committing crimes. Soon, the truth will be something we used to know, but can never quite capture anymore, thanks to Facebook and Google.
I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m not still being tracked. That ship has sailed. Facebook uses shadow profiles to collect data on users without their permission. That means Facebook could still get my personal information through my friends without me even having a Facebook account. Even if we put in GDPR-like rules that say we have the right to be forgotten, the technology is not that simple. You can’t take back algorithms that have already incorporated your behavioral data. The times I uploaded my pictures and tagged them allowed Amazon, Facebook and Google to build facial recognition algorithms that have been sold to governments, retailers, law enforcement and who knows who else. I can’t undo that algorithm. But I can make it hard for Facebook and Google to learn new things about me and trade on that information.
Don’t get me wrong. I value technology. I work in the technology industry. Tech has done a lot of good. But the bad goes completely unchecked. In no other industry are companies given a free pass to do whatever they want without consequence or oversight. If a terrorist blows up a plane, was it the airline’s fault? The terrorist did it, after all. That’s Facebook’s argument. They didn’t sell a human being on their platform. Some evil person did, so it’s not their fault. But in the airplane scenario, the airline must take measures to ensure that plane is safe or go out of business. When it comes to Facebook and the tech giants in general, there is no accountability for the damage their products cause. It’s high time the tech industry disrupted itself and incorporated moral intelligence into its technology design thinking. But I’m not holding my breath.
So here is my New Year’s challenge to you. Try quitting Facebook. Delete the app from your phone. Then, de-activate your account. See what your life is like without it for just two weeks. Like any new diet or exercise regimen, there’s an adjustment period but, in the end, you’ll feel healthier and stronger. Ask your closest friends to join you on a safe platform like Idka where there are no bots, trolls or ads collecting and reselling your information. If your life doesn’t improve without Facebook, reactivate your account. But I think you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel.
If enough of us take this challenge, maybe Facebook will put as much development resources into fixing its platform as it did when it created a privacy gulping beast. Until then, I will vigilantly protect my identity online by using encrypted products like Duckduckgo (a replacement for Chrome) and Idka.