Delete Facebook

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in XY Magazine on 1 September 2018


THESE NON-STOP REVELATIONS that Facebook sold, released, or lost control of its data, have left many people wondering if they can leave the platform and still survive. After all, Facebook’s become the principal social and communications platform for hundreds of millions of people.

Well I’m here to tell you: you can not only get through it, but your life and the lives of everyone you know will get better.

I left Facebook in 2013, declaring on CNN that we are not the customers, we are the product. And now we have proof that this is true. Facebook was not breached or hacked by Cambridge Analytica. The Facebook platform was doing exactly what it was programmed to do–harvest our data, identify our psychological triggers, and then manipulate our behavior.

And as users are finally realizing, neither Facebook nor the “compliance professionals” purchasing our data from them care about our secrets or our sex lives. They care only about our raw data, from which they can infer our psychological vulnerabilities. So it’s not simply that they can get us to buy a particular product or vote for one candidate or another. It’s that the techniques they’re using intentionally bypass our higher brain functions. They use imagery and language specifically designed to evade our logic and empathy and go straight to our reptilian survival instincts.

Our neuroses–the ones that they can figure out with big data–our neuroses are like blind spots. And once identified by the social-media psychologists, they become access panels to the more impulsive parts of our brains. Facebook targets and triggers us through terror.

FACEBOOK’S techniques don’t appeal to our logic or our empathy, but to our deepest-held fears. The tactics are aimed directly at our brain stems–the parts of our brain that act and think like reptiles. Fight or flight. Kill or be killed.

And we’ve seen the impact of this technology on our social and political discourse. You know, we may have real things to be angry about, but when these are the only stimuli delivered by our social media, we end up living in a state of perpetual paranoia and rage. No. It’s not fun. And it’s also a tremendous public health hazard and a threat to democracy. Democracy requires an informed, thinking public.

So whether you want to be a more responsible citizen, or simply a happier person, you owe it to yourself to get off Facebook any way you can. And I’m here to tell you: you can do it. You’re going to be okay. It’s not so bad. In fact, it’s better.

If Facebook’s the only way your relatives can let you interact with them, then that’s already a problem. I guess accepting this restriction on your relationships is acquiescing to a system that values pings more than contact. And you can still email, Skype, FaceTime, share photos through web pages, use iCloud, photostreams, Google groups, live hangouts…. If the teenagers in your life can’t reach you through social media, then they’ll ultimately use it less. And the less they use social media, the less they’re likely to commit suicide–another great ancillary benefit of getting off Facebook. And a lot of them only get drawn in so they can reach you!

Every minute off Facebook is a minute you can choose to spend with another person, forging psychologically healthy relationships, instead of submitting to a company that is actively trying to undermine them. And best of all, you get to live life free of the constant psychological abuse inflicted by companies who mean to undermine your social relationships, and governments who mean to undermine your faith in democracy–in our government, in human nature.

You get to leave the dark place, and step back into the light of day.

A number of my peers have been arguing in the New York Times and elsewhere that this is an elitist argument–that there are people in developing nations for whom Facebook is their main connection with the internet. It’s their access. So by leaving Facebook, we leave them behind in a space even more dominated by those who would do them harm. But to me, that’s a bit like arguing we should stay in a crack house because once we leave, the other addicts will be subjected to even worse abuse by the people who run the crack house.

By spending time on Facebook, though, we surrender our cognitive processes to Facebook’s sci-ops engineers. We don’t become more empathetic to the concerns of those less fortunate than ourselves–we become more fearful, less responsive and more impulsive. No, the truly elitist argument is the one I heard coming from a graduate student last month. Not one of my media masters students at Queens CUNY, thank god, but an Ivy-League grad student. She asked our panel of professors: “Why should I care if Facebook has my data? I’ve got nothing to hide, why do we have to care about privacy at all?”

Well good for you if you don’t care about Facebook’s algorithms knowing about your sex life or health history. But that’s not the real threat here anyway. No one’s mining for details about you, in order to blackmail you into submission. That’s the great fiction of social media: that you matter as a person. You don’t. The platform doesn’t care about you. It only cares about your data points, your metadata, from which they can construct a psychological profile and then manipulate your behavior. They’ve been using and selling even the stuff you thought you were sharing confidentially with your friends, in order to identify your neuroses and points of psychological vulnerability, and then leverage those against you.

To ask, “why should I even care?,” is the true luxury of privilege. Social-media manipulation may erode the national conversation, or put us into fearful corners, or polarize us politically and socially, but the stakes are rarely personal. If you’re rich, the stakes generally don’t matter anyway: who’s president, what country is winning what war, what’s being done to convicts or poor people. Teens who use social media have higher suicide rates, but if you’re not a teen, maybe you don’t care about that either.

Where data harvesting matters most is when it’s used against the economically disadvantaged. It’s not only in China that social media data’s used to evaluate credit-worthiness, and immigration status. By normalizing the harvesting of data, those of us with little to fear imperil those who are most vulnerable. Of course, the more we subject ourselves to Facebook’s manipulations, the more alienated we’ll become from those people of other colors and socioeconomic backgrounds, and less obligated we’ll feel to take a stand on their behalf.

Plus, Facebook’s centrality to the global discourse is not a done deal. I don’t accept them as the salvation of our planet. I think there are forces for connection and good that are bigger and better than Facebook. Facebook is just a website. There’s still a whole internet out there we could use for something better. By staying, and helping Facebook maintain its monopoly, I’m not providing access for the people of developing nations. I’m simply making it all the more necessary for them to submit to Western marketing, manipulation, and mind control. I get to feed my addiction to social media under the pretense that I’m doing it for someone else’s benefit.

You really want to do something for someone else’s benefit? Help them escape the tyranny of a social-media platform that undermines their chance of thinking clearly, connecting with others, enacting democracy, achieving social justice, or fighting tyranny.

Delete Facebook. Find the others.