I was on Facebook for 11 years before I deleted my account. Pulling the plug was hard - Facebook has a compelling value proposition: the ability to stay in touch and up-to-date with you friends (who are almost universally also on Facebook), as well as message and video chat with them - all for free. But there are hidden costs, which I believe massively outweigh the benefits. Because these costs are often hard to detect, I decided to write this detailed post laying it all out. I believe there are six quite distinct reasons why Facebook has a negative impact on its users' lives:
- It's addictive (loss of productivity)
- It's depressing (loss of mental wellbeing)
- It offers a distorted worldview (loss of perspective)
- Facebook appropriates and abuses your personal data (loss of privacy)
- It can be used as a weapon against you by fraudsters, employers and slanderers (loss of reputation)
- Facebook as a machine profits from user generated content, but abdicates responsibility for any negative impact of that content (loss of morality)
There is also a seventh concern, a dark horse which people are far less aware of, and which I will talk more about later: The potential for lock-in (loss of choice)
These are all quite serious issues, and it's worth exploring the arguments in more detail to form a complete understanding of the bargain you are making so that you can 'have an easy way of keeping in touch with people'. But before that, don't all these concerns apply to all social media? Why focus exclusively on Facebook?
All social media are equal, but some are more equal than others
Here's how Facebook compares to other social media against the six concerns above (considering them each in isolation, and ignoring the obvious ownership angle):
You can see that I've scored Facebook and Wechat (which is the Chinese social media app which effectively serves as Facebook, Twitter and Paypal all in one) as the worst of the bunch. Some of the things WeChat is doing in China (where I lived for three years) serve as advanced warning for strategies I believe Facebook will begin to deploy in the coming years. The less harmful forms of social media include: Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Whatsapp. As we dig deeper, the reasons for this distinction will become apparent.
1. It's Addictive
This should not come as a surprise, and it amazes me that this type of addiction is discussed relatively rarely. Facebook is a multi-billion dollar company, and integral to its business model is the promise to advertisers that an engaged audience will see their adverts. This means they need to keep users coming back, to 'hook' them. Facebook has built a data-driven culture to ensure that they find the most addictive ways to hone their product, with 10,000 versions of the platform reportedly running at any one time, conducting experiments to adjust a button here, change a color there. A quick Google search will bring up a growing literature of academic studies confirming this addictive property. But more striking to me has been the string of former Facebook executives, such as Chamath Palihapitiya and Sean Parker admitting that they deliberately minimize their use of the product because the know how addictive it is.
I feel tremendous guilt [...] if you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you
Chamath Palihapitiya former facebook VP
It’s a social validation feedback loop. … You’re exploiting a vulnerabilty in human psychology.
Sean Parker, first President of Facebook
There are really two key negative effects from the addictive properties of Facebook. The first is obvious: Its the opportunity cost of the time you spend scrolling through facebook, instead of say, talking to your family, striking up a conversation with a stranger, learning something useful or volunteering at the donkey shelter. On average, American Facebook users spend 35 minutes per day on Facebook. What could you do with an extra 17 hours per month? The counter argument to this is that users are getting value from their time on facebook. To that I merely point out:
- The average Facebook user has 155 friends, but would trust only four of them in a crisis.
The second issue with Facebook addiction is its impact on concentration. Cal Newport's book Deep Work explores how modern work life presents us with a contradiction: On one hand, the ability to do difficult, strategic/creative work is more valuable than ever, and it requires isolation and long uninterrupted concentration to be effective here. On the other hand, disruptions and distractions from technology, constant communication, and open plan offices make finding said time for 'deep work' much harder. Whilst this is a larger issue of smartphone/internet addiction, I do believe that Facebook is a lynchpin of the "smartphone itch", that leaves many less able to focus for long periods of time than they were Before Facebook (BFB).
2. It's Depressing
Mental health concerns are reflected in the academic literature:
Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year.
But still people refuse to truly acknowledge the mental damage, due to what psychologists call 'affective forecasting', meaning that people still mistakenly expect Facebook to make them feel good. Here's why Facebook is depressing:
- Passively consuming information isn't fulfilling or satisfying.
- Seeing other people's statuses gives the illusion of having kept in touch, when it is actually a hollow substitute for meaningful communication.
- People curate the content they post on Facebook, showing only positive experiences - this creates a distorted vision of reality, with other people's lives falsely appearing superior and idyllic. As a result, viewing this content leads to feelings of jealousy and envy. This can be particularly painful with ex-partners.
- Linked to the above, the other type of content people post tends to be sensational, referring to death, tragedy, cruelty or illness. These are all parts of any social discussion, but Facebook amplifies them.
- Bullying - particularly among teenagers, is amplified on Facebook because every taunt and embarrassing moment is shared amongst an entire peer group instantly
3. It Offers a Distorted Worldview
Facebook's algorithms can detect your beliefs and political leanings with great accuracy. Based on these inferred beliefs, content is prioritized and filtered to attract and hook you - perhaps by offering you something you agree with ("the echo chamber" effect), or something you will find controversial and feel compelled to counter. Accuracy and fact-verification are not key metrics. If Facebook is your primary news source (which is true for many), this can give the illusion that:
- A particular viewpoint is widely held when it is not
- Many people are trying to do something when this is not the case
- Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax perpetrated by actors
- Your way of life is under attack
- The Earth is flat
This is the now infamous use of "fake news" which is much better understood and studied since the election of Trump, whose campaign benefitted from these inaccurate or fabricated stories. A key point to highlight is that if you are not in one of the communities being sold the lies, you are unlikely to be aware of the existence of the lies.
The mission to ‘connect’ turns out to mean, in practice, connect with people who agree with you. We can’t prove just how dangerous these ‘filter bubbles’ are to our societies, but it seems clear that they are having a severe impact on our increasingly fragmented polity. Our conception of ‘we’ is becoming narrower.
Facebook in particular has, in this respect, delivered what propagandists have always wanted, a complete blurring of the line – still sacrosanct in traditional media – between editorial and advertising, often delivered with the added reliability of having been “shared” by a “friend”.
Facebook is reportedly hiring 1000 moderators to try and protect election integrity in future. They are having to turn over details of some 3000 Russian-linked adverts to congress. There is lots of paddling going on underneath the water.
And some of the improvements may sound genuine, but solving the question of accuracy and "fake news" is fundamentally not in Facebook's own interests, no matter what PR noises they make to the contrary. When we hear Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg argue in the New York Times:
“The question is should divisive, political, or issue ads run … our answer is yes, because when you cut off speech for one person, then you cut off speech for all people.”
I fear this is the "party line" that Facebook will tow, conflating two separate issues:
Bad people say untrue things on Facebook - this is freedom of speech and not something Facebook can really fix without compromising free speech
The deliberate compartmentalisation of people into "thought bubbles" so that they are fed information which they want to hear to an extent that was previously extremely rare.
The latter is where the problem lies, and is entirely by (Facebook's) design, for profit. The ways in which the information distortions are achieved have been broken down by Facebook themselves in this white paper:
Information (or Influence) Operations – Actions taken by governments or organised non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment.
False News – News articles that purport to be factual, but which contain intentional misstatements of fact with the intention to arouse passions, attract viewership, or deceive.
False Amplifiers – Co-ordinated activity by inauthentic accounts with the intent of manipulating political discussion (e.g. by discouraging specific parties from participating in discussion, or amplifying sensationalistic voices over others).
Disinformation - Inaccurate or manipulated information/content that is spread intentionally. This can include false news, or it can involve more subtle methods, such as false flag operations, feeding inaccurate quotes or stories to innocent intermediaries, or knowingly amplifying biased or misleading information.
Facebook could act to prevent all of these kinds of infractions. It chooses not to, which has many negative consequences, such as the results of the US election. For those who pipe up and say that would be too difficult, I call bullshit: Notice that you will never see sexual content on Facebook (even photos of breast-feeding women vanish very quickly). They police this one particular area with incredible scrupulousness. Why? Because explicit sexual content would change the site's reputation and put off their advertising customers. It is simply a matter of priorities. Lies are good for business. In short, Facebook has no financial incentive to tell the truth.
Journalism has always had news outlets at opposite ends of a spectrum, some professional and others sensationalist. But even the slimiest of rags has some accountability baseline, and can be taken to court. Facebook is immune to any such concerns.
4. Facebook appropriates and abuses your personal data (loss of privacy)
Privacy really fucking matters. In recent years, an absurd viewpoint has begun to surface that privacy is "only for people with something to hide". This is a lie perpetrated by people who want to control you.
"All of us have something to hide, not just terrorists and criminals, there are all sorts of things that we do and think that we're willing to tell our physician, or our lawyer, or our psychologist, or our spouse, or our best friend that we would be mortified for the rest of the world to learn [...] A society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity, and obedience and submission."
Let's be clear, as I delve into privacy risks below I'm not talking about Facebook being hacked. I think this is extremely unlikely because Facebook hires some of the brightest technical minds in the world. Your data is much safer from hackers with Facebook than say, the company you work for, or your government. Nor is it in Facebook's interests to be perceived to be in the business of selling your data, or not to be trusted with your data. For that reason, Facebook actually does delete your data when you go through the (difficult to find and long-winded) process of deleting your account. I have confirmed this with former Facebook engineers.
The Above Board Stuff
Facebook is very relaxed about using your personal data to make money. Most users are aware of this on some level, but what is often not understood is how far the Facebook tentacles extend:
Though it may not be obvious, each of these [identification] keys is associated with a wealth of our personal behaviour data: every website we’ve been to, many things we’ve bought in physical stores, and every app we’ve used and what we did there … The biggest thing going on in marketing right now, what is generating tens of billions of dollars in investment and endless scheming inside the bowels of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, is how to tie these different sets of names together, and who controls the links. That’s it.
-Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez
Facebook has data sharing partnerships with the major credit agencies: Experian, Equifax Callcredit, which allow it to merge your financial and social media data. That is a seriously comprehensive set of data on you, including every transaction you have ever made on your credit and debit cards, and it is used to a) target ads at you and b) keep you hooked
The Below Board Stuff
Facebook's founding motto was "move fast and breaks things" (although they have now changed it), they play loose with the rules. You can see this throughout their history. Zuckerberg is often confronted by media outlets with this exchange, reported in Business Insider, from his Harvard days:
Zuck: “Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard, just ask. I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS.”
Friend: “What? How’d you manage that one?”
Zuck: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me’. Dumb fucks!”
This cavalier attitude towards privacy has played out over the years in a number of ways:
- There was the scandal over emotional experiments run on users without your awareness
- There's the ever shifting, privacy settings which are complicated enough to warrant entire tutorials, and which even a very tech-savvy user will have to invest serious time investigating to understand fully.
- The nebulous and ever growing remit of "Connections" data
And of course, in March 2018 we have the Cambridge Analytica Scandal rearing its ugly head. This is a huge story: Cambridge Analytica, a data consulting firm that worked for President Trump's 2016 campaign, were revealed to have harvested some 50 million Facebook users' profiles without authorization to build their machine learning models.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
This is a data breach that Facebook is keen to play down, particularly revelations that Facebook knew about the data breach and did nothing.. But, as this piece in Wired astutely points out, Facebook's approach has always been to just make a public apology and wait for the outrage to subside.
5. It can be used as a weapon against you
Ignoring the potential for shady conduct discussed in the previous section, perfectly legitimate browsing of your social media could lead to any of the following:
- Employers vetting you: Companies have sprung up to pre-vet candidates based on their social media profiles. A photo you forgot you were tagged in could cost you a position
- Fraudsters looking to impersonate you: If you are not careful with your privacy settings, identity thieves can piece together lots of bits of information about your life and habits from your Facebook profile.
- Thieves looking to find out your personal security/your company's security: Those photos you took of the office may reveal sensitive documents, camera locations, or other useful information
- Journalists looking to discredit you: You decide you want to hold public office, or become a senior executive. Suddenly all those drunken videos from university will be dredged up. Do you really want those in the public domain?
- Governments Looking to Hurt You: You hope you can trust your government, but that would be naive. If you're of a particular religion, sexual orientation or political belief, there are no guarantees that your government will always be tolerant (this sounds far less paranoid after the election of Trump). If they want incriminating evidence, you can't rely on social media sites not to hand it over. They will, and protestations to the contrary are hard to believe.
It's easy to think that your privacy settings will protect you, but like the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park, there are those out there constantly testing your security, waiting for the moment you slip up. Whilst other social media platforms also contain this risk, Facebook has the richest and largest data about you - countless personal and tagged videos, images, groups, likes - far more than you would find on LinkedIn or Twitter (with the exception of some extreme tweeters).
6. Moral Qualms
The key thing to really appreciate is the business Facebook is in. Facebook's customer proposition is that they will allow advertiser's to display ads to very specific customer segments, e.g. single mothers of African American ethnicity who enjoy running and live in the Chicago area. Their value proposition is therefore twofold:
The ability to identify very specific customer segments
The ability to reach those very specific customer segments
To achieve the first part of their promise, Facebook is not in the business of advertising (as is often inaccurately stated), but rather it is in the surveillance business. The more detailed the information they have about their users, the more compelling their product is to their advertising customers. Therefore they will always be incentivised to find out more about you (using content you create, messages you send, and interactions you have with the app), and use that information to profit. At no point will you ever receive any share of those profits, and that is the Facebook deal. What I find repugnant is the colossal disconnect between the company's purpose: ""Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together" and the commercial reality.
To achieve the second part of their value proposition, Facebook needs to have a lot of users, and needs those users to use Facebook a lot. This is why the company is obsessed with making the product addictive, and with relentless growth.
This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. (Martinez, 2013)
In a sense, whenever you contribute content, be it a status update, a shared video or liking a product page, you feed the beast: You inadvertently enable the addiction and manipulation of others (and yourself).
7. The potential for lock-in (loss of choice)
This part is much more speculative than the previous reasons to leave Facebook. Some of this section may appear overly tin-foil hat. But to me, given the above reasons to leave Facebook, even if there is a small chance that any of these possibilities could become a reality, the risk-reward ratio of staying on the platform is extremely unattractive.
First of all, it's important to reiterate quite how powerful Facebook is. They have a market cap of half a trillion dollars. In 2017, profits were close to $5 billion. That buys you a lot of talent and influence. This is obvious from their high profile acquisitions: Instagram, Whatsapp and Oculus (amongst many others). Facebook and other tech giants are making inroads towards setting up large scale communities for their workers, which have the potential to operate as defacto city states. One of Facebook's ideas to spread their influence to the developing world came in the form of the Free Basics program. This was a proposal which sought to offer internet connectivity in remote Indian villages, but with the range of websites available controlled by Facebook. The program was loudly rejected in India, which prompted Facebook board member and legendary Silicon Valley VC Marc Andreessen to tweet:
"anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?"
As other commentators have pointed out, this sentiment reveals something quite dark: The modern colonial powers are large tech companies.
In another sign of the growing reach and public influence of tech companies, there are now a lot of smart people convinced Mark Zuckerberg is going to run for President, although recent gaffes may have reduced the chances of this. Still, the fact that it doesn't seem so far-fetched is telling.
Zuck recently found Jesus
So what can Facebook do with all this power and ambition?
The Obvious Threats
Mining Video Chat Records
Facebook records and stores all your video calls. In the future, they will be able to mine this, analysing your facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice given particular cues, to create incredibly tailored and addictive AI. Perhaps a personal assistant that knows exactly how to please you, but of course also how to convince you to make a big purchase.
Lending, Credit and Micro-Payments
If you look at WeChat, the largest social media platform in China, you'll find an incredible combination of Facebook and Paypal. Chinese people can easily pay for things using their WeChat e-wallets, and every year billions of dollars are sent via WeChat to loved ones for Chinese New Year gifts ("Red Envelopes"). WeChat services are well integrated into utility companies, and people pay the majority of their household bills using WeChat. At restaurants, people can split the bill using WeChat - it is ubiquitous. And as a result, the pain and added inconvenience of not being on WeChat in China is huge. I anticipate this is something Facebook will seek to emulate. They will be up against greater scrutiny than Tencent (WeChat's parent company), who have close ties with the Chinese Communist Party. Nonetheless, the pay-off would be significant - customer lock-in. Similar issues could be seen if Facebook were to launch personal loan or credit checking services, both of which it has the necessary data to achieve and deliver seamlessly.
If Facebook started using economic profiling to advertise the same product at different prices to people based on their economic status, that would be illegal (in the US). But if they could find a legal loophole, or simply only do it in countries where there were fewer legal issues with this practice, then I could see this happening.
The Hidden Threats
As more data from wearables and household surveillance devices, such as the Amazon Echo (I expect Facebook which launch something similar), becomes available, social media sites will increasingly be able to predict your health. If they ever partner with health insurance companies or launch their own insurance products, you'll suddenly find that your premiums are going up because an algorithm predicts an 85% chance you're never going to use that gym membership.
Facebook owns VR pioneering firm Oculus, whose flagship Oculus Rift headset is the poster boy for VR.
Why do you think Facebook spent an estimated $3 billion getting into a seemingly unrelated industry? It's because one day in the (probably not too distant) future, VR is going to be huge. When this happens, you'll be able to video experiences with advanced 360 cameras on your phone (or perhaps through your glasses' camera), upload it to Facebook, and then your friends will be able to re-experience that exact moment in VR. In short, you will be able to quite literally share memories with your friends. This is where things start to get Sci-Fi - because in a way, Facebook will have gained ownership of your memory. You may come to value these memories very deeply (perhaps they will allow you to experience moments with a now-dead loved one). It's entirely possible that Facebook simply won't let you access them without an account. Suddenly you've got a seriously compelling reason to stay. Sounds a bit Black Mirror, but I can see it happening.
It's been widely speculated that Facebook (as well as other tech companies) are secretly working on a car. It makes sense, because cars these days are extremely complex pieces of software, and upcoming wave of self-driving vehicles rely on complex AI - which plays to Facebook's strengths. Now imagine you buy a Facebook car, or licence their AI - the caveat? You must have an account. Suddenly leaving Facebook means you're locked out of your own car.
All these potential threats would aggressively ratchet up the difficulty of leaving Facebook. For some people, it would basically make escape impossible. And once user lock-in (or something close to it) is achieved, then this will only embolden Facebook to find yet more creative ways to screw you.
Most people are aware that when you use a free service, there is some other cost associated with the service. This is the well-known adage, "if the product is free, you are the product".
For most users, this is takes the form of tolerating adverts in exchange for using Facebook for free. And I think most users are aware that they are giving up ownership of their content in exchange for a convenient network.
But where things get nefarious is that some of the costs of using Facebook are completely hidden upfront, and won't become apparent for years to come. Addiction takes time to build up, false information changes your world-view over long periods of time. An embarrassing video, careless use of your data, these are things which may not impact you for years. As the quantity and quality of the surveillance data held on you grows, so more and more Science Fiction possibilities open up. Unless you work with machine learning technology, you probably don't realize quite how valuable and powerful, when captured over a long period of time and with sufficient detail, your behavioural information is. It's time to wake up and start giving a shit about your data and who you let play with it.
"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say."
Here are a few things you can do protect your privacy: