Practical protection from damage caused by Facebook

Reposting this here, from May 2017 on, as I'd rather it lived here - see footnote for update.

I may not be able to convince my own family that there’s a problem, but perhaps you can with yours. I’ll keep this short to avoid invoking ‘rant blindness’, only highlighting issues causing the most damage right now.

By JM Gerbelost


(Skip to the next heading if you just want the tips — this part is a teensy bit ranty)

There are many long and detailed posts on why you should leave FB. None of them speak to the average user, and they all drip in condescension and smugness. I left FB years ago, as I read more and more about the data abuses, human testing and disdain the company/owner has for its users. I’m also a private person, and I think I felt tricked and deceived by FB after submitting too much personal information, opening up too much. I realised in the end that I was using it for my ego, and my relationships were suffering, rather than improving, because of it.

I didn’t make a song and dance about leaving, I’m still sure some people think I’ve unfriended them, if they cared to look. But after a recent and deeply regretful family argument, I have become certain of what a truly addictive and damaging service it’s offering. Many of my own family and friends prefer to watch each other’s lives through a screen, anonymously. The danger is then that they retreat to that virtual, cherry-picked life rather than face reality and deal with actual problems. Real-life issues can be ignored quite easily when everything is going so well online. I trust you know what I mean.

Yes, it can be used responsibly. I give some ideas for that below. But most people don’t seem to use it that way. Or those who do don’t realise the other risks. So I’m using this post to start a campaign of sorts, to stop our families and friends from slowly sliding into a highly virtualised non-reality. To raise awareness of the subtle dangers. It’s like the worst kind of bullying, that passive-aggressive or hidden kind that only the victim sees. Government legislation is starting to come in to protect users, but all too slowly, as most in power continue to bow to their vastly wealthy life-manager overlords.

Right, semi-rant over. On with the useful stuff.

The post is aimed at anyone who suspects that damage can be caused by one of the internet’s biggest data collectors. The idea here isn’t to convince anyone of anything, just give a balanced, reasonable set of points to help gently nudge your networks into taking action.

Anything I say in this post is only because I’ve fallen into all of the same traps myself and over time have become increasingly saddened by them. It is not theory or posturing and I don’t think anyone is dumb for doing the same.

The top 2 problems with FB

  1. It’s unhealthy

FB users research who knows whom, study others’ comments, Like(tm) certain pictures and not others, unfollow certain people secretly, check in on people they shouldn’t, secretly covet the lives of others… There are 100s of ways of interacting with your FB network. And with your contacts’ networks. Very few of which are what any reasonable person would call healthy behaviours. Everyone has become their own little spy agency.

Just imagine those behaviours in the real world — looking through people’s physical address books, reading through their letters to see who they’d been in touch with, mapping who knows whom on a wall with red string, watching outside people’s houses for activity, making inventories of other people’s possessions — I know some troubled people actually do this in the real world, but FB lets everyone do it. With no repercussions. You’re even helped to do it.

These behaviours are not encouraging positive interactions with the people you’re supposed to love the most. You aren’t listening to people and supporting them, you’re digging through their dirt, looking for clues.

FB brings out the worst in us all. Maybe not all the time, but certainly when we’re at our lowest. The trouble is, it doesn’t help us to feel better. It doesn’t force you to reconsider before digging through dirt. It doesn’t call to see if you’re OK, or encourage others to call you if it senses you’re behaviour is indicating a troubled mind. It abuses your weaknesses. Expertly. It’s a social casino, designed to keep you playing. In this case, the house is definitely still winning. But nothing lasts forever.

A service that helped to encourage positive and reality-based interactions; I’d be fully behind that. Ideally it’d be a non-profit, without the advertising department, or carried out ethical advertising. It would make millions happier to be alive every day. You could list your problems in private, allow trusted contacts to see those, receive automatic recommendations for charities and organisations who could help. Be it debt, depression, addiction. It would be a force for good. But this is not what FB is.

Users end up sifting through cherry-picked, thus false accounts of, news from people’s lives. They wonder how their life could be more or less like the others. They spend hours comparing and contrasting when they could and probably should be listening to and supporting the core people in their lives, in the roles that families and friends have historically had.

These two points, a loss of true support roles and an increase in unhealthy behaviours, has lead me to the conclusion that FB is just flat-out unhealthy. Particularly when used in the way FB wants you to use it. The way the majority of users use it. Think of it like eating, smoking or alcohol abuse. It can be that destructive, only its harder to see the damage. I’m hoping awareness will change that.

2. You risk ‘life abuse’

FB builds a ‘shadow profile’ for users and non-users alike. This is done through tracking your IP address, browser and browsing characteristics (which, when combined, make you highly identifiable). They track you on sites that have FB widgets. Which is the vast majority, at this point. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s widely-known and a key part of their business model. They hire the world’s smartest engineers to help them do these things. They are not valued at $430bn for nothing. Each visit to a FB-widget site pings your details back to their offices and data-centers. This information is used.

It is also gathered and sold to insurance and credit companies, unanonymised, not just by FB. Third-party companies, held to much less account, if any, harvest this data. It is also sold to highest bidder, as per their business model, so you get very one-sided political ads, often unregulated as they are not for public consumption, or you are hounded by companies clamouring to sell you their latest products. Many people don’t actually mind this. Fair enough.

Until, that is, the data is (a) leaked to Russian identity thief groups (and their bank accounts are drained) or (b) the physical reality of companies harvesting your data turns up on your doorstep, in the form of a salesman, politician or violent troll who disagrees with you. Or the burglar who knows when you’re away from home for a few days.

Not to mention the future government who might think what you have done in the past is criminal activity (drink, recreational drugs, sexual preferences, reading certain literature etc. etc.) that could land you on a watch-list, or worse, in prison. We should remain aware of history. This has happened many times before. I don’t need to link you to the main examples.

Even if it doesn’t happen on that scale, you can still be stalked and abused in the real world by malicious people from your life through the information you put out. You can accidentally feed the trolls. They can make your life miserable.

Oh, and FB have the right to sell your face. And they own all your photos.

This whole point of data ownership is not worth bringing up to many, as they never see or recognise problems with the often virtual and masked consequences. But there are thousands of cases where they have had a real-world impact. So it is worth mentioning. The mental health and behaviour point above is probably the most effective argument against FB right now.

Top 5 challenges

  • Users prefer the ability to stalk others in private over protecting their own mental health and data. Even if the presented lives are often fake, distorted or unrealistic and risk contributing to mental health issues.
  • It has been expertly crafted into the most convenient tool for ‘social’ networking. So it has a good user experience, on the whole. The casino-style design comes to mind again.
  • People rely on the events features for their ‘social lives’ (events spent partly checking FB, of course) as well as the endless photos to ‘stay up to date’ without having to face the person showing them. And find out what’s actually going on in their lives.
  • It remains one of the top ways to market a product or service to people and groups, precisely because of the problems above. This is where you have to be strong to take a stand. Carry out your marketing campaigns elsewhere, where you’re not abusing private information not intended to be used for marketing. Most people do not knowingly opt-in to your ad campaign.
  • It feeds egos massively. This is a nice feeling, but comes at a cost.

Top 5 solutions

  • If you can’t leave right away, use FB responsibly: export your entire account so that you save your data (protect this file). Then go back through all posts and delete those you no longer need to share. All images, opinions, links, clear them out.
  • Use FB to see when people have gone quiet. Go and see them. Call them.
  • Make a list of your top 10 friends and family you don’t see regularly, then schedule calls and meetups with them on a daily/weekly basis. Ask, don’t tell. This starts to re-build any relationships that have become impersonal or unrealistic.
  • Install uBlock Origin (time: under 1 min: Firefox | Chrome ~4 million + 8 million users respectively) to stop being tracked by around 1m companies around the world. Including FB. Enjoy seeing no more ads based on your search and browsing patterns (“retargeting”), cutting the data stream off at the source. No FB shadow profiles. No private life abuse.
  • Leave FB, install uBlock (or similar open source projects — be wary of ad companies setting up adblockers, completely tricking you) and start the road to rebuilding your social life on your own terms.

More info

There are other ways that FB can abuse your trust, but they also tend to make people’s eyes glaze over. You can read the more detailed pages here to find out more if you want to really understand the threat. Bear in mind that these authors are highly prejudiced against FB and will annoy you at times by how unreasonable they seem. They also scatter-gun all issues, rather than focus on the ones that will resonate with most people. Still, they offer sources for their claims and can be eye-opening reading:

Closing thoughts

It is tough to get out (and stay out) of the tangled FB web, but it’s easy to be aware of the issues and to share those with others. At least if we’re aware we can start to do something about it.

After all that, somewhat ironically, I’d like to ask you to share this across your social networks. Including Facebook. I hope it’ll do some good, somewhere, for someone.

Thanks for reading.


UPDATE: 2018 - this post was initially posted on but I am rehoming it here for posterity. This was written in May 2017, before the true extent of the Cambridge Analytica/FB scandal was revealed. Obviously my position has only hardened since!

Published by using 2027 words.