Facebook’s professed mission (which can be found on its investor relations page) is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
But a slew of recent revelations about the company – among them its role in influencing elections, traumatising its content moderators and even its involvement in ethnic cleansing – expose the banality of the company’s self-professed aims.
It’s been made terribly clear that Facebook as an entity only cares for hoovering up more and more and more data, gobbling up any budding competitors, and cementing its global domination of the online world – making it harder and harder for the average denizen of the internet to avoid it, even if they don’t have a Facebook account.
I personally gave up on Facebook years ago, after reading about the effects it can have on your psyche. I can’t pretend it didn’t come at a cost – it’s now much harder to keep up with far flung friends and distant relatives, and it’s a shame to hear about their news far later than everyone else. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s been a small price to pay for safeguarding my personal information – and my mental health.
If you’re also tempted to remove Facebook from your life, read on for everything you need to know – from deleting your Facebook profile to preventing it tracking you around the web to ethical Facebook alternatives you can use instead.
Facebook: A brief history
“The facebook” was founded by 19-year-old Harvard psychology undergrad Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 (after having previously created Facemash – a site for rating fellow students’ attractiveness). It was an immediate success – 1,200 students signed up within the first 24 hours, and within a month, they were joined by half of all Harvard undergrads. Zuckerberg famously called these initial users “dumb fucks” for trusting him.
Facebook now has 2.4 billion active monthly users (more people than are followers of Christianity), and is the third most-visited site in the world. Although it’s losing users by the millions in the US, the behemoth only continues to spread across the rest of the globe.
It’s long been part of Facebook’s strategy to buy up any potential challengers (like WhatsApp, Oculus and Instagram) to ensure its continued dominance of the web. And it’s worked perfectly so far – where else are young American Facebook users migrating to but Instagram?
8 reasons to avoid Facebook
1. Privacy concerns
It’s been hard to avoid news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – in which the consulting firm secretly harvested millions of people’s Facebook profile data for targeted political advertising. But it’s important to know this was no isolated incident – Facebook’s disregard for user privacy has manifested in plenty of other ways.
In another major incident last year, Facebook clashed with Apple following news that the former had been paying users (some as young as 13) to install a “Facebook Research” VPN on iOS devices – which gave Facebook access to everything their phone sent or received over the internet.
There’s no limit to how intimate Facebook are willing to go – last year, it was revealed that they’d been in secret talks with hospitals to gain access to patient data, and the Wall Street Journal have reported that at least 11 popular health apps (such as fertility trackers) were sharing extremely sensitive personal information with Facebook.
With such a dismissive attitude for user privacy, it’s hardly surprising that Facebook has suffered multiple data breaches, with one of the latest seeing a total of 540 million records potentially exposed – everything from likes and reactions to comments and account IDs have been leaked from insecure servers.
2. Mental health
The link between extensive social media use and psychological issues is now well documented. A 2013 study into ‘the pathway between Facebook interaction and psychological distress’ found that “frequent Facebook interaction is associated with greater distress directly and indirectly via a two-step pathway that increases communication overload and reduces self-esteem.”
And this isn’t just from users passively absorbing what they see on their feeds – Facebook have actively manipulated users over the years, from secret tests to determine users’ addiction levels to their website, to using the newsfeed to influence users’ emotional state through “emotional contagion.”
But perhaps the worst offender when it comes to mental health is Facebook-owned Instagram. A UK-wide survey of 14 to 24 year olds by the Royal Society of Public Health ranked it the most harmful social media platform, finding it associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO.
“On the face of it, Instagram can look very friendly,” said a spokesperson for the RSPH. “But that endless scrolling without much interaction doesn’t really lead to much of a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. You also don’t really have control over what you’re seeing. And you quite often see images that claim to be showing you reality, yet aren’t. That’s especially damaging to young men and women.”
3. Spread of misinformation & hate speech
The spread of misinformation on Facebook ranges from the relatively silly (like the growth of the QAnon conspiracy theory) to the downright dangerous.
Facebook have attempted to clamp down on this to some extent – but only last month campaign group Avaaz uncovered a network of far-right accounts spreading fake news and hate speech throughout Europe. The pages Facebook managed to take down following the revelations had 500 millions views in total – more than the number of voters in the EU. Indeed, in the first three months of 2019, Facebook removed c.2bn fake accounts from its servers, which is almost as many as all the legitimate accounts on the platform.
And just a few days ago, Facebook were refusing to take down a video of US House speaker Nancy Pelosi edited to make her appear drunk, which was being spread by Trump supporters. The top comments on the video show that many viewers were taking it at face value, despite the news reports on its inauthenticity:
If misinformation is rampant in the US and Europe, the situation is even worse around the rest of the world. In Myanmar, where 20 million of a population of 53 million are Facebook users, the spread of hate speech has had catastrophic consequences.
In 2017, Facebook failed to take action when the platform was being used by Buddhist extremists to stoke hatred of the Rohingya minority. Only in August of 2018 – after 25,000 Rohingya had been killed, and 700,000 had fled – did Facebook ban some of the instigators of the violence rom the platform.
(Here are 3 Chrome extensions that can help you filter fake news from your Facebook feed).
4. Worker exploitation
The workers at Facebook’s HQ on Hacker Way in Silicon Valley are famously pampered, with perks including a video game arcade, free meals and on-site dental care. But for the army of 15,000 content moderators Facebook has been obliged to hire as contractors, it’s a completely different story.
A recent expose from Casey Newton of the Verge brought to light the horrors of this job. Moderators are expected to review up to 400 posts every day, featuring the worst humanity has to offer – racism, bestiality and murder are par for the course.
You might think that working conditions would be cushy to compensate for this, but you’d be wrong. Contractors’ time is strictly controlled, with monitored bathroom breaks, 9 minutes of “wellness time” a day to step away from the screens if they’re feeling overwhelmed, and harsh penalties if their moderation “accuracy score” falls below 95/100.
It’s no surprise, then, that many moderators have turned to sex and drugs to cope with their work – Newton reports that employees regularly use marajuana on the job, and have been caught having sex in bathroom stalls, stairwells, the parking garage and even a room reserved for lactating mothers. Many go on to develop symptoms of PTSD.
Content moderators endure all of this for $28,800 a year – the average salary of a direct Facebook employee is $240,000.
5. Opposing Anti-Tracking
Apple’s anti-tracking plans for its mobile operating system, iOS, seem good news for anyone who owns one of its devices. However, the App Tracking Transparency feature that the system includes isn’t so great for Facebook, the business model of which relies on keeping tabs on users.
In a blog post, Facebook took the questionable decision to frame its response to Apple’s decision as a stand for the little guy:
“Facebook is speaking up for small businesses. Apple’s new iOS 14 policy will have a harmful impact on many small businesses that are struggling to stay afloat and on the free internet that we all rely on more than ever.”
Wait, what? The post continues:
“At Facebook we use data to provide personalized ads, which support small businesses and help keep apps free. Starting today Apple will require apps that engage in what it calls ‘tracking’ to ask permission when using information from apps and websites owned by other companies to personalize or measure ads. This will happen through a prompt designed by Apple that discourages people from giving their permission, and provides little detail about what this decision means.”
In other words, Facebook is upset that iOS users will be able to deny it permission to use app and website info to provide adverts. Though understandable, it’s still bizarre to present it as though the user is losing out due to the changes.
What are the ethical ramifications surrounding censorship, and when is it appropriate for Facebook to censor content?
As a recent example, in December 2020, Amnesty International released a 78-page report based on dozens of interviews with human rights defenders and activists from Vietnam, including former prisoners of conscience, lawyers, and writers.
As the BBC reports:
“In one instance, freelance journalist Truong Chau Huu Danh posted on Facebook about an alleged corruption scandal in Vietnam, but was later notified that his posts had been restricted in Vietnam due to ‘local legal restrictions’. He was not given any way to contest this, he said. Facebook announced in April it would ‘significantly increase’ compliance with Vietnamese government requests to take down content. Since then, the number of times the social media platform has restricted content in Vietnam has gone up by 983%, from 77 in the second half of 2019 to 834 in the first half of 2020, according to the company’s latest Transparency Report.”
Most liberal people would disagree with that decision on an ethical basis.
Admittedly, Facebook was the first social media giant to block Donald Trump in 2020, yet its own Oversight Board noted that “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”
Is that good censorship? Even if you agree with the outcome, is it positive for tech companies to be able to effectively blacklist people?
On the other hand, in February 2021, Facebook blocked Australian users from viewing or sharing news, in response to a proposed law which would make tech giants pay to display news content on their platforms. It stated:
“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”
An agreement was reached a few days later, but it’s worth remembering that Facebook were happy to block news across an entire continent rather than pay for the content it siphons.
Having acquired more than 70 services over the past decade, Facebook also owns the four most downloaded apps of the last decade (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram).
This monopoly was emphasised recently when these apps went down for over five hours in October 2021. WhatsApp was inaccessible for billions of users, a reminder to many of how critical Facebook services have become to the infrastructure around us.
Data-analysis platform Statista notes that WhatsApp is the most popular global mobile messenger app worldwide, with two billion active users. Facebook Messenger has 1.3 billion, while Facebook itself is now more than just a website, with multiple services going some way to controlling the way that we communicate.
Closing your Facebook account
If the above has given you any motivation to boycott Facebook, the first step is to close your main Facebook account: here’s a great step-by-step guide.
Predictably, Facebook try to make it as difficult as possible for you to delete your account. When you request permanent account deletion, a two-week deactivation period comes into force – if you log into your account at any time over this timeframe, your deletion request will be withdrawn. During this period, you need to avoid using Facebook login on external sites like Airbnb and Spotify.
If you want, you can also download all of your Facebook data – including photos, chats, and posts – before you close your account: here’s how to do it. (And for those of you who’d outsourced remembering your friends’ birthdays to Facebook, the Birthdays Reminder app can take over from now on!)
The Delete Facebook movement recognises that Facebook is so woven into the fabric of our society, it might be genuinely confusing and hurtful for friends and family to see you leave. They encourage users leaving Facebook to post an “epitaph”, to let your friends know what you’re doing and perhaps encourage them do the same:
“I am deleting my Facebook account.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please delete anything in your Facebook account that involves me. This includes conversations we’ve had and photos of me that you can part with.
Please respect my privacy and avoid posting anything in future that personally identifies me.
Here are additional guides to removing Facebook subsidiaries:
How to stop Facebook tracking you around the web
Once your account has been deleted, Facebook claim it takes 90 days for them to remove all of your data. But whether this is entirely true is questionable to say to least.
And once your account is gone, Facebook can still track you around the web: for example, by installing cookies on your browser when you visit sites that include Facebook “like” and “share” buttons. They claim to use this data to create analytics reports on traffic to sites.
You can protect yourself from Facebook’s tracking, to some extent:
- Switch to a privacy-focused browser like Brave or Tor
- If you don’t fancy changing browsers, you can use a tracking blocker like Ghostery or Privacy Badger
How to stop Facebook tracking you in apps
UK privacy advocacy group Privacy International revealed last year that some of the most popular apps in the Google Play store automatically send users’ personal data to Facebook the second they’re launched (and there’s evidence that apps on iOS do the same).
As of March 2019, these apps included:
- King James Bible app
- Qibla Connect
- Muslim Pro
It’s very difficult to stop Facebook from tracking you through third-party apps, but Privacy International recommend:
Resetting your advertising ID regularly
This won’t prevent you from being profiled, but it can limit the details that are known about you. Android users should go to Settings > Google > Ads > Reset Advertising ID
Limit ad personalisation
You can do this by opting out of ad personalisation. For Android users: Settings > Google > Ads > Opt Out of Personalised Advertising
Regularly review the permissions you’ve given to apps
Limit the information you give them to only stuff that’s strictly necessary. Android: Settings > Apps > (select relevant app) > Permissions
Other options include installing apps which control how the other apps on your phone interact with the network and one another, like Shelter. This allows you to separate apps into different profiles on Android, meaning different advertising IDs can be used for different apps.
Ethical Facebook alternatives: main site
If you’ve taken the above steps and are feeling the loss of Facebook in your life, there are plenty of brilliant Facebook alternatives – that actually respect your privacy and attention! – which you can try out instead:
Mastodon now has over 4.4 million users, making it one of the most popular alternative social networks. As well as being community-owned and ad-free, it comes with a twist.
Rather than being a single website like Twitter or Facebook, it’s “a network of thousands of communities operated by different organizations and individuals that provide a seamless social media experience”.
It also comes with anti-abuse tools, and your feed will be chronological, ad-free, and non-algorithmic.
The latest stable release was a few weeks ago, at the time of writing. The developers work on a voluntary basis and the project is run informally, with the platform itself used for communication between developers.
The source code of Friendica is hosted on GitHub.
“Steem is a blockchain database that supports community building and social interaction with cryptocurrency rewards. Steem combines concepts from social media with lessons learned from building cryptocurrencies and their communities. An important key to inspiring participation in any community, currency or free market economy is a fair accounting system that consistently reflects each person’s contribution. Steem is the first cryptocurrency that attempts to accurately and transparently reward an unbounded number of individuals who make subjective contributions to its community.”
You can find out the current Steem coin price here.
MeWe is a “visionary culmination of years of determined efforts, research, and development to provide people around the world with a communication network they love and trust”.
Named a 2016 Start-Up of the Year Finalist for ‘Innovative World Technology’, world-renowned thought leaders proudly serve on its advisory board – including World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Ethical Facebook alternatives: Messenger and Whatsapp
As we’ve noted, Messenger and WhatsApp total three billion accounts. Given the amount of data they collect, the furore they made about Apple’s decision to begin using privacy labels makes sense.
Both Messenger and WhatsApp collect usage data and location details, along with users’ purchase history, financial information, location details, contacts, phone numbers, email addresses, and more.
It’s difficult to think of many reasons why either option should be chosen over a free and open-source IM app like Signal. Unfortunately, the hard part is convincing friends and family to make the switch.
Signal is backed by the likes of Edward Snowden, and offers state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption (powered by the open-source Signal Protocol), which keeps conversations secure.
It’s the most popular alternative on this list by some margin, thanks to a strong emphasis on privacy. You’ll also be able to make crystal-clear voice and video calls to people who live either across town or across the ocean, with no long-distance charges.
As for its ethical credentials, the company notes:
“Signal is an independent nonprofit. We’re not tied to any major tech companies, and we can never be acquired by one either. Development is supported by grants and donations from people like you.”
Zom is “a place where friends can be friends, and you can always speak your mind freely. Free & open-source with privacy features that help keep you connected, no matter where you are.”
It’s an open-source messenger app created by a group of friends with an interest in Tibetan culture (and so has a Tibetan theme!).
Another solid option comes in the form of Tox.
It’s “easy-to-use software that connects you with friends and family without anyone else listening in. While other big-name services require you to pay for features, Tox is completely free and comes without advertising — forever.”
Encrypted and decentralised, “Tox is free software. That’s free as in freedom, as well as in price. This means Tox is yours — to use, modify, and share — because Tox is developed by and for the users.”
Matrix is “an open source project that publishes the Matrix open standard for secure, decentralised, real-time communication, and its Apache licensed reference implementations. Maintained by the non-profit Matrix.org Foundation, we aim to create an open platform which is as independent, vibrant and evolving as the Web itself… but for communication.”
Having moved out of the beta stages in June 2019, Matrix can handle any type of real-time data, not just messaging and voice over IP (VoIP).
Ethical Facebook alternatives: Instagram
“It may seem odd to say that Instagram is Facebook’s largest competitor because it’s also owned by the social networking behemoth. Facebook bought the photo-sharing site in April 2012 for $1 billion. It’s estimated to be valued at more than $100 billion—more than 100 times what Facebook originally paid for the site.”
Once again, where do you look in the case of a massive duopoly, especially when both options are actually owned by the same company?
For a different take, Tookapic doesn’t promote endless posting. It encourages users to publish just one significant photograph per day on the platform. (This is called a 365 project.)
Tookapic also charges users at a rate of $69 per year, with a seven-day free trial. The company explains the reason being:
“To keep the lights on. Tookapic is just a two person team. What you see here was bootstrapped from scratch. There is no big investor behind this project. And that’s good. Nobody will make us sell to a big company and leave our users with nothing. Thanks to this small monthly fee we’re able to keep the community hate-free. People who join us are 100% committed to the idea of 365 projects.”
An ad-free, privacy-focused alternative comes in the form of Pixelfed: a free and ethical photo-sharing platform, powered by ActivityPub federation.
With no nefarious algorithms and no third-party tracking, it uses a chronological timeline, and is sponsored in part by the NLnet Foundation and NGI0 Discovery, via the Next Generation Internet initiative.
Ethical Facebook alternatives: Oculus Quest
Oculus was bought by Facebook two years after its release in 2012.
Co-founder Palmer Luckey had promised that a Facebook account wouldn’t be necessary for using the service – nevertheless, this change was introduced in 2020, and is set to be made mandatory by 2023. Luckey had also promised that Oculus would never “flash ads at you”, but the service has backtracked in recent years.
Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) is an open-source software platform for virtual and augmented reality.
“It allows discovery, configuration and operation of hundreds of VR/AR devices and peripherals. OSVR supports multiple game engines, and operating systems and provides services such as asynchronous time warp and direct mode in support of low-latency rendering. OSVR software is provided free under Apache 2.0 license and is maintained by Sensics.”
Ethical Facebook Alternatives: Giphy
Launched in 2013, Giphy was originally a search engine for gifs. Facebook bought it out in 2020, in a deal worth a reported $400m, as it wanted to enhance stickers, stories, and other products under its umbrella.
At present, given antitrust concerns, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has extended the deadline of an investigation into Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy until December 2021.
In response, Facebook forcefully denied its “significant market power” in the UK’s display advertising sector – which is one way of interpreting the reality.
Tenor is only a short-term solution, because:
“Currently, users are not required to link a Google account to their Tenor account and all Tenor functionality is still available to users without linking to Google. However, sometime in 2021, access to Tenor’s full suite of features will require a Google account.”
Ethical Facebook alternatives: Okuna
According to the tagline, Okuna is ‘an ethical social network for a brighter tomorrow’. It’s built with open-source software, and they’re transparent about their values. The beta was released in 2019 after a successful Kickstarter campaign raised €56,506, nearly doubling the original asking amount. Formally known as Openbook, they had to change their name during the development phase after a complaint from Facebook regarding the similarity with their brand name.
There’s no chance of mistaking the privacy-friendly social network for the data-hungry giant, and it’s definitely a good thing. Okuna will be monetized by offering an optional subscription service with added themes, reactions and avatars, and they plan to release a digital currency for expanded features like supporting content creators, subscribing to publishers, and buying and selling items and services.
It’s going to take time and effort to get it anywhere near Facebook in terms of functionality, but it’s one to keep an eye on in the future. You can find more information via their online manifesto, which goes into more detail about their plans to combat problems with “digital social status, discrimination, digital mobbing, censorship and more.”
Over to you
As Facebook continues to snake its tendrils into every corner of the internet, it may feel like its too big to fail. But remember what the collapse of MySpace taught us – network effects are powerful, and if more and more people start leaving Facebook, the snowball effect will be hard to stop.
So if you’re unhappy with Facebook’s unethical business practises, take the first steps to deleting your profile today – and try to take a few friends with you.
If you’re a developer, there are a few extra steps you can take to take action against Facebook:
- Remove Facebook trackers or widgets from your site – use a share link as an alternative
- Reconsider whether your app needs the Facebook Software Development Kit – if it does, use its components sparingly and transparently
- Don’t allow Facebook connect as a sign in option on your site
- Reduce your dependency on Facebook-developed technology like React – a good guide to alternatives here
Resources: Further reading
ethical.net is a collaborative project, and that includes our guides; if you think there’s something missing from this, or know more ethical Facebook alternatives, let us know down below, and we’ll update the article!
Also in this series: Amazon Alternatives Guide: How (and Why) to Avoid Amazon
Image credits: Ouch.pics