Guide Technology

Facebook Alternatives Guide: How (and Why) to Avoid Facebook

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?

4 reasons to avoid Facebook

Privacy concerns

facebook alternatives privacy

Photo by Glen Carrie

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.

Mental health

facebook alternatives mental health

Photo by Kev Costello

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.”

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).

Worker exploitation

facebook alternatives workers

Photo by Kate Sade

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.

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 your@email.com

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.

Thank you.”

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:

  • Yelp
  • Duolingo
  • Indeed
  • 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.

Phone-based firewalls, like AFWall+ or NetGuard can also limit your phone’s connection to Facebook.

Ethical Facebook alternatives: main site

facebook main site

Photo by Con Karampelas

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 2 million users, making it one of the most popular alternative social networks. It’s community-owned and ad-free
  • Friendica is more Facebook-style than Mastodon, and has no central authority or ownership
  • Steemit tries to make the platform-user relationship more balanced by actually paying users for posting interesting content with the STEEM cryptocurrency
  • MeWe is a social media alternative that promises: “No Ads. No Spyware. No BS.”

Ethical Facebook alternatives: Messenger and Whatsapp

Now onto Facebook alternatives for Facebook’s subsidiary companies.

Messenger is Facebook’s inbuilt instant messaging application. Their main competition was WhatsApp, but Facebook’s £11.4 billion acquisition of their rival in 2014 ensured their continued dominance of instant messaging.

WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton made his feelings known in March 2018:

Alternatives to Messenger and Whatsapp include:

  • Signal, which is an open-source text, voice and video messaging app supported entirely by grants and donations
  • Zom is an open-source messenger app created by a group of friends with an interest in Tibetan culture (and so has a super cute Tibetan theme!)
  • Tox was made by a team fed up with apps that spy on us, track us and censor us
  • Matrix: an open network for secure, decentralised communication

Ethical Facebook alternatives: Instagram

There aren’t as many Insta alternatives as there are to the Facebook main site and Messenger, but you can take a look at:

  • Tookapic, “a 365-day photo-sharing platform” that encourages you to be thankful for the beautiful, ordinary days (not just the Instagrammable ones!)
  • Pixelfed, an ad-free photo sharing platform (with a chronological timeline!) – currently in development as of May 2019

Ethical Facebook alternatives: Oculus Rift VR

oculus rift

Photo by Lux Interaction

Facebook’s foray into virtual reality is something you might not be aware of.

Oculus’ original virtual reality gaming headset was part of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign which raised just under $2.5 million in 2012. They were acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2.3 billion in cash and stock.

But Facebook isn’t so interested in Oculus’ gaming possibilities – instead, they see the future potential of the device for engaging in everything from sports matches to attending classes (all mediated by Facebook, naturally).

As the tech is still in its infancy, ethical alternatives here are limited; however, OSVR is a movement “founded to create a universal open source VR ecosystem for technologies across different brands and companies” – one to keep an eye on!

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.

For developers

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: Organisations

Privacy International

Delete Facebook

Freedom From Facebook

Centre for Humane Technology

Full Fact

Resources: Further reading

#StatusOfMind: Report from the Royal Society for Public Health

How Apps on Android Share Data with Facebook: Report from Privacy International

I Cut Facebook Out of My Life. Surprisingly, I Missed It

Facebook’s Role in Brexit – and the Threat to Democracy

15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook

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

Author

James is a journalism graduate/freelance writer from London, who specialises in sports and technology. He has a particular interest in tech for good, and in his spare time he enjoys playing video games.