February 2023: When I originally wrote this guide, years ago, Facebook was a true behemoth. It’s still a massive tech company by most metrics, but a rebrand to push an unwanted Metaverse has definitely hurt the organization. The number of active daily users in the US and Canada has fallen in the past two years, arguably due to the success of TikTok and various missteps by founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The professed mission of Facebook – or Meta, as the social media platform’s parent company was renamed in 2021 – is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. But a slew of revelations about the company – among them its role in influencing elections, traumatizing its content moderators, and even its involvement in ethnic cleansing – expose the hypocrisy of the company’s self-professed aims.
It’s become clear that Facebook only cares about hoovering up 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, 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 their news 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 tempted to remove Facebook from your life, read on for everything you need to know – from deleting your Facebook profile and preventing the service from tracking you around the web, to ethical 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 previously creating Facemash – a site for rating fellow students’ attractiveness). It was an immediate success: 1,200 students signed up within the first 24 hours, and were joined by half of all Harvard undergraduates within a month. Zuckerberg famously called these initial users “dumb fucks” for trusting him.
Now, Facebook has 1.9 billion active monthly users, and is the ninth most-visited site in the world. Despite losing users by the millions in the US, it 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, to an extent – younger users are migrating to alternatives like (the Meta-owned) Instagram, even if Generation Z (born between the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2010s) shuns Facebook itself, while Reels, Meta’s answer to TikTok, shows that the company won’t go down without a fight.
Eight reasons to avoid Facebook
1. Privacy concerns
There was the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018: the shadowy consulting firm secretly harvested data from millions of people’s Facebook profiles to target users with political advertising and drive votes for candidates who paid the company to do so. But it’s important to know this was no isolated incident – Facebook’s disregard for user privacy has subsequently manifested itself in plenty of other ways.
For example, in 2019, 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 – giving Facebook access to everything their phone sent or received over the internet.
There’s no limit to how intimate Facebook is willing to get: in 2018, it was revealed that the company had 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 533 million records potentially exposed – everything from likes and reactions to comments and account IDs have been leaked from insecure servers. The service failed to inform users about the breach.
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 doesn’t result solely from users passively absorbing what they see on their feeds – Facebook has actively manipulated users over the years, from secret tests to determine users’ level of addiction to its site, to using its newsfeed to influence users’ moods through “emotional contagion”.
But when it comes to mental health, perhaps the worst offender is the Facebook-owned Instagram. A UK-wide survey of 14- to 24-year-olds, by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), ranked it the most harmful social media platform, finding it associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and fear of missing out (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.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded that the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds was stable from 2000 to 2007, but increased by 57% between 2007 and 2017. In other words, it went up exponentially as Facebook became more popular.
“The roll-out of Facebook at a college increased symptoms of poor mental health, especially depression. We also find that, among students predicted to be most susceptible to mental illness, the introduction of Facebook led to increased utilization of mental healthcare services. Lastly, we find that, after the introduction of Facebook, students were more likely to report experiencing impairments to academic performance resulting from poor mental health. Additional evidence on mechanisms suggests that the results are due to Facebook fostering unfavorable social comparisons.”
3. Spread of misinformation and hate speech
The spread of misinformation on Facebook ranges from the relatively silly to the downright dangerous (like the growth of the QAnon conspiracy theory: “that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic sexual abusers of children […] conspired against former U.S. President Donald Trump”) to the downright dangerous.
Facebook has attempted to clamp down on this to some degree – but, in 2019, campaign group Avaaz uncovered a network of far-right accounts spreading fake news and hate speech throughout Europe. The pages Facebook took down following these revelations had received 500 millions views in total – more than the number of voters in the EU. Indeed, in the first three months of 2019, Facebook removed two billion fake accounts from its servers, which is almost as many as all legitimate Facebook accounts. (Here are three Chrome extensions that can help you filter fake news from your Facebook feed.)
More recently, Facebook has claimed that it removes more than 90% of hate speech on the platform. However, a leaked document from March 2021 stated that, “We may action as little as 3-5% of hate … on Facebook.”
Though misinformation is rampant in the US and Europe, the situation is even worse elsewhere in the world. In Myanmar (Burma), where 20 million people out 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 used by Buddhist nationalist extremists to stoke hatred towards the Rohingya, a stateless and primarily Muslim ethnic minority, and fuel the ongoing genocide against them. Only in August of 2018 – after 25,000 Rohingya people had been killed, and 700,000 had fled the country – did Facebook ban some of the instigators of the violence from the platform.
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.
An exposé by Casey Newton of The Verge brought the horrors of this job to light.
Moderators are expected to review up to 400 posts every day, featuring the worst that humanity has to offer – racism, bestiality, and murder are par for the course. You might expect working conditions to compensate for this, but you’d be wrong. Contractors’ time is strictly controlled, with monitored bathroom breaks, an allowance of just nine minutes “wellness time” a day to step away from the screens if 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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Content moderators endure all of this for $28,800 a year, whereas the average salary of a direct Facebook employee at the time was $240,000.
As for its global workforce, Meta sacked 11,000 workers in November 2022 – roughly 13% of staff. A leaked recording of Mark Zuckerberg during a Q&A noted recent difficulties at the time:
“We made our plan for ’22 in terms of how we thought the business was going to go, and obviously it hasn’t gone the way that we wanted to.”
5. Opposing anti-tracking
Apple’s anti-tracking plans for iOS seem like good news for anyone who owns one of the company’s devices. However, the system’s App Tracking Transparency feature isn’t so great for Facebook, as its business model 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 was upset that iOS users would be able to deny it permission to use app and website info to provide adverts. Though understandable, it’s still bizarre to present this 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?
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.
“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 individuals? (On the flipside, do you agree with Elon Musk shadowbanning @Elonjet on Twitter – ie, having its reach intentionally limited – or the accounts of various critical journalists soon after?)
In February 2021, in response to a proposed law which would make tech giants pay to display news content on their platforms, Facebook blocked Australian users from viewing or sharing news. 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 was happy to block an entire continent’s access to news rather than pay for the content it siphons.
Having acquired more than 90 services since 2005, Facebook also owns the four most downloaded apps of the 2010s: Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
This monopoly was emphasized when the 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(and how reliant upon them we have become).
Data-analysis platform Statista notes that WhatsApp is the most popular mobile messenger app worldwide, with two billion active users as of January 2022. Facebook Messenger has 988 million, and Facebook itself is now more than just a website, with multiple Meta-owned services going some way to controlling how we communicate.
Closing your Facebook account
If the above has motivated you to boycott Facebook, the best way to start is by closing your account; here’s a great step-by-step guide on how to do so.
Predictably, Facebook makes this process as difficult as possible. Requesting permanent account deletion starts a two-week deactivation period – but if you log into your account during this time, your request will be withdrawn. During this period, avoid using your Facebook login to access 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. (And for those of you who’ve outsourced remembering friends’ birthdays to Facebook, the Birthdays Reminder app can take over!)
Here are additional guides to removing Facebook subsidiaries:
How to stop Facebook tracking you around the web
Once your account has been deleted, Facebook claims that it takes 90 days to remove all of your data – but whether this is entirely true is questionable, to say the least.
However, even once your account is gone, Facebook can still track you around the web. For example, this can occur via the installation of cookies on your browser when visiting sites that include Facebook ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons. Meta claims to use this data to create analytics reports on site traffic.
You can protect yourself from Facebook’s tracking, to some extent:
- Switch to a privacy-focused browser like Safari, Brave, or Tor
- If you don’t fancy changing browsers, use a tracking blocker like Ghostery or Privacy Badger.
How to stop Facebook tracking you in apps
UK advocacy group Privacy International has revealed 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.
Though it’s very difficult to stop Facebook from tracking you through third-party apps, Privacy International recommends:
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 permissions given to apps
Limit Facebook’s access to only strictly necessary information. 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, such as Shelter. This allows apps to be separated into different profiles on Android, for which different advertising IDs can be used.
Ethical alternatives to the main Facebook site
If you’ve taken the above steps and are feeling the loss of Facebook in your life, there are plenty of brilliant alternatives that actually respect your privacy:
Community-owned and ad-free, Mastodon also 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 is chronological, ad-free, and non-algorithmic.
After Elon Musk started messing with Twitter in 2021, Mastodon user numbers jumped from 500,000 to over 2.5 million in early December, at one point gaining over 130,000 new users per day.
However, these figures soon began to drop, possibly because Mastodon does take some getting used to compared to more accessible social media platforms.
Frendica is another viable decentralized option. Privacy is its main USP, along with a long list of features. As well as integrating with independent social networking platforms (like the Fediverse or Diaspora), it also works with some commercial ones too, such as Twitter.
The latest stable release was a few weeks ago, at the time of writing. The project is run informally, with developers working voluntarily and using the platform itself to communicate.
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”.
In terms of notable features, users control who receives and views their posts. Since there is no way to boost anything on MeWe, posts are only shared with members you choose to connect with.
Its Privacy Bill of Rights promises:
- “You own your personal information & content. It is explicitly not ours.
- “You never receive targeted third-party advertisements or targeted third-party content. We think that’s creepy.
- “You have full control over your newsfeed and the order of how posts appear.
- “We do not manipulate, filter, or change the order of your newsfeeds. Only you can do that.
- “Permissions & privacy are your rights. You control them.
- “You control who can access your content.
- “You can opt out of our member directory to protect your privacy.
- “We do not sell your personal information to anyone.
- “Your face is your business. We do not use facial recognition technology.
- “You have the right to delete your account and take your content with you at any time.”
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 alternatives to Messenger and WhatsApp
As previously noted, Messenger and WhatsApp users total roughly three billion accounts. Given the amount of data Meta collects, the furore it made about Apple’s decision to start using privacy labels makes more 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 instant messaging app like Signal. Unfortunately, the hard part is convincing friends and family to also 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.”
Another solid option comes in the form of Tox.
Its “easy-to-use software […] 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 decentralized, “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.”
That might make it a bit too rough around the edges for some users, but it’s definitely worth mentioning.
Telegram is another popular alternative, with a focus on speed and security. You’ll be able to translate entire conversations, and there’s a chance that a few of your contacts might have tried it out already. It became one of the top-five most downloaded apps worldwide in 2022 and has over 700 million monthly active users, all while never paying to advertise its apps. Both a free tier and a premium subscription service are available.
A messaging app that works over email, Delta Chat allows you to write to every existing email address – even if the recipient doesn’t have the Delta Chat app. You own your data, and you can ensure that every message is encrypted. It’s something different, and it’s open source and free software.
Ethical alternatives to Instagram
Instagram is arguably Facebook’s largest competitor, despite also being owned by Meta. Facebook bought the photo-sharing site in 2012 for $1 billion. Its estimated value now exceeds $100 billion – more than 100 times what Facebook originally paid for the site.
Once again, where to look for alternatives in the case of a massive duopoly – especially when both options are owned by the same company?
For a different take, Tookapic doesn’t promote endless posting. It encourages users to publish just one significant photograph on the platform per day. (This is called a 365 project.)
Tookapic also charges users at a rate of $69 per year, with a seven-day free trial. Alternatively, there’s a $9 monthly subscription. The company explains that this is “to keep the lights on”, continuing:
“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, an open, decentralized social networking protocol.
With no nefarious algorithms or third-party tracking, Pixelfed uses a chronological timeline, and is sponsored in part by the NLnet Foundation, via the Next Generation Internet (NGI), “a European Commission initiative that aims to shape the development and evolution of the Internet into an […] Internet that responds to people’s fundamental needs, including trust, security, and inclusion”. 139,000 users have joined the project so far.
Ethical Alternatives to 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, to enhance the stickers, stories, and other products under its umbrella.
Given antitrust concerns, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) 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.
The CMA eventually ruled that Meta had to sell Giphy in 2022, as the company already controls half of the online advertising sector in the UK. Now, it’s probably easier to search for a GIF manually online.
Over to you
As Facebook continues to worm its tendrils into every corner of the internet, it may feel like it’s too big to fail. But remember what the collapse of MySpace taught us: the butterfly effect can be powerful, and if more and more people leaveFacebook, an exodus could snowball.
So if you’re unhappy with Facebook’s unethical business practices, take the first steps by 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 follow 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 so, 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; see this guide to alternatives.
- ‘Instagram Ranked Worst for Young People’s Mental Health’ (including ‘#StatusOfMind’, a report by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement (YHM) which examines “the positive and negative effects of social media on young people’s health”)
- ‘How Apps on Android Share Data with Facebook – Report’
- ‘I Cut Facebook Out of My Life. Surprisingly, I Missed It’
- ‘Facebook’s Role in Brexit — and the Threat to Democracy’ (TED Talk)
- ‘15 Months of Fresh Hell inside Facebook’.
Ethical.net is a collaborative project, and that includes our guides. If you think we’ve missed something, or know of additional 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