Can we even delete our Facebook account?

Like other social media platforms, it might just be the death of us and we are surprisingly okay with that.

 |  7-minute read |   21-03-2018
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In a letter written in 1789, American statesman Benjamin Franklin is famously believed to have penned the phrase, “...but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ironically, his words remain immortal. However, in the last decade, one more exception would have wanted to squeeze in comfortably between death and taxation — social media. But a global meltdown of fake news, election-rigging bots, trolling, data mining and surveillance, and our awareness of all of this in the last couple of years, may just make sure that social media, too, is no expectation, and its continued existence uncertain.

Cambridge Analytica (CA), British voter profiling firm that claims to “use data to change audience behaviour”, and Facebook, the notorious social media giant, have been in the eye of a storm. Why? The Observer reported on March 17 that CA harvested more than 50 million Facebook profiles and used them to build a powerful software programme to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. A whistleblower revealed how CA used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

The results of this “grossly unethical experiment” could be seen in the 2016 US presidential elections, the Brexit referendum and even Nitish Kumar's JDU achieving a landslide victory in the 2010 Bihar Assembly polls. Documents confirmed by a Facebook statement show that by late 2015 the social media giant had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale; yet, they failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure private information.

The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica controversy, aside from its tremendous (horrifying) potential, has led to a question that people should have asked quite some time ago: Is it time to delete Facebook?

The answer is both simple and not so much at the same time.

delete_032118080302.jpgPhoto: Screengrab

In the age of information and data — the most valuable and the most vulnerable commodity we have — nothing is more important that the instinct to protect it. For years, we have known that Facebook harvests our data and sells it to advertisers. We have seen in the past two years how Facebook’s algorithms trap us in echo chambers, often managing to influence how we receive news and make opinions.

We have seen how Facebook does not help control the flow of misinformation and fake news. Even WhatsApp (a quagmire of fake news, now owned by Facebook) cofounder Brian Acton tweeted on March 20, “It is time. #deletefacebook.”

There are enough red flags, all over the social media website, for us to be able to make an easy decision. And yet, here we are, unable to delete Facebook; adding love and sad "reacts" to memes, sharing news stories and tracking people we know — at times obsessively. The more relevant question is: Why are we unable to delete Facebook?

The actual process is not hard to follow. Even though Facebook does not readily provide a delete account option, all one needs to do is go to this page. While it can take up to 90 days to fully delete one’s account and the information associated with it, it must be mentioned that the account will be inaccessible to other people using Facebook during this time. All one has to do is make sure one does not sign in after clicking on “Delete My Account”. Easy? Yes. So what stops us?

There is no alternative

For those who have been using Facebook from its early days, there is always the question of how much data their account has; thousands of photos, years of status updates, videos, private messages — all memories. Archiving this data is also a cakewalk. 

But it has never been the actual process of deletion that has road-blocked our intent to delete Facebook for good. It is the fear of missing out. An article in The Guardian breaks down all the alternatives to Facebook in terms of our basic needs from the website. What it fails to acknowledge is that for a majority of its users, it is not the services that make them use the platform but their presence on the platform that makes them opt for the services. Simply moving to Flickr or Google Photos to not miss out on a “daily dose of well-curated food pictures and thirst traps” is not an option because unlike Facebook, it gives you neither your favourite show nor your audience.

There are other concerns as well. Facebook is not just a source for photos and keeping up with friends; it is also an important source for business and news. For small businesses especially, Facebook can be a lifeline. A testament to that lies in the fact that in 2015-2016, internet shutdowns cost India Rs 6,485 crore in lost business opportunities.

With its “News Feed” feature, launched more than half a decade ago, Facebook turned itself into a personalised newspaper for everyone. Over time, it effectively managed to turn itself into the single biggest way most Facebook users consumed news. Sure, there are alternatives. One can always visit Google News, or just visit the news sites they trust, but does it compare to leisurely scrolling and chancing upon something interesting? No.

Out of sight, out of mind

But deleting Facebook is only one part of the solution. To remove oneself from the clutches of this corporation, it is only prudent to delete Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the most popular social media and instant messaging apps in the world, both owned by Mark Zuckerberg. Neither of this is easily done. Journalist Brian Koerber on Mashable wrote, “Go ahead, take my Facebook, but don't you dare touch my Instagram,” adding that, “Instagram is simpler than Facebook. It can be personal, but it's less revealing… I still feel comfortable sharing snapshots of my life on Instagram.”

Koerber’s piece offers insight into all the reasons people refuse to quit social media despite knowing all the traps, pitfalls and the actual dangers of handing over data to a corporation that uses it to manipulate election results. It is comfort that stops us from quitting.

Over the years, the concept of “out of sight, out of mind” has undergone a mutation as it were. One’s visibility on social media is all it takes to stay on people’s minds. A corollary to that axiom is fundamentally existential: does one’s existence matter to a large group if they are not present (or hugely active) on social media?

This, too, is a fear that stops people from quitting the website.

The death of us

In light of all that has happened over the last two years (at the very least) as evident from the Cambridge Analytica controversy, there is no doubt that Facebook should be deleted. The time has come. Yet, for now, a world without Facebook is a world hard to imagine.

Having given away our privacy and data to enjoy a few creature comforts, does it make sense to quit Facebook now? In fact, does deleting one’s account even matter?

According to Safiya Noble, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Southern California and the author of Algorithms of Oppression, “deleting individual Facebook accounts will not solve the total datafication of our lives.” She argues that while deleting your account may offer some temporary satisfaction, it has “little impact on finding real solutions to the way data is being collected, sold, and used against the public. This issue isn’t just about one platform like Facebook, and the issues of surveillance and experimentation on the public, it’s about the many companies that are tracking and profiling us, and the abuses of power that come from having vast troves of information about us, available for exploitation”.

In 2014, a group of analysts on CNBC concluded that Facebook will continue to be a success for a long time to come and that it’s unlikely its position at the top will be toppled anytime soon. There may be some merit to that prediction. Despite Facebook being at the centre of global criticism and possible legal prosecution, it seems likely that except for a handful of people — anti-surveillance activists, paranoid conspiracy theorists and whistleblowers — the suggestion to delete Facebook will be met with either a non-committal shrug or a vehement no.

Social media, especially Facebook, might just be the death of us. Yet, we are surprisingly okay with that.

We find ourselves amid the Stockholm syndrome.

Álso read: Why are liberals mad at Ram Guha?


Pathikrit Sanyal Pathikrit Sanyal @bucketheadcase

The author is a culture writer who likes talking about the internet, memes, privacy and all things pop culture.

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