Should I delete my Facebook account?

Ethical and political dilemmas abound these days. Seems like we’re all in need of a New Internationalist perspective. Enter stage: Agony Uncle.

Q: The more I discover about Facebook the less I like it – from fake news, to pervasive user-tracking, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and targeting dodgy ads at me, it seems like it is finding ways to make money out of keeping tabs on everything that my friends or I do online. I’ve tried setting up accounts on different social-media platforms like Mastodon and Diaspora, but no matter how much I nag my friends and family or make the case for privacy they just won’t leave Facebook (or Instagram or Whatsapp, which Facebook also owns). It’s like they’ve got a bad case of tech-giant Stockholm syndrome. Should I delete my Facebook account and risk losing touch with everyone or should I just accept my lot as a data point in a dystopian surveillance capitalist future?

Mark, California

A: You’re not alone. Dilemmas abound about our dependence on this huge, sinister advertising oligopoly called social media. It colonizes free time and commodifies social life. There is evidence linking its overuse with mental-health problems. And yet: it’s quite a useful way of chatting with people and organizing events. And so we stay.

I admire your effort to try ethical alternatives. But I’m not surprised that the flock hasn’t followed. It requires effort to opt out of something so hegemonic and universal as Facebook or WhatsApp. The problem links to a general political and cultural problem. Should we quit the mainstream and escape to the fringes or engage with society? These two options are not mutually exclusive – the Zone to Defend (ZAD) commune in France, for example, is a microcosm of an alternative life that has confronted the state and halted the construction of an entire airport – but they represent different ways to change the world.

For now, try to use Facebook without letting it use you.

My instinct is to err with the German philosopher Adorno’s maxim: ‘The wrong life cannot be lived rightly.’ We can make a difference, but not through lifestyle changes alone, since we live in such a deeply compromised world. We must upend the social, economic and political order that allows tech giants to get to that position of power in the first place. I’m thinking about building political coalitions to break them up, nationalize them or – much like the BBC in the UK – create publicly funded alternatives.

I think what we don’t like about social media, beyond the unsavoury data or electoral practices that we can, theoretically, regulate away, is that it represents an impoverished form of life. Memes are funny, don’t get me wrong. But isn’t the desire to leave social media a displaced desire for a richer social existence? And the root cause of that sense of lack isn’t Facebook, but this 40-year neoliberal project that we have been living under. Social media isn’t stopping us from inviting our neighbours whose names we don’t know round for dinner or finally setting up that community-run film festival. Used in the right way, it might even help facilitate it.

For now, try to use Facebook without letting it use you. Sparingly, critically. Download your photos and save them to a hard-drive. Don’t tag yourself in photos. Use a pseudonym. Slowly, as we build a better world through sustained political action, as others have done before, we might find that the power of titans like that other Mark in California simply withers away.