Leaving Facebook: What are the alternatives?

22 Mar 2018

Is leaving Facebook really that simple? Image: Serg001/Shutterstock

The Cambridge Analytica story is making many users consider parting ways with Facebook.

The revelations around Cambridge Analytica’s mass harvesting of data from millions of Facebook profiles has shaken the social media company’s already fragile foundations.

WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton recently joined the growing chorus of voices calling for Facebook users to jump ship.

Social media as a lifeline

Where, then, do those who escape the clutches of Facebook go to find communities like the ones they have already created and maintained for years? At this point, there is no real alternative to the site in every respect; no greener pastures to speak of.

Many community organisers, minority groups and isolated individuals use the platform as a lifeline. Its thousands of groups and 2.2bn users allow for a sense of community in an increasingly individualised and frenetic world.

For many, Facebook is the only way to run their business, organise protests and training events, or keep in touch with far-flung friends and family. Many online activists have noted the privilege inherent in being able to completely delete your Facebook accounts with no repercussions on your offline life.

The tale of the Graph API

Prof Jonathan Albright of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University explained in a Medium post that much of Facebook’s problems (particularly around Cambridge Analytica) involve the company’s Graph API which was launched in 2010 and was the primary way for apps to read and write to the Facebook Social Graph.

The Graph API, which was deprecated in 2014 and completely shuttered in April 2015, was designed in such a way that unusually rich seams of data about users’ friends were easily obtained from quizzes such as the one Cambridge Analytica allegedly used to harvest information. Facebook hailed this as “building a web where the default is social”. Albright said the “extended permissions” of the firm’s Graph API were the main issue and added that the company’s existing privacy settings are a “grand illusion”.

Albright explained: “In reality, Facebook users have the exact opposite ability to control what is passively shared about them –  meaning the information and metadata others can extract.”

Rather than overstating elements around the issue or simply telling people to delete their accounts, a thorough rethink of data privacy as a concept as well as an overhaul of the business models that built these tech giants is what is sorely needed. The social network’s power for organisation and role as a lifeline for many is not to be underestimated.

I still want to delete my account. What do I do?

Facebook offers you two different options; the first is deactivating your account. This means you can reactivate whenever you want and you can continue to use Messenger if you so wish. If you want to completely delete your account, you need to send a request to Facebook.

If you log back in following a request to deactivate, it is cancelled automatically, so be wary. At this stage, make sure sites that you use Facebook to authenticate yourself on allow you to change your verification method before the request is processed – for example, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

Accessing your Facebook archive before you decide to deactivate is also recommended. If you go to your general account settings, you will see an option to download a copy of your Facebook data. Clicking ‘Start my Archive’ begins this process.

What are the alternatives?

If you use Facebook Messenger to interact with and chat to family members, there are a whole host of frankly superior apps and services you can use. WhatsApp, while owned by Facebook, still has end-to-end encryption and is better than nothing. Signal is the standard for secure messaging – its encryption is used in WhatsApp and Acton recently funnelled millions of dollars into improving it.

For organising events, tools such as Doodle, Paperless Post and Eventbrite are very useful. Although migrating phone numbers and email addresses will seem like a pain at first, the knowledge that your interactions are more secure should be a positive catalyst to take the plunge.

Photo-sharing is a primary use of Facebook for many, and Instagram is also property of the company. While Google Photos, iCloud Photo Storage and others work well, social networks such as Tumblr are a good alternative if photos for public consumption are important to you.

Securing your internet experience

If you cannot delete Facebook at this point (and many can’t), there are ways you can secure it as best you can. Take a look around your app settings page on Facebook and see which apps and plugins have access to your information. Choose which details you want to keep private, such as religion or family– think of it as a spring clean.

Go directly to sites rather than taking quizzes through your Facebook login – this stops app developers from accessing the information on your profile.

Installing an extension such as Ghostery, Privacy Badger or Disconnect allows you to browse the internet while blocking company tracking requests such as the Facebook tracking pixel, which is embedded in numerous websites and lets advertisers monitor your browsing habits.

Once GDPR comes into force, data subjects will be able to take back control of their own data, and the threat of large fines means companies such as Facebook will now be obliged to share the information they store about you.

For those who want to take a long hard look at their privacy online in a more general sense, the Tactical Tech Data Detox is an equally enlightening and unnerving look into how tech firms track users – it’s far from just Facebook.

Updated, 4.40pm, 22 March 2018: This article was amended to reflect that the version of Facebook’s Graph API (v1.0) has not been in use since April 2015.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects