on
August 20, 2020

The more and more I have chewed on this issue on this the more and more I am convinced this is the correct decision for myself. I caught myself scrolling my newsfeed for about 15 minutes today and I was trying to keep track of things on my feed and asked if this was something I needed to see. Heavy emphasis on need. After that 15 minutes I didn’t see a single update from either friend updates or news that was worth my time. Yet throwing the sink out of the window will leave us with a gap that we have a responsibility to replace.

Part of this also has to do with trying to understand Facebook differently, viewing it as a collection of services allow us to identify the things we need to replace. Viewing Facebook like that also allows us to really see the functional uses we get out of Facebook and determine what’s important and what’s not. So many times, someone quits Facebook without any plan to support that post Facebook life and that combined with a general sense of FOMO, it ends up bringing people back. You want to make sure that wound from Weathertop does heal. When you become accustomed to an application for almost 15 years like I have, it actually makes sense that this is practically a complete rewiring of how I approach information, but at the end of the day it’s worth it.

Note: If you want to skip my diatribe below and go straight to the deleting, follow this link.

Why Are We Here?

When people think of misinformation and social media manipulation, they often miss the larger, more fundamental, subliminal shift it brings. It’s not just about convincing you that this politician is bad and this politician is good. It’s about completely altering your entire worldview and skewing it to a point of fear, poking, prodding, provoking you into a corner until just before you snap. Right in that moment before, it holds out its hand to you and offers you a relief from it and all it needs in return is your consent.

Engagement is the measurement of how a person or groups of people react to something. Facebook wants you engaged through clicking, browsing and commenting. From that engagement, Facebook measures everything they can. If you react to a news story with a bunch of political buzzwords used in a partisan manner, Facebook will mine that comment that then slowly alter the newsfeed to cater more to you. Increasing that engagement is the reason why headlines are so controversial, why fact checks are so necessary, and why you sometimes feel like some ads are reading your brain.

In one of my other blogposts, I mentioned how the line separating prediction and manipulation is much thinner than people realize. I feel as though the same is true for the line separating engagement and incitement, or maybe that line has just been blurred beyond recognition.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue is a London based think tank that recently did a study on Facebook and found that Facebook actively promotes Holocaust denialism due to how the algorithm is optimized. They found that when a user joins a group containing holocaust denial content, the Facebook algorithm would start recommending more of that same content. All it would need to take is 1 dumb meme, even if it’s unrelated, then a follow, and then the hose is turned on. Clicking, liking, or engaging further only snowballs it from there.

Researchers at NYU and Stanford studied the welfare affects of social media and found that users who left the site after 4 weeks end up having an increased subjective well being. They also found that it also caused a reduction in both factual news knowledge and political polarization. That might be something referenced a number of times, as you walk down this deletion path, but we can address that in replacements. Psychology today does deep dive in some more harmful effects here.

Why Not Just Mute?

I had a friend who asked me about the shadow profiles that Facebook has. If Facebook uses aggregation enough, then they’re going to get data about me anyway, so what’s the point in deleting? Why not just mute things?

Facebook has this specific kind of power because we actively and willingly give it our attention. That is the main catalyst here. We give it our attention, and then it presents us with something and then analyzes every possible data point to present us with something better or more relevant. As we continue to give it our attention, it molds us little by little, adjusting based on our reactions. The algorithm adjusts on the idea it’s getting more and more accurate while we are all driven insane. The second we step away, the moment we remove ourselves from that equation, the moment Facebook loses that fuel.

This is why Facebook tries to change your mind every chance they get when you are trying to delete your account. This is why Facebook suggests a deactivation as opposed to a deletion. This is why it also takes two weeks for the deletion request to go through.

What Service Does Facebook Provide You?

Leaving Facebook without a plan to replace the services it provides will eventually cause you to wander back. It’s helpful to document the separate things you get out of Facebook, and then replace those individual things. Since Everyone gets something different out of Facebook, I’m going to document my use case as an example.

Facebook is so effective because it automates the maintenance of a relationship where we normally would do have to do it manually. For example, I have a friend back in Pennsylvania who’s not on Facebook. When I want to be in touch with him, I have to message him directly and ask how things have been, if I there are any photos, I could ask, but that is kind of creepy. Imagine a high school buddy messaging you out of the blue for pictures.

If him and I were Facebook buddies, he could post and I could see it. All of his updates would automatically be in my feed without much effort between us. This is the mountain you have to climb, but don’t worry, I’m not saying you have to reach out directly to all 500 or 1000 of your friends, but understand that leaving Facebook means you either need to find some other shared feed to do that maintenance automatically or completely manage them yourself and we honestly don’t have enough time in the day to manage everyone. So you have to accept your circle of friends might reduce considerably, but take heed that the very definition of those friends will be something so much closer to the original definition of such. I’d rather have 20 close friends than 700 distant acquaintances because we crossed paths a couple times.

For me, I’ve tried to outline the main function that Facebook provides for me and what I am doing to completely replace them. You might find my alternatives useful, but everyone has a specific use case and at the end of the day you have to find what works best for you.

1.) News
2.) Messages
3.) Events
4.) Groups
5.) Friend Maintenance

1.) News

This is the easy big one, Facebook is an atrocious news aggregator. Oh look, here’s an article from the Gateway Pundit, the guy who pumps gas in my town thinks is profound. And here are a dozen BuzzFeed articles about making vodka with gummy worms shared by the college kids. Oh here is the story of a tragic little boy killed turned into a political football meant to only push a political position. If you want a news aggregator, get a real news aggregator.

My Alternative: Feedly

I started using Feedly about a year ago and I love it. It runs on a freemium model where you can have a free account, but it requires money to get into more advanced stuff which I think is worth it to have this much control over a feed. It allows you to great groups of feeds from various sources, but also that means that its up to you to add them or remove some you feel like are only adding noise.

For examples I have a food group that incorporates some food YouTube channels and a number of magazine and newspaper food sections. I have groups for video game news, information security news, podcasts, US politics, international politics, and so on. Paying for feedly doesn’t get you past some publications paywall so keep that in mind if you want to use this for some of those. If you’re building your feedly and need to gauge media bias in selecting you stuff, check this page out to help. Also, if you do start to use Feedly, just so you now, you can add the website by searching for ltmiles.com, thanks.

2.) Messages

This is a quick one, but at the same time a little more difficult because this also hinges on your group of friends and their willingness to follow or not. Messenger is one of the worst ways to communicate if you are interested in privacy whatsoever.

My Alternative: Signal

There are others like Threema, Wire, Briar, and iMessage, but before I start going down a rabbit hole about metadata, anonymization, and trust, Signal was the simplest that not only I can use, but also the easiest I can convince my family to install which is the main people I want to ensure has that line of communication with me.

Signal is tied to a phone number so it was ridiculously simple to install, enter display name, confirm the text and you’re up and running. It’s open source and its encryption has been audited by 3rd parties to properly implement end to end encryption. Some people don’t like being required to tie an account to the phone number or that signal checks your contact list for other signal users, but for my threat model, it works.

Another thing is moving to a messenger service that people you communicate with also have. If I’m the only one using this service, it’s going to be mighty lonely. This probably has made me annoying if you and I have talked in real life, I probably told you to install signal and use that. If I did, consider it a gesture that I want to stay in touch. On android, signal can also be used for SMS messages, which is convenient for those who don’t install it, but SMS are completely plain text and lack and should not be treated as private.

Signal doesn’t store messages, so the messages you send a receive are only on the devices involved in the message, you can send up to 100MB in files or media which is more than enough for all those dank memes. Signal can also be installed on Desktop computers as well after you create an account tied to the phone. Which creates another externality. If you get your phone stolen, those private texts are still on the device. Ensure you have the ability of remote wiping your device and have a sufficient lock or pin on it.

What happens if none of my friends want to install signal? At the end of the day, you have to find the balance right in the middle of keeping in contact with the people you want while also have the peace of mind no one, including another computer is reading your messages. If you want to use an insecure messaging app, its perfectly fine IF you are aware of what that entails and consider it acceptable.

If you’re curious about WhatsApp, look no further than Brain Acton, one of the co-founders of WhatsApp. In 2014, WhatsApp was bought by Facebook and in 2017, Brian left due to a fundamental disagreement with Facebook’s eventual monetization of WhatsApp and he left $850 million on the table in the process. After he left he said Facebook compelled him to mislead the EU regulators regarding Facebook’s intention to merge Facebook and WhatsApp user data, yikes. Once he left, he started the Signal foundation with Moxie Marlinspike.

3.) Events

By events, I am talking festivals or concerts that happen around me where I am informed and reminded that they happen. Occasionally Facebook will recommend concerts and this is probably one of the biggest uses I got out of Facebook. It even sometimes added things to my Facebook calendar automatically like reminding me that there were still TOOL tickets available, nice. However, at the same time, have you ever been in a situation where you you are constantly fed things you want, after a while you feel like a little gear in a giant moneymaking machine.

The only quick fix would be to lean more into the likes of Ticketmaster which is a clear hell no in my opinion. I have used BandsInTown years ago, but I honestly haven’t give them an deep dive since. Since we’re in a pandemic, solving this probably isn’t as important, I’m fine with leaving this empty for a couple months. I’ll probably adjust my recommendations in a follow up in a few months. (God I hope we’re out of this pandemic soon)

My Alternative: N/A (Looking at BandIntown in the future)

4.) Groups

I used to be involved in a number of religious and pastoral groups on Facebook. There were some amazing conversations that I had with strangers in pretty good groups here and there. LA Comedy is a regular source of comedy bullshit where mics are posted. Groups are a very helpful slice of a population that is specifically relevant to a particular topic. Facebook was helpful here, but there are plenty of other places you can interact with groups of specific interest. I have had some success with Reddit and Twitter, but I wouldn’t recommend either of them without warnings that they are all susceptible to manipulation and can become a time suck.

Reddit: I’ve had success because of the niche groups I follow (Homelab, Game streaming, VR, Infosec, privacy, pc gaming, etc.). However, Reddit has has its own problem with manipulation in the past and I would say it’s still an attack surface that’s probably not much better than Facebook, but you do have more freedom in unjoining default subreddits that are susceptible to manipulation. Anytime there is a platform with a ranking system that will alter how or when someone sees something, expect a large amount of people all trying to game it.

Twitter: If I recommend Twitter as alternative, I expect you to laugh at me in the face. The reason why it works for me is given the incident-response nature of Information security, a lot of people in my industry use it and it’s surprising effective for this specific use. In fact, I know a number of people in the industry that have been hired based on contacts made on it. Sometimes its not the tool, sometimes its how you use it. Twitter has made some recent changes to curb the abuse like hiding replies and allowing tweet authors to control who can respond to their tweets. There are now large blocklists that can allow you to really tune out the noise of accounts calculated to be bots.

With Covid forcing many to adjust to a remote, quarantined life. More and more companies are entering the game and trying to create these areas for people to connect. Discord is starting to lean more into public servers too.

Recommendation: Various with heavy curation

5.) Friend Maintenance

My Alternative: none

This is the hardest one in all of this. The automated friend Maintenance that Facebook provides does serve some very real purpose in keeping up with everyone and I currently do not see a replacement.

I consider this acceptible, because of research about how many relationships we can even maintain at all. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has calculated that we’re only able to maintain around five close friendships at a time with a maximum of distant friendships at around 150. If leaving Facebook means my contacts or acquaintances drop from 800 to less than a 100, then so be it.

If you’ve not heard of Robin Dunbar before, you might be familiar with one of his theories: Dunbar’s Number, which proposes that the average human being can only maintain 150 or so social friendships with any degree of stability. It makes sense that of these 150-ish friendships, some of those are closer than others. According to Dunbar, these inner circles are about five people deep even smaller than what Myspace Tom thought we could handle.

From this innermost circle of friends, the friendship limit gets larger and larger. The next circle of friends – people who you are pretty close with – averages to about 10 people. After that, an even less close group of about 35. The final, and furthest away group comes in at 100, rounding out the list to 150, which is the maximum amount based on Dunbar’s Number.

It makes sense, in fact it actually opens my eyes to why I feel like even though I have 10 times as many “Friends” as before, I don’t have a single one with the depth of what I used to have years before. Often times we can perhaps become so used to the minimal, surface level aquantency of that larger group, but not realize that innermost circle of friends you should have is completely missing.

What about Instagram? Like every other app in the Facebook ecosystem, it’s going to be stretched and squeezed out of every possible dollar it can generate. Currently I don’t plan to delete my Instagram, yet. Personally I have used to use it differently than the norms that are growing out of it now. A couple of years ago I started following anyone would would also follow me, I ended up absolutely ruining my feed and its filled with the most random garbage now. I will definitely be taking the time to go through and delete people I have no interest in clogging my feed.

Instagram is still “mostly” original content and the ability of sharing, recently there are more and more apps that have enabled the ability to re-share posts. At the same time, more and more applications are creating the ability to re-share content which is a large part of why newsfeeds end up being a compost bin of everyone’s content.

Personally, I’m big into photography and many of my posts are travel diaries that are almost priceless to me, so if I do deleting my Instagram, I will probably archive that feed here or something, but until then. I’ll be there.

Deletion guides

If you’re going to do this, I would recommend posting a deletion Epitaph, a notice for everyone as a heads up and all the various alternative ways someone can get in contact with you. I will post my on my Facebook and leave up for a week or so before I actually file the deletion. As for you, if you have made it this far and are insistent on continuing with me, I wish you well as you follow the guides below.

Click here to delete Facebook

Click here to delete Instagram

Click here to delete WhatsApp

If you have any questions, comments, concerns, anything, feel free to either reach out to me on twitter or send me an email here.

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Logan T. Miles M.S.ISA, CISSP, HCISSP
Long Beach, CA

Logan is an Information Security Engineer based out of Long Beach.

The content and opinions displayed on this website are mine and mile alone. None of the content here is presented on behalf of any of my employers and the content seen here does not reflect the positions or opinions of anyone else.