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Giving Facebook less data is a good idea. Even better: Just use it less

You can take some steps to limit how much Facebook knows about you. But as long as you use the service, it can monetize your interests and activity.

Giving Facebook less data is a good idea. Even better: Just use it less
[Source images: 3DSculptor/iStock; Flickr user Anthony Quintano]
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The past several months have served up many reasons to see Facebook as the antisocial network.

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It lets political candidates lie in paid ads that they can then microtarget to the easily duped. It tolerates fake pages until outside watchdogs call them out. And it’s chosen—in contrast to Twitter—to look past President Trump lying about mail-in ballots or endorsing extrajudicial executions by U.S. troops in U.S. streets.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has declared his own “visceral negative reaction” to Trump’s reactionary posts. But Facebook still gives the frequently inaccurate Trump-worshipping site Breitbart a privileged spot in its mobile app’s News section. And Trump’s most prominent techie fan, press-menacing investor Peter Thiel, retains a spot on Facebook’s board.

If you see Zuckerberg and Facebook on the wrong side of history—a sentiment now voiced by some Facebook employees—shoving the site out your social-media airlock can be tempting.

But as Facebook self-exiles like my friend Dan Tynan have found, deleting Facebook means missing a lot of interaction that doesn’t happen elsewhere online.

Can you instead keep using Facebook for its core friends-and-family use while making yourself less of an asset to that company?

The answer evokes that old Facebook standby: It’s complicated. You can and should take key steps to limit Facebook’s data collection. But while you can shave the money Facebook makes from selling ads targeted to your interests, this tactic isn’t as effective as spending less time—or no time at all—on the service.

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“This is actually very hard,” says Nima Gardideh, cofounder of the New York marketing agency Pearmill. “Even if you’re on the extreme ends of trying to protect your data, the reality is that Facebook understands you very well.”

Essential steps

Consider two of the most commonly suggested privacy upgrades: blocking Facebook’s mobile apps from tracking your location in the background and stopping the service from tracking your browsing across the web through the Like and Share buttons at sites such as this one.

(My own blog also had Facebook widgets until I deleted them—mainly because Google reported they bogged down load times.)

On privacy grounds, you should do both immediately. Exercise the settings in iOS or Android to block the Facebook app’s background location tracking, use Facebook’s Off-Facebook Activity setting to stop it from tracking your browsing elsewhere, and limit your desktop Facebook use to browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari that block this tracking.

The most significant thing I did is, I deleted the apps from my phone.”

Jason Kint, Digital Content Next
Facebook didn’t answer my queries about how many users had opted out of those two forms of tracking, but it certainly benefits from the information these steps help you protect. “I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is for Facebook, or for any company that’s competing to sell advertising, to be able to track users off their own property,” says Dina Srinivasan, a former digital-advertising executive who now critiques the industry as a fellow at the Yale University-hosted Thurman Arnold Project.

But that information is less essential to Facebook as long as you keep spending time on Facebook itself.

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“Yes, you can disable these options and less information will be collected about you,” said Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO of the New York ad agency Socialbakers. “But there will be enough information collected about you just by being on the platform.”

He added that his firm still sees greater engagement for ads run on Facebook than elsewhere: “That indicates where the value stands.”

If you want to dent Facebook’s business model, you’ll also need to dent your time there—even as Facebook continues to optimize for, as Gardideh put it, “making it so that you, the user, will continue coming back.”

Gardideh, fed up with Facebook’s feckless approach to Trump, is now advising Pearmill’s clients to divert their ad spending elsewhere. Wednesday, a coalition led by such groups as the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and Free Press launched a #StopHateforProfit campaign urging businesses to pull all their ads from Facebook properties throughout July; the North Face, Patagonia and REI have since signed on.

Trimming your friends list to people you’d invite into your house, then quitting most of the groups and pages you follow, will give you fewer reasons to spend time on Facebook without nuking its core close-relationships value.

Turning off Facebook’s notifications can also shrink your screen time there. On iOS, deleting Facebook’s mobile app and using only its mobile site will zero out its ability to tug at your digital sleeve, because mobile sites can’t send push notifications on iPhones.

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“The most significant thing I did is, I deleted the apps from my phone,” said Jason Kint, CEO of the online-publishing group Digital Content Next and a critic of Facebook and Google’s reach. “That you can do without losing the content itself.”

Gardideh, Srinivasan, and Kint back regulation to curb Facebook’s collection of data. Forcing Facebook to undo its purchase of Instagram would also give people a choice of massively used, mobile-first social networks.

But Kint held out hope for small actions beginning to snowball.

“If you cut back your usage by 10% or you delete the apps, enough people do that and it does start to have a significant impact to the business.”

About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

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