If I had known how much moral capital I’d be able to accrue by deleting my Facebook account in 2018, I wouldn’t have deleted my Facebook account in 2007.
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) March 28, 2018
Siva Vaidhyanathan contends that people currently on Facebook should not delete their accounts but rather stay and try to change it:
So go ahead and quit Facebook if it makes you feel calmer or more productive. Please realize, though, that you might be offloading problems onto those who may have less opportunity to protect privacy and dignity and are more vulnerable to threats to democracy. If the people who care the most about privacy, accountability and civil discourse evacuate Facebook in disgust, the entire platform becomes even less informed and diverse. Deactivation is the opposite of activism.
As you might guess from the tweet posted above, I am not especially sympathetic to this argument. It seems to me that there is no connection at all between deactivation and activism: a person could pursue both or neither or one rather than the other. Vaidhyanathan argues that “Hope lies … with our power as citizens. We must demand that legislators and regulators get tougher. They should go after Facebook on antitrust grounds.” But this can be done by people who don’t have Facebook accounts.
He says that “Our long-term agenda should be to bolster institutions that foster democratic deliberation and the rational pursuit of knowledge. These include scientific organizations, universities, libraries, museums, newspapers and civic organizations.” This too can be done by people who don’t have Facebook accounts.
He says “If we act together as citizens to champion these changes, we have a chance to curb the problems that Facebook has amplified. If we act as disconnected, indignant moral agents, we surrender the only power we have: the power to think and act collectively.” Again, no Facebook account is required to think and act collectively.
It’s only in his concluding paragraph (the first one I quote above) that Vaidhyanathan comes close to making an argument for staying on Facebook — or, in my case, returning to it, since his logic would demand not just that existing users stay on but that non-users sign up. “If the people who care the most about privacy, accountability and civil discourse evacuate Facebook in disgust, the entire platform becomes even less informed and diverse” — well, then, I suppose that people like me who do care about “privacy, accountability and civil discourse” need to run to Facebook right away. But does this make sense?
I don’t think so. If I see people being swept away by a powerful flood, it is unlikely that my best course of action is to leap into the water with them. I would do better to try to bring them to the safety of the shore. To put the case less metaphorically, it would make more sense for people to bring knowledge and sweet reason to Facebook if they could be sure that their friends regularly saw their knowledge and sweet reason. But the company’s algorithms are written in such a way that that’s highly unlikely. Even those who take delight in knowledge and sweet reason are unlikely to take the incredibly complicated and often fruitless steps a user has to take to bring any kind of sanity at all to a Facebook feed.
So I continue to think that deactivation-plus-activism is the way to go — not least because if there is anything that could drive Facebook to make actual changes to their platform (as opposed to the make-believe changes they regularly announce), it would surely be a significant drop in their user base.