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A guide to escaping Facebook’s evil clutches without, erm, actually deleting it

What do you do if you don’t want to be a victim of Facebook’s mind control, but still really want to keep up to date with Sarah from Year Nine’s hen party? 

Earlier this week, leaked documents revealed Facebook can identify when teenagers feel “stressed”, “defeated” and “overwhelmed” and could use this information to target advertisements. According to The Australian, the social network told a top Australian bank that they could monitor young users’ emotional states and target them when they’re feeling insecure. Facebook claimed the report was misleading. Headlines ensued.

While it’s disturbing that Facebook can – and according to one ex-employee, does – do this, the technology involved isn’t the stuff of a harrowing dystopian novel. The report says Facebook can determine when young people feel “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless” and a “failure” – to which, duh. It can most likely tell this because these are literally options on Facebook’s “Feeling” button (yep, even “useless”), which allows users to post a status about their emotional state. The most shocking thing about the report, then, is that teenagers are bothering to tell Facebook how they feel at all.

Facebook is dead. Not only do headlines like the above surface every week about the network’s dodgy dystopian dealings (here’s a list of every Facebook controversy in 2016), the site also simply isn’t cool. No one likes Facebook. No wants to be on Facebook. But we all keep using it.

Why? A Twitter search for the words “want to delete Facebook but” reveals a myriad of reasons. Some don’t want to lose pictures, others need to keep in touch with friends and family, others need it for their jobs, or to remember birthdays. Facebook is incredibly troubling – but it’s also incredibly useful, meaning all too often the “Delete Account” button remains untouched.

So what do you do if you don’t want Facebook to turn you into a puppet for its mind-control games, but still also really want to look at Sarah from Year Nine’s new baby to remind you that oh my God, babies really can look that weird?

1. Review what Facebook knows about you

Are you ready to be shocked? Visit www.facebook.com/ads/preferences to find out everything that Facebook knows about you (and uses to send you ads).

Under “Your interests”, click through the tabs such as “Hobbies and activities” and “Shopping and fashion” to view the very specific things Facebook knows. It can be very eerie (it knows I like the colour red, chicken nuggets, and Harry Potter) and also hilariously wrong (it thinks I like Prince Charles, a singular “eyelash”, and the sport curling).

Whether it’s right or wrong, the sheer amount Facebook knows is sure to unnerve. Under the “Your information” tab (scroll down from “Your interests”), the site knows what it defines as “Your categories” – things such as your political leanings, the devices you use, and how many close friends have their birthdays coming up. It knows that I have housemates, am a millennial, and am “close friends of ex-pats”.

2. Delete, delete, delete

Facebook knows all this stuff for three reasons. 1) Because you told them it by filling in your information, 2) because you told them it by Liking pages and sharing links, and 3) because it follows you across the web and tracks what you do and see.

1) and 2)  are pretty darn easy to solve. Delete anything from your profile that you don’t really need to be on there – such as your employment history, places you’ve lived, and schools. If you think “Hang on there, love, I want that stuff out there!” then take a second to remember that Facebook founder Mark Zuckberg once called its users “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their “emails, pictures, addresses” and other personal information.

Next delete this information from your ad preferences by clicking the little cross at the top of each image. Then, un-like all the random pages you most likely Liked back in 2007, when telling Facebook you enjoy Tango (Orange) was of the utmost importance. You’ll still see adverts – that’s the whole reason Facebook is free – but they’ll be less targeted and less, you know, creepy-invasions-of-privacy-y.

3. Change your settings

Good news! By clicking here you can change how Facebook targets ads towards you. You can make it so they can’t serve you adverts based on the sites you visit by turning the setting “Off”. You can also turn off Facebook adverts on other sites and make it so that none of your friends can see it when you click Like on an advertisement.

Under the “About you” section (within the “Your information” tab) you can also make it so Facebook can’t target adverts to you based on your job, relationship status, or education - simply toggle these options off. By clicking over to “Your categories” you can then click the little cross on the information it’s collected, so adverts aren’t targeted based on these details.

4. Don’t post emotional, revealing statuses

At the best of times, it’s not a good idea to post about how you hate Tim-from-work’s tuna sandwiches or how your lover lied to you about his ex, Sandra, and how Sandra is honestly, not even pretty, but you don’t want to talk about it, just inbox me ok?

So firstly, don’t, and secondly don’t use Facebook’s “Feeling” button to reveal your emotional state if you do. Also, if you can resist, don’t “Check In” to places you visit or reveal any information that, really, Facebook doesn’t need to know.

5. Turn off facial recognition, now

Looking for a plot for your dystopian novel? Well title it Reality and sell it in the non-fiction section, because Facebook can – and does – recognise your face in photos to allow people to tag them. To turn this off, visit your Settings, click “Timeline and tagging” and choose “No one” after the very last question on the page, “Who sees tag suggestions when photos that look like you are uploaded?”

6. Update your Settings

While you’re there, make sure your privacy settings are as tight as then can be, and delete any apps that you no longer use but have attached to your Facebook account over the years. Next time you sign up for a new service, instead of going for the quick “Sign up with Facebook” option, register independently as a new user. It’s slower, but it limits the mammoth amount of information Facebook has about you.

You can also revoke Facebook's access to your phone and email contacts, so that it can stop recommending you friends based on who you text.

7. Block third-party cookies

Not the delicious kind (please keep eating the cookies provided at actual, real life birthday parties for three year olds). Cookies are text files which store information about the sites you’ve visited – which can be very useful for personalising your experiences on a site or remembering which items you put in your Amazon shopping basket. Pretty much every website uses cookies, but some sites – like Facebook – have cookies on other people’s sites (third-party cookies).

For example, if a page has a “Like us on Facebook” button, then Facebook will also be able to view these cookies, therefore tracking you across the web. The good news is that Safari blocks third-party cookies by default, but if you use Chrome or Firefox, you’ll have to do it yourself. Here’s an incredibly useful guide on how to block third-party cookies.

8. Keep your account, but don’t really use it

If you need Facebook to remember Aunty Judy’s birthday and keep up to date with events, then why bother updating your profile with your life decisions or photos of your face? Use your account for what you need it for, and little else.

9. Accept your culpability in the downfall of humanity and the eventual enslavement of the human race by Mark Zuckerberg

Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos.

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Image: Getty
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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.