As people are becoming aware of the negative impacts of social media, there is interest in how to reduce or remove the negative impacts. People are interested in keeping their identity safe from manipulation and identity theft, finding factual information and reducing the divisiveness and anger expressed on these sites. Social media has magnified these issues, however, the driving force of advertising dollars implies these issues carry over into other media, such as newspapers, television and radio. Data is gathered by all media companies and used to drive their content or sold to other companies for these sames uses.
A simple answer of avoiding negative outcomes from social media is to not use social media and delete all accounts associated with these sites. However, that answer ignores the benefits that people have gained, such as easier access in posting content, sharing media with friends and family, and increased access for small business to large audiences for low cost. There are people who are dependent on social media for their business, especially during this time of pandemic. As I see it, the technology exists and isn’t going to disappear so we will need to work through how best to use and control this data. The focus should be on returning social media and advertising to tools that are uses to improve lives. Right now these tools are serving other interests and not necessarily in ways that benefit all of us.
I have provided a list of actions that can help to reduce the impact. I’ve also included activities that are meant to work to improve things in the future and for more people.
Technical Tools and Steps
This first section is a list of tools that can be used to minimize some of the negative parts of social media and the web. These tools may require extra effort for setup and use. I consider the benefit of protecting my browsing experience to be worth the extra effort. I also realize that this list may seem intimidating for people who aren’t used to these tools. I recommend picking an area to focus on and work on improving your safe guards in that area. Even adding one tool can help to improve your data protection. If you feel stuck in setting up and using a tool, I recommend searching for tutorials to help out. I will also add that in some cases web sites may not work as expected if you are using things like ad blockers and other browser extensions. If your favorite site isn’t working or a video isn’t playing, that implies that there are ads involved in the display of content. If you turn off ad blocking, I recommend that you do it temporarily and only for one site. In some cases, it may be worthwhile to find another web site that provides the type of content you are interested in.
Use ad blocking tools – There is technology available for blocking ads within a browsers, usually installed as an extension for the browser. An extension extends the capability of a browser by using a pre-defined interface to plug in and work with the base software. I recommend the ad blocker uBlock Origin, I believe it is available for most of the major browsers. Myself, I use Firefox with uBlock Origin. I will include a list of extensions I use for privacy management at the end of the article. Firefox can also be installed on phones along with the extensions. I don’t use many apps on my phone so I’m not familiar with ads they might display and how to block them. There appear to be ad blockers for apps on smart phones but I’m reluctant to recommend them due to how they block the ads. They use a technique that may cause non-technical users issues in accessing other sites.
Don’t use social media apps on phone – Many of the social media sites have a specific app they provides for users to access the site. I recommend not using those apps and using a web browser instead. The apps can contain code that may be gathering more data than you want to provide. I have heard of anecdotal reports of people seeing ads on social media after having a conversation about products a few moments before. If they have social media apps installed, it is possible that they may be gathering more data than you want them to.
Keep Internet access turned off on smart phones – A smart phone can be a very helpful tool, especially with Internet access. This access can also provide a method for tracking you and monitoring your usage. I keep my wifi, data connection and blue tooth connections turned off and only turn them on when I need them. This won’t stop all upload of data, but it does slow it down. It does limit my access to some features, such as voice commands, but I find I am happy to leave that functionality behind in trade for my privacy.
Be Aware of Tracking by Smart Devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) – Smart phones are not the only devices where data can be gathered. With the availability of assistants like Siri, Alexa, and others, they also offer ways to gather data and track people. The use of voice activation is useful but means that the device is always ready to listen. Other devices such as smart televisions or other thermostats also offer ways that data can be gathered and hackers can enter into your home. These items are part of the Internet of Things (IoT), that can connect to the Internet and allow control of some device in your home over a phone app or computer software. In the rush to get these devices to market, many manufacturers have not incorporated strong security controls which leaves your data and privacy vulnerable to hackers. Congress has now passed legislation that will require increased security but in the meantime many devices are in operation and open to attacks. Check the support website for your device to see what can be done to secure it and lower your risk of hacking.
Turn off notifications – One of the attention demanding items of social media and other apps is notifications. Notifications are a key way to keep people addicted and checking a site. One of the first things I do with an app is find the settings and turn off every notification that I can. I prefer to not let my device become a leash. I also like to personalize the ring tone for people in my contact list that are important for me to respond to. That way, when I hear those ring tones, I will know it is a call that is important to me. I also turn off automatic notifications on social media sites, tuning it for messages that I like and turning off for items that are meant to keep my eyes glued to the screen.
Fluff Busting Purity (FBP) for Facebook – I use a web browser extension FBP when I browse Facebook. FBP allows me to block a lot of annoying things on Facebook so I can focus on the content I want to see. I am having some problems with this extensions due to the recent interface changes on Facebook. I am also using another extension to try and return it to the old look but it has problems with the display. I will say that with the protections I have turned on and the issues with the display that I am using Facebook less often.
Limit time on site with Productivity apps – One thing that sounds easy to do but may not be, is limiting time spent on social media sites. There are browser extensions that can help with this task. Productivity helpers allow people to set times and days of the week to block access to the sites. Some apps will log time spent on a site so people get feedback and see they are spending more time than they want to visiting social media or other sites. I use a tool called Leechblock to serve as a reminder to not browse social media on certain days of the week and at certain times. With more people working at home, an app like this can help out in reducing access.
List of Browser Extensions I Use for Privacy
I am including website links with each tool, however, I recommend installing them through an approved site, such as mozilla.org for Firefox, since the add-ons are checked
uBlock Origin – https://ublockorigin.com/ – This extension usually works with little intervention required for viewing sites
Leechblock – https://www.proginosko.com/leechblock/ – A tool for blocking sites that encourage spending a lot of time on them.
Privacy Badger – https://privacybadger.org/ – This extension works to block the trackers that sites like to use for your web site visits at other sites. There is a better explanation on the web page about how the extension works. It may require some tweaking to work but I have not had to tweak any settings for most sites I visit.
LastPass – https://lastpass.com/ – While this extension is not for use against tracking, it is an important tool for managing passwords. By using a password manager you have only one password to remember and can create a unique, long password for each site where you have an account. Many people use the same password for multiple sites, so hackers will try banking or shopping sites with emails and passwords from stolen data. With a unique password for each site, even if one password is compromised you will keep your other accounts safe. LastPass also supports the use of multi factor authentication for accessing your data. The stored passwords are encrypted and stored in the cloud so you can access them on multiple sites. There are other password managers, this is the one I’ve gotten used to and found helpful.
Antivirus Extension – Most antivirus software installs an extension for the web browser that monitors links. ANtivirus and these extensions are recommended to help prevent malicious software from running on your system. I use Webroot for my antivirus, which includes support for smart phones. I definitely recommend some type of antivirus for phones, they can also be hacked.
This section identifies area that don’t have a technical solution but that people should be aware of when they use social media and the web.
Be Aware of Your Data and Where You Post – Whenever using social media, be aware that your data is getting stored to re-use to drive advertising dollars. The data might be used to define markets, for facial recognition, and sold to 3rd party vendors who will use the data for their advertising. This data may or may not be stored securely and insecure data might be hacked later on. This data may be used to build a profile and targets for identity theft from other web sites, banks or credit cards. Answers to quizzes might be connected with other parts of your data in order to answer security questions for web sites that you use.
Treat Social Media as a tool – Social media can be a useful tool for connecting with businesses, finding information and building connections. Whenever social media is used, be aware of how you are using it. Are you gathering information, getting familiar with topics and building connections with people similar interests? Or are you getting angry at posts, responding in an angry way or joining in with others who are attacking a person or groups for their beliefs? If you are getting angry then you are letting social media push your behavior so that you stay on the site longer. This can occur if other strong emotions are invoked, even momentary bits of happiness about cute videos and pictures. If you feel strongly about a post, be aware and understand your emotions are getting used so that you and others will see more ads and generate revenue for the site
Focus your news feed – The sites use data gathered from your responses to various posts. Based on what posts you ‘like’ or post comments for, you will get more posts that are similar in tone. If you like posts that are posting hateful information about a person or group you will see more posts like that in your newsfeed. If you want to see more posts from family and friends, choose to like those posts. There are also settings that can be tweaked for each platform to increase the quantity of posts from family, friends and groups you are interested in. Also be aware that every like, every group followed, every comment posted is evaluated and used to create a profile of your interests that can be sold to an advertiser. For Facebook, I periodically review groups and pages that I’ve followed to make sure they still reflect my interests and the type of profile I wanted presented to the world. Your interests may have changed so it’s a good idea to remove items that no longer reflect your current interests
Understand permissions for apps on phone – If you do choose to use an app for social media on your phone, be aware that you are granting permission to the app to be able to perform certain functions. While the intent of these functions may be benign, they may be used in ways that you don’t want. For example, an app may ask for permission to access the microphone on the device. This will allow a user to use voice commands and allow for hands free use. If the app also has access to the network, the information from these requests can be sent to the Internet to a server so it can better decipher your request. The data from this request can then be stored and added to your profile to build a better picture of your interests.
Links for Awareness About Social Media and Advertising
Here are a few links of books, documentaries and other information about social media and advertising.
Netflix documentary – The Social Dilemma – This documentary explores the creation of social media and how the intent went astray from the creators intent
Trapped – The Secret Ways Social Media is Built to Be Addictive (and What you Can Do to Fight Back) – https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/trapped-the-secret-ways-social-media-is-built-to-be-addictive-and-what-you-can-do-to-fight-back/ – AN article that explores some of the ways social media is designed to keep you on the site
A Game Designer’s Analysis of QANon – https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5 – An article that explores how techniques used in game design can be used to build apparent connections on social media and use them to drive peoples actions
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen – A book that explores how the history of America has led to our current moment of fake news and distrust of media.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell – Thoughts about pushing back on the demand for our attention 24/7.
Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger NcNamee – A book written by an investor in Facebook who eventually realized the problems it was causing in the world.
After taking steps to protect your data and becoming aware of how your data is gathered, the next step is helping the community protect themselves. This section covers areas the people can choose to become involved in returning social media as a tool to help improve our lives
Regulation of Social Media -Many other activities are regulated in order to improve the health and safety of everyone. Restaurants and food plants are subject to inspections, there are requirements for cars to make them safer, housing codes exist so that people can be assured of the safety of buildings so adding regulations to improve the safety of on-line experiences would make sense. There are some regulations for the Internet, such as regulating access by children, and advertisements targeted for children. However, additional regulation could prove helpful, such as monitoring hate speech, having a well defined process for monitoring user activity and reporting on the activity, regulation of advertising such as what is allowable, who do the ads target and reining in practices that have harmful effects on people watching the ads. In the last few weeks there have been developments in this area with anti-trust lawsuits filed against Facebook and Google. Contact your federal and state legislators, and attorney general offices will help to let them know there is public support to rein in the practices of these tech giants.
Reach Out to Advertisers/Boycott Advertisers – When advertisements are displayed on social media sites, the company may not be aware their ads are displayed in areas that support hate speech. Or some advertisers may be aware of this and choose to keep their ads on that web site or platform. Some groups have started gathering lists of these companies and letting them know they do not like where their ads are appearing. If the companies do not change their practices, this can lead to a boycott. Many companies have changed where they display their advertising in response to this consumer actions. These type of campaigns have been successful in reducing advertising revenue for smaller social media platforms as advertisers pulled their ads and money from the web sites. Sleeping Giants is one organization I’m aware of, there may be other groups who also help out with this.
Share awareness with others – While it may be difficult, do what you can to share awareness with others about how their data is used and how they may be manipulated by social media and advertising. With the current environment of disinformation, it can be difficult to try and shift people away from practices that cause problems. If you experience anger when trying to share with another person, I recommend backing away from the conversation. The purpose of disinformation is to focus on our differences and cause divisiveness. See if you can come up with topics that you have in common with the other person in order to create a connection. There is more that unites us, if we take the time and energy to work on our community.
The World Wide Web is an invention that has changed the world and in thirty years has become embedded in our way of life in the USA. While it is tempting to propose simple solutions such as ban social media or delete accounts, this invention cannot be removed so easily. I see social media and other data gathering as a new part of the world that we need to be aware of and ensure that the data is managed responsibly. I feel that awareness of the issues is a first step in taming this beast that has been created.
Myself, I don’t see one simple solution, I think it will take us time to mold this new invention back into a tool that serves people and the communities we live in. Even small steps can make a difference as they build up over time. Mankind has dealt with tough problems before and experienced severe growing pains until people moved to a better way of doing things. I suspect we will find a way to live with this new creation of ours and tame it to serve our needs.