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What Deleting Facebook Does and Does Not Accomplish

In the wake of the tech company’s latest privacy scandal, is a meaningful consumer boycott possible?

Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, backlash against Facebook gained traction after the founder of one of the company’s most popular apps made a public statement. Brian Acton, who netted over $3 billion when he sold WhatsApp to Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, tweeted: “It is time. #deletefacebook.” At this point, it was clear that a movement to quit Facebook was rising, as tens of thousands of people pledged to digitally purge themselves of the world’s most popular social network.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally spoke on the controversy in a series of interviews on Wednesday evening, and by that point, the company was in a PR crisis. The surge in public ire arrived after The New York Times and The Observer published exposés into the practices of Cambridge Analytica, a shadowy, Stephen Bannon–approved political consulting firm, which uses Facebook data to target potential voters for clients, including the Trump campaign. The initial reports traced how psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan had provided Cambridge Analytica with information gleaned from tens of millions of Facebook profiles, violating Facebook’s code of conduct after the fact. (Further reporting from the UK’s Channel 4 News revealed that Cambridge Analytica’s CEO had privately boasted of using bribes and blackmail to influence elections.)

Some anger toward Facebook stemmed from its lack of transparency. Facebook had learned of the violation in 2015, yet it fessed up only when caught out. Plus, the company attempted to cast itself as a victim instead of a sophisticated data merchant. “Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules,” Facebook wrote last week, laying out the larger problem--Kogan hadn’t deviously hacked into Facebook. He had simply taken data made available to him and used it in a way that made Facebook look reprehensible.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a lurid refresher on how Facebook’s business model relies on scavenging personal data, and it was only the most recent serious lapse in trustworthiness for the company. Since the 2016 election, Facebook has weathered several serious scandals of its own making, as its converging roles in spreading propaganda and corrupting public discourse and elections came into focus. The website’s ability to spread disinformation has become so harmful that just last week, United Nations investigators said Facebook played a role in spreading hate speech that led to genocide in Myanmar. The appeal of #DeleteFacebook is obvious: Quitting Facebook must feel so gratifying right now, like finally squeezing out a splinter that kept reminding you about your acquaintances’ babies. A company can have only so many world-warping ethical and geopolitical catastrophes before people get fed up. A boycott’s potential for change, however, is less obvious.

Consumer-driven protest is older than the United States itself; the Boston Tea Party is not only the most famous historical example of Bostonians having public tantrums, but also a proto-American screw-you with real repercussions. More recently, boycotts hastened Bill O’Reilly’s cable news demise and tarnished Uber’s brand reputation, spurring then-CEO Travis Kalanick to step down from his advisory role on President Trump’s business council.

While boycotts are commonplace and frequently attention-grabbing, they rarely bite into a company’s bottom line. After Dan Cathy, CEO and chairman of the Georgia-based fast food franchise Chick-fil-A, publicly disagreed with marriage equality, the company experienced several different boycotts, from a nationwide campaign in 2012 to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio encouraging locals to abstain from eating at the company’s midtown locations; Chick-fil-A remains astoundingly successful. Recent boycotting from antigun activists did lead to dozens of corporate partners reneging on agreements to provide National Rifle Association members with perks (a boycott which spread rapidly through, yes, Facebook). But while it inconvenienced and enraged some NRA members, the boycott alone is a small part of a wider movement to change America’s relationship with guns, and will ultimately not do much to shape how gun laws are created or how people can be kept safe. NRA members might not get discounts on rental cars as easily, but the NRA is still a formidable lobbying force unlikely to be meaningfully hobbled by a boycott alone. Many organizers are aiming to push changes through immediate public relations kerfuffles rather than by directly scuttling profits or disrupting long-term business or organizational goals.

“In general, boycotts don’t work,” Wharton School professor Maurice Schweitzer told me. “The reason why they don’t work is that it takes a really persistent, motivated effort to inconvenience yourself and forgo the benefits of whatever the company’s offering to make a point.” Outrage does not often translate into sustained action, especially when the action makes life more difficult. “In this case, it’s difficult to imagine that people who have been interconnected on Facebook with high school and college friends and family members scattered across the world will really stop doing that.”

But not everyone measures the success of boycotts in the same way. “Boycotts operate at the level of brand, not bottom line,” said Shannon Coulter, who organized the nationwide Trump boycott GrabYourWallet, which encourages people to abstain from shopping at stores selling Trump wares. “In that sense, yes, I do think it could be effective. I feel that the sentiment behind people participating in #DeleteFacebook is for tech companies at large to think more deeply about their relationship to users.” The #DeleteFacebook movement is, likewise, at best a small way to antagonize Facebook rather than a prospective engine for change, where it’s more important to raise a sustained ruckus about Facebook’s problems than it is to actually quit Facebook. Creating a hashtag on a rival social network about the need to eliminate Facebook probably did put Mark Zuckerberg and other company executives on high alert about how angry people are, but it was more likely evidence that the backlash is affecting investor confidence than an actual drop in the user base that set off C-suite alarm bells. Zuckerberg certainly didn’t credit it with much on his media apology tour on Wednesday night. “I don’t think we’ve seen a meaningful number of people act on that, but, you know, it’s not good,” he said, when The New York Times asked if he was worried about the #DeleteFacebook campaign.

While there are no available metrics for how many people have deleted Facebook in the wake of this most recent scandal, it’s a particularly hard ask as far as a boycott goes. Network effects make the cost of quitting Facebook prohibitively steep for many people, including those who rely on it as a vital way to talk to each other. For some, shifting away from Facebook is as simple as choosing to reach out to family and friends over email or Twitter, or to sign up for a local news listserv instead of a Facebook group. But for many, including people in the developing nations participating in Facebook’s Free Basics program, Facebook and its apps are the easiest and most efficient way to communicate within communities, from diasporas to emotional support networks. Facebook, for its many serious failures, remains a valuable tool for activists; the Women’s March started on Facebook. It was through Facebook Live that Diamond Reynolds documented a police officer killing her boyfriend, Philando Castile.

At Vox, Matthew Yglesias has suggested an executive-level variation on a boycott, in which Mark Zuckerberg “fixes” Facebook by destroying it. It’s an appealing, if fanciful, thought experiment, but in reality, Zuckerberg pulling a Jerry Maguire would leave vulnerable people in the lurch. Facebook is, in many places, a practical synecdoche for the entire internet. In countries like the Philippines, it is the primary hub of digital information. This is why some activists in Myanmar have cautioned against Facebook wholly pulling out of the country, even as the United Nations has stated that Facebook exacerbated widespread murder there. As tempting as it is to imagine Zuckerberg pulling the plug in a come-to-Luddite-Jesus moment, it would create a chaotic information vacuum, one that could hurt people who are isolated and people who are dissenting from authoritarian governments. (Also, he’d never, ever do it.)

The cost of leaving Facebook is too heavy a burden for many of its users, as it has established an effective communication monopoly in so many communities. Additionally, it is not beholden to any enforced federal data privacy regulation; the European Union’s new law demanding more transparency from companies like Facebook could be a promising blueprint for the U.S. No matter how many times Zuckerberg appears chastened in front of Anderson Cooper, Facebook is highly unlikely to change its fundamental business model unless an outside force compels it to do so, and it is more likely that the force will come in the shape of regulators than a mass uprising of people voluntarily disconnecting from a free communications utility they’ve come to rely upon. The company’s belated response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Zuckerberg promised to restrict third-party access to data and investigate how third-party apps had used access in the past, was quite clearly prompted by public outcry, but while the calls to boycott were part of that activist stirring, it’s just as likely that angry posts on Facebook itself raised even more attention.

After all this turmoil, if the end result of this latest scandal is a self-audit that Facebook could easily shirk, it will be more apparent than ever that there must be a more sustained response to its negligent, predatory, and otherwise harmful behavior. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but complaining incessantly on Facebook about how Facebook needs to change might be more effective than deleting your account.