Earlier this year, Facebook imposed a nearly weeklong news blackout of Australia. The move, occasioned by a dispute over legislation intended to address Big Tech’s excessive power, affected not only outlets that cover breaking news but those that convey information about health and safety (including COVID-19), legal assistance, cultural events, and more.
Writing about the blackout at The Federalist, Helen Raleigh called for a mass “unfriending” of the social media giant: “As hard as it may be initially, all of us should stop using Facebook, cancel our accounts, and delete the app from our smartphones once and for all. We will have to either find other ways to share news and cat pictures or build new platforms. The only way we can escape Facebook’s control and reject its power over us and our society is to ‘unfriend’ it.”
It’s advice worth considering. The Australian news blackout highlighted anew Facebook’s continuing and undeniable pattern of unequal censorship as well as Australians’ — and the world’s — unhealthy dependence on it for the news and information they need.
It’s not just Facebook, but Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon as well. The pattern of censorship and information control by Big Tech’s “Big Five” is well documented, from the de-platforming of a former president to the blacklisting of books with politically incorrect viewpoints to the decision of who gets to share an opinion about COVID-19.
This dangerous concentration of power in the hands of a few has led to repeated calls for a legislative remedy, but until that happens (if it happens), there are things consumers can do to stop feeding the Big Tech beast. Because most of us have some degree of dependence on Big Tech to achieve the things we need to do each day, it won’t be easy, but the more we can lessen that dependence, the better. Here are a few places to start.
1. Take Control of Your Data
For many of us, our social media and email accounts have become the equivalent of digital memory chests, holding treasured photos, important correspondence, and other information that we want to preserve. The problem is that someone else owns the chest and could at any time decide to toss it, along with everything it contains, on the garbage heap.
It’s time to make sure your valuable data is protected. If you have never downloaded your Facebook history, now is the time to do so. You should periodically do a fresh download to keep your backed-up data as current as possible. We should all use this practice not only for Facebook but for all our data across all devices and platforms.
Furthermore, if you’re backing up your data in the cloud (is there anyone who isn’t?), consider adding a hard-drive backup as an extra measure of protection. There are advantages to both cloud and hard-drive storage, but the best strategy is to employ both.
Bottom line: No single entity or location should hold the key to your precious digital information. If one does, you’re at risk of experiencing a catastrophic and painful loss of data. Prevent that from happening to you by saving your information in multiple locations.
2. Take Control of Your Social Media
Social media has become ubiquitous. It’s the rare person who can completely eschew it. As much as I would like to follow Raleigh’s advice and remove Facebook from my life, I am not quite ready to do so.
If you aren’t, either, you can at least look for ways to minimize its effects on you. One, mentioned above, is to not let it be the single repository of all your valuable information.
Another, ironically, is to encourage the growth of upstart social media sites by spreading your usage across multiple platforms. I know it can be a pain to set up a new account and learn how to use it. But the more successful social media platforms there are, the less important and powerful any single one of them will be.
It’s also a way of hedging your own bets. If one platform cancels you, you can take your business elsewhere.
3. Take Control of Your News
Facebook’s restrictive algorithms and censorship are well known. If you’ve liked a page on Facebook and you’re depending on Facebook to show you that page’s posts, you are going to miss a lot of material. Rather than trusting your Facebook feed to provide you with the news and information you seek, get in the habit of going straight to the source.
Once upon a time, in the heyday of blogging, a lot of people made use of RSS (“really simple syndication”) feed readers or aggregators. I was one of those people. But with the rise of social media, not only blogging but RSS readers started to fade. Now seems like a perfect time to resurrect them.
A few weeks ago, I reactivated my preferred RSS reader and have been removing sites that have gone inactive, or that I’m no longer interested in following, replacing them with RSS feeds of all the outlets I like to read. Another way to do the same thing is to subscribe to email updates from the sites you read. I already struggle to manage my inbox, so I prefer an RSS reader to email subscriptions.
4. Take Control of Your Shopping
Amazon, like Facebook and Google, has for many people become a necessity of daily life. Especially as the COVID-19 shutdown made in-person shopping more inconvenient than ever, Amazon and other large, online retailers extended their reach even further.
As a result, other retailers have suffered to the point of extinction. The absence of competition is not good for anyone except the monolith, and consumers would all do well to take steps to encourage more of it, both locally and online.
While it might not be logistically or economically possible to entirely deny ourselves the benefits of shopping at Amazon (here’s one household that did it), we should try to shop elsewhere when we can. You might be surprised to discover that sometimes you can even get a better deal than Amazon offers.
My husband and I are fond of a particular brand of coffee pod that is not available in the brick-and-mortar stores we frequent. We used to get it regularly shipped from Amazon until we noticed the price inching up. A simple internet search turned up the same product elsewhere for a lower price, including free shipping. That is one less product we are buying from Amazon. We will be looking for more.
By the way, as of this writing, even though Amazon banned Ryan Anderson’s book, “When Harry Became Sally,” you can still purchase it at Barnes and Noble. For $25 per year, you can also purchase a Barnes and Noble membership that includes free shipping with no minimum purchase plus 10 percent off all in-store purchases. Better yet, consider shopping for books through Bookshop.org, which connects online shoppers with independent local booksellers.
5. Take Control of Your Digital Life
The less we all make use of digital means of getting through the day, the more we deprive Big Tech of its bread and butter and enrich our non-digital lives. Even as we attempt to diversify our personal digital footprints, we should seek to move those footprints, as much as possible, into physical contexts.
Instead of buying from online retailers, rediscover the small businesses (if they survived 2020) in your midst. Instead of hanging out for another half hour in your favorite Facebook group, go outside and take a walk and, if you meet a neighbor, say hello.
Instead of sending an email or Facebook message, place a voice call or write a letter. Both you and your recipient will be blessed. And instead of adding another website to your RSS reader, consider subscribing to a print publication (a few do still exist!) and reading it instead of your phone over your morning coffee.
We have, all of us, created a Big Tech monster. Actually, we’ve created a small army of monsters, and their names are Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft and Amazon. Over the last year, they have only gotten bigger, fatter and hungrier. Reducing their power over our lives is not going to be easy, but a good place to begin is to put them on a diet.