Delete Facebook campaign takes off – but actually removing your data might prove more difficult than it seems

The site is required to get around much of the other parts of the internet, and tracks people even if they try and hide themselves

Independent reporter Jeremy B. White kicked off Facebook campus... for filming a Facebook live

The campaign to #DeleteFacebook is rapidly sweeping across the internet, as people leave the site in protest against its use of data harvesting and manipulation. But people might struggle to actually take part.

The act of deleting Facebook is relatively simple and easy, though perhaps slightly more complicated than it could be. But actually stopping using it, and removing yourself from the site entirely, is much more difficult.

Facebook doesn’t simply track people when they’re using the site, meaning that it can be difficult to avoid getting wrapped up in its data. Many other sites have Facebook buttons – and the company is able to work out things about people without actually knowing them, by relying on information and data provided by their friends.

To hide from some of that, or at least to understand how much it is happening, it’s possible to download browser extensions like Ghostery, which tracks the trackers and tells users what is being used to follow them around the internet. But even that might not keep people safe from having their data taken by social networks, since other people can give up that same browsing data without people even knowing it.

Facebook Messenger, for instance, makes it very difficult for anyone to sign up to it without giving over their contacts. When they do so, that’s associated with their account – and reports have suggested that all contributes to a “shadow profile”, which includes data that isn’t seen by the users themselves but can be used by Facebook for more in-depth tracking.

What’s more, Facebook has gradually taken over as a way of using the internet in general and communicating with other people on it. So leaving Facebook can often mean leaving other important services and websites, and cutting oneself off.

Arvind Rajan, a tech executive from San Francisco who deactivated his account on Monday, suddenly discovered he needs to create new usernames and passwords for a variety of apps and websites. That’s because he previously logged in with his Facebook ID.

It’s a pain, he said, “but not the end of the world”. And because he is bothered by Facebook’s “ham-handed” response to recent problems, the inconvenience is worth it.

For other users looking to leave, it can feel as if there are no real alternatives. Twitter? Too flighty, too public. Instagram? Whoops, owned by Facebook. Snapchat? Please, unless you’re under 25 – in which case you’re probably not on Facebook to begin with.

Facebook connects 2.2 billion users and a host of communities that have sprung up on its network. No other company can match the breadth or depth of these connections – thanks in part to Facebook’s proclivity for squashing or swallowing up its competition.

But it is precisely in Facebook’s interest to make users feel Facebook is the only place to connect with others. Where else will grandmothers see photos of their far-flung grandchildren? How will new mothers connect to other parents also up at 4am with a newborn?

“My only hesitation is that there are hundreds of pictures posted over 13 years of my life that I do not want to lose access to. If there was a way to recover these photos, I would deactivate immediately,” Daniel Schwartz, who lives in Atlanta, said in an email.

People eager to delete their profiles may find unexpected problems that point to how integral Facebook is to many activities, said Ifeoma Ajunwa, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell University.

“It is getting more and more difficult for people to delete Facebook, since it’s not just a social media platform but also almost like a meeting square,” she said.

Parents could soon realise that their child’s football schedule with games and pickup times is only on a Facebook page, for example. Many businesses also schedule meetings via Facebook.

“It’s more and more difficult for people to feel plugged in if you’re not on Facebook,” Ms Ajunwa said.

There are no signs, so far, that users are leaving in droves – and advertisers go where the eyeballs are, so they aren’t leaving either. Research firm eMarketer hasn’t changed its estimate that worldwide ad spending on Facebook will climb 22 per cent this year to nearly $49bn (£43bn).

Still, if “Facebook were forced to change the way it uses data or the way its ad products work, then advertisers may become less enamoured with it,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst with the firm.

Not surprisingly, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to leave. To permanently delete your account, you need to make a request to the company. The process can take several days, and if you log in during this time, your request will be cancelled. It can take up to 90 days to delete everything.

There’s a less permanent way to leave, deactivation, which hides your profile from everyone but lets you return if you change your mind.

Lili Orozco, a 28-year-old office manager for her family’s heating and cooling company in Watkinsville, Georgia, deleted her account in December. She was upset that every new app she downloaded would ask for her Facebook contacts.

And while she liked staying in touch with people, she was irritated by the conspiracy stories her high school friends would share.

“Falsehoods spread faster on Facebook than the truth does,” she said. She now gets her news from Twitter and shares pictures with friends through Instagram.

Additional reporting by agencies

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