Remember when Facebook was harmless? Back in the halcyon days of 2015, the site was an inclusive, relentless hivemind of baby pictures, overshares, and mortifying political screeds from relatives you thought you knew but clearly didn't. Sure, it was a notorious time-suck and privacy violator — two of the reasons we argued you should quit it — but there was nothing overtly dangerous about a service so ubiquitous that it was essentially the second act of the Internet.
Then 2016 came along, and proved that Facebook had teeth — big, ugly, razor-sharp fangs. As the slapstick battle royale of the primary contests gave way to the scorched earth culture war of the general election, Facebook was swamped with political disinformation posing as news. Some intelligence experts now see Russia as the source of much of this “fake news,” an insufficient catch-all term for stories that ranged from callous scams to deliberate propaganda. Other experts claim that Russia used both human and automated proxies to spread rumors and conspiracy theories on social media — false information that experts now say impacted the election results. Facebook wasn't alone in this mess. Twitter spread rumors and lies just as quickly, and also opened up journalists to a precision-guided torrent of racist vitriol and death threat for daring to criticize or simply report on a candidate. If a sentiment was ugly, untrue, or both, it was ripe for rapid distribution on social media.
Whatever you think of the election, the incoming president, Russia's possible intervention, or the long-term impact of “fake news,” it's clear that social networks turned rancid this past year.
As we look to 2017 one resolution that we — social media users all — need to take on is to clean up our online habits. We get that quitting cold turkey is difficult, and possibly unwise. There may be actual friends you want to stay connected to, or respected thinkers who post links to stories you never would have come across yourself. Your career might even require your participation. Instead of wiping out your accounts, we suggest taking a more surgical approach, slicing away the most toxic qualities of Facebook and Twitter until they resemble what they were pre-2016. The networks have weaponized lies, and turned even shared opinions into a kind of viral infection. It’s time to disarm them. Here’s how.
Symptom: Most Of (If Not All) Your News Comes From Shared Links
Treatment: Start Reading News Like You Read Books
One of the many downsides of the financial decline of print journalism is the shift in how we consume news. Instead of relying on editorial choices to guide our eyes (i.e. eye-catching images and headlines) we now battle with sensational, sometimes entirely misleading, headlines on home pages, in e-mailed digests, or, increasingly, on social media feeds. We cut to the chase, pursuing opinions we already agree with, and stories whose facts confirm closely held beliefs, and provide ammunition for the debates you imagine having, and almost never do.
We aren't proposing that you actively search for opinion pieces that counter your beliefs or take daily tours through the least-trusted corners of online news in the name of seeing what “the other side” thinks. Instead, stop letting social media connections determine your news intake and start reading news the way you read books. Just as you decide which authors you trust to entertain and enlighten you, make a decision every day to check in with specific writers and outlets, and do nothing for a stretch of time (make it an hour) but read, read, read. The more you do this, the more complete articles you'll get through, and the less enticing those shared links will be. The posts about genuinely breaking news might still grab you, but the tabloid headlines and endless hot takes will fade into the background.
Symptom: You Share Links Without Reading Past the Headline
Treatment: Block Everyone Who Posts News
Plagues don't spread themselves. They need victims hacking all over each other, traveling from hot zones to virgin territory, passing the pestilence along to new populations. That's what you're doing when you blindly repost news that you didn't bother to read, much less verify that it's actual news, from an actual outlet, and not rumor, conspiracy, or outright lies. You are part of the problem.
Be the solution by taking the drastic action of blocking every stranger in your network who posts news, and warning your friends and family that you'll do the same to them. This doesn't have to come across as hostile. Explain that you're a compulsive link-sharer, that it's you, not them. If and when the news keeps coming, made good on your promise, and block until your feeds start looking more like social networks again, and less like the internet throwing a random series of tantrums.
Symptom: You're Getting Into Heated Online Debates
Treatment: Cull Your Network, Block Everyone Who Posts Anything Political
In theory, Facebook draws huge swaths of geographically and politically diverse people into a single web of common human experience and engagement. In reality, it's where you get sucked into surprise throw-downs with random acquaintances over something despicable that they posted. These confrontations never resolve anything. It's possible that Americans need to find ways to reengage with one another, and tamp down partisan rancor. Facebook is not that way. Unless you actually enjoy trolling others into a froth, these are pointless, and sometimes harrowing confrontations.
This is Facebook's fault, but it's also yours. Chances are this person you're doing Internet battle with isn't someone you'd share a drink with, much less the details of your life. They're just another point in social media's shameless video game, adding to your prominently-displayed point total. Shooting for the most friends and followers was central to social networks' popularity since the beginning, when Friendster and MySpace users raced to top each others' counts. This urge is written into social media's DNA. If you're arguing with random Facebook friends, you've been suckered. Start cutting every contact who you don't personally like, as well as anyone who posts anything political. Again, you can warn them before you start severing ties. But if your goal is to stop letting social media turn you into culture war cannon fodder, maybe an invitation to debate isn't your best option.
Symptom: You Think All News Outlets Are Hopelessly Biased Liars
Treatment: Leave Social Media Now (Except Maybe Instagram or Pinterest)
If you honestly believe that news is entirely relative, that all journalists are tools of one political machine or another, and that no outlet is more trustworthy than the next, you are losing the fight for your intellectual life. Either you're a reasonable human being who's been battered into a state of resignation by the bogus news and post-fact “discourse” that's overtaken social media, or you're a dyed-in-the-wool fool, hopelessly uninformed long before Facebook and Twitter. Either way, social media isn't helping. If you act fast, there's a chance for recovery.
What you need is time to heal, away from the tinny sound and hollow fury of shared links and hashtag campaigns. In another era you'd be convalescing by a lake. In our time, you're just vanishing from every social network except the image-based ones. Only the worst celebrities use Instagram captions to push political agendas. And no one, as far as we know, shares white power memes on Pinterest. Those are safe places to recuperate, and repair your relationship with the truth. With a little luck, and maybe the collapse of a social network or two, we might all be able to outlast this epidemic.