Disabling Facebook and Other Social Media Tracking in WordPress

I realized yesterday that the default sharing options in WordPress enabled tracking by Facebook and Twitter. I don’t want advertising or tracking on my site. I found that you can turn these “features” off in the Dashboard.

Simply click on Enabled Services and drag and drop into Available Services, and vice versa, for services you want enabled, such as Email or Print.

A Second ‘Second Life’: Facebook Horizon

“Welcome to Facebook Horizon, an ever-expanding VR world where you can explore, play, and create in extraordinary ways. At Horizon, you’re not just discovering a new world, you are part of what makes it great.”

Facebook Horizon

At first glance, Horizon seems like a modernized Second Life, a first-person Sims, a fulfillment of the intentions of AltspaceVR and a competitor to PlayStation’s PSVR Dreams and cross-platfrom kids’ favorite Roblox. Back in 2016, Facebook was giving every new Oculus employee a copy of the Ready Player One novel. It seems they’ve been busy building that world since then.

Facebook Horizon will start centralized around a town square. Before people step in, they can choose how they look and what they wear from an expansive and inclusive set of avatar tools. From inside VR, users will be able to use the Horizon World Builder to create gaming arenas, vacation chillspots and activities to fill them without the need to know how to code.

-Josh Constine, “Facebook announces Horizon, a VR massive-multiplayer world.” Techcrunch.com. September 25, 2019.

Imagine. An entire world mediated by Facebook, where they monetize your creativity for their profit.

The Pendulum Will Swing

“If you believe in something, you have to be willing to stand for something or you don’t really believe in it at all. There’s always going to be consequences for opposing people in power and there’s no doubt that I have faced retaliation, as has every public interest whistleblower coming out of the intelligence community in the last several decades, going back to Daniel Ellsberg. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. These are risks worth taking…So many people look at the world today, they look at how broken and ruined things are, and they are just disempowered and lost. But what I want people to focus on is the fact that things changed, right. And if they can change for the worse, they can change for the better. And the only reason the world is changing for the worse is because bad people are working to make it happen that way. And if more good people are organizing, if we’re talking about this stuff, if we’re willing to draw lines that we will not allow people to cross without moving us out of the way, the pendulum will swing, and I’ll be home sooner than you think.”

—Edward Snowden. “Edward Snowden on Privacy in the Age of Facebook and Trump.” The Intercept. May 25, 2018.

Facebook’s Surveillance Machine

“Should we all just leave Facebook? That may sound attractive but it is not a viable solution. In many countries, Facebook and its products simply are the internet. Some employers and landlords demand to see Facebook profiles, and there are increasingly vast swaths of public and civic life — from volunteer groups to political campaigns to marches and protests — that are accessible or organized only via Facebook.”

—Zeynep Tufekci, “Facebook’s Surveillance Machine.” The New York Times. March 19, 2018.

It’s a Catch-22. You have to be willing to tell Facebook, as well as the employers and landlords that demand access to your social media accounts should you choose to have them, to fuck off in order to get “vast swaths of public and civic life” off of the Facebook platform. Regulation isn’t going to solve the problem of Facebook and the feudal Internet. Thinking that regulation can solve every problem is one of the central contradictions of U.S. liberal political thought. But then, U.S. conservatives have similar notions of deregulation. You can’t have small government and a global war on Communism, terrorism and drugs.

Sometimes there is no reform that will square the circle, and you have to make a choice. It’s perfectly reasonable to choose not to use Facebook. It takes two to four weeks to shake off the desire to check it, and then, most likely, you’ll spend more time with those closest to you rather than cultivating all the weak ties out beyond your Dunbar number of acquaintances that Facebook facilitates. Not everyone can do it, but many people could (and should).

Gobo

“Sign up for Gobo, link it to your other social media profiles, and you can take control of your feed. Want to read news you aren’t otherwise seeing? Use our “Echo Chamber” filter to see what we call “wider” news. Want a better balance of men and women in your feed? Use our “gender” filter to rebalance it. Want to take a lunch break and just see popular funny videos you friends are sharing? Use our “virality” filter to pick only the most shared content. With Gogo you’re in charge of the algorithmic filters that control what you see on social media. We’ve built a bunch of filters like these already, are building more, and have made it possible for other developers to add filters too. Sign up, try it out, and see if it changes how you think about how social media should work.”

Gobo

Facebook & Cambridge Analytica

“A whistleblower—a former Cambridge Analytica employee—presented a dossier of evidence to reporters that, according to the Observer, “includes emails, invoices, contracts and bank transfers that reveal more than 50 million profiles – mostly belonging to registered US voters – were harvested from the site in the largest ever breach of Facebook data.” The story is surprising on a number of levels. It suggests that Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, intentionally made misrepresentations in recent testimony to the British Parliament. It implicates the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, who together played a major role in the Trump campaign. But more than anything, it calls into question Facebook’s handling of what is clearly a massive breach of user privacy. ”

—Justin Hendrix, “Follow-Up Questions For Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Trump Campaign on Massive Breach.” Just Security. March 17, 2018.

It makes as much sense to leave Facebook today, as it did a year ago. Except, today, we know that many of our worse suspicions were true.

Swimming Against the Stream of Convenience

A year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was a bit of a watershed moment for my digital life because it was the start of a process, where I took a hard look at my use of the “free” services offered by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple and tried to assess whether other alternatives, particularly paid ones, were better based on factoring in other considerations than cost.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. On the plus side, it helped me to keep in touch with my extended family, a few groups I liked to participate in use the platform, and the calendar of events integration into Google calendar made it very easy to plan and take advantage of all the events my city has to offer.

On the negative side, those benefits came with a cost to my well-being and to society at large. During the U.S. election, it gave me a window into the thought-processes of people in my extended social circle, and I found I started liking them a lot less. It was obvious to me that people were being manipulated, less obvious to me is that I was one of those people. Reading “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” I had a realization that Facebook was manipulating everyone’s thoughts and interactions that used it, and by continuing to use it, I was essentially saying it was alright. It wasn’t.

But, once your mind goes down that route, then you can’t stop. You have to look at everything. Google has more than double the advertising revenue of Facebook. Yet, I used Google for almost everything, such as email, photo storage, contacts, etc. And, the influence they have, such as the companies that surface when using search, maps, or their other products is profound, but the algorithm is even more opaque than Facebook’s. You really have no idea what kind of influence Google is having over your choices, and it is impossible to have any transparency about what is going on behind the scenes and the intent behind it. Again, using Google means you agree the convenience is worth being manipulated. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

I changed my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I switched off of Gmail to one email provider then another. I switched off Google Drive to NextCloud, a free software cloud storage solution. With Nextcloud, I was able to migrate documents, pictures, contacts and notes off of Google’s servers. Some services, such as managing RSS feeds, were also part of NextCloud, which Google chose to no longer support when they retired Google Reader.

And once you go this far, it’s a short step to look at things like Wallabag to replace Feedly. Or eliminating other social media applications that are affiliated with feudal Internet companies, such as Instagram, Whatsapp, Hangouts, etc.

Once there, I was able to take bigger steps, such as installing LineageOS onto my android phone and Linux on the desktop to replace Microsoft Windows. Or using free alternatives to apps, such as those in F-Droid over those in Google Play or LibreOffice instead of the Microsoft Office suite. These moves were organic extensions of the thought processes quitting Facebook began.

Still, some things have no ready replacements. If you don’t use Google Maps, what are the alternatives? Those that exist are objectively nowhere near as good.

Choosing to not use Amazon is possible, but it comes with significant inconvenience, trade-offs and costs. Is it better to go to Wal-Mart rather than order from Amazon? What about paying 20% more by shopping elsewhere? Consider that over half of U.S. households have a subscription to Amazon Prime. Shipping costs alone make shopping for some products online prohibitive.

For Amazon, I’ve stopped buying ebooks from them. There is a lot of reading material to choose from in this world. I try to stick to DRM free books, but failing that, I try to use services that are not Amazon and available via the library, such as OverDrive. While OverDrive is not as good from a reading experience perspective, it does have the advantage of not being part of the feudal Internet.

The only Apple product I have ever used is iTunes and iPod related devices. I find other programs integrating my music collection to be easier to use. So, my exposure to Apple is negligible.

Being against the feudal Internet is swimming against the stream of convenience. It means more cost, more aggravation, and more of your time troubleshooting problems that would “just work” if you let Google, Apple or Microsoft manage everything for you.

Looking back after a year, choosing the path less travelled by has indeed made all the difference. Not everyone can do it — due to financial, time, or other constraints — but it is worth doing, if you can.

The Case Against Google – The New York Times

“In other words, it’s very likely you love Google, or are at least fond of Google, or hardly think about Google, the same way you hardly think about water systems or traffic lights or any of the other things you rely on every day. Therefore you might have been surprised when headlines began appearing last year suggesting that Google and its fellow tech giants were threatening everything from our economy to democracy itself. Lawmakers have accused Google of creating an automated advertising system so vast and subtle that hardly anyone noticed when Russian saboteurs co-opted it in the last election. Critics say Facebook exploits our addictive impulses and silos us in ideological echo chambers. Amazon’s reach is blamed for spurring a retail meltdown; Apple’s economic impact is so profound it can cause market-wide gyrations. These controversies point to the growing anxiety that a small number of technology companies are now such powerful entities that they can destroy entire industries or social norms with just a few lines of computer code. Those four companies, plus Microsoft, make up America’s largest sources of aggregated news, advertising, online shopping, digital entertainment and the tools of business and communication.”

—Charles Duhigg, “The Case Against Google.” The New York Times. February 20, 2018.

This is the best description of the feudal internet I’ve seen. It then discusses real life implications.

“As the years passed, Shivaun and Adam got into the habit of visiting message boards where people obsessively discussed Google’s many peculiarities. They began to notice an interesting pattern among companies complaining about the search giant: Often, the aggrieved parties had, in some way, posed some kind of threat to Google’s business. And they seemed to have suffered dire consequences…

… “All of the money spent online is going to just a few companies now,” says Reback (who disdains the New Brandeis label). “They don’t need dynamite or Pinkertons to club their competitors anymore. They just need algorithms and data.”