This isn't the Time, But it's the Perfect Time; Goodbye, Instagram
If you know or follow me, you may already know that I deleted my Facebook account several years ago, in late 2014.
There were plenty of reasons for that decision, but to summarize: even back then, I couldn’t reconcile my values with my continued participation in the platform. I felt that I could not be the person I wanted to be while continuing to look away from Facebook’s increasing toxicity and destructiveness (even before 2016).
For whatever reason, I kept my Instagram account alive at the time, despite its connection to Facebook. And I’m not really sure why.
I guess I thought Instagram was better; one of the things I hated about Facebook was its polarizing effect on people, and the indifference it showed toward ignorance and misinformation (not to mention its own role in spreading them). I think I rationalized that Instagram was more passive and friendly in comparison, less divisive. In fairness, maybe it was more so back then. Or, maybe I just didn’t notice it.
I also tended to use Instagram a lot less. It was just a place where I occasionally posted a picture of my dog (or later, my son). I was always surprised at the end of each year that I actually had nine posts to make the signature 3 × 3 “top nine” grid out of.
But lately, I’ve been wondering whether I can actually continue supporting Instagram and the company behind it, however passively or at whatever seemingly insignificant scale. And while I was zeroing in on this answer anyway, the events of the last couple of weeks have clearly cemented in my mind that the answer—for me, at least—is an unequivocal “no.”
Where we are
It’s not hard to make an argument against Instagram. There are so many valid reasons one might choose to abandon the platform that I don’t feel I need to do more than mention so-called “influencers,” or to cite the numerous studies which have linked Instagram usage to anxiety, depression, loneliness, insomnia, body image issues and bullying (particularly for teenage girls).
Instead of speaking in such sweeping terms, I’d like to focus in just a bit more.
In this moment—Blackout Tuesday, as it’s being called by many (for better or worse, given its dubious origins and ill effects on the critical #BlackLivesMatter hashtag feed)—it’s become clearer than ever that Facebook does not now, nor will it ever take responsibility for its ongoing, deliberate, and destructive impact on the world in general, and the US in particular.
One of the things that prompted me to leave Facebook was the revelation that it conducted a secret study which attempted (successfully!) to cause depression by artificially altering some users’ feeds to show primarily negative posts, just to find out whether it could.
To my knowledge, there has never been any apology for A/B testing with the mental health of non-consenting people. Regardless, this looks tragically tame compared with the list of Facebook’s more modern crimes.
This is where I’ll be conflating Facebook and Instagram a bit, but that’s on purpose. It’s clear that the two are intrinsically the same company as far as this topic goes. Marvel might be technically different than Disney, but the dollars go the same place.
Before this year, Facebook—specifically, Mark Zuckerberg himself—pledged that the company would take a stand against unethical misuse of its platform, in light of the role Facebook played in Russia’s campaign of misinformation during the 2016 election. It is only right, after all, that a platform vulnerable to such abuse takes any and all precautions to patch that vulnerability. I work at a software company; I regularly see exploits exponentially smaller than that still taken with grave sobriety.
But since then, and particularly with the events of the past week, Facebook’s promise of accountability and oversight have been more than walked back as the company has instead doubled down on its role in spreading hate, racism, and lies.
Among other things: Zuckerberg has gone on the record numerous times now to claim that fact-checking politicians is not in the platform’s interest (effectively defending their right to spread misinformation at whatever cost and with any reason). On the surface, this may sound like a defense of first amendment rights, but misinformation is not benign; it always benefits those with the voice to spread it, at the cost of those without the voice to fight it.
It’s critical to keep context in mind when discussing the “right” to misinform at grand scale and with impunity. This type of distortion is almost always used for, and is most effective at, spreading hatred, in a way that neither further falsehoods nor the truth are entirely adequate to fight (as you know if you’ve ever tried to correct a family member who shared something inaccurate or false).
Misinformation is not a two-way street, and it is not to be treated as mere opinion. To side with the right to spread falsehood unchecked is to side with racism, bigotry, anti-science, and any other cause benefited by a lack of context and truth.
Zuckerberg has also refused to acknowledge that the president threatening violent military action against US citizens—let alone citizens who are exercising their constitutional right to protest—is problematic, or to do almost anything about all but the most blatantly violent, racist, hateful or even outright fake posts from just about any source, let alone those in power.
Time and again, Facebook’s leadership has failed to demonstrate any substantial interest whatsoever in ensuring their platform is not used for malicious intent.
In short, Facebook has failed us—as users, as citizens, and as humans—to an extent that I feel demands I can no longer be even tangentially complicit in anything the company does.
It shouldn’t have taken this long, for any and all of the reasons above. Facebook is, quite frankly, an awful company (and again: it was long before 2016, lest I give the impression this is just about recent events or the election).
But it’s become clear in recent years that not only will Facebook move in the opposite direction of positive change, but that the company’s role in supporting hate, malice and ignorance is not even a passive one; regardless of the intention or motivation, the outcome is the same. Facebook has positioned itself, actively and deliberately, to be a key player in enabling fascism.
(If that word feels a little strong to you…well, give it time.)
What does this do?
Even given the above, I still honestly grapple with whether leaving is the right thing to do.
Me giving up Instagram isn’t particularly courageous or noble or impactful. It’s pretty much nothing. It was never that important to me to begin with, but regardless, my participation (or lack thereof) has effectively zero effect on either Facebook or the world.
Leaving is so seemingly meaningless it appears pointless. Despite the prevalence of ads (SO MANY ADS) on Instagram—which must be presumably assigning some small monetary value to my attention—I’m an all-but-undetectable speck in the galaxy of its users. So why leave? Why not stay if it doesn’t matter?
Because ethics, I believe, aren’t about scale.
I barely knew my maternal grandmother, but I’m told that she had a saying on ethics, which I’m paraphrasing here as: “if you’re unsure whether something is right or wrong, magnify it by 100 times.”
She reasoned that, if stealing something seems harmless, what if you stole a hundred times? If you could justify a violent word or action, could you really justify 100?
And conversely: if giving what you have seems meaningless, what if you had 100 times that to give?
Me removing myself from Facebook’s platforms won’t mean anything on its own. But for me, it’s not really supposed to.
This is me, reconciling my beliefs with my actions, and choosing not to look the other way any more, no matter how many other pairs of eyes might be pointed in that direction.
This isn’t me filling the offering plate, or acting like I can; this is me giving my dollar.
I won’t tell you whether Instagram—or even Facebook, for that matter—is good for you, or whether you should quit. I understand they’re both tools for community, and that they both serve positive causes as well as negative. Maybe you feel you can, or do, offset the inherent negativity of the platform with the impact of your usage.
Obviously, there are millions of users of Instagram using the platform to support Black Lives Matter, Pride Month, and other very good and noble causes. I’m fully in support of that, unequivocally. But for me, personally: if I’m not using Instagram regularly to begin with, does me hopping on just to post a black square or a rainbow avatar actually help? If I’m showing up for the big things and not participating in the little things, is my impact actually positive, or am I no better than the influencers artificially manufacturing Black Lives Matter photo ops without actually contributing anything substantial?
My feelings on the matter are further complicated by the fact that: if I’m being honest, one major catalyst of these beliefs was, ironically, Facebook.
I have Facebook itself to thank for a good deal of the progress I myself made as a person in my 20s and early 30s, as friends and acquaintances on the platform (especially women) helped to gradually push me to become aware of my own bias and privilege (having been blinded to them by, among other things, the religious conservative values I had been brought up with to that point). Frankly, much as it pains me to admit it, Facebook itself is a large part of the reason I have the beliefs I do today.
That said, though, it could have just as easily gone the opposite way, and Facebook could have further galvanized my then-problematic views, a fact which had the odd effect of making it both easier and harder to leave.
Partly because of this, I’ve also wrestled with the idea of abandonment. By leaving the platform, am I abdicating my responsibility to use it to speak out against those misusing it? Am I creating a void that will be filled by more misinformation and hatred? What if everyone who felt like I did left? Sure, it would hurt the company, but would it do more harm than good to create an open forum for racists and bigots to share content freely?
All of this is to say nothing of the fact that I have something of a luxury in being able to just walk away from Instagram with virtually no impact to myself in the first place. Plenty of people run businesses that rely at least partially on Instagram. What about the revenue and/or attention they rely on from the platform?
These are hard questions, and I admit I don’t have good answers to them. So…your mileage may vary, I suppose. What you feel is right for you may be different than what I feel, and as long as these questions and their impact are at least being honestly considered, I’m all right with that.
But for me, right now, it’s become clear that the ethics of the company behind Instagram are antithetical to what I believe is right on any scale. I don’t believe Instagram puts enough good in my life—or that I put enough good into the world because of it—to justify my continued usage.
No matter how tiny a grain of sand I might be in that sandcastle, I can’t in good conscience be a part of its walls any more.
If you’d like to keep in touch with me, I’ll still be around on Twitter, at least until I face the same reckoning there (though my content there is of a decidedly different flavor). And I’ll be attempting to add some more personal content both there and here, on my personal site.
[Edit, November 20, 2022: that reckoning happened and I am no longer on Twitter, either.]
Meanwhile, I wish you all well, and hope—regardless of the answer—that you’ll at least spend some time considering our role in supporting social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram in particular. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on the topic.