Should I delete my Facebook account?

“When the service is free, you are the product”

Image: PixBay/Creative Commons

Whether they were successful or not, Cambridge Analytica has made a lot of people uncomfortable to the point that many have deleted their Facebook accounts, and more are considering it.

The scandal alleges that Cambridge Analytica unethically used 50 million people’s Facebook data to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election. This raises a question for BestSelling Reads members, and indeed all authors in this new age of independent writers and a market dominated by e-books: should we continue to have a presence on Facebook? If so, how do we protect ourselves, and our readers, fans and friends?

The need for social media

All the book marketing gurus tell authors that we need to have a social media presence, among other things, if we want to sell books. We’re also supposed to have a website, a blog, an email list with thousands of addresses—and we have to keep writing more books.

Every author I know has a Facebook profile, and so does the group itself. It has a lot of utility. It’s one of the main ways my readers connect with me. Last week, I held a live Facebook event to launch my new book on Amazon, and used Facebook Live to do reading from my new book. I had tons of comments, questions and entries to little giveaway contests that I had.

It’s hard to give up Facebook, an application that connects millions, if not a billion people.

But it has its dangers, in the form of people who misuse it for their own gain at others’ expense.

What Facebook is doing with your information

Facebook works by selling advertising. There are more than a billion users in the world, which makes it an enticing medium to any advertiser.

But Facebook goes beyond just broadcasting like television or radio. It uses the information about you to determine what you might be interested in. This allows advertisers to develop ads that will be more appealing to you. Facebook and advertisers use demographic information, like your age and where you live, to target advertising to you.

In addition to the personal data in your profile, Facebook gets more valuable information from things like how long you spend watching a video, or which apps and games you play, and which posts you respond to.

That’s why your advertising feed, the column on the right side of the screen, and the sponsored ads in your news feed are about products and services that echo what you’ve been responding to on Facebook.

Cambridge Analytica created an app on Facebook that asked people to take a quiz. It then exploited a loophole that allowed it to collect data about both the quiz takers and their Facebook friends, as well—in defiance of privacy laws that say data about a person can only be collected with their consent, and for the purpose for which it was collected in the first place.

Now it’s a huge scandal.

What’s the solution?

There are steps you can take to protect your data from misuse. Some are just so obvious, they shouldn’t need stating. But here they are, anyway.

  • Keep your password confidential. Don’t even tell family and friends. You may trust them not to abuse your profile, but they may not be as careful about protecting your identity as you are.
  • Don’t put your home phone number, home address, date of birth or email address in your Facebook profile.
  • Be careful about what you post, especially if it’s something that you know may offend or upset a potential employer. In general, I try not to be offensive and avoid offensive language. That doesn’t prevent people taking offense I what I say, however.
  • Don’t post about being away from home or on a long vacation—you are asking bad people to break into your house.

Privacy settings

Facebook has over 50 different privacy settings, with in total more than 170 options. The New York Times has published a simple guide to help you find them.

Start with the little downward-pointing triangle on the top right of the Facebook screen. Select Settings, then from the left menu, Privacy. Set who can see your profile information. Usually, the choices are Public, Friends, Friends except acquaintances, Only me and Custom.

But that’s not all. Every App has its own settings. So do Timeline, Ads, Public Posts, and every App. This is what makes games like Farmville so dangerous as well as annoying. Set to Public, it lets others see that you use the app. Make sure you’re comfortable with each setting here.

And even if you set everything to Private, advertisers can still use the data to build a profile of you. And you know that prompt you get to add your phone number to “enhance” your security? Don’t do it. It’s another data point that can be used to identify and target you.

Don’t share everything

The more you post on Facebook, the more information you give advertisers to target ads to you. You don’t have to share every restaurant meal, unless you want to get more ads from restaurant chains.

I have learned not to answer quizzes that will tell me which fictional character I am, or what my level of education is. That just helps advertisers target ads to me better.

I am also struggling with arguing politics and philosophy on Facebook. By the time someone gets around to uploading something egregiously false, they’ve worked themselves into a mindset that will not be changed by logic and facts, anyway.

Finally, here’s something I just learned from download a copy of all your Facebook data to see just how much information you’re actually sharing. You may be surprised.

I wasn’t eaten by a bear


Seven out of ten Missinaibi paddlers on the day we set out. That’s me, third from the left, with Super Nicolas in the steering position behind me. The reason for the helmets? We were running rapids, which means big rocks all around.

But I have to admit I came close to losing my cool a couple of times

If you’ve missed me on social media since July 30, here’s why: I’ve been literally hundreds of miles from Internet access. Besides being the most physically challenging thing I have ever done, this “vacation” made me rediscover some things about writing.

Over the past two weeks, I joined my younger son, Super Nicolas and eight other people to paddle the Missinaibi River in northern Ontario to the Moose River, and then down it to Moose Factory and Moosonee on James Bay. It was 11 days of paddling eight to ten hours a day. On some days, we paddled over 50 kilometres to reach our next camp site. Other days, we faced portages up to three kilometres long.


One of the few pictures to survive: me at the monument to paddlers at Mattice, Ontario.

We began our paddling journey at Mattice, a tiny village mostly remarkable for being the point where the Missinaibi River crosses Ontario Highway 11. (That’s the same highway that begins at the Toronto waterfront as Yonge Street.) We paddled white-water canoes 325 kilometres from there to Moose Factory, near where the Moose River empties into James Bay. Moose Factory is the site of the oldest Hudson’s Bay Company establishment, or “factory” where the company transferred its traded furs from ships to canoes that ranged inland on Canada’s network of rivers, including the Missinaibi, Abitibi and Mattagami, portaging overland to other river systems that brought all of North America in reach.

From Moose Factory, we paddled across the river to the newer town of Moosonee. At its train station, we loaded our canoes, gear and ourselves onto the Polar Bear Express, a train operated by Ontario Northland Railway. We rode back to Cochrane, Ontario, where we had left one car as a shuttle to get the others in Mattice.

Eagles every day

There are so many remarkable things about paddling through northern Ontario, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the beauty of the landscape, first of all.

Mattice is on the Canadian Shield, the geography where I grew up. The journey to putting in the canoes felt a little like coming home.

The Shield is a rocky place, mostly low, rolling hills with many outcroppings of bare rock and cliffs, covered with spruce and fir trees, dotted with thousands of lakes and marshes. It carries a huge feeling of wildness. Once we left Mattice, we did not come within hundreds of kilometres of any human civilization until Moose Factory.

This landscape is as wild as wild gets. We carried in our own food, supplemented by fish that one of the members of our team, Gil Lepine, caught nearly every day. We also carried out all our garbage as we believe in no-trace camping. We camped on the shore of the river, several times on beaches, and dealt with the mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies and deer flies as best we could.

We saw at least one bald eagle every day, along with loons, geese and other birds. Except for squirrels, we not see much other wildlife — no sign of bears, deer or moose. I did see some wolf footprints on one beach, and took photos of it. Unfortunately, on the second-last day of the trip, I knocked my waterproof camera out of the canoe into the Moose River. Any pictures are contributed by others in my group. Alas.

Far, far away from the Internet

MapofMissinaibiOur only means of communications with the outside world were a SPOT geo-locator, which we activated once a day. It communicated our longitude and latitude to a satellite, which then sent emails saying “we’re okay” along with our coordinates to our loved ones in civilization. We also had a satellite phone for emergencies.

The only way I can say I missed the Internet was any kind of automatic uploading of my photos to the cloud.

Along the way, I’d sometimes think about how I would post all my pictures to Facebook and create a photo essay for this blog. Alas, again.

I recorded some of my thoughts and impressions on paper in a notebook, as did Nicolas. We each plan to work those notes up into some kind of story about the journey. But to tell the truth, I’ll have to rely on memory more than on notes. Each night, I was too tired to write more than a few words.

When we returned, one of the members asked “I wonder how many stupid things Donald Trump said over the last two weeks, when we were away.”

“Fourteen,” I ventured — one for each day.

Persuasive communications

Why did I take this on? Moose Factory and James Bay have always intrigued me, and since I first heard about the Polar Bear Express as a child, I’ve wanted to ride it.

But the real initiator of this trip was my son, Super Nicolas. When he was in Venturers (a part of Scouting), he somehow discovered the idea of paddling the Missinaibi to Moose Factory and taking the Polar Bear Express back. He made a presentation to his Venturer Company, who were, like him, 16 or 17  years old at the time. I still remember the slack-jawed shock they all showed. None of them wanted to do it. They thought it was just too challenging.

Undaunted, Nicolas presented the idea to the entire Scouting organization of the Ottawa area. His presentation caught the imagination of some adult Scouting members, but in the end, Nicolas was the only “youth” member of the group to go, at age 21.

It was a lot of work, took a lot of planning and commitment and cooperation. But as Nicolas said, “It’s a dream come true.”

Two new communications projects

Besides learning just what I am capable of (paddling all day long for two weeks; shooting Level II rapids) and not (sleeping comfortably in a tent night after night for two weeks), I came away from this with two new ideas for books.

The first is the obvious one: a recounting of the journey, something like “Paddling with Super Nicolas.” The second comes from a discovery I made in Mattice.

FredNeegancropAs we were preparing to launch the canoes, a man approached us on a four-wheel off-road vehicle. He’s Fred Neegan, a Cree man who has lived on the Missinaibi his whole life, having paddled up and down it many times. Now 85 years old, he’s called the “Guardian of the Missinaibi,” and there’s a monument to him, with his likeness, at the Mattice put-in. Fred warned us about the low water levels and gave us some other valuable advice about paddling to Moosonee. He also told us some of the interesting history of the river and some of the troubling aspects of being Cree in northern Ontario, even today. I asked if I could talk to him about his life story, and if I can manage it, I’d like to write the book about the Guardian of the Missinaibi.

Another story to come!



How to lose Friends without getting upset about it

I’m still running away” by Flickr user Vincepal, used under a Creative CommonsAttribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.
I have noticed a shift in my Facebook news feed: there are now fewer ridiculous rants against Obama and pro-gun-rights posts, fewer Creationists going on with spurious proofs of their improvable ideas, and thankfully fewer racists with equally implausible, unsupportable ideas.

I wonder why

The only reason I can figure is that the creationists, gun advocates and racists who “friended” and followed me have since unfriended and unfollowed me. There probably is a way to see who has unfriended you, but I don’t bother with that. I’ll just go with noticing the absence of names and faces that I used to see quite regularly.
One is a Facebook Friend of a Friend who called me an “asshole” because I questioned his argument that Obama sucks. I asked for some solid examples of how Obama’s policies had made their lives worse in some concrete way.
Another right-winger dropped me after I questioned logical holes in his statements and arguments about gun rights and foreign policy. Maybe he just got tired of being shot down so many times. But even Snoopy gets back in the air after being shot down by the Red Baron.
I don’t see many creationists anymore, either. There’s one I haven’t seen after she asserted “it takes a lot more faith to believe in evolution than in creation.” I suggested she look up “faith” in a dictionary, and then open another book that’s not the bible.
(By the way, Oxford defines it as “firm belief, esp. without logical proof.”)
Okay, maybe my retort was kind of snarky, but it’s not insulting.

I miss those people—and not just because they’re so easy

I think one of the purposes of Facebook was to engage in a healthy debate. Sure, it’s also a great way to catch up with old friends and far-flung family, to coordinate group activities and to share cool photographs, but I also enjoy respectful debates. I point out logical holes, question assumptions and conclusions, and have been questioned and corrected myself. I accepted corrections when I made errors, and I never sank to the level of insults. I never swore at people (okay, I used a few salty words to describe things and actions, but never the people I was arguing with).
For the most part, I did not get a lot of abuse. As I said, one person called me an “asshole” for questioning his argument about Obama. Another insulted me for arguing for higher corporate taxes and against the idea that corporations should be able to spend on political communications without limit. A number of people called me a “liberal” as if it were insulting. I told a few of them to look up the word, too, and once got insulted for explaining that the understanding of the word “liberal” in the US is different from its original political meaning, and that in Europe, neo-liberal is equivalent to neo-conservative in the US. I don’t understand why that was threatening or problematic, but it did bother some people.
But the people who were most committed to the right-wing side of many debates—guns, abortion, evolution, taxation, health care—have run away.

What are they afraid of?

I’m not going to shy away from expressing myself. I am a writer, after all. If someone disagrees with me, that’s fine. I encourage that.

Bringing poles closer

Image courtesy Dark Matters a Lot
We need to be able to discuss our differences respectfully. I don’t delude myself that I’ll ever change anyone’s deepest beliefs, but if we don’t share opposing ideas, we only increase the polarization that is already growing in the world. Extremism is growing on all sides of every debate, and we can see this with ISIS/ISIL, Christian/creationist groups, the Tea Party, resurgent communism in Russia. And that kind of extremism doesn’t make the world a better place.
So come back, right wing! Engage me. If you think I’m wrong, let me know. Just remember my rule of engagement: if you use personal insults, you lose.