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Delete Facebook? No, just do what the founder does

Facebook is facing the most serious crisis in its 14-year history as it deals with fallout from a major leak of user data to political consultants associated with the 2016 Trump campaign (File photograph by Noah Berger/AP)

“It is time. #deletefacebook.”

That declaration came from Brian Acton, co-founder of the messaging service WhatsApp — itself a Facebook property, sold to the company for $19 billion in 2014 — in a tweet after news of the social network’s Cambridge Analytica scandal began to break.

Apparently, the fact that app developers were able to siphon off the data of 50 million users and sell them to a nefarious political advisory firm unsettles even those who have made billions from the platform.

So, just leave? Easy for him to say. Certainly the network effects that have made Facebook nearly indispensable to millions of Americans are more resistible if you have the time and resources to criss-cross the country, visit distant relatives and misinform gullible high school classmates face to face. Alas, not all of us are so lucky.

This call to delete Facebook from one of Facebook’s billion-dollar beneficiaries was the latest example of tech leaders belatedly warning us off their creations.

The internet-era adage has never been more true: If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. The Cambridge Analytica mess shows that for most of us, that’s been true for quite some time.

As Facebook’s hasty mopping-up proposals make clear, much of the data-theft damage has been done.

So what do we do now?

Here’s one idea: Rather than just stay mad, perhaps it’s time to try to get even.

To do that, we regular users should act with as much care as those who have long known the risks that these platforms entail — the people who invented and run them.

Individual users can do plenty to protect themselves, taking our cues from those who, one would assume, know best.

The first? Stop sharing.

I can’t even see Mark Zuckerberg’s friends on Facebook. It’s highly unlikely that Sheryl Sandberg has ever spammed 500 acquaintances with an invitation to Farmville, and she probably never will. Facebook’s top brass use the site for messaging and brand management, but it’s worth noting that their posts, likes and shares are infrequent and unrevelatory. Facebook’s creators haven’t invited us into their lives. Why have we invited them into ours?

Second: Log off.

Deleting Facebook may not be immediately feasible for a variety of reasons. But must we be on it all the time?

Just a few months ago, Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, said that “the thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them ... was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”

Parker said that he has since become “something of a conscientious objector” on social media. The hosts have left the party, everyone. Time for us stragglers to take a hint.

Third: Trust no one.

Sure, it sounds cynical. But the silver lining of the Cambridge Analytica revelations is that they have prompted many Facebook users to think, really think, about the business model of the platform they treat as a neutral utility. Social media makes its money by selling us out.

Exaggerated or not, Cambridge Analytica’s technology promised to use our freely given likes and dislikes, biographies and quiz results, to create psychographic profiles that would, in the words of whistleblower Chris Wylie, “exploit what we knew about [users] and target their inner demons.”

We hesitate at sharing this much information with our friends, or even lovers. Should we so casually hand it over to an algorithm that certainly doesn’t have our best interests at heart?

In his much delayed mea culpa for Facebook’s failure to protect its users, Zuckerberg admitted that the scandal constituted a breach of trust.

“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” he said.

It’s possible that Facebook will reform, that its leaders will begin to regulate their business model and make sure that the platform is built to serve, but I wouldn’t count on it.

In the meantime, here’s a tip: Don’t do as the titans of Facebook say — do as they do.

Christine Emba is an opinion columnist and editor for The Washington Post