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Why no WhatsApp?

I’ve written this because I’m tired—tired of answering the same old questions about why I’ve gone rogue from Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Twitter. It’s like being a vegetarian at a BBQ, constantly asked about protein. I’m over it. So, here’s my reasoning, all in one place.

If this page is focused on Meta, I do walk a tightrope with other platforms, just so we’re clear. I balance the line between participating in today’s economic activity and maintaining a sense of digital privacy. Meanwhhile, Elon Musk’s X, once known as Twitter, has devolved into a putrid swamp filled with right-winger, MAGAs and QAnons, cryptocurrency scammers and a swarm of trolls and imposters. You won’t find me there.

For everything else, I thank ad-blocking or anti-sniffing software and VPNs. We’re all making compromises, but those should be informed compromises.

Nothing to hide

In our current digital age, with its seductive veneers of connectivity and convenience, many cling to the notion of “I have nothing to hide” as if it were a protective talisman.

WhatsApp and other Meta products don’t merely exist to ease your communication burdens; they’re data-harvesting leviathans masquerading as public utilities.

These platforms want more than to be your digital messengers; they aim to harvest every whisper, every wink and yes, even your unspoken intimate thoughts.

Did you think your digital miscellanea—your political stances, your “liked” meme jokes, your late-night online shopping—were mere pixels, devoid of consequence? You’re in for a harsh awakening.

In this digital dystopia we’re navigating, every click, like and share are like sticking  digital pins into your personal augmented voodoo doll.

The day may come when you’re sitting in a job interview or at an immigration desk and you’ll find that your virtual musings on BBQ and socio-political issues have tipped the scales against you. Whether dealing with sky-high insurance costs or an oppressive regime, that harmless-looking data can turn into a spider’s web that traps you, limiting both your choices and your freedom. The digital breadcrumbs you’re dropping aren’t leading you to freedom; they’re plotting the coordinates of a augmented and artificial cage you’re helping to build.

This isn’t just future dystopian fiction; it’s current reality. A reality where your data can inform custody battles, affect your chances at the border, or even socially stigmatize you.

Your data is being exploited to serve someone else’s agenda, from elevating insurance premiums to narrowing your choices due to dynamic pricing. The price of “free” services is exorbitantly high; it’s paid in the currency of your personal liberties.

Surveillance marketing

Meta and its platforms transform personal data into a commodity. Everything you click, like, or even hover over on these platforms is scrutinized and monetized. Meta’s model is to exploit this data, usually without transparent consent.

Shadow profiles

Even if you never sign up for Facebook, Meta can still track you. They use “Like” buttons on third-party websites to gather data on non-users. So, they likely have a shadow profile on you even if you’ve never used their services. It’s invasive and extends their surveillance far beyond their user base.

Polarization for profit

Meta’s algorithms prioritize content that keeps users engaged, even if that content polarizes society. Controversial and divisive posts are often promoted because they generate interaction, trapping users in echo chambers. This fosters division and extremism, all in the name of increased user engagement and, by extension, profit.

Betrayal of user trust

Meta has frequently violated its own terms of service, often with minimal communication to its users. This breach of trust comes in various forms, from unauthorized data sharing with third parties to misleading privacy settings. Meta’s focus has always been their bottom line, not user privacy or ethical conduct.

The illusion of free services

Many consider services like WhatsApp to be ‘free.’ However, the true cost is your data and, consequently, your privacy. You pay for these services by becoming a data point in Meta’s vast commercial enterprise, not a customer but a product.

Authoritarian surveillance

When we allow companies like Meta to amass this level of data, we’re setting the stage for mass surveillance. This data can be exploited by authoritarian regimes thanks to a vast and shadow market of data brokers and other entities in the business of monetising your data.

Censorship

In a detailed 51-page report, Human Rights Watch documented over a thousand instances of Meta censoring pro-Palestinian content on Facebook and Instagram, through methods like post removals, account suspensions, interaction restrictions, and shadow banning.

Algorithmic manipulation and mental health

Several reports and whistleblowers have highlighted how Meta’s algorithms are designed not just to maximize engagement, but can also lead to negative mental health outcomes. These algorithms can push content that, while engaging, may exacerbate feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, or depression, especially among younger users.

Political manipulation and misinformation

Investigative journalism has shown that Meta platforms have been used to spread political misinformation. The algorithmic preference for engaging content over accurate content can facilitate the spread of fake news, potentially influencing elections and public opinion on a large scale.

As well, Meta has recently cut the funding of WhatsApp fact-checking organisations, particularly worrying in the context of elections.

Data sharing with third parties

Multiple reports have revealed that Meta has been involved in sharing user data with third parties, often without transparent disclosure to the users. These third parties can range from advertisers to political entities, creating a web of data exploitation that goes beyond Meta’s own platforms.

The Consumer Reports study, with participation from 709 volunteers, unveils the vast scale of data sharing with Facebook, involving 186’892 companies.

On average, data from 2’230 companies was shared per participant, with figures reaching over 7’000 for some.

This reveals a deep and broad network of data exchange between Facebook and businesses, ranging from data brokers to retailers, all participating in an ecosystem that remains largely hidden from users due to practices like server-to-server tracking.

Lack of accountability

Despite numerous scandals and public outcries, Meta has faced little regulatory action. The company’s sheer size and influence make it difficult to hold accountable, allowing it to continue practices that are ethically and potentially, legally questionable.

There are alternatives

Luckily, ethical and secure alternatives do exist. Platforms that prioritize user privacy and data security offer a viable way to stay connected without surrendering autonomy to a data marketplace.

Some references and additional reading

  1. WhatsApp controversy reveals data privacy fears – DW
  2. On the Capture and Use of Private Conversations on Mobile Phones for Marketing Purposes: A Case in the Tourism Sector – Springer
  3. WhatsApp fined 266M USD by EU privacy watchdog over data breach – Al Jazeera
  4. 5 Biggest WhatsApp Scandals and Security Issues So Far – iTWire
  5. How Facebook Undermines Privacy Protections for Its 2 Billion WhatsApp Users – ProPublica
  6. How Secure Is WhatsApp? [Main Concerns and Tips to Stay Safe] – Techjury
  7. The Biggest Problems with WhatsApp’s Privacy Practices – HackerNoon
  8. Meta is getting data about you from some surprising places – Vox
  9. Meta censors pro-Palestinian views on a global scale, report claims – The Guardian
  10. List of Lawsuits involving Meta/Facebook – Wikipedia