How to use (or not use) social media this week

Can’t quit it? At least follow these rules

Please join me on your smartphone's home screen.

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Locate the social-media apps you find most irresistible. (For me it's Twitter and Instagram.) Place them in a new folder entitled "DO NOT USE UNTIL ELECTION IS OVER." Now hide this folder deep inside your phone.

Congratulations! You have done your job as a responsible citizen of the United States of America.

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You may have heard there is a U.S. presidential election happening this week. You may have also heard that an epic mess is forecast on social-media platforms because of it. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, they're expecting it all: misinformation, voter intimidation, talk of election-related violence, you name it.

Think of it like an amusement park. For this special event, the companies have added lots of safety measures -- even closed off parts of the park -- to control the chaos.

Facebook, for instance, is prepared to use technology to slow the spread of viral posts, according to a report from my colleagues. Instagram has temporarily removed the "Recent" tab from hashtag pages to prevent the spread of misinformation. Twitter has put some restrictions around its retweet feature. (Makes you wonder if those changes shouldn't just be permanent.)

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

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But if the park is really expected to be so crazy and full of troublemakers, maybe -- I don't know -- just don't go to the park! You have control, regardless of how these companies' algorithms and tricks try to manipulate you. Which brings us to my rules for the week ahead:

Don't use social media

The first rule of election social media is: You do not use election social media. We should all take the occasional social-media break in our lives -- right now's a great time.

My colleague Christopher Mims inspired me to go this somewhat extreme route. He has entered into a friendly bet to stay off social media until Nov. 16. I'm planning to stay off for the next few days.

TickerSecurityLastChangeChange %
FBFACEBOOK INC.276.97-0.84-0.30%
TWTRTWITTER INC.46.51-0.08-0.17%

There are a couple of reasons for my decision. First, doomscrolling. The algorithms have been designed to keep us hooked and in times of high, collective national anxiety I can't look away. Not even with the help of screen and app timers that warn me when my time's almost up.

Second, even I have fallen for a manipulated video and a tweet with news that proved not to be true. In the next few days, where unvetted news will be moving faster, why even put myself in that situation? Luckily, there are reputable news outlets that can give us factual, up-to-the-minute information -- and you're already reading the best one right now.

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The best way to rid your life of all these apps is to delete them from your phone entirely or move them into a hidden folder. If you go with the latter, don't forget to turn off notifications.

Worried about how you'll keep in touch? One option: "Get your friends to collectively agree to only text, email or call for a few days," said Martin Skladany, a professor of law and technology at Penn State Dickinson Law, who has argued that social-media platforms should go dark for the week to protect democracy.

Some of you may be wondering: Can't you just mute all election-related stuff? Sure, that's an option if you love playing Whac-A-Mole. Facebook's snooze feature and Instagram's mute feature allow you to stop seeing posts from specific people you follow in your feeds. Twitter allows you to do that and mute specific words. YouTube doesn't have a mute feature, but you can signal that you aren't interested in certain recommended content and manage your recommendations and search results.

Don't share

OK, so if you can't possibly leave behind 5,000 of your closest friends while the fate of our nation hangs in the balance, I urge you at least to stop sharing.

Sure, the platforms themselves have rolled out tools to try to prevent you from sharing misleading and inaccurate information. But why even take the risk right now? What does your link and meme sharing really do? Get you a few more likes? Finally change Cousin Fred's mind?

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The Netflix documentary "Social Dilemma" only tells one side of the power of social media, but it should resonate with many of us, especially its depiction of our lives being controlled by algorithms and sharing rewards designed to feed our primal emotional needs.

For the record: I usually share more than I should. Not this week.

Don't believe everything

OK, so even that's too much? You do you, but first, do your homework.

This is the strategy of my friend, whom you also might know as the Journal's original Personal Tech columnist. "My No. 1 rule is to be super careful about what you share and what you believe on social media, " said Walt Mossberg, now a board member of the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that offers free information and classes in media literacy.

Even the most innocuous-sounding posts about topics like the election or Covid-19 should be checked with "lateral reading." That's where you seek out additional information on the same topic from other authors and publications. My colleague Nicole Nguyen recommends GroundNews, a service that shows you how many outlets have covered top stories at a glance.

And if you're looking on the platforms themselves for trusted info, Twitter has added an elections section on its Explore tab, with only news from vetted outlets. Facebook and Instagram have a curated Voting Information Center. YouTube will link to Google's election-results page, and when polls close it will show live streams of coverage from authoritative news partners.

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Don't be a jerk

Finally, the most obvious -- but needed -- rule came from Kelly Mendoza, senior director of education programs at Common Sense Education. She oversees the Digital Citizenship curriculum used by schools nationwide.

"We teach kids that a difference of opinion doesn't need to mean a difference of character. Don't attack someone just because they have a different opinion on what should be done. Keep a level head," she said.

There's discourse and then there's division. And sadly, social platforms are pushing Americans to be ever more polarized -- not in our opinions on issues, mind you, but in how we feel about opposing groups. You can all but guarantee high levels of vitriol, anger and attacks on social media in the next few days. So yes, all together now: Long press on those apps and move them far, far away.

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