Since 2017, Interpersonal Divide has depicted social media users as a class of digitally exploited workers who generate content, provide data and disclose purchases that attract advertising–without being paid. Now TechChrunch reports Facebook has been targeting some users, especially teens, with a monthly $20 gift card for access to their phones.
TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reports that Facebook has been paying users ages 13-35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to install an iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. The company even asked users to screenshot Amazon order histories. The payment program has been in use since 2016.
Facebook has told TechCrunch “it will shut down the iOS version of its Research app in the wake of our report,” wites Constine. Facebook’s Research program will continue to run on Android.
Following the TechCrunch report, the Verge reported the Facebook Research app requires that users install a custom root certificate, giving Facebook the ability to see users’ private messages, emails, web searches, and browsing activity. This violates Apple’s system level functionality that prohibits developers from installing certificates on users’ iPhones.
In rebutting the TechCrunch report, Facebook issued this statement:
“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
TechCrunch responded to this statement by standing by its report, noting:
Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process. While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.
Interpersonal Divide has warned against this type of datamining in both the first and second editions. Here’s an excerpt:
“Patrons not only provide data. They generate content, too, raising other legal questions that have yet to be addressed. For instance, if the mega-billion-dollar social media industry is such an important component of the marketplace, and if users provide personal information mined from their devices—in addition to content, including video, audio, photography, and text—should we consider those users exploited if they receive no or little compensation for their data and content?”
The second edition of Interpersonal Divide cites Mark Andrejevic in “Social Network Exploitation,” a chapter in A Networked Self , about implications of digital media on identity, community, and culture. “What would it mean to take seriously the notion that access to online communities facilitated by social networking sites comprised a productive resource in the emerging information economy? … That is to say, what if we were to describe such sites not just as consumer services or entertaining novelties for the informated class, but as crucial information resources in the networked era?”
If Andrejevic’s definition holds, it would mean billions of users worldwide may have been exploited because they spend hours each day allowing their personal information to be mined and sold. In addition, they provide content that engages others and generates more data for profit-minded creators and stockholders of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other popular venues.
TechCrunch reports that “Facebook is particularly interested in what teens do on their phones as the demographic has increasingly abandoned the social network in favor of Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook’s acquisition Instagram.”
Josh Constine, a technology journalist who specializes in deep analysis of social products, is currently an Editor-At-Large for TechCrunch.
 Mark Andrejevic, “Social Network Exploitation” in A Networked Self, ed. by Zizi Papacharissi (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 96.