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My kid is a slave laborer

Ideas on making Facebook share its profits with its unpaid ‘users’ who slog for hours to create the data that is sold for billions

Six hours on Instagram is six hours of making money for Zuckerberg (Photo by Teona Swift from Pexels)

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Apple and Facebook are multi-billion-dollar companies. Apple sells devices like iPhones. Facebook sells nothing. So how is Facebook making its billions?

Think about that. Facebook generates those billions by selling the data which they surreptitiously collect from users every time they use their services. The keyword here is ‘users’ and we’ll come back to this.

Now Facebook can say they aren’t forcing us to use their services. Fair enough, and that’s why I kicked all their apps off my phone many years ago (except Whatsapp, which is India’s default messaging service). If I do need to access Facebook, I use an app like Firefox Focus which sandboxes Facebook inside it (prevents it from accessing other apps’ data on my phone), stops it from tracking me, and erases my browsing history after each session. Of course, a hard-core Facebook/Instagram won’t like this version as it misses all the bells and whistles and filters that you get in the apps.

My Firefox Focus app helps stop social media apps from tracking me or reading my browsing history

The thing is I’m into tech so it isn’t easy to take me for a ride. But what about those who are not? Like kids and less tech-savvy folks who aren’t even aware of how they are being manipulated and exploited?

Take my kid for instance. A couple of days ago, I asked her how much time she spends in a day on Instagram (a Facebook-owned company).

She replied, “Six hours.”

She’s a teenager going nuts as she’s stuck at home. Kids need to be with other kids but she’s been separated from her friends ever since the pandemic began last year, and the end is nowhere in sight. She doesn’t give a damn about Facebook tracking her. Despite being aware that too much time on social media stresses her out so much that she’s unable to sleep, eat healthily, or keep up with her studies. I admit there’s an element of parental failure in my inability to make her see why it’s wrong to let herself be exploited.

But the failings of parents don’t justify Facebook getting a free pass to exploit kids in such a vulnerable position who are susceptible to addiction.

Yes, make no mistake about that. Those Instagram users are exactly that: ‘users’ or addicts.

Would we be fine if Facebook supplied our kids with heroin in exchange for spending hours working in a factory that generates billions for Facebook?

Of course, not. So why should we allow Facebook to get away with peddling extremely addictive apps to kids and other gullible users, as well as making them slog for hours for free, in ways that are detrimental to their physical and mental health? The constant comparison of their ‘boring’ lives with the unreal vision of ‘happy, beautiful people’ on social media is a proven causative factor of the increasing incidence of depression among social media users.

Google and Amazon also track and feed me ads. And YouTube and the Google Feed can be almost as addictive as IG & FB. But I find them less offensive as they add value to my life. YouTube has many insightful interviews with thought leaders, valuable tutorials on anything under the sun, useful product reviews, study material… while other Google apps like Gmail, Maps, Photos, Docs are used by millions. As for Amazon, I just got an Amazon Basics lightning cable to replace a frayed Apple one that costs 3–4 times as much at the Apple Store. At a macro level, Google and Amazon have the will and resources to invest into advanced fields like AI or outer space travel that will benefit mankind. Whereas what Facebook and Instagram are doing is dragging down humanity.

The Dark Side of Social Media

What makes this particularly abhorrent is that Facebook/Instagram are aware that what they are doing has been associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and FOMO, yet they still go ahead. The algorithms that Facebook uses in their services are designed to analyze what a user is viewing, and collate it with his/her psychological data profile. They then feed the users with a mix of content that hooks them by craftily targeting their insecurities, and then delivering a dopamine hit. This will keep kids scrolling for hours, generating priceless data for Facebook.

Take a look at the two articles shown below. This data that Facebook is peddling is gold for a travel business dying for buyers for its expensive travel packages. Facebook’s amoral targeting of ads at users when they are emotionally vulnerable is crafty and exploitative, to say the least.

To read the original articles that these are excerpted from, click here and here

Insider Stories

The dark direction in which Facebook was headed led many top guns at Facebook to quit and speak out against it. That included the disenchanted founders of Instagram, Whatsapp, the creator of the ‘Like’ button, and so on.

A moral stand that cost $850 million
According to Forbes, WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton’s pro-privacy and anti-ads stance caused friction with Zuckerberg and Facebook. Acton walked away from Facebook a year before his final tranche of stock grants vested. “It was like, okay, well, you want to do these things I don’t want to do,” Acton says. “It’s better if I get out of your way. And I did.” It was perhaps the most expensive moral stand in history. Acton took a screenshot of the stock price on his way out the door — the decision cost him $850 million.

Perhaps the most revealing, hard-hitting comments about how Facebook misused user data, are in a 5-minute excerpt (21:20 till 26:40) in the video below. It’s a talk to Stanford students by Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of Social Capital, who was earlier the ‘Vice President for User Growth’ at Facebook.

The relevant section in the video is the five minutes from where it starts at 21:20 till 26:40.

I especially like the last bit:

… everybody has to soul search a little bit more about what you’re willing to do because your behaviors, you don’t realize it but you are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you’ve got to decide how much you’re willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence, and don’t think, yeah, not me, I’m a fucking genius, I’m at Stanford. You’re probably the most likely to fucking fall for it, because you are fucking check boxing your whole God damn life. No offense guys.

Can we stop this exploitation?

Yes, I’m aware that Instagram influencers make big money via ad sponsors, and some small businesses do make money on the platform. But these are a tiny minority, with the vast majority being users who spend hours scrolling endlessly for Facebook’s monetary benefit.

How are these endless hours of unpaid labor by Instagram users any different from the slave labor of the Uyghurs in the factories of Xinjiang in China?

There’s no way to justify what Facebook is doing. But are they getting away with it because no one knows how to fix the problem?

Fine, let’s brainstorm. I’ll start with few suggestions. Ideally, Facebook should stop misusing data. If not they should at least pay users for their data.

Suggestion 1: Make Facebook pay for the labor of users

All factors of production come at a cost, and Facebook and Instagram are factories that use human labor to generate massive profits. Factories need to pay for raw materials and labor. Now labor is generally paid for at an hourly rate. I think it’s around $8–12 for unskilled labor in the US. Since users scrolling through an Instagram feed are making money for Facebook, they are in effect Facebook’s labor force.

Let’s give Facebook a bargain deal. and allow them to pay just $1 per hour per user. That’s peanuts for Facebook, and may actually get Facebook more users. My theory is that once users realize how much Facebook is making from their labor, market forces will come into play, and the hourly rate will be jacked up to a more fair number.

Suggestion 2: Make Facebook pay for the data of users

Since Facebook is selling its users’ data, they should pay users for it. Facebook should be able to work out some system. I mean if Medium can come up with a system to reward its writers (admittedly unfair, as it only applies to writers from the richer countries). For instance, if we go by clicks, Facebook can count the total number of clicks by all users per month, and reward each user proportionately according to his clicks by splitting the total monthly revenue/profits in some equitable manner.

Suggestion 3: Put a value on data, tax Facebook at 70%, and return part of taxes to users

I like this idea. The government as a third party will ensure it gets its pound of flesh. As a side effect, it will also ensure that Facebook doesn’t rip off users.

Slavery is not acceptable

These are just thought starters, and I’m sure the experts will be able to come up with far better ideas. But it needs to happen, as Facebook’s and Instagram’s exploitation of their susceptible users, including kids, is utterly reprehensible.

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