Facebook’s Business Model Threatens Everyone – Especially Student Users

BOULDER, CO (April 6, 2018) - In yesterday’s Washington Post Answer Sheet, Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, Co-Directors of NEPC’s Commercialism in Education Unit, explored the invasive data mining and third-party targeting of users that is inherent in Facebook’s business model and that led NEPC to delete its Facebook account and remove Facebook from the NEPC website. 

Molnar and Boninger have studied advertising directed at students in schools for three decades. For the past five years, they have tracked and reported on the evolution of digital marketing and the use of digital platforms in schools. In a series of annual reports, they have repeatedly called for statutory changes and regulations to ensure student privacy, protect data, require transparency, and ensure accountability. In their essay, they explain that the kind of data practices revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal are operating in schools and classrooms every day as students’ personal data are scooped up by digital platforms with little oversight or accountability. 

Molnar, who is also NEPC’s Publications Director, warns, “Lack of public oversight has permitted the development of a surveillance economy in which corporations relentlessly, invisibly, and very profitably gather information and create profiles on hundreds of millions of people.” He adds that in the absence of public oversight over how digital platforms collect, store, and use data, “there is little or no clear recourse when personal data are used in ways that cause personal and social harm. This is true not only for adults, but also for students whose data are collected through their schools.”

Although Facebook is not alone in collecting data from its users, its business model and particular use of the data stand out. Facebook presents itself as dedicated to bringing people together in a radically transparent world and as serving as a new “public square” where users can express themselves freely. Boninger contrasts this image with reality, where Facebook limits and exploits the false public square it has created: “Rather than letting users engage freely in its environment, Facebook’s algorithms silo users and present them with a distorted reality that is then used by advertisers to influence and manipulate them.” “This is not a ‘mistake,’ she points out. “It is what Facebook is designed to do.” 

In high schools, when school groups use Facebook as an organizing tool, students must maintain Facebook accounts in order to participate in school activities. The existence of these accounts allows Facebook to collect data about students every time they visit a page with a “like” button. It also allows Facebook to collect information about users’ friends. Via the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is using his fortune to promote the adoption of what they call “personalized learning” platforms in schools (i.e., using software to target digitally-provided lesson content based on students’ past responses) that facilitate further collection of massive amounts of educational data from children.

With respect to the Internet, it is often said that if you’re not paying for a product you are the product. That is, if the company is not making money selling a product to you, then they make money selling someone else information about you. Molnar notes, “We’re particularly concerned when this product is children, who are especially susceptible to manipulation because they are still developing. Targeted marketing, facilitated by Facebook, manipulates children and influences their developing worldviews and interests, as well as their understandings of their families, friendships, romantic relationships, environment, society, and selves. These practices are harmful to adults, and when deployed against children they are intolerable.”

Learn more about NEPC research on digital marketing and data gathering in schools at http://nepc.colorado.edu/ceru-home.

The following organizations also have resources on data gathering from children and in schools: Campaign for Commercial-Free ChildhoodCenter for Digital DemocracyElectronic Frontier FoundationElectronic Privacy Information Center, and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: https://nepc.colorado.edu