Facebook is considering taking legal action against The Spinner, a secretive U.K.-based startup that provides social media ad-targeting of individual users. This comes after The Spinner claimed that it was using Facebook (and other social media sites) to help gambling companies manipulate people into spending more money at online casinos.
Over the years, Facebook has allegedly influenced the outcome of elections, the products we consume, our sexualities and sexual values, and even our senses of identity. As such, it would come as little surprise to learn that Facebook has also been used to advertise gambling, or to put it differently, has also been used to manipulate many of us into gambling.
Yet what comes as more of a surprise, however, is that the use of Facebook by gambling companies doesn’t end with simple advertising. No, because a small number of firms have also been using Facebook to more indirectly manipulate gamblers into visiting online casinos and gambling websites. They’ve been employing the services of The Spinner, a London-based startup that provides social media “sniper targeting,” a practice that sees individual users targeted with a regular supply of posts focused on any given subject.
Up until now, The Spinner has notoriously offered its help to people who’ve wanted to “brainwash” their wives into having sex more regularly with them, or who’ve wanted to convince relatives to quit smoking, for instance. They’ve done this by sending cookies to the targeted individuals, which when downloaded by said individual (usually via an email link) ensure that she or he ends up seeing articles on their Facebook and social media feeds with titles such as “Why you should initiate sex with your husband” or “Why quitting smoking could be the best decision you ever make.”
But now, company spokesperson Elliot Shefler tells me that it has also been receiving custom from a number of gambling firms that want to surreptitiously manipulate their customers.
“In 2019, a few online casino operators have started using this method to influence their existing players, mostly slots players, to login and play more often,” he says. “Those players are being exposed to hundreds of articles with titles like ‘Wisconsin man hits $1.3 million jackpot at Flamingo’ or ‘Lucky local cashes over $150K jackpot at Vegas-area casino’ on their social media feeds.”
As Shefler goes on to explain, such posts are editorial articles published on major news sites, rather than paid-for ads that clearly and openly promote a particular service, product or company. He doesn’t draw attention to the obvious ethical issues thrown up by this practice, but clearly the lack of transparency is morally questionable, given that gamblers are being led to believe that they’re seeing these articles only because they’re newsworthy.
But the morally questionable element of this practice doesn’t stop there, because several recent reports hint that under-18s may be among the people targeted by gambling companies using The Spinner’s services.
Numerous studies reveal that the numbers of children gambling online have increased significantly in recent years, with under-18 gamblers in the U.K. quadrupling in the two years between 2016 and 2018. Going a little further back in time, one Canadian study from 2016 found that 10% of 13-19 year olds had gambled online in the past three months.
Asked whether under-18s were among the online gamblers targeted by its clients, Shefler couldn’t provide specific information. “We don’t pick the players,” he says. “The casino does.”
While this doesn’t provide certainty either way, there is evidence that children have already been targeted by more direct and conventional varieties of online adverts for gambling. For instance, the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently conducted an experiment in which it created and used seven online personas representing children aged between six and 18, finding that these were exposed to over 150 separate gambling ads. A similar study conducted by Ipsos Mori this year came to almost identical conclusions, with the profile of a “child under 13” seeing more gambling ads online than an adult problem gambler.
Worryingly, The Spinner claims that gambling companies which have used its services has seen their customers (or victims) become significantly “more engaged compared to players who weren’t exposed to the content, and showed improved results in terms of logins, ARPU [average revenue per user] and life-time value.”
Shefler hasn’t been able to share accurate figures detailing this increased engagement, so it calls into question just how effective the service is. However, the fact that gambling companies are even trying to manipulate players using this method is damning enough on its own account.
And it just goes to show that Facebook is widely perceived as a powerful tool for getting people to do what certain corporations (or political parties) want them to do. Whether it’s really as powerful as it would like its customers (i.e. advertisers) to believe is another question entirely, of course, but it should give us pause for thought that this reputation is fundamentally how it makes its billions.
But while The Spinner’s activities certainly don’t reflect well on the social network, Facebook has responded to London-based firm’s claims by affirming that it will take action.
A Facebook spokesperson told me, “We are taking enforcement actions against The Spinner and evaluating legal options. We have no tolerance for bad actors that try to circumvent our policies and create bad experiences for people on Facebook.”
The spokesperson goes on to explain that The Spinner has violated several of Facebook’s policies, including having unacceptable business practices. They also state that Facebook doesn’t want businesses targeting single individuals on the social network, and that it has measures in place to help prevent this.
There is, therefore, reason to suspect that The Spinner’s days of using Facebook to manipulate people may be numbered.
This article has been updated to reflect comment received from Facebook.