When Facebook rolled out "Messenger Kids," an IM product aimed at the 6-and-up set, it trumpeted that during the product's 18-month development cycle, it had been evaluated by child development experts in order to "safeguard" the young children it was targeting from harm.
Facebook did not reveal that many of those experts were funded by Facebook.
Meanwhile, the foremost independent experts in kids and digital media -- organizations like Common Sense Media and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood -- were notified of the product shortly before its launch, and after it was too late for their feedback to affect the product design.
One Facebook post said the company had “collaborated” with the National PTA, but it did not mention Facebook’s financial ties to the group, or others among its advisers. The National PTA says Facebook donated money for the first time in 2017, which the organization used to fund a survey and roundtables. Facebook says it previously donated “small amounts” unrelated to the app to Blue Star Families, a nonprofit for military families. Facebook funded the research at New Mexico State. At least seven members of Facebook 13-person advisory board have some kind of financial tie to the company. In 2017, Facebook donated money to Family Online Safety Institute, which has two representatives on the board, as well as Connect Safely, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Telefono Azzurro, which each have one representative on the board. In 2017, Facebook also donated at least $50,000 to MediaSmarts, which has two members on the board. One board member, former Sesame Workshop executive Lewis Bernstein, now works as a consultant advising Facebook on developing content for teens, unrelated to Messenger Kids. Bernstein and other board members have gone on to write op-eds in The Hill and the San Jose Mercury News supporting Facebook’s app. WIRED previously reported that Facebook had donated to FOSI, Connect Safely, and MediaSmarts.
“There was no attempt to not be upfront about it,” says Davis, the Facebook executive. Many of the groups on the Messenger Kids advisory board are also on Facebook’s safety advisory board, which was created in 2009. Davis says that Facebook’s financial support for safety board members has previously been reported. “We’ve had that conversation publicly many, many times,” she says. The board is featured at the top of Facebook’s Safety Center, without disclosing that some members receive funding. On a linked page, the company says, “Facebook consults” with these organizations. In a statement, Davis says, "we do not want there to be a financial burden to working with Facebook." She says the company sometimes provides "funding to cover programmatic or logistics expenses" of partner organizations.
Facebook Funded Most of the Experts Who Vetted Messenger Kids [Nitasha Tiku/Wired]