Surveillance Economy

A Warning Call to K–12: NEPC Turns Off Facebook Account

A Warning Call to K–12: NEPC Turns Off Facebook Account 

As Mark Zuckerberg faces Congress this week, the National Education Policy Center, which reports on "schoolhouse commercialism," has deleted its Facebook account in order to break ties with an organization that has become known for its "invasive data mining and the third-party targeting of users inherent in its business model." Will school districts follow NEPC's lead?

So far, the answer appears to be no.

The center works out of the University of Colorado Boulder and is known for its piercing (and sometimes-scathing) reviews of education-related research projects.

Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, who co-direct the organization's Commercialism in Education Unit, have been studying how advertising targets students for three decades. More recently, that research has explored digital marketing and the use of software that incorporates data tracking in schools.

Calling Facebook a "multinational advertising agency" and "social control mechanism," the co-directors in a recent brief referred to the social media company as a "self-referential social house of mirrors" serving up a "bespoke reality crafted out of their hopes, fears and aspirations."

According to the researchers, the data scraping practices being pinned on Cambridge Analytica, at the heart of Facebook's current woes, are no different from what's going on every day in schools as "student personal data are scooped up by digital platforms with little oversight or accountability."

Molnar warned that the United States is now underpinned by a "surveillance economy constructed by corporations that relentlessly, invisibly and very profitably gather information and create profiles on hundreds of millions of people." The digital platforms being used by educators, in particular, he added, "feed children into this surveillance economy."

While Facebook maintains the illusion of acting as a "public square," the report stated, in reality, the company is using Facebook posts "to help advertisers shape their messaging."

"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," noted Boninger. "This is not a 'mistake,'" she added in a prepared statement. "It is what Facebook is designed to do."

The researchers are especially concerned about the involvement of children in these machinations. "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," they stated. "These practices are harmful to adults, and when deployed against children they are intolerable."

NEPC isn't alone in calling out for schools and educators to show much greater caution in their use of social media and digital tools. EdTech Strategies, a consultancy that researches education technology, innovation and policy, recently published a six-part series intended to "shed light" on the use of websites by schools and state departments of education.

According to President Doug Levin, while Facebook and similar social sites have found pickup among schools and districts to show their connectivity to their communities, that use comes at a price. Many education sites have implemented tracking services that simplify sign-on and thereby integrate with popular platforms, including Facebook, as well as Google and Twitter. All of these, he pointed out, are advertising companies that pride themselves on facilitating targeted advertising and messaging "with incredible precision."

While NEPC is leading the charge for turning off social sites such as Facebook, Levin offered more restrained guidance. Among his suggestions: Install ad blockers such as uBlock Origin, modify how browsers handle cookies and stop using proprietary ad trackers and online surveillance tools on school websites. "If a need for the functionality provided by these tools is identified, assess whether there are more privacy-respecting options available," he advised.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.