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Following the money behind Messenger Kids

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Facebook marked Valentine's Day by releasing Messenger for Kids, its controversial app designed for c
 
February 14 · Issue #83 · View online
The Interface
Facebook marked Valentine’s Day by releasing Messenger for Kids, its controversial app designed for children as young as 6, as an Android app. It was previously available only on iOS. “The app across all platforms will have special new masks, stickers, and frames so kids can send special V-day messages to their friends,” a press release said. But the launch was overshadowed by news of a different kind of frame job: the one Facebook did in the initial release of the app, when the bulk of child development experts the company reported working with turned out to have received undisclosed payments from the company. 
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. 
On one hand, the fact that Facebook made modest financial contributions to these organizations doesn’t mean their contributions to the app were invalid. Arguably they deserved compensation for their time! But it creates the perception of a conflict of interest among the groups upon whose credibility Facebook leaned heavily when it first released the app. Here was Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, on Dec. 4:
Over the last 18 months, we’ve worked closely with leading child development experts, educators and parents as we prepared to build our first product for kids. We created an advisory board of experts. With them, we are considering important questions like: Is there a “right age” to introduce kids to the digital world? 
Davis told Tiku the company did not mean to hide the payments to its advisory board. “There was no attempt to not be upfront about it,” she said. But nor was there an effort to be upfront. And the fact that Facebook was not initially forthcoming about financial relationships with its board of experts does not inspire much confidence in its conclusions. 
Last month, I wrote here about how the strangest aspect of Messenger Kids was the timing of its launch: at a time when trust in American’s Facebook has possibly never been lower, the company asked its users to trust them with some of their most sensitive communications.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has called for Facebook to withdraw the app from app stores. In the meantime, though, consumers seem to shrugging over the whole thing. Messenger Kids made a brief appearance in the 1,000 most-downloaded iOS apps last month, according to App Annie, and tumbled off the list a few days later. I wonder whether Facebook will decide the app, at least in this incarnation, is more trouble than it;s worth.  

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Elsewhere
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Magic Leap CEO thinks volumetric video will be part of live TV in five years
What remains of Chatroulette: it’s gone to the do(n)gs
Snap Will Use Data to Lure Digital Stars Back From Instagram
Launches
Google’s testing an Android app that adds Smart Reply to Slack, Facebook Messenger, and more
Facebook Wants to Set Up Your Playdates
Overtime wants to turn high school jocks into social media stars
Pinterest now lets you archive your boards and rearrange pins
Takes
There were no takes today, as everyone was consumed by love and did not want to spoil the moment with any ill-tempered opinions.
And finally ...
Computer-Generated Candy Heart Messages Exist & They Are Truly Breathtaking
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Valentines? casey@theverge.com 
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