Law in the Internet Society

The Panopticon Artists

How Social Media Swindles its Users

“The Form of a Swindle: Something for Something”

In Arthur Leff’s Swindling and Selling, Leff observes that swindlers and conmen never claim to offer their targets “something for nothing.” Marks are not so easily fooled. An unsolicited promise of free goods would immediately arouse suspicion: the mark would wonder what’s in it for the offerer. For the scheme to succeed, the swindler must explain why he will also benefit from the proposed transaction, thereby rendering the offer more credible to the mark. Thus, a convincing swindle almost always takes the form of a deal: “something for something.” [1]

The Social Media Swindle: Something for Nothing?

A common refrain about the social media business model is that “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. The mantra’s underlying message is not just that social media companies commodify their users, but also that they lure in unsuspecting users with the promise of free services. In other words, social media companies seem to swindle users by offering them something for nothing.

This account of the social media swindle contradicts Leff’s idea that swindlers never offer to simply give something away. If social media companies are in the business of swindling, they seem to be defying Leff’s logic by offering something for nothing. Does this mean that the social media swindle is an exception to Leff’s theory?

The Social Media Swindle as an Exchange

I believe that there is no need to carve out an exception for social media in Leff’s theory. It is more illuminating to view the social media business as an ordinary swindle, in which the swindler cuts a deal with the mark.

On this view, the social media swindle consists of convincing users to give up their personal information in exchange for social media services. Users know that the social media company is primarily concerned with its own interests. However, social media companies succeed in persuading users that exchanging personal information for the amenities of a social media account is a good deal.

Social Media’s Not So Secret Business

There is hardly any illusion that social media companies are selflessly giving away their services. It is common knowledge that social media companies make money via advertising. It is also common knowledge that social media companies count among the largest corporations in the world. Moreover, it is widely known that social media companies collect information from users. Anyone who sees a tailored list of recommended friends, videos, or products is probably at least vaguely aware of being tracked in some way—how else would the recommendations be so tailored? Additionally, through widely publicized news stories, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal or the recent Congressional antitrust hearing, more and more people are becoming alert to the degree to which social media compromises their privacy.

These considerations cast doubt on the idea that the social media swindle is driven by luring in unsuspecting users with the false promise of free goods. Users flock to social media and stay there even though they are generally aware that social media companies are profiting off of and even tracking them.

Swindling the User out of Personal Information

The social media swindle, then, is not about unsuspecting users falling prey to the false promise of getting something for nothing—this makes out users to be more ignorant than they are. Rather, the swindle consists of convincing the user that keeping personal information private is less important than maintaining a social media account. Although the user may only have a vague understanding of the privacy risks social media poses, it is essential for social media companies to persuade the users that these risks are far outweighed by the benefits of social media. Users who maintain active social media accounts, whatever reservations they may have, have apparently accepted that social media is worth the costs of whatever profit-making scheme is likely going on in the background.

Under this theory, it is easier to understand why people still use social media, and why so many embrace new forms of social media, no matter how widely publicized and grave the misdeeds of social media companies are. Even if users realize that they are commodified and manipulated, and that social media companies profit from them, many maintain a sense that the convenience and benefits of the services they receive are worth the tradeoff.

Moreover, if the crux of the swindle was simply the alluring promise of free goods, users could easily abandon social media once they realized that they were being commodified and ripped off. The revelation that social media was not actually free would undermine the con. But many people who suspect that they are being commodified and ripped off are not moved to delete their accounts.


The idea that the social media swindle is driven by the promise of free services is very misleading. This conception of the swidnle erroneously suggests that distributing valuable services for free is inherently suspect. Moreover, looking to Leff, we can also see that this understanding of the swindle is untenable: the promise of something for nothing arouses suspicion. A more plausible model of the social media swindle acknowledges that users are aware that social media companies are self-interested actors seeking to collect data and make money. A key move in the social media swindle is the offer of genuine exchange: personal information for services.The swindle is successful when the social media companies have cultivated a society which values its services so much and values privacy so little that the the consumer gives up privacy for a social media account without hesitation. The result of this con, is the constant state of surveillance that accompanies a world of social media. Social media is not just a con—it is a panopticon.

[1]Leff, Arthur A. Swindling and Selling. Collier Macmillan, 1977.

[2] Id.


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r6 - 30 Dec 2020 - 20:55:16 - JustinFlaumenhaft
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