Zuckerberg’s upside down world: Meta’s ‘dark patterns’ so you don’t pay for Instagram and Facebook

Dark patterns are considered bad web design practice, but let the designer who has never used them cast the first stone. They are all those deceptive tactics that serve to manipulate user behavior and guide them toward options that are beneficial to the company, even if they are contrary to what that person originally wanted to do. Timeless forms to unsubscribe from a service, the use of preselected buttons for some options, or the use of a font color almost indistinguishable from the background for others are examples of dark patterns.

Companies know that if they include a notice that there are only three units left in stock, the user is more likely to purchase one immediately so as not to run out of it, so sometimes they add it even if it is not true. What all of these tactics have in common is that they are used to encourage the user to subscribe or pay for a service. In Europe, Mark Zuckerberg uses them for the opposite.

In recent weeks, Instagram and Facebook have informed their users that they have to “make a decision”: subscribe to their paid versions or “continue using Meta products for free.” Both the text, the buttons and the colors of that ad indicate that the corporation wants to guide users to the free version of its social networks. To do this, use subtle but obvious dark patterns:

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The clearest is the highlighting of the “use for free” button, which marks it as a preferential option. Dark patterns work because they exploit cognitive biases that cause people to behave in a certain way without realizing it. The default effect is one of them and it works because our brain interprets that the default option will require less mental effort than the others.

Meta has chosen the color blue to highlight the “use free” button. It is Facebook’s corporate color, but not Instagram’s. User experience design manuals recommend blue to convey “trust, honesty and transparency” based on color psychology. For this reason, it is also the preferred color for the websites and applications of most banks, such as BBVA, Sabadell, CaixaBank, Ibercaja, Barclays, Abanca, Deutsche Bank or Cajamar.

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Meta’s way of presenting changes also presents several dark patterns. On the one hand, it uses negative language to describe the paid version: “subscribe to not see ads” or “the rules in your region are changing” as a justification for the new versions. The negative language used by Meta for the payment option in turn creates a negative framing effect, another well-known cognitive bias that in this case guides the user against payment.

Meta also resorts to an explanation that is not true. Its decision to launch paid versions is not a consequence of a legal change in the EU but of a ruling by the European justice system, which declared illegal its practice of forcing all users to give up their personal data just for using its services; as well as the prohibition of data protection authorities to continue making segmented advertising based on that information.

The company hides these facts in the description of the free versions. It also reinforces the default effect by using the verb “follow” several times to emphasize the less effort that this option implies: “continue using our free products”; “continue using account information”; “continue using cookies in our products”; “You will still have the same experience.”

As elDiario.es reported, the paid versions of Facebook and Instagram do not imply less data collection from their users. The only difference is that those who do not pay will be shown ads. Nor “for advertising purposes”, but Meta has not revealed if this implies that it does not carry out the personality profiling that it does for each member of its social networks.

What does using dark patterns entail?

“When a user registers or accepts a service on the Internet, the information must be clear and must be loyal. What causes a dark pattern is that the user’s choice is aligned with the wishes of the person who is going to process their data, with the strategy that they do not have adequate or sufficient knowledge. Therefore, it is a clear disloyalty and it is a clear violation of the fundamental right of the person whose data you are going to process,” explains Professor Ricard Martínez, director of the Microsoft Chair of Privacy and Digital Transformation – Universitat de València.

The use of dark patterns is clearly disloyal and is a clear violation of the fundamental right of the person whose data you are going to process.

Ricard Martínez
director of the Microsoft Privacy and Digital Transformation Chair – Universitat de València

“When the information is presented in such a way that you are unconsciously induced not to read it, or when it is presented in such a complex way that you honestly give up reading it, what this disloyalty leads to is that you are not freely giving your consent, because to “That there is freedom to choose, you have to know what you should choose,” Martínez continues.

A consent given through a request that uses dark patterns to hide information from the user or guide them in favor of the company’s interests could be considered “null and void.” A possibility that Meta is facing again this week, since its paid versions have already been reported to the data protection authorities.


“Meta’s ‘pay or consent’ system can be described as a large-scale dark pattern,” warns Felix Mikolasch of the pro-privacy NGO Noyb. “With a system of this type, 99% of people consent, but according to neutral studies, only 3%-10% of people prefer that their personal data be used for personalized ads. Therefore, a system of this type significantly manipulates the will of the majority of users,” he points out in conversation with this medium.

Meta’s ‘pay or consent’ system qualifies as a large-scale dark pattern

Felix Mikolasch
Pro-privacy NGO Noyb

Noyb has reported this week to the Austrian privacy agency the new versions of Meta. “European users now have the ‘choice’ of consenting to be tracked for personalized advertising or paying up to 251.88 euros per year to retain their fundamental right to data protection on Instagram and Facebook,” the organization protests: “If Meta is gets his way, his competitors will soon follow in his footsteps. Taking into account that the average phone has 35 applications installed, maintaining privacy could soon cost around 8,815 euros per year.”

The data protection authorities of Norway and Estonia have also launched ex officio investigations to unravel what use of personal data the new paid versions make. “You won’t see ads but Meta will continue to track you, continue to collect the data. From the point of view of data protection, that blows my mind,” the director of the Norwegian agency told Wired: “We are discovering them because they have been doing it in silence for years. “They have collected our data and profiled us for years.”

elDiario.es has contacted Meta to include its version on the use of dark patterns, as well as the investigations by Norway and Estonia and Noyb’s complaint to the Austrian agency. The company has not responded to the request.

But data protection has not been the only field in which paid versions are causing problems for Meta. The Spanish consumer associations Asufin and Cecu have filed another complaint this Thursday with the network of consumer protection authorities. The company “engages in multiple unfair commercial practices, it accuses, considering that subscribing not to see ads is “an unfair practice for users, which contravenes EU consumer legislation in several aspects.”

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