SMS integration arrived to Facebook Messenger last week. After the update, users who open the app are greeted with a pop-up screen prompting them to set Messenger as the default SMS app.
So far, nothing special, but as tech journalist Amir Efrati of The Information noted, Facebook is being a little disingenuous in the way it presents options to users.
— Amir Efrati (@amir) June 20, 2016
Specifically, there’s no “No, thanks” button. The user is shown a prominent “OK” button, but if they don’t want to bring their SMS chats into Messenger they have to tap on the much less visible link to “Settings” (or tap the back key).
In Settings, there’s another highly-visible prompt to turn on SMS integration. If you don’t want the app to handle SMS, you have to click on the back key.
Presented with this interface, most users will tap “OK” without even reading what they signed up for. Granted, it only takes an extra second to figure out what’s happening, but that doesn’t make Facebook’s strategy – a textbook case of “dark pattern” – less deceptive.
Amir Efrati argued that the tactic may even be in violation of Google’s Play Store policies, which specifically prohibit “deceptive device settings changes.” While it’s up to Google to decide whether Facebook is breaking rules of not, Messenger’s SMS push could potentially be classified as an app that “misleads users into removing or disabling third-party apps or modifying device settings or features.”
Facebook offered a statement on the issue to Engadget, but it’s pretty much a non-answer:
“SMS in Messenger is an optional feature. People can choose whether or not they wish to use it. When they first see the prompt, they can choose to start seeing their SMS messages in Messenger by turning on the feature, or they can decide not to by tapping “Settings.” If they decide to see SMS messages in Messenger and to also reply to messages from Messenger, we’ll ask people to approve any new device permissions that are required. Messenger doesn’t modify any device settings without people agreeing to it.”
Some users are now reporting seeing a “No” button – that’s either an A/B test or a quick reaction to the criticism. However, we didn’t spot it on any of our devices.
You may think that this is no big deal. But think about Facebook Messenger’s scale: over 900 million users and growing. Even if a small percent of users are tricked into changing their default SMS apps against their wishes, that’s tens of millions of new users for Messenger – and potentially millions of lost users for indie texting apps like Textra, Evolve SMS or QKSMS.
This isn’t the first time Facebook is criticized for using heavy-handed tactics to steer users towards its services. In fact, grabbing a slice of the SMS pie is one potential reason why Facebook is so keen to make users install Messenger, rather than use the messaging feature of its main app.