A partnership between Big Fish—an online social casino—and Facebook is turning lives upside down and leaving users like Suzie Kelly in severe debt, according to an August 2019 report by Reveal in partnership with the PBS NewsHour. Suzie, a grandmother from the Dallas area, spent over $400,000 on a Big Fish gambling game after Facebook sold her data to Big Fish. The tech company compiles user data into advanced personality profiles that indicate whether or not a person has an addictive personality. Big Fish then pays Facebook to advertise their gambling games to such users aggressively.
Reveal reported that social casino games, including virtual slot machines and poker games on Facebook and mobile devices, “have become a $5 billion-a-year business, with revenues nearly as large as all the Las Vegas Strip casinos combined.” However because these games are classified as “entertainment,” gambling regulations do not apply to them, and “there is nothing stopping tech companies from monitoring, analyzing–and targeting–those with addictive personalities.”
The executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, Keith Whyte, told Reveal that a real casino would be required to cut off gamblers like Suzie, the Dallas grandmother, or the casino would face significant fines, but there are “no regulations on social casino games.”
If these circumstances are not bad enough, Reveal also noted that the rewards in online gambling games like Big Fish are paltry. Players like Suzie cannot win any actual money playing the games, because they “can never cash out their virtual chips for real money.” Instead, their successes are rewarded by more virtual chips, which allow t hem to spend more time playing the game.
In April 2019, the Guardian reported on the case of a problem gambler who lost the equivalent of more than $160,000 in online gambling games and was accusing two online casinos, LeoVegas and Casumo, of “ignoring obvious signs of her addiction” and, instead, “offering her bonuses to keep betting.” The Guardian reported that, responsive to this case, calls were being made for tougher regulation of online gambling and review of whether betting on credit should be allowed.
“‘If You Have an Addiction, You’re Screwed’ – How Facebook and Social Casinos Target the Vulnerable.” Reveal, (Center for Investigative Reporting), August 19, 2019, https://www.revealnews.org/article/if-you-have-an-addiction-youre-screwed-how-facebook-and-social-casinos-target-the-vulnerable/.
“How Social Casinos Leverage Facebook User Data to Target Vulnerable Gamblers,” PBS NewsHour, August 13, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/how-social-casinos-leverage-facebook-user-data-to-target-vulnerable-gamblers.
Rob Davies, “Online Casinos Ignored My Obvious Signs of Addiction, Says Gambler,” The Guardian, April 22, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/22/online-casinos-ignored-obvious-signs-addiction-gambler.
Student Researcher: Sara Erickson (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)