The Instagram zombie accounts
Over the weekend of March 25-26, TikTok users started sharing videos of their experiences trying to delete their Instagram accounts on Android devices. Users took issue with not being able to delete their accounts via the Instagram app and having to use a desktop/mobile browser to complete the process.
Indeed, there is no option to delete an Instagram account through the Android app. However, Meta is currently busy migrating most account settings to a dedicated Accounts Centre for all accounts. The migration is still ongoing, which means that account deletion via the Accounts Centre may not be available to all users at this time, something Meta discloses at the top of the ‘Delete your account’ page in the Help Center (Figure 1).
The ‘Delete your account’ page goes on to instruct users to go to Instagram.com on a desktop/mobile browser and ‘select instructions from the menu at the top of the page’ in order to delete their account. The page referred to in these instructions seems to be the Instagram.com homepage.
Finding the option to delete the account on the Instagram.com website is not straightforward at all. Under the ‘Edit Profile’ option in the Account Settings menu, there’s only a link to the account deactivation page. The user has to go to the Instagram.com Help Centre and use the search bar or navigation menu to look up the page on how to delete an account, where they will find a link to the dedicated ‘Delete Your Account’ page (Figure 3).
In any case, the Instagram account deletion process for Android users entails confusing information - arguably the direct link to the dedicated ‘Delete Your Account’ page could have been made available in the Android app Help Centre, and requires additional steps - using a mobile/web browser to go to the Instagram.com, and looking up information on the website Help Center. Some users will likely be dissuaded from deleting their account in this process. When we are faced with boring or repetitive tasks, we tend to procrastinate and may defer to the status quo (in this case, keeping the account) due to behavioural inertia.
Friction v manipulation
Experts in Human-Computer Interaction would call the way this account deletion process is designed a ‘dark pattern’. Dark patterns are user interface design choices that ‘benefit an online service by coercing, steering, or deceiving users into making unintended and potentially harmful decisions’, often by way of exploiting our cognitive biases. More specifically, it is an example of Roach Motel, design that makes it ‘very easy for you to get into a certain situation, but then makes it hard for you to get out of it’. If making an account on Instagram is possible via the app, we could reasonably expect deletion to be possible via the app as well.
That being said, some friction in processes like account deletion may be desirable to prevent users from accidentally deleting their account. The line between desirable friction and manipulative dark patterns that prevent users from deleting their account so that a social media company can continue monetizing user data may therefore be hard to draw at times. Concomitantly, we may want to ask if informing users clearly and directly on how an account may be deleted and the consequences of this action instead would not be a more user-friendly means to the same end. We may also want to ask whether the process is the same for all smartphone users.
On the iOS app, there is a dedicated page for account deactivation and deletion in the account settings option menu. While Meta does use some other practices researchers have characterized as dark patterns in the process - for one, the option to deactivate the account rather than delete is much more prominent, and the user also has to provide a reason for deleting their account, we could also see this as an opportunity to reflect on the decision to disappear into the social media void or, in other words, desirable friction. This variation in user experience across different operating systems is likely owed to Apple’s 2022 update of the App Store guidelines, which require apps that support account creation to allow users to delete their accounts via the app as well. The different experiences of Android and iOS users in this respect make me doubt that the friction currently experienced by Android users is more beneficial to them than to Meta.
What does consumer law have to say on this?
In the EU, the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (2005/29) prohibits traders from using, amongst others, aggressive commercial practices. Aggressive commercial practices are those that ‘by harassment, coercion, including the use of physical force, or undue influence [...] significantly impair the average consumer's freedom of choice or conduct with regard to the product and thereby causes him or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision that he would not have taken otherwise’ (Art.8 UCPD). Art.9 UCPD lists factors that are relevant in this assessment; one of them is ‘onerous or disproportionate non-contractual barriers imposed by the trader where a consumer wishes to exercise rights under the contract, including rights to terminate a contract [...]’ (emphasis added). Meta’s insertion of unnecessary friction in the Instagram account deletion process on Android devices could therefore amount to coercion and an aggressive commercial practice within the meaning of Arts.8 and 9 UCPD. This also seems to be the understanding of EU consumer authorities. In July 2022, following a dialogue with the European Commission and national consumer authorities, Amazon had to adjust its Amazon Prime subscription cancellation process. While users could sign up for Amazon Prime with only a couple of clicks, they had to jump through numerous user interface design hoops in order to cancel their subscription.
The (un)ease of account deletion may also be scrutinized under the General Data Protection Regulation (2016/679). Art.17(1)(a) GDPR allows data subjects to obtain the deletion of their personal data (this is the so-called ‘right to erasure’). According to the European Data Protection Board, ‘if the exercise of the right of erasure is made more difficult without actual reason, this constitutes a violation of the GDPR’.
As of 17 February 2024, the Digital Services Act (Regulation 2022/2065) will explicitly prohibit online platforms’ use of dark patterns that impair users’ free and/or informed decision-making, including the practice of ‘making the procedure for terminating a service more difficult than subscribing to it’ (Art.25(1) jo. (3)(c) DSA).