Every few years, a new viral social platform emerges to supposedly rescue us from the clenches of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all their associated problems.
Vero skyrocketed to the top of the App Store this week, claiming the No. 1 spot in the social-media category and surpassing 1 million downloads. But already some users are calling for its deletion due to the problematic past of its founder and CEO, Ayman Hariri.
Hariri is a billionaire Lebanese businessman and son of the assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. He told CNBC in March 2017 that he founded Vero because he was frustrated with other social networks.
“When I did join existing social networks, I found the options for privacy were quite limited and difficult to understand, and also when I decided to get on and connect with a few of my friends, I noticed that their behavior online was very different than their behavior in the real world,” he told CNBC.
Hariri and his co-founders hired a team of Russian developers to build the social app and has since been on a media tour promoting it as the next Facebook.
The app actually launched back in 2015, billing itself as a “relationship first” social network. Though it looks almost exactly like Instagram but with a darker, more cluttered color scheme, the platform does have some notable differences that have fueled its recent growth.
Photographers like it because it doesn’t make you crop your photos into any set dimensions. Influencers like it because it offers a chronological timeline free from algorithms. And other people like it because you have the option to delineate who is a close friend, who is an “acquaintance,” and who is just a follower. You can set the audience for each post. Also, there are no ads. Instead, users pay a subscription fee to use the app.
In order to sign up, you’re asked to provide a name, email address, and phone number. The app then requests access to your contacts. “Vero only collects the data we believe is necessary to provide users with a great experience and to ensure the security of their accounts,” the company explains, which doesn’t say much.
“We created a social network that lets you be yourself, hence the name Vero, meaning truth,” it states on its website.
The website is littered with these types of platitudes, declaring “Vero is a social network for anyone who loves anything enough to share it.”
But Hariri’s shady past is enough to give many new users pause and think twice about trusting him with valuable data.
Before beginning his social-media escapades, Hariri served as deputy chief executive officer and vice chairman of his family’s now-defunct construction company, Saudi Oger, a business that was the source of most of his family’s wealth.
Throughout his time there, the company was plagued with problems and allegations of abuse; under Hariri’s watch, over 31,000 complaints of nonpayment of wages were filed against the Saudi Oger.
The company was so negligent that in some cases the Saudi Arabian government had to step in and provide food and basic living supplies to workers spurned by the company.
Unpaid workers were forced to live in crowded dorms in labor camps constructed by the company, Reuters reported in 2016. Throughout their time working for Saudi Oger, many workers were denied access to food, water, and medical care.
So far, there have been no allegations of abuse or unpaid wages made against Vero, however many in the tech community have spoken out about against Hariri, imploring users not to download his app, with many voices citing his past infractions at Saudi Oger as a reason to delete Vero.
“Just so everyone knows. The people behind this app are just about as awful as the app itself,” one user tweeted, linking to a report on Saudi Oger abuses.
“Don’t download that thing unless you’re using a burner phone,” a Palo Alto-based artist named Mr. Fingg, who previously founded his own social network called Fingg.com, told The Daily Beast.
Fingg said it also made him uncomfortable how vague the company is about what it plans to do with user data, and he, like many on Twitter, was frustrated when he discovered that he couldn’t simply delete his account after signing up.
“You can’t just go in and just delete your account, you have to put in a request,” he said.
Pasquale D’Silva, an animator and software designer who has previously worked on social apps, created a Twitter moment on Monday raising similar concerns.
“The more I read the more I realize it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the CEO’s previous actions heinous,” he tweeted.
D’Silva also told The Daily Beast that the foreign development team was a huge red flag. Though plenty of startups outsource development, many don’t have CEOs whose brothers are close with Vladimir Putin.
“The DNA of the team is absolutely influential in the shape of the product and network,” D’Silva said. “Also, ideals from an all-Russian production team will inevitably have an impact on the way stuff is done at the company.
“I think this whole thing is insane,” he added. “I don’t get why a billionaire wants to make a social network and a shitty social network at that… what does he really want out of this shitstorm?”
Vero has not responded to request for comment on its terms of service or founder’s past.
But despite Hariri’s shady past and Vero’s ambiguous terms, many users are still clamoring to join.
“The barely capable social app’s popularity suggests Facebook and Instagram may be facing a deeper backlash than we thought,” Will Oremus wrote in Slate.
For every five Vero boosters, however, there is at least one person attempting to voice concern. By Tuesday night, many former Vero users began tweeting with the hashtag #DeleteVero.
“Been looking into the people and money behind Vero and it’s kind of shady. One of the founders previously started ‘Epok, a cloud-based platform that streamlines sharing for law enforcement and intelligence agencies.’ this is what y’all want to replace Facebook with? Lmao,” one man said.
“I’m always wary of the shiny new social media platform, but this is appalling. #DeleteVero,” tweeted another woman, linking to a report claiming that Hariri had supported human trafficking.
“Bye Vero, you shady bitches,” tweeted another.