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That Ridiculous “Finsta” Question Aside, Yesterday’s Senate Hearing Was Very Bad for Facebook

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal D-CT asks questions to witnesses during a senate hearing.

In recent years, Congress has repeatedly brought in executives from Facebook and other social media giants to question them about their companies’ practices. Typically (consistently, really), they are ridiculous wastes of time, breaking down into performative pageantry from grandstanding lawmakers who don’t actually understand the technology they’re so upset over.

But Thursday’s hearing, with the Senate’s consumer protection subcommittee questioning Facebook’s Director of Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis, stayed uniquely on point, perhaps because the point they were discussing was so serious.

The hearing was scheduled in response to a recent horrifying report from the Wall Street Journal, which revealed that Facebook and Instagram cause and exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues for young people, especially teenage girls, and that the company knows this is happening.

One leaked internal research slide from Facebook reads: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Six percent of American teenage Instagram users who had experienced suicidal thoughts and 13% of those in Britain said they could directly trace those thoughts back to Instagram.

The hearing was dedicated to putting pressure on Facebook to change its practices to protect young people. Unfortunately (albeit hilariously), one odd gaffe from Senator Richard Blumenthal gained so much attention, it risked overshadowing the entire hearing.

When asking Davis how Facebook (which owns Instagram) is going to protect young people, he fervently grilled her as to whether the company would “commit to ending Finsta.”

Davis tried patiently to explain that “finsta” is slang for a secret secondary Instagram account, the kind used by (among others) young people wanting to post without their parents/teachers/others seeing it. It is not an official service or product provided by Facebook or Instagram, a fact that Blumenthal seemingly could not grasp, repeatedly chastizing Davis for not answering his unanswerable question.

Yes, that was funny, but we can’t let it overshadow the larger point of the hearing: Facebook has reportedly known about the psychological damage their products cause to young people, and has repeatedly underreported and straight-up lied about it, including to Senate officials.

Lawmakers accused Facebook of selectively publishing data and documents that make themselves look as good as possible, rather than providing a fully accurate picture of their policies and the effect their apps are having on young people.

And going back to Blumenthal’s Finsta question, it seems that his question was more poorly worded than an actual misunderstanding. Because he actually gave his own accurate definition, saying, “Finstas are fake Instagram accounts. Finstas are kids’ secret second accounts. Finstas often are intended to avoid parents’ oversight. Basically, Facebook depends on teens for growth,” Blumenthal said. “Facebook also knows that nearly every teen in the United States has an Instagram account; it can only add more users as fast as there are new 13-year-olds.”

No, Facebook can’t really “commit to ending Finsta” as if it were an actual product. But they can commit to protecting their most vulnerable users, whom they reportedly know they’re actively harming.

“We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety,” Blumenthal said at one point. “We know it chooses the growth of its products ahead of the wellbeing of our children. And we now know that it is indefensibly delinquent in acting to protect them.”

The Verge writes:

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers noted Facebook’s profit incentives for onboarding young users, increasing the platform’s daily active users and, in turn, pleasing investors. They compared Instagram to a child’s first “cigarette,” hooking them on algorithmic dopamine hits for the rest of their lives through like and follower counts — the social currency of social media.

“’IG’ stands for Instagram, but it also stands for InstaGreed,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told Davis at Thursday’s hearing. “If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that self-regulation is not an option.”

Senators left Thursday’s hearing saying they had “more questions than answers,” and that they’ll continue to pore over documents provided by a Facebook whistleblower, comparing it to Davis’ testimony.

(image: Ken Cedeno-Pool/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.