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That clip of a senator asking Facebook to end finstas is just part of the story

He had already explained what a finsta was before asking Facebook to 'commit to ending' them.

 

Claire Goforth

Tech

Published Oct 1, 2021   Updated Oct 1, 2021, 11:49 am CDT

During Thursday’s Senate hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked a Facebook representative a question that seemed to demonstrate the senator’s ignorance about social media. “Will you commit to ending finsta?” Blumenthal asked.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, responded to Blumenthal’s question by explaining what a finsta is.

On its face, the question seemed like yet another “Senator, we run ads” flub from Congress. Social media users wasted no time roasting the senator, with clips of the exchange getting millions of views.

But the full hearing reveals that Blumenthal actually does know what a finsta is. He explained it perfectly earlier in the hearing, which was about protecting kids online.

“I want to talk about one major source of concern for parents. They are finstas. Finstas are fake Instagram accounts. Finstas are kids’ secret second accounts. Finstas often are intended to avoid parent’s oversight,” Blumenthal said early in the hearing.

Blumenthal said that his office created a fake Instagram account that pretended to be a 13-year-old girl. They then followed numerous “easily findable” accounts associated with disordered eating and extreme dieting, NBC News reports. Within a day, he said, Instagram was suggesting it follow a slew of similar accounts about dieting and self-harm.

Blumenthal brought a poster that showed the accounts Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, suggested the fake account follow.

“Our research has shown, in real time, Instagram’s recommendations will still latch on to a person’s insecurities, a young woman’s vulnerabilities about their bodies and drag them into dark places that glorify eating disorders and self-harm,” Blumenthal said.

The hearing followed a Wall Street Journal report that Facebook’s internal research found that Instagram has a negative mental health impact on teens, especially girls.

Facebook’s researchers reportedly wrote, “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.” “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” read one slide from 2019, the Journal reported.

The Senate also heard about the research from a Facebook whistleblower.

So essentially, Blumenthal was asking if Facebook would do more to protect teens’ mental health by banning fake accounts, which many teens (and adults) use to avoid prying eyes.

Social media users’ assumption was somewhat understandable. Although Blumenthal described a finsta earlier in the hearing, Davis answered the question as if he had no idea what it was.

The clip inspired jokes and some scathing commentary. Many suggested his comments justified term and/or age limits for members of Congress. Others just cracked jokes over the question.

Some media outlets covered the misleading clip without getting the full story.

New York Magazine ran a piece called, “Senator asks hall of fame terrible tech question.” The piece did not point out that Blumenthal had defined a finsta earlier in the hearing.

Reuters similarly tweeted that Blumenthal had mistaken finsta for a Facebook product. In a follow-up tweet, Reuters noted that Blumenthal had previously read a definition of finstas.

Even the way Twitter trends described the interaction was misleading.

There were a few people pointing out that Blumenthal did in fact know what he was talking about, however.

“Before the ‘finsta’ clip everyone’s dunking on, Sen. Blumenthal actually explains what finstas are,” tweeted Jennifer Epstein.

The rush to roast the senator has seemingly drowned out the reason the hearing was held in the first place: to take Facebook to task for failing to protect children when its internal research establishes that its product is harmful.

“We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety. We know it chooses the growth of its products over the well-being of our children,” Blumenthal said during the hearing. “The question that haunts me is how can we, or parents, or anyone trust Facebook?”


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*First Published: Oct 1, 2021, 11:37 am CDT