When video of a congressional hearing goes viral, it is often for all the wrong reasons. Thursday’s Senate Commerce Committee, which heard about the psychological effects of Instagram on teens, was no different.
A clip by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) went viral on Twitter Thursday without context, asking Facebook chief of Global Safety Antigone Davis whether the company would “commit to ending finsta?” A seemingly absurd and ridiculous question for anyone under the age of 30. A “finsta” is not a Facebook or Instagram product; it is a slang term used by younger users to describe a secondary shitpost account that is not met to perfection expectations for one’s primary account and network. There are no Lightroom Presets sliding across a finsta post, and only your closest group of friends are allowed to follow the generally private account.
But if you did not watch the hearing, “Will you commit to ending the finsta?” was just another symbol of Congress’ inability to regulate some of the most innovative and valuable companies in the world – similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s “senator, we run ads” quip from several years ago. It’s a solid thump and a symbol of a broken regulatory system, something hard to overlook as lawmakers struggle to pass on any meaningful infrastructure funding this week.
Sorry, Blumenthal did understand what a finsta was and offered a correct definition of his own before asking the poorly worded question that is now taken to a life of his own online. Now, this one bad question has grown into Facebook’s latest rationale for Congress not being able to regulate it.
“Finstas are fake Instagram accounts. Finstas are children’s secret other accounts. Finstas is often designed to avoid parental supervision. Basically, Facebook depends on teens for growth, ”Blumenthal said. Facebook also knows that almost all teens in the United States have an Instagram account; it can only add more users as soon as there are new 13-year-olds. ”
Blumenthal’s flub was only a moment in a relatively productive consultation focusing on the psychological effects Instagram has on its young users. Thursday’s hearing came on the heels of new reporting from Wall Street Journal last month, the company conducted its own internal investigations that identified Instagram as “toxic” to teenage users, often exacerbating unhealthy habits and encouraging self-harm. The results prompted Facebook to “stop” the development of its long-rumored Instagram for Kids service, an app targeted at users under 13 years of age.
Thursday’s hearing, despite a handful of offbase or uneducated questions, became the core of this issue. Both Republicans and Democrats shared similar concerns about the ways social media can harm children. At the moment, it felt like child safety could be one of the first real, bipartisan regulatory battles in congressional agreements against the tech industry.
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” and connected them to algorithmic dopamine hits for the rest of their lives through similar and fan counts – the social media on social media.
“‘IG’ stands for Instagram, but it also stands for InstaGreed,” Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) told Davis during Thursday’s hearing. “If Facebook has taught us anything, it is that self-regulation is not an option.”
In the wake of Thursday’s hearing, senators unveiled new legislative measures to address child safety online. Markey and Blumenthal reintroduced the KIDS Act, a bill that would set new limits on the design and content types of apps targeted at children under 16. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a bill that would establish a new federal tort against social media companies that would allow parents to sue them if it has been shown to have caused bodily or mental harm to children.
After Thursday’s hearing, several lawmakers told Washington Post that they were interested in advancing legislation to tackle child safety issues online while members continued to draft an overarching federal law on confidentiality.
“We’ve talked about it,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). mail. “This is a problem that we are going to work on.”
Yet legislators have promised in the past to promise it finally giant tech companies rein in their competition and data breaches. So far, it has all been talk, and viral flubs like Blumenthal’s “finsta” question only undermine the real work of making real changes.
From Friday, lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing said they will continue to investigate Facebook’s internal reporting on teens’ mental health. “We will dive deeper into the documents we have and review some of the inconsistencies in the answers she gave us today,” Blackburn told mail Thursday.
On Tuesday, the same committee is expected to hold a hearing with the Facebook whistleblower, who first leaked the documents that triggered the company’s latest PR crisis.