When video of a congressional hearing goes viral, it’s often for all of the wrong reasons. Thursday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing into the mental health effects of Instagram on teenagers was no different.
A clip of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) went viral on Twitter Thursday, contextless, asking Facebook Head of Global Safety Antigone Davis if the company would “commit to ending finsta?” A seemingly absurd and laughable question to anyone under the age of 30. A “finsta” isn’t a Facebook or Instagram product; it’s a slang term used by younger users to describe a secondary shitposting account not beholden to the perfection expectations of one’s primary account and grid. There are no Lightroom Presets gleaning over a finsta post, and only your closest group of friends are permitted to follow the generally private account.
But if you weren’t watching the hearing, “Will you commit to ending 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 dunk and emblematic of a broken legislative system, something difficult to pass up as lawmakers struggle to pass any meaningful infrastructure funding this week.
Unfortunately, Blumenthal did understand what a finsta was and offered a proper definition of his own before asking the poorly worded question that’s now taken on a life of its own online. Now, this one bad question has grown into Facebook’s latest reasoning that Congress can’t regulate it.
“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.”
Blumenthal’s flub was just one moment in a relatively productive hearing focused on the mental health effects Instagram has on its young users. Thursday’s hearing came on the heels of new reporting from the Wall Street Journal last month that the company conducted its own internal studies, identifying that Instagram was “toxic” for teenage users, oftentimes exacerbating unhealthy habits and encouraging self-harm. The findings prompted Facebook to “pause” development on its long-rumored Instagram for Kids service, an app targeted at users under the age of 13.
Thursday’s hearing, despite a handful of offbase or uneducated questions, got at the heart of this issue. Both Republicans and Democrats shared similar concerns over the ways in which social media can hurt children. At moments, it felt as though child safety could be one of the first real, bipartisan regulatory blows Congress deals 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,” 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.”
In the aftermath 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 place new limits on the design and types of content for apps targeted to children under the age of 16. Sen. 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 they are proven to have caused bodily or mental injuries to children.
After Thursday’s hearing, several lawmakers told The Washington Post that they were interested in advancing legislation to tackle child safety issues online while members continue to hash out an overarching federal privacy law.
“We’ve been talking about that,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) told The Post. “This is an issue that we’re going to keep working on.”
Still, lawmakers have made pledges in the past, promising to finally rein in giant tech firms over their competition and data abuses. So far, it’s all been talk, and viral flubs like Blumenthal’s “finsta” question only undermine the real work that goes into making real change.
As of Friday, the lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing said that they will continue to investigate Facebook’s internal reporting on teenage mental health. “We’ll do a deeper dive on the documents that we have and review some of the inconsistencies in the answers she gave us today,” Blackburn said to The Post Thursday.
On Tuesday, this same committee is expected to hold a hearing with the Facebook whistleblower who first leaked the documents sparking the company’s latest PR crisis.