Senator Richard Blumenthal said his office created an account on Instagram posing as a 13-year-old girl and followed several accounts associated with extreme dieting to research the effects of the popular social networking app.
Within a day, its recommendations were “exclusively filled” with accounts that promoted self-injury and eating disorders, the Connecticut Democrat said during a congressional hearing on Thursday, during which senators grilled Facebook over how its products may have a negative influence on the mental health of teens and children.
“Our research has shown that right now, 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 during the session.
The hearing before a Senate Commerce Committee panel was convened by a bipartisan group of lawmakers following a report from the Wall Street Journal that detailed Facebook’s own internal research on the harmful impacts of Instagram — the photo-sharing site owned by Facebook — on adolescents. Antigone Davis, the company’s global head of safety, testified and largely went on the offensive despite repeated pushback from those including Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey.
The session on Capitol Hill arrived on the heels of a series of explosive reports about Facebook from the Wall Street Journal, which were based on company communications such as research reports and online employee discussions. The Journal reported in its article about Instagram that for the past three years, Facebook has been conducting its own studies into how the photo-sharing app affects its young users.
The posterboard from today's Senate #Instagram hearing. Blumenthal said he created a fake 13-year old account and followed others associated w/ extreme dieting. "Within a day" recommendations were "exclusively filled with accounts that promote self-injury and eating disorders" pic.twitter.com/XTMfMnh9nz— Dell Cameron (@dellcam) September 30, 2021
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” according to one slide from 2019 obtained by the Journal.
“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Facebook has claimed that the Journal mischaracterized its findings. Ahead of the hearing, the newspaper published several documents that sparked its reporting on Instagram.
Blumenthal said on Thursday that a whistleblower from the company approached his office and provided those documents, giving lawmakers “deep insight into Facebook’s relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users.”
The information provided by the whistleblower — who is set to testify before Congress next week — demonstrates that Facebook “knew it was a perfect storm through Instagram that exacerbates downward spirals,” he added.
During the hearing, Davis said Facebook “strongly” disagrees with how the company’s internal research was described. She argued against some of the central findings of the Journal’s article on Instagram and said that “many teens” use the app for help with “hard issues that are so common to being a teen.”
“I want to be clear, I’m not diminishing the importance of these issues or suggesting that we will ever be satisfied anyone is struggling on our apps,” she told the consumer protection subcommittee. “That’s why we conduct this research.”
Blumenthal also grilled Davis over Instagram’s identification of “Finstas” — fake accounts often set up by teens to evade supervision from their parents — as a growth opportunity.
“Behind the scenes, your marketers see teens with multiple accounts as unique value opportunity propositions,” Blumenthal said. “We all know that means Finstas. You’re monetizing kids deceiving their parents. You make money when kids deceive their parents.”
But part of his line of questioning made the senator appear as though he did not know what those accounts are, despite the accurate elaboration he provided during the hearing. The short clip went viral.
Facebook announced earlier this week that it was halting its plans to develop Instagram Kids — a version of the app tailored toward children — for the time being after lawmakers and others voiced concern. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey co-led a group of other state attorneys general earlier this year in calling on the company to call off its plans for the service.
Markey said the pause was “insufficient” during the session and pressed Davis on whether Facebook would commit to not launching “any platforms targeting kids 12 and under.” He asked Davis “yes or no” several times — and on each occasion, she avoided directly answering.
Markey also asked Davis whether Facebook would support legislation that would stem “manipulative marketing, amplification of harmful content, and damaging design features” on social networks. When she declined to commit to backing it and said instead the company would be “happy to follow up,” the senator grew frustrated.
“I just feel that delay and obfuscation is the legislative strategy of Facebook, especially since Facebook has spent millions of dollars on a marketing campaign calling on Congress to pass Internet regulations,” he said. “Facebook purports to be committed to children’s well-being, so it’s simply wrong that you will not support this legislation to enact protections for kids online.”
Blumenthal reportedly said after the session that the committee may subpoena Facebook for its full findings if “the company isn’t more cooperative.”