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What Sen. Blumenthal's 'finsta' flub says about Congress' grasp of Big Tech

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., (second from right) looks on as Facebook's global head of safety, Antigone Davis, testifies remotely on Thursday at a Senate subcommittee hearing to examine protection of children online, focusing on Facebook, Instagram and mental health.
Tom Brenner
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., (second from right) looks on as Facebook's global head of safety, Antigone Davis, testifies remotely on Thursday at a Senate subcommittee hearing to examine protection of children online, focusing on Facebook, Instagram and mental health.

The meme response was swift and brutal.

The question — "Will you commit to ending finsta?" — asked in earnest by 75-year-old Sen. Richard Blumenthal, was meant to press Facebook about what it could do to better address child exploitation and mental health on its platforms.

The problem, however, as Antigone Davis, the social media behemoth's global head of safety, gingerly replied, is that Facebook does not "do" finsta at all.

"Finsta" is, in fact, a slang word for a second, secret Instagram account: fake + Insta = finsta. These more private accounts, popularized by millennial and Gen Z celebrities and influencers, are usually meant for a user's closest circle of friends — ironically, to show a more "real" version of themselves.

Blumenthal, though, did seem to mostly grasp that concept, having earlier explained in the Senate subcommittee hearing on Thursday: "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."

But in the unforgiving digital world, where snark is a main currency, many people saw just the excerpt of his poorly worded question, and the Connecticut septuagenarian unwittingly became the latest face of a Congress that critics say is too out of touch to understand the technology giants it's supposed to regulate.

The particular exchange elicited eye rolls and jokes online but ultimately was left unresolved, with Blumenthal closing the line of questioning with, "Well, I don't think that's an answer to my question," when told that the word denotes a private user page, not an official Facebook platform.

On Twitter, Blumenthal's account poked fun at the situation, posting apopular meme of a long-in-the-tooth Steve Buscemi attempting to blend in with a group of teenagers.

"If trending can get more people interested in discussing Facebook's heinous wrongs," Blumenthal wrote, referencing the high volume of Twitter users discussing the gaffe, "let's talk about it." So began his eight-tweet-long thread.

"This happens over and over again"

"It's indicative of the way people understand Congress to be regulating technology, in that this is a bunch of boomers who have no idea what they're talking about," said Amanda Litman, co-founder and co-executive director of Run for Something, a progressive organization that recruits young and diverse candidates to run for political office.

Litman said that to his credit, prior to the "finsta" question, Blumenthal did seem to "mostly know what he was talking about," but his attempt to tackle a more niche subset of the internet, she said, was symptomatic of a larger problem at play in Congress.

"This happens over and over again, of having to explain to members of Congress how these basic technologies function," she said. "While I'm sure there are many 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds who understand technology, the reason that having to explain something to your grandma is a common experience for a lot of young people is because many of them don't. Especially when we're counting on these folks to regulate these industries in a way that's really meaningful."

Litman said that's not to say older people should not have a say in government. "They absolutely should," she said, "but they shouldn't be the only ones in the room."

Others were more charitable.

"My honest takeaway from this hearing was that Sen. Blumenthal and his colleagues are worlds ahead of where Congress was in 2018 when it comes to understanding Big Tech and the urgency of upending the perverse incentives of the broken status quo," said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, an organization that says it seeks to "tackle the existential threat" that social media companies pose to society.

2018 was when then-Sen. Orrin Hatch's unfamiliarity with Facebook's business model birthed the endlessly memeable quip "Senator, we run ads," from CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

"Even in the inartful 'finsta' exchange, Blumenthal accurately described the way Facebook has embraced kids making secretive, secondary Instagram accounts, because the company profits off of them," Lehrich said. "It's easy to point to a septuagenarian flubbing internet lingo to insinuate that lawmakers are hopelessly out of touch, but I think it really sells short that this hearing showed Congress does get it. Now they just need to act to stem these deep societal harms."

Some rare bipartisan agreement

Though the finsta gaffe may have highlighted a bit of a schism between everyday social media consumers and their government, the Facebook testimony represented a rare moment of relative bipartisanship in the Senate.

The underpinning of the hearing was an explosive report from The Wall Street Journal that revealed damning evidence of Facebook's knowledge of some of the harm its platforms have done, particularly as it pertains to young people's body image and the ever-widening political divide.

"Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse," Facebook researchers wrote in 2020, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. "Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves."

The whistleblower behind the report, Frances Haugen, will appear on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to testify on what she saw as Facebook's pattern of putting business profits ahead of safety and security on its platforms.

Facebook has pushed back on her claims, pointing for instance to its investments in monitoring for harmful content.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political divide have recognized certain aspects of social media's reach as problematic and have introduced legislation to try to rein in the ubiquitous platforms.

Though overshadowed by the "finsta" moment, Blumenthal and his Democratic Senate colleague Ed Markey reintroduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, which would overhaul how social media companies can present content to children under 16 years old.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., that same day introduced legislation to make social media companies liable for bodily or mental harm their products cause to children.

"Facebook has long had evidence of the harmful effects their products have on children but covered it up because it would hurt their profits," Hawley wrote in a news release announcing the bill. "These Big Tech monopolies know exactly how addictive and manipulative their products are but they're content to rake in billions by exploiting children. Parents need to be given the tools to take back control."

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.