Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, faced harsh — and, briefly, existential — questioning on Capitol Hill on Thursday about Instagram’s effect on teenagers, addressing accusations that the app’s parent company, Facebook, had known for years that its photo-sharing app had caused mental and emotional harm.
Members of the Senate’s consumer protection subcommittee rebuked Ms. Davis and Facebook for hiding and downplaying the ways in which the company’s services hurt young people and for not implementing changes aimed at limiting those adverse effects. A bipartisan commission grilled Ms. Davis on matters relating to children and the social media application.
One question, however, from Senator Richard Blumenthal, the chairman of the subcommittee and a Democrat from Connecticut, stood out from the rest, at least to many watching from home: “Will you commit to ending finsta?”
Sen. Blumenthal asks Facebook "Will you commit to ending Finsta?"
Facebook's safety chief has to explain that Finsta is slang for a fake account. pic.twitter.com/jMYy5AIZjY
“Finsta,” a slang term, is widely accepted as a contraction of “fake” and “Insta” (short for Instagram). It is neither an official designation nor a type of account offered by Facebook. Rather, it is a term many users ascribe to secondary accounts they create for themselves on Instagram, where their identities — and, often, the content of their posts — are obscured to all but a small, carefully chosen group of followers.
“Fake” here does not refer to the account owner — finstas are real accounts run by real people, not bots — but instead distinguishes the private, and to some extent secret, account from the “real” public-facing one. For instance, many celebrities with official verified Instagram accounts are also believed to maintain secret private accounts for personal use; in such cases, the personal accounts would be referred to as finstas.
Accounts with this unofficial designation are typically regarded as provinces of their owners’ trusted friends — a group that may exclude family members.
The finstas in question during Thursday’s hearing were those of Instagram’s youngest users. Senator Blumenthal has, for years, criticized Facebook policies governing the privacy and safety of minors.
Earlier in the hearing, Senator Blumenthal appeared to demonstrate sound knowledge of the subject. “Finstas are fake Instagram accounts,” he said. “Finstas are kids’ secret second accounts. Finstas often are intended to avoid parents’ oversight.”
He accused Facebook of looking to young people’s secret secondary accounts as “a growth strategy” — a way to increase user activity on the website without the burden of signing up new users.
“You’re monetizing kids’ deceiving their parents,” he said. “You make money from these secret accounts.”
But it was the senator’s turn of phrase during questioning, rather than his accusations, that lit up the internet.
“Will you commit to ending finsta?” he asked, two hours in.
The question was met with initial silence from the Facebook representative. One can no more “end” finsta than, say, “Hot Girl Summer” or “Taco Tuesday,” after all.
“Senator, again let me explain — we don’t actually do finsta,” Ms. Davis said, finally. “What ‘finsta’ refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy.” Some teens, she suggested, prefer to have a separate account for interaction “with a smaller group of friends.”
Senator Blumenthal pushed back: “Finsta is one of your products or services,” he insisted.
Ms. Davis tried again. “Finsta is slang for a type of account,” she said, before Senator Blumenthal cut her off to further press the case, asking: “Will you end that type of account?”
Ms. Davis may not be able to end the use or circulation of a slang term. But it is true that Facebook does allow people to register more than one account under the same email address — a practice it could, conceivably, end. Instead, it has recently begun promoting this option: Some users have reported receiving pop-up messages suggesting they create an extra Instagram account to “Keep Up With a Smaller Group of Friends.”
The exchange between Senator Blumenthal and Ms. Davis garnered immediate attention on Twitter, where tidal waves of mocking tweets accused the senator of having no comprehension of an issue he was trying to legislate. Many demanded he retire.
Some Twitter users guessed Senator Blumenthal had misread his staff members’ notes. Casey Newton, the founder and editor of Platformer, a publication focused on covering technology and democracy, tweeted (jokingly), “Running for office on a pledge to end Finsta.” Others bemoaned the possible loss of their secondary accounts.
On that score, they likely needn’t worry. Ms. Davis would not commit to ending finsta.
John Herrman contributed reporting.
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