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Senators Ask Facebook to “End Finstas,” Compare Social Media to Big Tobacco in Hearing About Its Effects on Teens

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A clip of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) asking a Facebook exec if the company would “commit to ending finsta,” which he described as a “product or service” of the company, has now been viewed online more than 6 million times. 


Lawmakers: Instagram for Kids Should Be Scrapped

The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection interrogated Facebook on Thursday over its plans to expand how kids utilize Instagram, one of its social media platforms. 

In perhaps their clearest bipartisan message, the lawmakers agreed that Facebook should not revive newly-paused plans to build an “Instagram for Kids.” 

“If we’re dealing with Facebook’s real world, where the safeguards are more illusory than real, there should be no Instagram for kids, period,” Committee Chair Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) said ahead of a hearing with Facebook’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis. “If they were really committed to kids’ safety, if there were real-world evidence of it, I might think differently about it. But Instagram for kids is plainly just more of the same.”

During the meeting, Davis, unsurprisingly, would not commit to the company fully scrapping Instagram for Kids.

In an experiment to directly see how Instagram promotes to teens, Blumenthal said his office created an account posing as a 13-year-old, then followed other accounts that were associated with diet extremism and eating disorders. After a single day, Blumenthal said the profile was only recommended accounts for self-harm and eating disorders.

The hearing was spurred by Blumenthal and ranking Republican Marsha Blackburn (Tn.) following the Wall Street Journal’s posting of multiple internal Facebook documents on Sep. 14. The same whistleblower who provided the documents to the WSJ later handed over a copy directly to Congress ahead of the hearing.

Those documents — published as a series of statistics on slideshow presentations — detail a number of disturbing data sets, including that 6% of American teens and 13% of British teens who told Facebook researchers that they had suicidal thoughts were able to directly trace those thoughts back to Instagram.

Facebook has repeatedly played down the leaked slide decks, arguing that they fail to capture the positive effects also presented within those slides. For example, the company has since stated that “more than half of respondents self-report that Instagram makes their feelings of loneliness better.”

Upon releasing two of the decks in full Wednesday night, Facebook again tried to diminish the results of its less than positive research by suggesting that the company itself “may [have] sensationaliz[ed] the negative impact on the graph.” In response, the WSJ published four additional slide decks in full, likely revealing much more information than Facebook had planned to make public. 

Facebook’s Tactics Compared to Big Tobacco

During the hearing, Blumenthal likened Facebook’s model for attracting minors to its platforms as similar to that of Big Tobacco.

“[Facebook] has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products, it has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves,” he said. 

Echoing Blumenthal, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Ma.) compared Instagram to “that first childhood cigarette, meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health.” He’s also vowed to reintroduce a bill that would ban features like autoplay, push alerts, and accomplishment badges from being available to minors. 

Davis refuted such claims and offered the counterargument that Facebook’s “products actually add value and… enrich teen’s lives.”

“They enable them to connect with their friends, with their family,” especially during the ongoing pandemic, she argued.

Blumenthal’s “Finsta” Blunder

During what has become easily the most viral moment of the hearing, Blumenthal asked Davis if Facebook would “commit to ending finsta,” which he described as a “product or service” of the company.

“We don’t actually do finsta,” Davis replied. “What finsta refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy. You refer to it as privacy from their parents. In my interaction with teens, what I’ve found is that they sometimes like to have an account where they can interact just with a smaller group of friends.”

“Finsta is slang for a type of account, it’s not a product,” she later added.

“Okay, will you end that type of account?” Blumenthal said, continuing to press Davis.

“I’m not sure I understand exactly what you’re asking,” Davis said. “What I can say is that based on what we’ve seen in terms of teens using those kinds of accounts, we’ve actually given them additional privacy options, to address those kinds of issues, where they want more privacy so that they can have more privacy.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s an answer to my question,” Blumenthal said, ending the conversation.

The clip, which was viewed over 6 million times in the 24 hours after it was recorded, led to many mocking Blumenthal for seemingly not understanding that “finstas” — AKA, “fake Instagrams” — are a type of secondary account created by users, not an explicit feature offered by the platform.

However, earlier comments from Blumenthal show that he is more aware of the reality of what finstas are than the viral clip suggests.

“Facebook describes these secret accounts as ‘a unique value proposition,’” he said after correctly describing what finstas are. “It’s a growth strategy, a way to boost its monthly active user metric. That active user metric is of great interest to your investors, to the markets, and it looks to me like it’s another case of prioritizing growth over children’s safety.”

Still, Blumenthal has continued to be criticized for claiming that finstas are a “product” of Facebook or that “Facebook has done… finstas.” While finstas are indeed likely a valuable prospect for boosting Facebook’s metrics, their origin does not originate from and has not been publicly promoted by the company itself. 

See what others are saying: (Axios) (The New York Times) (Ars Technica)

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Misinformation Makes Up 20% of Top Search Results For Current Events on TikTok, New Research Finds

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According to the report, the app “is consistently feeding millions of young users health misinformation, including some claims that could be dangerous to users’ health.”


Misinformation Thrives on TikTok

As TikTok becomes Gen Z’s favorite search engine, new research by journalism and tech group NewsGuard found that the video app frequently suggests misinformation to users searching for news-related topics. 

NewsGuard used TikTok’s search bar to look up trending news subjects like the 2020 election, COVID-19, the invasion of Ukraine, the upcoming midterms, abortion, school shootings, and more. It analyzed 540 videos based on the top 20 results from 27 subject searches, finding false or misleading claims in 105 of those posts. 

In other words, roughly 20% of the results contained misinformation. 

Some of NewsGuard’s searches contained neutral phrases and words like “2022 election” or “mRNA vaccine,” while others were loaded with more controversial language like “January 6 FBI” or “Uvalde TX conspiracy.” In many cases, those controversial phrases were suggested by TikTok’s own search bar. 

The researchers noted that, for example, during a search on climate change, “climate change debunked” showed up. While looking up COVID-19 vaccines, searches for “covid vaccine injury” or “covid vaccine exposed” were recommended.

Dangerous Results Regarding Health and More

The consequences of some of the false claims made in these videos can be severe. NewsGuard wrote in its report that the search engine “is consistently feeding millions of young users health misinformation, including some claims that could be dangerous to users’ health.”

Among the hoards of hazardous health claims were videos falsely suggesting that COVID-19 vaccines are toxic and cause permanent damage to organs. The report found that there are still several videos touting the anti-parasite hydroxychloroquine as a cure-all remedy, not just for COVID, but for any illness. 

Searches regarding herbal abortions were particularly troublesome. While certain phrases like “mugwort abortion” were blocked, the researchers found several ways around this that lead to multiple videos touting debunked DIY abortion remedies that are not only proven to be ineffective, but can also pose serious health risks. 

NewsGuard claimed that the social media app vowed to remove this content in July, but “two months later, herbal abortion content continues to be easily accessible on the platform.”

Other standard forms of conspiracy fodder also occupied space in top search results, including claims that the Uvalde school shooting was planned and that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. 

TikTok’s Search Engine Vs. Google

As part of its research, NewsGuard compared TikTok’s search results and suggestions with Google and found that, by comparison, the latter “provided higher-quality and less-polarizing results, with far less misinformation.”

“For example, searching ‘covid vaccine’ on Google prompted ‘walk-in covid vaccine,’ ‘which covid vaccine is best,’ and ‘types of covid vaccines,’” NewsGuard wrote. “None of these terms was suggested by TikTok.”

This is significant because recent reports show that young Internet users have increasingly turned to TikTok as a search engine over Google. While this might elicit safe results for pasta recipes and DIY tutorials, for people searching for current affairs, there could be significant consequences. 

NewsGuard said that it flagged six videos containing misinformation to TikTok, and the social media app ended up taking those posts down. In a statement to Mashable, the company pledged to fight against misinformation on its platform. 

“Our Community Guidelines make clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform,” the statement said. “We partner with credible voices to elevate authoritative content on topics related to public health, and partner with independent fact-checkers who help us to assess the accuracy of content.”

See what others are saying: (Mashable) (CNN) (USA Today)

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Over 70 TikTok Creators Boycott Amazon as Workers Protest Conditions and Pay

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As the company fends off pressure on both fronts, the Amazon Labor Union continues to back election petitions around the country including one filed Tuesday in upstate New York.


Gen Z Goes to War With Amazon

More than 70 big TikTok creators have pledged not to work with Amazon until it gives in to union workers’ demands, including calls for higher pay, safer working conditions, and increased paid time off.

Twenty-year-old TikToker Elise Joshi, who serves as deputy executive director for the advocacy group organizing the boycott, Gen Z for Change, posted an open letter on Twitter Tuesday.

“Dear Amazon.com,” it reads, “We are a coalition of over 70 TikTok creators with a combined following of 51 million people. Today, August 16th, 2022, we are joining together in solidarity with Amazon workers and union organizers through our People Over Prime Pledge.”

Amazon has refused to recognize the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) since workers voted to unionize at a Staten Island warehouse in April, and it has resisted collective bargaining negotiations.

Although the ALU is not involved in the boycott, its co-founder and interim President Chris Smalls expressed support for it in a statement to The Washington Post, saying, “It’s a good fight to take on because Amazon definitely is afraid of how we used TikTok during our campaigns.”

While the ALU posts videos on TikTok to drum up popular support for the labor movement, Amazon has sought to win large influencers over to its side. In 2017, it launched the Amazon Influencer Program, which offered influencers the opportunity to earn revenue by recommending products in personalized Amazon storefronts.

Last May, the company flew over a dozen Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok stars to a luxurious resort in Mexico.

Emily Rayna Shaw, a TikTok creator with 5.4 million followers who has partnered with Amazon in the past, is participating in the boycott.

“I think their method of offering influencers life-changing payouts to make them feel as if they need to work with them while also refusing to pay their workers behind the scenes is extremely wrong,” she told The Post.

“As an influencer, it’s important to choose the right companies to work with,” said Jackie James, a 19-year-old TikTok creator with 3.4 million followers, who told the outlet she will cease doing deals with Amazon until it changes its ways.

The ALU is demanding that Amazon bump its minimum wage to $30 per hour and stop its union-busting activities.

Slogging Through the ‘Suffocating’ Heat

Amazon is also facing challenges from workers themselves, with some walking out this week at its largest air hub in California, where company-branded planes transport packages to warehouses across the country.

They are asking for the base pay rate to be raised from $17 per hour to $22 per hour.

A group organizing the work stoppage under the name Inland Empire Amazon Workers United said in a statement that over 150 workers participated, but Amazon countered that the true number was only 74.

The Warehouse Worker Resource Center counted 900 workers who signed a petition demanding pay raises.

Inland Empire Amazon Workers United has complained about the “suffocating” heat in the facility, saying that temperatures at the San Bernardino airport reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for 24 days last month.

Amazon spokesperson Paul Flaningan, however, claimed to CNBC that the temperature never surpassed 77 degrees and said the company respects its workers’ right to voice their opinions.

On Tuesday, the ALU backed another warehouse’s decision to file a petition for a union election in upstate New York, roughly 10 miles outside Albany.

The National Labor Relations Board requires signatures from 30% of employees to trigger an election.

See what others are Saying: (The Washington Post (CNBC) (Associated Press)

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Twitter Roasts Tim Hortons for Offering Coffee and Donut to Settle Lawsuit for Spying on Customers

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The company allegedly tracked app users’ movements 24/7 to determine when they visited a competitor, a major sports venue, or their home or workplace.


A Not So Tasty Compensation

Social media users ridiculed Canadian fast food chain Tim Hortons over the weekend for a leaked email in which it offered to compensate customers whom it allegedly spied on by giving them a free beverage and pastry.

Twitter user James McLeod posted pictures of the email Friday, which was sent to affected users of the company’s app.

“You are receiving this email in connection with a proposed settlement, subject to Court approval, of a national class action lawsuit involving the Tim Hortons app and the collection of geolocation data between April 1, 2019 and September 30, 2020,” it read.

“As part of the proposed settlement agreement, eligible app users will receive a free hot beverage and a free baked good,” it continued. “Distribution details will be provided following approval, in the event that the court approves the settlement.”

The email specified that the free beverage would have a retail value of $6.19 (CAD) plus tax, and the free baked good would be $2.39 (CAD).

In a statement to Vice, Tim Hortons said the settlement is not admission of any wrongdoing and that the allegations in the lawsuits have not been proven in court.

“Add to this the fact that the coffee is absolutely abysmal and it becomes even more hilarious,” one person tweeted amid a flurry of criticism toward the company.

Another added, “Do you think the donut will have the good sprinkles or the bad sprinkles?”

‘Vast Amounts’ of Data Collected Illegally

Suspicion that Tim Hortons had violated its customers’ privacy began in 2020 when a reporter from the National Post found that the company’s app had tracked their location over 2,700 times in under five months.

Last Month, Canadian authorities wrapped up an investigation into the matter, finding that Tim Hortons tracked and recorded the movements of people who downloaded its app every few minutes of every day, even when the app wasn’t open.

Although the app requested permission to access geolocation data, authorities concluded that it misled users to believe it would only gather data while the app was open.

Using “vast amounts” of geolocation data, the company inferred where users lived, where they worked and whether they were traveling, according to investigators.

It even allegedly generated an “event” anytime a user entered or exited a Tim Hortons competitor, a major sports venue, or their home or workplace.

The investigation found that the company continued gathering data for a year even despite having shelved plans to use it for targeted advertising.

The company, which has committed to deleting all geolocation data on group members, said in a statement that it only used the data in a limited way, such as to analyze user trends.

See what others are saying: (Vice) (The Verge) (Privacy Commissioner of Canada)

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