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)
Uber Forks Over $19 Million in Fine for Misleading Australian Riders
The penalty is just the latest in a string of lawsuits going back years.
Uber Gets Fined
Uber has agreed to pay a $19 million fine after being sued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for making false or misleading statements in its app.
The first offense stems from a company policy that allows users to cancel their ride at no cost up to five minutes after the driver has accepted the trip. Despite the terms, between at least December 2017 and September 2021, over two million Australians who wanted to cancel their ride were nevertheless warned that they may be charged a small fee for doing so.
Uber said in a statement that almost all of those users decided to cancel their trips despite the warnings.
The cancellation message has since been changed to: “You won’t be charged a cancellation fee.”
The second offense, occurring between June 2018 and August 2020, involved the company showing customers in Sydney inflated estimates of taxi fares on the app.
The commission said that Uber did not ensure the algorithm used to calculate the prices was accurate, leading to actual fares almost always being higher than estimated ones.
The taxi fare feature was removed in August 2020.
A Troubled Legal History
Uber has been sued for misleading its users or unfairly charging customers in the past.
In 2016, the company paid California-based prosecutors up to $25 million for misleading riders about the safety of its service.
An investigation at the time found that at least 25 of Uber’s approved drivers had serious criminal convictions including identity theft, burglary, child sex offenses and even one murder charge, despite background checks.
In 2017, the company also settled a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $20 million after it misled drivers about how much money they could earn.
In November 2021, the Justice Department sued the company for allegedly charging disabled customers a wait-time fee even though they needed more time to get in the car, then refused to refund them.
Later the same month, a class-action lawsuit in New York alleged that Uber charged riders a final price higher than the upfront price listed when they ordered the ride.
See what others are saying: (ABC) (NASDAQ) (Los Angeles Times)
Report Finds That Instagram Promotes Pro-Eating Disorder Content to 20 Million Users, Including Children
According to the study, even users hoping to recover were given eating disorder content because they were “still in Instagram’s algorithmically curated bubble.”
Instagram Promotes Eating Disorder Content
Instagram promotes pro-eating disorder content to millions of its users, including children as young as nine-years-old, according to a Thursday report from the child advocacy non-profit group Fairplay.
The report, titled “Designing for Disorder: Instagram’s Pro-eating Disorder Bubble,” studied what it called an eating disorder “bubble,” which consisted of nearly 90,000 accounts that reached 20 million unique users. The average age of the bubble was 19, but researchers found users aged nine- and 10-years-old that followed three or more of these accounts. Roughly one-third of those in the bubble were underage.
According to Fairplay, Instagram’s parent company Meta derives $2 million in revenue a year from the bubble and another $228 million from those who follow it.
“In addition to being profitable, this bubble is also undeniably harmful,” the report said. “Algorithms are profiling children and teens to serve them images, memes and videos encouraging restrictive diets and extreme weight loss.”
“Meta’s pro-eating disorder bubble is not an isolated incident nor an awful accident,” it continued. “Rather it is an example of how, without appropriate checks and balances, Meta systematically puts profit ahead of young people’s safety and wellbeing.”
Researchers identified the bubble by first looking at 153 seed accounts with over 1,000 followers that posted content celebrating eating disorders. Some used phrases like “thinspiration” or other slang terms like “ana” and “mia” to refer to specific eating disorders. Others included an underweight body mass index in their bios.
Those seed accounts alone had roughly 2.3 million collective followers, 1.6 million of which were unique. Of those unique users, researchers looked at how many seed accounts each followed to determine that nearly 90,000 accounts were part of the eating disorder bubble. Those accounts totaled over 28 million followers, 20 million of which were unique.
These pages posted content ranging from memes and photos of extreme thinness to screenshots of progress on calorie counting apps. One user said they were on their third day of eating just 300 calories.
Others, including children under the age of 13, put their current weights and goal weights in their account bios. Some wrote that they “hate food” or were “starving for perfection.”
Content’s Impact on Children
Fairplay claimed that many of those in the bubble wanted to recover but were essentially trapped in Instagram’s algorithm.
“Many of the biographies of users in the bubble talk about wanting to or being in recovery, wanting to get ‘better’, to ‘heal’ or being aware of how unwell they were,” the report said. “However, these users are still in Instagram’s algorithmically curated bubble. They will still be feeding content from other accounts in the bubble, including the seed accounts, that normalizes, glamorizes or promotes eating disorders.”
The report also showcased the firsthand account of a 17-year-old eating disorder survivor and activist identified as Kelsey. Kelsey wrote that it was impossible to “imagine a time when the app didn’t have the sort of content that promotes disordered eating behavior.”
“I felt like my feed was always pushed towards this sort of content from the moment I opened my account,” Kelsey continued.
“That type of content at one point even got so normalized that prominent figures such as the Kardashians and other female and male influencers were openly promoting weight loss supplements and diet suppressors in order to help lose weight.”
Kelsey said Instagram delivered that content without any relevant searches, but posts about body positivity needed to be actively sought out.
The report concluded by arguing that there needs to be legislation that regulates platforms like Instagram by requiring them to prioritize user safety, particularly for children.
Meta and Instagram have long been accused of disregarding child safety. Last year, a whistleblower unveiled documents that revealed the company knew of the harm it posed to young people, specifically regarding body image. A Meta spokesperson told The Hill that they were unable to address the most recent allegations in Fairplay’s report.
“We’re not able to fully address this report because the authors declined to share it with us, but reports like this often misunderstand that completely removing content related to peoples’ journeys with or recovery from eating disorders can exacerbate difficult moments and cut people off from community,” the spokesperson said.
Etsy Sellers Strike Amid Increased Transaction Fees and Mandatory Offsite Advertising
“What began as an experiment in marketplace democracy has come to resemble a dictatorial relationship between a faceless tech empire and millions of exploited, majority-women craftspeople,” an Etsy seller wrote in a petition.
Thousands of Etsy Sellers Shut Down Shops
Roughly 15,000 Etsy sellers are closing up their online shops starting Monday in protest of several grievances they have with the platform, including a new fee increase.
Starting on Monday, transaction fees are getting boosted from 5% to 6.5% on the platform. CEO Josh Silverman sent a memo claiming that this hike will allow the company to “make significant investments in marketing, seller tools, and creating a world-class customer experience,” but sellers have been frustrated by the change.
“Etsy’s last fee increase was in July 2018. If this new one goes through, our basic fees to use the platform will have more than doubled in less than four years,” seller Kristi Cassidy wrote in a petition calling for a strike. As of Monday morning, over 50,000 Etsy sellers, customers, and employees had signed the petition.
“These basic fees do not include additional fees for Offsite ads – which started during the first wave of the pandemic,” Cassidy continued.
Offsite ads allow Etsy to advertise sellers’ products on other websites like Google. Sellers who make over $10,000 a year reportedly have no way of opting out of the program and Etsy takes at least 12% of sales generated through the promotions.
“Etsy fees are an unpredictable expense that can take more than 20% of each transaction,” Cassidy wrote. “We have no control over how these ads are administered, or how much of our money is spent.”
Etsy became a pandemic success story as online shopping rose amid lockdowns. Many turned to the platform to purchase masks and other goods, prompting its stock, sales, and number of sellers to rise.
“It’s really obnoxious to tell us sellers, ‘Hey, we made record profits last year and we’re gonna celebrate by raising your fees a whole bunch,’” Bella Stander, a maps and guidebooks publisher who sells on Etsy, told the Wall Street Journal.
What Etsy Sellers Are Demanding
Currently, there are over five million sellers on Etsy. Cassidy hopes that if enough of them unite, the company will have to respond.
“As individual crafters, makers and small businesspeople, we may be easy for a giant corporation like Etsy to take advantage of,” she wrote. “But as an organized front of people, determined to use our diverse skills and boundless creativity to win ourselves a fairer deal, Etsy won’t have such an easy time shoving us around.”
In the petition’s list of demands, it asks that Etsy cancel the transaction fee increase, allow sellers to opt out of offsite ads, and provide a transparent plan to crack down on resellers who take up space on the platform.
It also demanded that Etsy end its “Star Seller Program,” which impacts how sellers can interact with their buyers.
“Etsy was founded with a vision of ‘keeping commerce human’ by ‘democratizing access to entrepreneurship.’ As a result, people who have been marginalized in traditional retail economies — women, people of color, LGBTQ people, neurodivergent people, etc. — make up a significant proportion of Etsy’s sellers,” Cassidy wrote.
“But as Etsy has strayed further and further from its founding vision over the years, what began as an experiment in marketplace democracy has come to resemble a dictatorial relationship between a faceless tech empire and millions of exploited, majority-women craftspeople.”
In a statement to Yahoo Finance, an Etsy spokesperson claimed that sellers were the company’s “top priority.”
“We are always receptive to seller feedback and, in fact, the new fee structure will enable us to increase our investments in areas outlined in the petition, including marketing, customer support, and removing listings that don’t meet our policies,” the spokesperson said. “We are committed to providing great value for our 5.3 million sellers so they are able to grow their businesses while keeping Etsy a beloved, trusted, and thriving marketplace.”
The strike was a trending topic on Twitter Monday morning. Many sellers took to the social media site to pledge their support to the movement.
Many sellers are urging buyers to refrain from using the site for the remainder of the week, which is how long the protest is currently scheduled to last.