Armed with fake teen girl profile, Blumenthal blasts Facebook over safety

Photo of Ken Dixon

In mid-September, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s staff created a fake 13-year-old girl’s profile, then watched Facebook sites on eating disorders and extreme dieting follow her around the internet, Connecticut’s senior senator announced during a Thursday hearing in Washington.

That undercover congressional operation became the backdrop for Blumenthal’s charges that Facebook has staged a “relentless campaign to recruit and exploit younger users,” using deceptive tactics and ignoring online safety issues that even the platform’s own researchers have acknowledged.

Blumenthal, D-Conn., as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, said during the hearing that his office had the idea to portray a young teenager to explore what might happen. After following sites on extreme dieting and eating disorders, the feed became a target of sites that promote both self-destructive behaviors.

“That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered and created,” Blumenthal said.

Citing his staff findings and recent reporting in the Wall Street Journal, Blumenthal noted that earlier this year a Senate colleague was told by Facebook that it was “not aware” of damages that can result from too much screen time for children.

“That response was simply untrue,” Blumenthal said. “Facebook knows — it knows — the evidence of harm to teens is substantial and specific to Instagram.”

“We now know while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful for teens, privately Facebook researchers and experts have been ringing the alarm for years.” Blumenthal said in an early afternoon statement. “We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety, we know it chooses the growth of its products over the well-being of our children, and we now know it is indefensibly delinquent in acting to protect them.”

Blumenthal, as Connecticut attorney general, was a key player in the 1998 national settlement with cigarette manufacturers totaling $206 billion. On Thursday, he likened Facebook’s tactics to those of “Big Tobacco” when it kept its research on addiction and the toxicity of its products, secret from the public.

“It has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves,” he said.

A request for comment from Facebook was not immediately returned on Thursday. Last week, it announced that it was delaying plans for a new Instagram app for children ages 10 to 12.

In the hearing, Blumenthal asked Facebook’s director and global head of safety Antigone Davis if Facebook would “commit to ending finsta.” A “finsta,” according to the USA Today, is a combination of the words “fake” and “Instagram,” which is “used to represent someone’s hidden personal account.”

Beginning her clarification of the term by telling Blumenthal, “We don’t actually do ‘finsta,’” Davis went on to explain how some young social media users set up fake accounts for a covert online presence.

“What ‘finsta’ refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy,” she told Blumenthal. “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.”

Blumenthal interrupted Davis’ explanation, saying that “finsta” is “one of [Facebook’s] products or services,” to which Davis further clarified that the term is jargon for a type of account.

When asked if Facebook would “ban that type of account,” Davis said while she didn’t understand Blumenthal’s question, the social media platform has provided more privacy options for young users. Blumenthal said her comments did not address his question.

Staff writer Nicole Funaro contributed to this report.