The Senate's Finsta Problem
from the that's-now-how-it-works dept
Earlier this year we wrote about Senator Richard Blumenthal’s viral “finsta” debacle in which he asked a Facebook executive to “end Finsta” as if (1) it was a product, or (2) it was “endable.” Some people pushed back on the mocking of Blumenthal, noting that he (or at least his staffers) actually understood what “finsta” meant, since he had given an accurate description earlier, and his staff had set up a fake Instagram account, pretending to be a young girl to see what happened. However, as we and others noted, if he actually understood “finsta” that made his demand to “end Finsta” even worse, because it meant he was calling for an end to anonymity on Instagram, which would have huge problems — especially for more marginalized people or those at risk, who have very good reasons for not using their real names on social media.
Of course, rather than learning from that debacle, Senators across the board seemed to see it as an opportunity to score some media headlines when they dragged in Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri to testify in yet another one of the Senate’s pointless, grandstanding “big tech bad” hearings last week. Senator Blumenthal brought back his finsta. On the other side of the aisle, both Senators Marsha Blackburn and Mike Lee rolled out their own finstas. And all of them were shocked, shocked, shocked, to find that sometimes they didn’t like what the algorithm recommended to them.
Except, as an article at the National Journal highlights, this little game of gotcha doesn’t make much sense and is not how good research is actually done.
Joshua Tucker, a co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, said Senate staff don?t have the time or training to make broad inferences about how teens experience Instagram.
?In a sense these [fake accounts] are useful, because they are surfacing things that can happen on the platform,? Tucker said. ?But it?s this leap from ?it can happen? to ?this is prevalent, this is common??that?s when you need the more sophisticated research design.?
Tucker called it ?ironic? that lawmakers are deploying these fake accounts in hearings, given ongoing concerns from Blumenthal and others that ?finstas? are a menace and the fact that creating such accounts violates Instagram?s terms of service.
?These are exactly the types of protections that we are asking Congress to provide to researchers?to protect researchers who want to do research, who want to go about and find out how these platforms work, to protect them from being attacked by companies for violating terms of service,? Tucker said.
But, rather than handing access to actual researchers who can determine whether or not there’s a problem — and if there is a problem how big or how prevalent it is — Senators are instead pushing out garbage science. That is, they’re pushing anecdotal examples based on a single case set up in a way specifically designed to try to get the outcome they want.
Not surprisingly, when journalist Brendan Bordelon pointed all this out to Blumenthal’s office, it was dismissed in Blumenthal’s typically dismissive manner:
The Connecticut Democrat shrugged off the idea that there?s something ironic about his creation of a fake account, given his concerns about ?finstas? generally.
?I think it?s justified to be illustrative and then disclosed, and nothing done with it,? Blumenthal said. ?It?s not like we set it up to exist for any length of time. We set it up to see what happened, and then we shut it down.
?If I were analogizing it to law enforcement, it?s a little bit like having somebody work undercover,? he said.
It’s a misleading anecdote, and for someone who claims to be so concerned about misinformation, you’d think that Blumenthal would be careful not to create more of it.
And… that’s not even getting into the point that all of these Senators broke Instagram’s terms of service, and according to some interpretations of the law, that means they violated the CFAA. It seems like it would be a hell of a lot more productive to fix that, rather than freaking out about the other stuff.
Surely, now that Senators of both parties proudly admit to violating website TOS by creating fake accounts, they'll fix the #CFAA so courts don't keep interpreting the law to criminalize such TOS violations
— Berin Sz?ka ? (@BerinSzoka) December 15, 2021