Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Thursday that his office pretended to be a teenage girl on Instagram to learn about the Facebook-owned product’s potential harm to children.
Mr. Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, disclosed his decision to masquerade as a girl online during a contentious Senate hearing with a Facebook executive over allegations that the company harms children.
“My office did its own research, we created an Instagram account identified as a 13-year-old girl and followed a few easily findable accounts associated with extreme dieting and eating disorders,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “Within a day, its recommendations were exclusively filled with accounts that promote self-injury and eating disorders. That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered and created.”
As Mr. Blumenthal discussed the travails of the phony teenage girl, a staffer hung posters appearing to show redacted Instagram recommendations for Mr. Blumenthal’s teenage alter-ego to follow online.
But Facebook‘s global head of safety, Antigone Davis told Mr. Blumenthal that she remembered being a real teenage girl, and that reporting on her company’s internal research mischaracterized its findings.
“I’d like to speak specifically to this as an experienced mom of a teenage daughter, as someone who was a teenage girl herself, and as someone who has taught middle school and teenage girls,” Ms. Davis told Mr. Blumenthal. “I’ve seen firsthand the troubling intersection between the pressure to be perfect, between body image and finding your identity at that age. And I think what’s been lost in this report is that in fact with this research we’ve found that more teen girls actually find Instagram helpful. Teen girls who are suffering from these issues find Instagram [more] helpful than not.”
Mr. Blumenthal and his team are not the only researchers who pursue access to data from Facebook by adopting a false persona online. During a House hearing on disinformation earlier this week, Northeastern University professor Alan Mislove said his team spent thousands of dollars purchasing ads on Facebook to study the company’s performance metrics.
“We actually sometimes use multiple accounts, some of which we don’t reveal to Facebook to make sure that … we’re seeing consistent behavior across those accounts,” Mr. Mislove said.
Thursday’s Senate hearing is part of a series that Mr. Blumenthal and colleagues including Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, are holding to examine Facebook’s actions. Mr. Blumenthal and Ms. Blackburn scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to hear testimony from a Facebook “whistleblower” without identifying the person or their relationship to the company.
Mr. Blumenthal said on Thursday that the person approached his office earlier this month to provide information on Facebook and Instagram. Next week’s hearing is expected to provide more insight into allegations about internal research at Facebook, which The Wall Street Journal has said shows Instagram is “toxic for teen girls.”
Facebook has disputed critics’ interpretations of its research. Debate about Facebook’s internal research boiled over during Thursday’s Senate hearing when Ms. Davis, the Facebook executive, and Mr. Blumenthal argued about its significance.
“I know that we have released a number of the reports and we are looking to find ways to release more of this research,” Ms. Davis said. “I want to be clear that this research is not a bombshell, it’s not causal research, it’s in fact just directional research.”
“Well, I beg to differ with you, Ms. Davis,” said Mr. Blumenthal, interrupting her. “This research is a bombshell. It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”