pirate wires #54 // instagram's suicide farm, media distortion, and navigating three weeks of facebook hysteria

Brace yourself, the sky is falling. A few weeks back the Wall Street Journal published a series of stories on Facebook sourced by “internal documents” (easily accessible PowerPoint slides) obtained from a “whistleblower” (who revealed no illicit activity). Welcome to the Facebook Files, the most explosive story since Watergate, in which we discover such incredible scandals as influencers on the platform are treated differently than the average person, Facebook is having a hard time facilitating healthy conversations between strangers on the internet who disagree about politics, and Sheryl Sandberg’s massive team is not growing as quickly as a few smaller teams at the company. But one story really captured the hearts and minds of America: Instagram is making your teenage daughter want to kill herself, Facebook’s own research team discovered this fact, and Mark Zuckerberg buried the damning evidence. It’s Big Tobacco the Sequel — a bombshell — and an out of control industry is about to bring this horrifying new technology to small children.

Countless takes were published from every media institution covering tech, generating not only widespread condemnation, but a Senate hearing. According to the New York Times, in a breathless, triple-bylined piece, Facebook is now in total disarray, as evidenced by the fact that a handful of employees at the 60,000-person company were angry in a group chat. Further stories were teased, with new, damning information from the “whistleblower” to be revealed!, including smoking gun evidence of what tech journalists have known all along: Zuckerberg did the Capitol Riot. Facebook is a hostile foreign power wrote one Atlantic writer in the middle of the hellstorm, should we treat them like one? Yes, she said of treatment conceived of generally as including actual murder, absolutely. A weary journalist from the original bombshell series appeared on Meet the Press looking like a war reporter in a dispatch from Kabul. This was his Afghanistan.

I’m not sure if it was the zenith of media hysterics — one can only hope — but the story peaked last night on 60 Minutes when the “whistleblower” revealed her identity. She also rolled out her new career as a talking head, with an eerily-professional marketing push including a new Twitter account, website, and newsletter. She told us absolutely nothing we didn’t already know, then shared opinions the press already holds. Zuckerberg didn’t do enough to stop the riot on January 6th. Okay. January 6th was an insurrection. Interesting. Anger is engagement, and social media companies are therefore incentivized, just as is the press, to polarizing content. Great, we’ve been discussing this obvious, problematic fact for years, including the years before the internet existed. What exactly are we whistleblowing here? Where is the damning evidence that Zuckerberg is himself purposely polarizing the country, rather than struggling to navigate the complexities of the human condition, at odds as our impulses chronically and fundamentally seem to be with our own welfare, in an ongoing psycho press environment?

This morning, my inbox was flooded with background on our newly-minted media celebrity, but I’m not interested in critiquing this person. The topic at hand, as distorted by the press as it’s been, is actually important. This is where we need to focus, and as Facebook’s epidemic of young female suicides has become the central thread of this story, that is where we’ll start.

Here’s what we know: Facebook researchers surveyed a group of young people, a minority of whom explained Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. This feeling was specifically — and importantly — attributed to self-comparison with their peers.

From the opening paragraph of the initial Journal piece:

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Here, we might be talking about a teenager from any decade over the last fifty years. Just replace Instagram with “Teen Vogue.” The only difference is social media’s introduction of our peers into our media diet alongside our trashy magazine content, a trend that has persisted for something like two decades online. It’s also a trend worth talking about. A fake window into the perfect life of a good friend intuitively seems unhealthy. But in the first place this dynamic isn’t limited to Instagram, it’s pervasive across the internet. In the second, this dynamic isn’t limited to teenagers. We’re also not really having a nuanced conversation about the human condition here, are we?

Both in reporting, via sneaky quotes from “experts” conflating feelings and a causal link between Instagram and suicide, and in the Senate hearing, which we’ll get to in a moment, we’re being told that Instagram is causing kids to kill themselves. But where is the data supporting this notion? All the research seems to indicate is self-comparison to our peers is depressing as shit, particularly for people who are already depressed. Instagram is simply one way we engage in this very ancient behavior.  

In focus groups, Instagram employees heard directly from teens who were struggling. “I felt like I had to fight to be considered pretty or even visible,” one teen said of her experience on Instagram.

Isolation, alienation, a struggle with identity. This is an entire genre of 1980s coming-of-age movies. Back in the 90s, I watched a lot of Buffy. In one episode, a teenage girl felt so unseen she literally turned invisible. She then became an assassin for the CIA, but we’re getting a little off topic.

According to the research, among teens experiencing suicidal ideation 6 percent of Americans cited Instagram as the first place they considered self-harm. Again, the catalyzing dynamic here is not causally linked to social media. The only thing we know for sure is young people are reacting negatively to our extremely toxic modern culture, as young people have reacted for decades. But now we mostly experience our extremely toxic modern culture through our phones.

Problematically, we’re also still just talking about self-reported feelings, with no data in our teen suicide conversation concerning actual teen suicides — a presumably difficult piece of information for journalists to work into their “girls are being killed by Zuckerberg” narrative on account of, among many things, teenage boys commit suicide something like four times more often than teenage girls. As teenage boys don’t ascribe their negative feelings to Instagram as often as girls, the introduction of this information into the hysterical Facebook narrative would unfortunately force us to question what is actually driving young people to kill themselves. As the only reason we’re even talking about this legitimately important topic is it presents an opportunity to destroy Facebook, an honest conversation on the matter is of course impossible. But now you’ve got me wondering.

Provided the feelings of 6 percent of suicidal American teens is so alarming as it has triggered a Senate hearing, is it not worth talking about — oh, I don’t know — the other 94 percent?

Among teenagers in a state of mental crisis, how many are struggling with their family? How many are struggling with their friend group, or their crush? How many are struggling in a classroom? To the question of “does high school make you want to kill yourself,” how many suicidal teenagers would answer “yes” — emphatically? Almost all of them? Next question, when are dragging the Secretary of Education in front of Congress to explain why he hasn’t solved depression?  

Speaking of Congress — 

Ma’am, it’s a simple question: how many children have you killed today? Last week, after the “bombshell” report, a Facebook executive was dragged before a handful of Senators for ritual sacrifice. Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Head of Global Safety, was for the most part questioned on two topics: first, Instagram’s now much discussed and completely invented practice of suicide farming, and second — more significant in the hearing than it was throughout much of the preceding media coverage — an in-the-works, now apparently “paused” Facebook product for children. For two hours, the “gripping, powerful evidence” (that is not) presented by the “whistleblower” (who is not) was invoked, and the conclusions of Facebook’s research team were grossly mischaracterized.

You can watch the full thing here:

I’ve covered congressional hearings before, most recently in Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick (some of my best work honestly, not gonna lie). Dorsey exiting a time machine with an urgent warning for humanity, wealthy media personalities untethered from reality, the sort of archetypical idiot politician bumbling through a performative dance routine while the world burns — these are my muses. I try to find humor in the state of our ongoing national embarrassment because humor is how I process pain, and, sure, there was plenty to laugh about last week. But this time around, a few interesting questions were raised. To a very minor extent, there were also moments of this hearing that very-close-to-lucidly engaged with the newness of social media, and the most serious challenges we therefore face, in a way the media has largely ignored. It’s just these moments were rare, and for the most part difficult to parse through the bullshit.

Senator Blumenthal opened, and when not citing the Wall Street Journal’s piece on suicide directly he relied for the most part on a Scooby Doo-style experiment run by his office, in which staffers created an account for a fake 13-year-old girl interested in dieting content. “She” was then directed to dieting content. Some of the content, we were told but not shown, was really really bad. Later, Senator Blackburn asked Davis if she was aware Facebook had enabled the Chinese government’s tracking of Uighur Muslims. “Senator,” Davis offered, “we did not put that tracking spyware in, we removed it. We then briefed the senate on it.” In one of the most surreal moments of the hearing, Senator Cruz asked Davis, who video conferenced in, where she was physically located. When Davis revealed she was in a D.C. office, as instructed per Covid protocols, Cruz demanded to know why she was hiding… while answering questions before the entire country.

The most widely discussed moment of the day was undoubtedly Blumenthal’s insistence that “finstas,” a slang term for second accounts often started by young people looking to engage with smaller groups of friends, were a Facebook product rather than a behavior. Journalists widely defended the line of questioning, insisting it was really not so illiterate as it seemed — we can always count on the Verge for the actual dumbest block and tackle. But the difference between what Facebook does and what people do on Facebook is really the heart of this entire discussion, and the conflation of the two is why conversation on this topic has been so difficult. The thing is, we’re not really asking for Facebook to control itself, we’re asking Facebook to control other people.

Separate from the question of whether finstas are a product (again, and finally: no), a line of questioning on how second accounts might be stopped would have been helpful. Should Facebook demand photo identification for every user? Should such identification be requisite of every service on the internet? Not everyone has a driver’s license. But what about a social security number? Should the end of anonymity online be legally enforced? Should giant tech companies be charged with tracking users? A lot to think about here. I guess we’ll save it for another hearing.

When the horrifying specter of Facebook’s product for children was invoked, Davis politely reminded the Senate children were already online — because their parents were allowing the behavior. A product specifically tailored to young people, over which parents have more control, would be preferable, would it not? The question was not popular. Senator Sullivan mentioned China had recently banned video games. “Do you think we should do something similar?” he asked. And I’m not saying we should! But shouldn’t we?

As a parent, Davis said, I’d rather decisions concerning my children not be left to the Chinese government.

The most important question of the afternoon was posed by Senator Markey, and largely ignored in coverage. Markey asked Davis if Instagram allowed children to quantify their popularity (follower counts, like counts, share counts), which of course anyone on any major social media platform can. Should Instagram abolish this sort of thing? The implication here was a status metric may have in some way made fundamentally more unhealthy the natural human interest in status. The question has been raised before, notably by Instagram’s own Adam Mosseri, who actually ran the experiment. According to Mosseri, getting rid of the metric didn’t work. People were no less happy. We haven’t seen the results of the study, so who knows what’s true. But Markey’s question is at least new, and addresses a fundamentally new dynamic presented by the internet, and social media in particular.

I’ve often written about the fundamental newness of the internet myself, and the fundamentally new problems it presents. In Jump, I tried to think through misinformation, a very old problem, in the context of viral reach, a very new problem. In Tether Part I and Part II, I considered the malleability of digital information online, the way this malleability seems to shatter history, and how this collapse in turn seems to be shaping our present, almost cartoonish reality. There’s a lot here. There are important questions here worth asking. But poor mental health, political polarization, and exposure to “bad ideas” are not social media problems. We all suspect these problems are amplified by new technology, but the Facebook Files certainly shed no new light on this dynamic.

As of yet, Facebook executives appear to be unique from every other media executive only insofar as they actually cared about the mental health of their users enough to study the problem, then sought to fix something their product leads are grossly unqualified to fix — people.

We probably all sense something has gone wrong, and anxiety concerning what we don’t know about the internet, and the social internet in particular, is fueling this entire present dialogue on social issues far easier to comprehend. But these issues can’t be fixed by Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg also can’t stop virality. Facebook could end tomorrow, but so long as the internet exists information will find a way. In terms of benefits, no technology is merely additive. Every new technological advance, and certainly in media, poses a series of tradeoffs. Today, information is free, but we also live inside the stuff. We’re finally starting to sense potential drawbacks to our new home inside the hive mind, but a Senate hearing won’t erase them, and our “whistleblower” discourse doesn’t even address them.

Are you ready to ctrl+alt+delete the internet? I know I’m not. But to hell with all that complicated psychobabble, am I right? Let’s roast another tech exec.