Blame it on the algorithm.
It’s a sentiment most are familiar with in this age of clickbait, doom-scrolling, and digital footprints. The machinations of content dissemination to target audiences for profit have largely been regarded with a healthy dose of suspicion but ultimately accepted as a necessary evil: an inevitable byproduct of the conveniences and tech frills that accompany the age of information.
In 2021, the Facebook Papers painted a devastating picture of the lengths the social media giant had gone to for profit – and the harm that occurred as a result. This group of internal documents, leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, offered proof of the company’s willingness to not only allow pro-eating disorder content, but to intentionally encourage vulnerable populations to view it. Facebook, Haugen said, had gone to great lengths to hide “disturbing” research about how its use of the algorithm to promote such content led to teenagers’ heightened feelings of negativity about their bodies and increased their risk of developing deadly eating disorders.1 Investigations revealed that the company had been struggling to engage young people–and that attracting them with dangerous pro-eating disorder content was part of a larger strategy to retain them as members of a core audience. Documents surfaced that proved Haugen’s claims that the company was well aware of the harm being caused, while continuing to perpetuate it.
Despite these damning revelations and a slew of lawsuits in 2021 and 2022, not much has changed. Targeted weight-loss ads are quite literally everywhere–even for those who have used ad preferences to indicate they do not wish to see such content. I currently work with someone who has shared that they’ve seen a huge uptick in weight loss and food restriction advertisements on their feed in the last month alone, despite having spent years reporting and blocking such content, as well as tailoring their ad settings against it.
With recent advancements in AI technology, the algorithm is only getting sneakier. Women who have announced their engagements on social media, for example, have suddenly found themselves inundated with targeted weight-loss ads that are specific to brides, using phrases such as “shredding for the wedding” and “intermittent fasting for your big day.”2 The nonprofit organization Fairplay for Kids, which fights child-targeted marketing, released a report in 2022 that accused Meta of marketing weight loss to children as young as nine, through accounts tagged with “thinspiration” or “bonespiration” and obviously promoting disordered eating. The report found that out of the 1.6 million unique users following these accounts, many followed each other, too, which creates a “pro-eating disorder bubble”, or feedback loop, “that is worth at least $1.8 million per year for Meta, and the revenue generated from all users following this bubble is $227.9 million per year.”3
All this points to a clear need for regulation over algorithmic technology, which experts are currently calling for.4 In the meantime, Fairplay for Kids is helping people like you get involved. Click here for an easy way to contact your representatives about supporting legislation to help protect people under 18 from developing eating disorders as a result of social media marketing!
1 “The Facebook Papers and their Fallout.” The New York Times, 25 Oct 2021.
2 Khan, Aamina Inayat. “How Targeted Weight Loss Ads Can Haunt Future Brides.” The New York Times, 19 Nov 23.
3 “To help prevent eating disorders, regulate social media algorithms, expert says.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 27 Apr 2023.
4 Monahan, David. “New Report Shows Meta Profits from Pushing Pro-Eating Disorder Content to Children on Instagram.” Fairplay for Kids, 14 Apr 2021.