UNITED STATES: During a heated session in the US Senate on Wednesday (31 January), Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued apologies to families who claimed that their children had suffered harm due to social media platforms, emphasizing that “no-one should go through” such experiences.
In a nearly four-hour hearing, senators from both parties questioned Mr Zuckerberg and the executives of TikTok, Snap, X, and Discord, seeking insights into their efforts to safeguard children from online abuse.
Seated behind the tech leaders were families recounting instances where their children had self-harmed or taken their lives as a result of exposure to social media content.
The Senate Judiciary Committee commenced the hearing by showcasing videos of individuals describing instances of sexual exploitation on Facebook, Instagram, and X.
Senator Lindsey Graham accused Zuckerberg of having “blood on his hands,” asserting that the social media giant’s product was causing harm.
“You have a product that’s killing people,” said Graham, a Republican from South Carolina.
Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, the committee’s chair, criticized social media platforms for their failure to protect children from online sexual exploitation.
“Discord has been used to groom, abduct and abuse children. Meta’s Instagram helped connect and promote a network of pedophiles; Snapchat’s disappearing messages have been coopted byyoung victims,” Durbin said in his opening statement.
Contesting the claim of no link between mental health and social media usage
The CEOs, starting with Discord’s Jason Citron, all emphasized their commitment to child safety procedures and pledged to collaborate with lawmakers, parents, nonprofits, and law enforcement to protect minors.
Meta disclosed a US$5 billion investment in safety and security for 2023, while TikTok announced plans to allocate US$2 billion in 2024 for addressing child protection issues.
Missouri Republican Josh Hawley challenged Zuckerberg’s assertion that there is no connection between mental health and social media use.
Hawley cited Meta’s own research, indicating that Instagram negatively impacts a significant percentage of teenagers.
A Meta whistleblower revealed disturbing findings in a study, stating that girls aged 13-15 had encountered nudity, unwanted sexual advances, and self-harm content within the past seven days.
When questioned about personnel actions in response to the findings, Zuckerberg could not provide clear answers.
In response to a challenge from Hawley to apologize to victims, Zuckerberg stood up, turned around, and emphasised that Meta had invested so much “to make sure nobody has to go through the types of things your families have had to suffer.”
The Meta CEO consistently dismissed any connection between Facebook and teen mental health, emphasizing “it’s important to look at the science, and the bulk does not support that.”
Subsequently, when addressing the same subject, Zuckerberg clarified that rejecting a broad association “doesn’t mean individual people don’t have issues.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz questioned Mark Zuckerberg with a blunt, “Mr Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” Cruz was referring to an Instagram prompt shown to the tech executive, warning users of potential exposure to child sexual abuse material while asking if they still wanted to “see the results anyway.”
In response, Zuckerberg explained the rationale, stating that the “basic science behind that” suggested it could be more beneficial to guide users rather than outright blocking, aiming to direct them towards helpful resources. He committed to personally investigate the matter.
Both Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew voluntarily testified, contrasting with the initial reluctance of the heads of Snap, X (formerly Twitter), and messaging platform Discord, who eventually faced government-issued subpoenas.
TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, asserted the platform’s commitment to diligently enforcing its policy, which prohibits children under 13 from using the app.
Acknowledging the gravity of the issues under discussion, Mr Chew emphasized that as the father of three young children, these concerns were indeed “horrific and the nightmare of every parent.”
X’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, clarified that her company does not cater to minors.
Snap’s CEO, Evan Spiegel, expressed apologies to parents whose children had experienced drug overdoses after purchasing substances on Snapshot.
Spiegel acknowledged Snap’s efforts to prevent such tragedies, including blocking search terms associated with drugs and cooperating with law enforcement.
While the primary focus of the hearing revolved around protecting children from online sexual exploitation, senators explored various topics with the five executives present under oath.
TikTok’s CEO faced inquiries about data sharing with the Chinese government, which he denied.
When asked about affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party, Mr Chew emphasized his Singaporean identity and affirmed no such affiliation.
“Senator, I’m Singaporean. No,” Mr Chew replied.
Meta faces allegations of designing addictive features and neglecting child safety on Instagram and Facebook
Meta, currently facing lawsuits from multiple states, is accused of intentionally designing features on Instagram and Facebook to addict children and failing to protect them from online predators.
Internal emails revealed Meta executives, including Nick Clegg, urging Zuckerberg to hire more personnel for enhancing company-wide wellbeing, amid concerns about the impact on youth mental health.
Lawmakers, prompted by the session, are advocating for measures to address the spread of child sexual abuse images online and hold tech platforms accountable for safeguarding children.
Snap’s CEO, Spiegel, endorsed a federal bill proposing legal liability for apps and social platforms recommending harmful content to minors, while X’s CEO, Yaccarino, expressed support for the Stop CSAM Act, enabling victims of child exploitation to sue technology companies.
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