Meta Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, alongside the CEOs of TikTok, X and other social media companies went before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to testify at a time when lawmakers and parents are growing increasingly concerned about the effects of digital platforms on young people’s lives.
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What was the Senate hearing about?
The hearing was about how social media companies have not done enough to curb the damage their platforms do to the health and well-being of children and teenagers.
In a rare show of unity, Republican and Democratic senators together grilled the CEOs, with very few disagreements among them.
At the start of the hearing, parents and teenagers raised concerns about how children were exploited and affected online by the addictive nature of social media, the unregulated presence of sexual predators, and the promotion of unrealistic beauty standards that have given rise to mental health issues such as eating disorders and even suicide cases.
“I was sexually exploited on Facebook,” said one child, in a video that was played.
Throughout the event that lasted hours, parents silently held up pictures of children they had lost to suicide death.
“They’re responsible for many of the dangers our children face online,” the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman, Senator Dick Durbin, said in opening remarks. “Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk.”
What was Zuckerberg apologising for?
Republican Missouri Senator Josh Hawley asked Zuckerberg if he has personally compensated any of the victims and their families for what they have been through.
“I don’t think so,” Zuckerberg replied.
“There’s families of victims here,” Hawley said. “Would you like to apologise to them?”
Zuckerberg turned towards the parents in the gallery and said his apology.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered,” he said, adding that Meta continues to invest and work on “industrywide efforts” to protect children.
Hawley aggressively criticised Zuckerberg during a contentious exchange. “Your product is killing people,” Hawley told Zuckerberg, whose firm owns social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.
This apology adds to a long list of apologies Zuckerberg has issued since he launched Facebook in 2004 when he was 19 years old.
Early after the website was launched, he mocked the 4,000 students who had joined Facebook, bragging to friends in text messages about the vast amount of personal information he had collected thanks to the misplaced trust of his users. Zuckerberg called them “dumb” and punctuated the word with profanity. In 2010, he apologised for his words.
Zuckerberg has also repeatedly apologised for concerns related to privacy and user data.
One such apology was issued in 2018 after it came to attention that Facebook had allowed an application to scrap user information and forwarded it to a UK political data-mining firm called Cambridge Analytica.
What is sextortion and how has social media harmed minors?
Durbin cited statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children nonprofit group that showed skyrocketing growth in financial “sextortion”.
Sextortion refers to cases when an adult tricks or coerces a minor into sending them explicit photos or videos. The adult then blackmails the victim, threatening to reveal the photos unless the victim pays them money.
A new study from the non-profit Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) showed that sextortion is rapidly rising in North America and Australia.
“This disturbing growth in child sexual exploitation is driven by one thing: changes in technology,” Durbin said during the hearing.
What other tech CEOs issued apologies?
Zuckerberg testified along with X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap Inc CEO Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew and Discord CEO Jason Citron.
TikTok’s Chew said the company is vigilant about enforcing its policy barring children under 13 from using the app. CEO Linda Yaccarino said X, formerly Twitter, doesn’t cater to children.
“We do not have a line of business dedicated to children,” Yaccarino said. She said the company will also support the Stop CSAM Act, a federal bill that makes it easier for victims of child exploitation to sue tech companies.
Did parents accept Zuckerberg’s apology?
One of the parents who attended the hearing was Neveen Radwan, who said his teenage daughter got sucked into a “black hole of dangerous content” on TikTok and Instagram after she started looking at videos on healthy eating and exercise at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdowns. She developed anorexia within a few months and nearly died, Radwan recalled.
“Nothing that was said today was different than what we expected,” Radwan said. “It was a lot of promises and a lot of, quite honestly, a lot of talk without them really saying anything. The apology that he made, while it was appreciated, it was a little bit too little, too late, of course.”
But Radwan, whose daughter is now 19 and in college, said she felt a “significant shift” in the energy as she sat through the hearing, listening to the senators grill the social media CEOs in tense exchanges.
“These companies have had opportunities to do this before. They failed to do that, so independent regulation needs to step in,” said Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of Design It For Us, a youth-led coalition advocating for safer social media.