Facebook to face Senate grill over Instagram’s effects on teens
WASHINGTON – Lawmakers took on Facebook on Thursday, harshly questioning one of its leaders about Instagram’s effect on teens, during a Senate hearing that highlighted growing bipartisan frustrations and concerns with the social media giant.
Members of the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee berated executive Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of security, for withholding inside information about how its services are harming young people and for not changing significantly these services to reduce these inconveniences. Senators have accused the company of knowing for years that Instagram, its photo-sharing app, has caused mental and emotional damage.
“He hid his own research on drug addiction and the toxic effects of his products,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, chairman of the subcommittee and Democrat of Connecticut. “He has tried to deceive the public and us in Congress about what he knows, and he has armed the vulnerabilities of childhood against the children themselves. It is chosen growth over the mental health and well-being of children, greed over the prevention of child suffering.
Lawmakers have called for regulations to curb Facebook, saying repeated scandals over security, data privacy abuse and disinformation have created a trust deficit.
“You have lost confidence and we do not trust you to influence our children,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the leading Republican on the subcommittee.
Ms Davis, a seven-year Facebook veteran and former senior adviser to the Maryland attorney general, has often reacted defensively. Lawmakers on both sides routinely cut her off in the middle of a sentence to say she wasn’t answering their questions.
She said Facebook disputes the premise that Instagram harms teens, pointing to research showing teens have positive Instagram experiences. And she said Facebook made changes to help limit the damage to younger users.
“Right now, young people are telling us – eight out of 10 tell us – that they have a neutral or positive experience with our app,” she said. “We want it to be 10 out of 10. If there is anyone who is having difficulty on our platform, we want to make changes to the product to improve that experience and help support it.”
The hearing was the first of two on the effects of Facebook on children. The second, Tuesday, will be with a whistleblower who shared documents about Facebook’s searches for teens.
The hearings were called after the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles this month on internal research at Facebook. One of the articles reported that, according to Facebook’s findings, one in three teenagers said Instagram made their body image issues worse. Among teens who had thoughts of suicide, 13% of UK users and 6% of US users said they could track these thoughts on Instagram.
On Wednesday evening, Facebook released two slides of the research cited by The Journal. The company heavily annotated the slides, sometimes challenging or reframing the accuracy and intent of the research report. The company said in its slides that many teens have reported positive experiences on Instagram, including that the app sometimes helps with mental health.
Lawmakers said the documents represented only a small portion of the internal Facebook searches they had seen on Instagram and teens. The company appeared to release data suitable for its messaging, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz said at the hearing.
“So you’ve selected some of the research that you think is helping you right now,” Cruz said.
The research appears to contradict public statements by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram executive Adam Mosseri. The two have long played down warnings that Instagram – thanks to filters that can enhance images and a “Like” button that can be used as a popularity indicator – has created a tough environment for young users and made many teenagers feel worse about themselves.
This week, Mr Mosseri announced that Facebook would suspend plans to publish a version of Instagram aimed at elementary and high school children – a rare move by Facebook to change its business plans after public pressure. But he continued to champion the idea of the app, saying the reality is that children are online at a very young age and that Facebook is best equipped to create a safe environment for children on social media. The company said it could provide stronger security and privacy features on an app for young children than is possible on its main Instagram app, pointing to what YouTube has done with YouTube Kids.
Ms Davis reiterated part of that message during the hearing. But lawmakers have objected to the company’s rationale for an app for even younger children in light of research on adolescents.
“Harnessing peer pressure for popularity and ultimately endangering their health,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “Facebook is like Big Tobacco, offering a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, offering it to them early on.”
Congress has held numerous hearings with senior executives from Facebook and other big tech companies over the past few years, asking them about issues such as the spread of disinformation, market power, and privacy. But lawmakers have struggled to draft laws that address their concerns about these issues.
Although members of Congress have become more sophisticated about the tech industry, they have focused narrowly on privacy and antitrust, said Karen Kornbluh, senior researcher on Internet issues at the German Marshall Fund.
“This week the dam appeared to be breaking,” Ms. Kornbluh said. The scrutiny on Facebook made more lawmakers understand that researchers should have access to company data, in order to be able to assess how the services are functioning, she said.