“We’re here today because Facebook has shown us once again it is incapable of holding itself accountable,” Senator Richard Blumenthal said at a Senate hearing on September 30 in which Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis was subject to a grueling two and half hours.
“We now know while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful for teens, privately, Facebook, researchers, and experts have been ringing the alarm for years,” Blumenthal said referring to the damning revelations made by the Wall Street Journal over the last month. Among other things, WSJ reporting revealed how internal research conducted by Facebook showed that a large number of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, trace a significant amount of anxiety and mental health problems to Instagram. “IG stands for Instagram, but it also stands for Insta-greed,” said Senator Edward Markey.
Facebook has been publicly defending itself against the WSJ reports through blog posts, and as expected, Davis stuck to company lines and divulged very little new information at the hearing. But the questions and topics covered by the bipartisan group of senators shed light on how lawmakers are approaching recent revelations. Spoiler alert: they do not trust Facebook one bit to regulate itself.
“Facebook has asked us to trust it. But after these evasions and these revelation, why should we? It’s clear that Facebook has done nothing to earn that trust, not from us, not from parents, not from the public.” – Blumenthal
Here are some key takeaways from the hearing:
Facebook will not commit to releasing complete research
The WSJ reporting was done based on internal research decks shared by a whistleblower. Facebook, after facing a lot of public pressure, published two of these research decks with its own annotations and argued that WSJ mischaracterised its research. But this is not the complete dataset. The Senators, one after the other, asked Facebook for a commitment to release all research documents so that the public can see the impact that the site is having on teens.
“This research is a bombshell. It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children and that it has concealed those facts and findings. I ask you to commit that you will make full disclosure, all of the thousands of pages of documents that the whistleblower has and more that can be made available,” Blumenthal said.
But Davis could not say “Yes, we will.” She repeatedly said that Facebook is looking for ways to release more research and it is taking privacy considerations into account.
Davis also said that Facebook is looking for ways to give external researchers access to data so that they can do independent research as well but we all know the problems there.
Facebook knowingly misled lawmakers
In August, Senators Blumenthal and Blackburn apparently asked Facebook: “Has Facebook research ever found that its platforms and products can have a negative effect on children and teens’ mental health or well being, such as increased suicidal thoughts, heightened anxiety, unhealthy usage patterns, negative self image, or other indications of lower well being?”
Although Facebook research cited by WSJ found precisely what the Senators asked, the company responded by saying: “We are not aware.”
In the same month, the Senators asked: “Has Facebook ever found that child or teenage users engage in usage patterns that would indicate addictive or unhealthy usage of its platforms or products?”
“Facebook didn’t even bother to respond directly and pointed us to a previous evasion. And there was a reason it responded in that way because Facebook knows that children struggle with addiction on Instagram and they didn’t want to admit it,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal set up Instagram account as 13-year-old and easily found accounts associated with extreme dieting
Citing Facebook’s own research, which revealed that the company knew Instagram was “a perfect storm that exacerbates downward spiral”, Senator Blumenthal gave an example of how easy it is to get caught in this spiral:
My office did its own research. We created an Instagram account identified as a 13 year old girl and followed a few easily findable accounts associated with extreme dieting and eating disorder within a day. Its recommendations were exclusively filled with accounts that promote self injury and eating disorders. That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered and created.
Facebook is the new smoking: Blumenthal
Facebook has taken big tobacco’s playbook. It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its product. It has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerability against children themselves. It’s chosen growth over children’s mental health and well being, greed over preventing the suffering of children. — Senator Richard Blumenthal
Instagram is worse than a popularity contest in a high school cafeteria because everyone can immediately see who’s the most popular or who’s the least popular. Instagram is that first childhood cigarettes meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health. Facebook is just like big tobacco. Pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people pushing it to them early. — Senator Edward Markey
Finstas are vital to Instagram’s growth
“Facebook would like to have critical ways to acquire new, older users. But Facebook also knows that nearly every teen in the United States has an Instagram account, it can only add more users as fast as there are new 13-year-olds. What Facebook has done is finstas,” Blumenthal explained. “Finstas are fake Instagram accounts. Finstas are kids’ secret accounts and are intended to avoid current oversight,” he added.
“In multiple documents, Facebook describes these secret accounts as a unique value proposition. It’s a growth strategy, a way to boost its monthly active user metrics. […] So Facebook claims it’s giving tools to parents to help their kids navigate social media and stay safe online. But behind the scenes, your marketers see teens with multiple accounts as unique value opportunity proposition,” Blumenthal said.
Interesting questions that did not get direct answers
- Who will unpause Instagram Kids plan? “Facebook was creating a version of Instagram that targeted kids under 13. You announced this week that you’re pausing that program. What specific criteria will you use to determine whether to unpause the plan and who will make that decision?” Senator Amy Klobuchar asked.
- “Well, certainly it will be a collaborative team within the company, but it will be done with the guidance and expertise of our youth advisors. Hearing from parents, hearing from policymakers that’s guidance,” Davis said.
- Quantifying under 13 users: “Were you trying to quantify the number of children that were under 13 years of age that were using your site,” Senator Blackburn asked referring to one research deck that showed Facebook trying to calculate monthly active people (MAP) for under 13 users.
- “That doesn’t sound accurate to me,” Davis responded
- The lifetime value of a 13-year-old user: “What do you estimate the lifetime value of a user is for kids who start using Facebook products before age 13?” Klobuchar asked
- “Respectfully, Senator, that’s not how we think about building products for young people,” Davis replied.
- “Are you saying that Facebook is developing products that has never considered and you are under oath, has never considered the profit value of developing products when they make their decision of how those products look?” Klobuchar asked again.
- “We are a business. I’m fully aware of that. But what we are thinking about is how do we provide the best experience. If we have a very short-sighted version without focusing on providing a better experience that’s just a terrible business model,” Davis responded.
- Market research on tweens: “Does Facebook conduct market research on tweens? Yes or no?” Blackburn asked referring to certain research documents that were recently exposed.
- “That document is actually from an age-appropriate design code, something that Senator Markey and others have actually given to tech companies as a way for us to think about how we design for different ages,” Davis responded.
- To which Blackburn responded “So you’re admitting that you’re designing for 8-13-year-olds. I think that that is something that is very interesting because, you know, that’s a violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Act.
- Will Facebook protect under 13 kids from likes and followers? “Will you commit that Facebook will not launch any platforms targeting kids twelve and under. That includes features such as like buttons and follower accounts that allow children to quantify popularity, yes or no?” Senator Edward Markey asked.
- “Those are the kinds of features that we will be talking about with our experts trying to understand, in fact, what is most age-appropriate and what isn’t age-appropriate, and we will discuss those features with them,” Davis replied.
- “Well, let me just say this. We’re talking about twelve-year-olds. We’re talking about nine-year-olds. If you need to do any more research on this, you should fire all the people who you’re paying to do your research up until now because this is pretty obvious to every mother and father in our country because all recent scientific studies by child development experts found that not getting enough likes on social media significantly reduces adolescence feelings of self-worth,” Markey remarked.
- Influencer content targeting children: “Will you commit that Facebook will not launch any platforms targeting kids that host influencer marketing commercial content that children may be incapable of identifying as advertisements,” Markey asked.
- “That’s actually one of the questions that we will be working with our experts as well,” Davis replied
- “I will just say this. It’s not acceptable that you don’t have answers to these questions right now. These are the obvious problems that exist in television. We don’t allow the host of a program to hack a product to a child. It’s illegal,” Markey responded.
- Kids Internet Design and Safety Act: “Do you agree that Congress needs to pass this legislation and enact these critical safeguards for children online?” Markey said referring to the Kids Act which bans damaging website design features like follow accounts, autoplay, and push alerts that are harmful to kids, limits advertising and commercial content like product placement and influencer marketing to kids, and prohibits amplification of harmful and violent content.
- “I think our company has made its position really well known that we believe it’s time for updated Internet regulations, and we’d be happy to talk to and work with you on that.”
- “Well, do you support this legislation,” Markey asked again.
- “I’d be happy to follow up most certainly,” Davis replied.
- “I just feel that the delay and obfuscation is the legislative strategy of Facebook, especially since Facebook has spent millions of dollars on a marketing campaign calling on Congress to pass Internet regulations and Facebook purports to be committed to children’s well being. So it’s simply wrong that you will not support this legislation to enact protections on kids for kids online.” Markey remarked.
- Data collection on the under 13 users: “Does Facebook or Instagram collect personally identifiable information specific to individual children under the age of 13 without the consent of those childrens’, parents or guardians?” Senator Ben Ray Luján asked.
- “Children under the age of 13 are not allowed on Instagram or Facebook,” Davis responded but refused to answer yes or no when pressed.
- Has Facebook ignored harm for the sake of revenue? “Has Facebook ever found a change to its platform would potentially inflict harm on users but move forward because the change would also grow users or increase revenue?” Luján asked.
- “Not been my experience at all at Facebook, we care deeply about the safety and security of the people on our platform,” Davis replied.
- Did Facebook delete any documents after recent revelations? Will “Have you all deleted any documents since you learned about the whistleblower and the Wall Street Journal reporting?” Blackburn asked.
- “We would not do anything in violation of any law. There are 60,000 employees. I have no idea what email one of our 60,000 employees have have deleted,” Davis responded.
- Will Facebook take revenge against the whistleblower? “Will you commit that Facebook will not take revenge, retribution, or retaliation against the whistleblower?” Blackburn asked.
- “We’ve committed to not retaliating for them coming to the Senate,” Davis said but did not say anything about legal action against the whistleblower for leaking documents to the media.
- Personalised advertising to children: “Has Facebook conducted research into how children are more easily manipulated by highly personalized advertising?” Senator Cynthia Lummis asked.
- “I would not be familiar with that research. What I can tell you is that we have very limited advertising to young people.” Davis said.
- Did Zuckerberg know of this research? “One of the things the Wall Street Journal reported was that Mark Zuckerberg was personally and directly aware of that research. Is that correct?” Senator Ted Cruz asked.
- “Mark pays attention to a lot of the impact research that we do. And I don’t know whether he was aware of the specific piece of research, but I know that he’s looking at the research as we all are,” Davis said.
- “Have you ever discussed this research with Mark Zuckerberg?” Cruz asked in response.
- “This particular research. I don’t remember discussing that with him. No,” Davis responded.
- Suicides caused by Facebook: “Have you quantified how many children have taken their own lives because of your products?” Cruz asked.
- “The research that you are referring to is, in fact, not causal research,” Davis replied.
- Sexually suggestive ads targetting children: “Does Facebook and does Instagram allow businesses to target children on your platforms with advertisements that are sexually suggestive, sexually explicit or that contain other adult themes for products?,” Senator Mike Lee asked.
- “I’d have to understand more what you mean. But we don’t allow young people to see certain types of content, and we have age gating around certain types of content,” Davis replied.
- Can Instagram afford users taking breaks? “If you have less viewers, you’re going to get less revenue. Can you really on your own, help people take a break, or do we the US government have to help people take a break like the Chinese are doing right now,” Senator Sullivan asked after Davis hinted that Facebook is working on a break feature.
- “I think that there’s some complexity here. So, for example, during COVID, young people used apps like ours to actually stay connected. It was a lifeline for them. […] So I think it’s a bit more complex than that,” Davis said.
Although these questions did not get direct answers, I don’t think anyone expected them to.
Good to hold FB's feet to the fire. But please stop with the "Will FB commit to…" questions. They are grandstanding and unhelpful. The sacrificial lamb exec on the stand can't commit to anything except praying that this will end soon.
— Steven Levy (@StevenLevy) September 30, 2021
- Facebook Wants Guidance From Oversight Board On Its Cross-Check Program For High-Profile Users
- Facebook Says It Is Pausing Work On Instagram Kids Even Though It Is A Good Idea
- Who Is Rajiv Aggarwal, Facebook India’s New Director Of Public Policy?
- Facebook Is Going After Coordinated Social Harm By Authentic Users, But Will This Affect Legitimate Social Movements?
Have something to add? Post your comment and gift someone a MediaNama subscription.