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US states want to find out if Facebook is exploiting children in the interest of profit

The social media giant has been in the hot seat since its internal operations were exposed by a former employee.

A group of US state attorneys general on November 18 launched an investigation into Facebook for promoting Instagram to children and young adults despite knowing that the platform causes physical and mental health harms, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a press release.

“Attorneys general across the country are examining whether the company violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk,” Healey said. The investigation comes amidst the ongoing whistleblower revelations, which are bringing to light the inside workings of Facebook including serious lapses to counter the harm caused by the company’s platforms.

What prompted this investigation and what do the states want to look into?

The two most influential revelations that prompted this investigation are the Wall Street Journal’s reports on how Facebook knew Instagram was toxic for teens girls but did not disclose or address this and how the company employs various tactics to attract preteens onto its platforms. On the basis of these reports, Healey wrote that Facebook:

has failed to protect young people on its platforms and instead chose to ignore or, in some cases, double down on known manipulations that pose a real threat to physical and mental health – exploiting children in the interest of profit.

“The AG’s investigation targets, among other things, the techniques utilized by Meta to increase the frequency and duration of engagement by young users and the resulting harms caused by such extended engagement,” Healey said.

Which states are participating?

The investigation is being conducted by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont. This group includes many who in May asked Facebook to abandon plans to develop a version of its app for children under the age of 13. Facebook ultimately abandoned its plans for Instagram Kids in September.

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Facebook’s response

In a statement to Reuters, Facebook said that the “accusations are false and demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the facts.”

“While challenges in protecting young people online impact the entire industry, we’ve led the industry in combating bullying and supporting people struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-injury, and eating disorders,” the Facebook spokesperson said. Facebook also added that it continues to develop parental supervision controls and is exploring ways to provide age-appropriate experiences for teens by default.

Separately, Facebook in September also published a point-by-point rebuttal to the WSJ report saying the publication mischaracterised internal research.

Facebook under scrutiny in India as well

Facebook is under the scrutiny of Indian lawmakers as well after whistleblower documents revealed that the company lacks adequate systems to moderate languages other than English, routinely failed to control hate speech and misinformation in India, and refused to take down fake accounts linked to BJP or remove hateful content posted by Assam BJP leaders.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology reportedly sent a letter to Facebook asking for more information on its algorithms and country operations, the Congress party has asked for a Joint Parliamentary Committee-led investigation into Facebook’s actions here, Congress MP from Assam Gaurav Gogoi has written a letter to Facebook India’s Managing Director Ajit Mohan seeking answers from the company to recent revelations, and Delhi’s Peace and Harmony Committee has renewed its investigation into the platform’s role in the 2020 riots.

On November 18, Facebook India’s head of public policy Shivnath Thukral appeared before the Peace and Harmony committee but chose not to answer several questions related to the Delhi Riots and Facebook’s content moderation protocols referring to the fact that he was under no legal obligation to do so.

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Instagram’s impact on the mental health of teenagers: WSJ report

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, WSJ reported on September 14. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a slide in an internal presentation on the results of Facebook’s research said.

These findings, finalised in March 2020, were not made public by the company. In a letter written to US lawmakers after the research was conducted, Facebook refused to provide details of research that the company conducted on the impact of its social media platforms on young people. The reticence to share this information provoked comparisons to the tobacco industry in the 20th century by two people cited in the WSJ report — Senator Richard Blumenthal and psychology professor Jean Twenge said that Facebook’s behaviour was reminiscent of how the tobacco industry knew that cigarettes were carcinogenic, and did not agree with this assessment until much later.

What the findings say: The findings reported by Facebook boil down to these observations, apart from the one mentioned above:

  • One in five teenagers said Instagram makes them feel bad about themselves.
  • Teenagers blame Instagram for increased anxiety and depression, “unprompted”.
  • 6–13% of teens who had suicidal thoughts attributed Instagram as a cause.
  • An experiment to hide “likes” from posts didn’t significantly improve mental health outcomes.

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