Congress has had little success reining in Big Tech, whether it’s curbing the spread of misinformation, stopping foreign interference in elections or breaking up monopolies. But as social media companies take aim at America’s children, apoplectic lawmakers are vowing to act.
On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is set to hear from Frances Haugen, a former Facebook manager turned whistleblower whose explosive leaks revealed the company’s attempts to target young children on Instagram — despite knowing the app leads some teen girls to consider suicide. Instagram is owned by Facebook.
Haugen, whose information was first published by The Wall Street Journal last month, revealed her identity by appearing Sunday on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” She also has been speaking with lawmakers and charges that controls put in place on misinformation were quickly relaxed. That move helped lead to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, she says.
The leaked documents show Facebook’s own research indicating that Instagram harms teen girls, leading to mental health problems, eating disorders and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts. But the company tried to stop those findings from becoming public.
The debate about Facebook and Instagram harming children is the latest in a yearslong tussle involving lawmakers, regulators and social media companies that broke open after the 2016 presidential election. Foreign interference in that election was staged on Facebook and other online platforms. The company is facing an antitrust probe by the Federal Trade Commission and in 2019 paid a $5 billion fine to the FTC to settle allegations of privacy abuses.
In August, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chair of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, and ranking member Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking about the harmful effects of social media on young children and teenagers and whether the company had done any research on the subject. They cited Zuckerberg’s March 2021 testimony in which he said that the company had studied the topic, and they asked that the company make its findings public.
Those assessments became public only after Haugen leaked the internal documents. The tens of thousands of pages of internal documents also allegedly show that Facebook has been negligent in eliminating violent material and misinformation on its platform and has misled its investors about the efforts.
Haugen alleges that measures taken by Facebook to prevent the spread of misinformation before the 2020 election were dissolved soon afterward. She claims that the relaxation of those controls may have helped lead to the mob attack on the Capitol.
“There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” Haugen told CBS. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
‘Big Tobacco’s playbook’
Last week, Senate Commerce members sharply questioned Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, demanding that the company release the entirety of its internal research on Instagram instead of select excerpts that the company has made public.
Facebook has announced that it is pausing development of an Instagram app for children, aimed at users ages 8-12. The current Instagram is aimed at people 13 and older.
Davis and other Facebook executives have said that The Wall Street Journal “cherry-picked” parts of the company’s internal findings. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, told CNN on Sunday that it would be “ludicrous” to suggest Facebook is to blame for the Jan. 6 attack.
At last week’s hearing, Blumenthal said Facebook could not be trusted anymore.
The senator said his staff had created a fake Instagram account claiming to be a 13-year-old girl and followed users and accounts identified with “extreme dieting and eating disorders.” Soon thereafter, the new account was filled with recommendations promoting “self-injury and eating disorders,” Blumenthal said.
“That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered and created,” Blumenthal said. “So, Facebook has asked us to trust it. But after these evasions and this 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. In truth, Facebook has taken Big Tobacco’s playbook.”
Top U.S. tobacco companies for years denied that their cigarettes were addictive, even though their own research had concluded otherwise. In 1998, the companies jointly agreed to pay fines totaling as much as $200 billion and to curtail tobacco marketing campaigns.
Although Zuckerberg and other tech titans have called on Congress to pass new laws to regulate social media companies and online platforms, they also have mounted large-scale campaigns to slow new regulations.
“I just feel that, you know, 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,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said at last week’s hearing.
Markey said he intends to reintroduce legislation from last Congress that would ban social media apps aimed at children from showing follower counts, autoplay features on videos and so-called “influencers” who target children.
Pressed to answer whether Facebook would support the legislation, Davis declined to say. Instead, she said the company would work with parents, lawmakers and regulators to write new rules.
Consumer safety advocates who have dealt with social media companies are skeptical that Congress will act decisively by passing new regulations.
“Big Tech has a huge lobby, and we have seen it firsthand,” said Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit organization that promotes internet safety for children. Since the advent of the internet, Big Tech companies have argued that what makes the online world “beautiful is its open and free nature,” Hughes said in an interview.
Lawmakers must enact safety measures for kids online similar to protocols that exist in the physical world, Hughes said.
Even though online platforms say only children 13 and above are allowed to create accounts, companies don’t diligently enforce age verification systems, potentially allowing younger kids to access apps intended for older children, Hughes said.
The online gambling industry, for example, has embraced strict age verification systems that social media companies could use but opt not to, Hughes said.
Haugen, the whistleblower, also alleges that Facebook misled its investors, and her lawyers have filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission asking the agency to investigate the company.
Blumenthal told The Washington Post that lawmakers would be probing Haugen’s allegations about misleading investors in addition to her claims about the company shelving internal research on dangers to children.