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‘Instagram is that first childhood cigarette’: Dem and GOP Senators shred Zuckerberg exec at hearing

Republicans and Democrats tore into Facebook’s Global Head of Safety on Thursday in a contentious Senate hearing on Instagram’s effect on teenagers.

In a rare show of bipartisan solidarity, senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation confronted executive Antigone Davis on accusations that Facebook knew the mental and emotional harm its practices inflicted on kids and teens for years and continued its practices.

It’s the first chance lawmakers have to grill an executive from the company since a whistleblower leaked documents to Congress that show the troubling extent to which Facebook knew and ignored its own research on its dangerous effects on kids.

‘We’re here today because Facebook has shown us, once again, that it is incapable of holding itself accountable,’ Committee Chair Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said at the beginning of the hearing. 

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) compared kids’ early introductions to Instagram to ‘that first childhood cigarette’ over the lifelong addictive habits both build. 

‘For teens, Instagram is worse than a popularity contest in a high school cafeteria,’ Markey said. ‘Instagram is that first childhood cigarette, aimed 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 they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it early, all so Facebook can make money. IG stands for Instagram, but it also stands for Insta Greed.’

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts

Facebook Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis

Senator Ed Markey (left) accused Facebook of being as addictive as cigarettes during a heated hearing with Facebook’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis (right)

He asked Davis to promise that Facebook will not launch any apps targeting kids that include advertisements from social media ‘influencers.’

Davis didn’t answer directly but pointed out that Facebook’s existing app for young people under age 13, Messenger Kids, doesn’t feature any ads.

‘It’s not acceptable that you don’t have answers for these questions right now,’ an impatient Markey said.

Facebook has been under fire for the past week after the Wall Street Journal reported internal documents showed that the social media company was aware that Instagram harmed the mental health of young users.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company described children aged 10-12 as a valuable ‘untapped audience’ and even suggested they could appeal to younger children by ‘exploring playdates as a growth lever’, according to the leaked documents.

It was Facebook’s own researchers who alerted the social network giant’s executives to Instagram’s destructive potential.  

Davis issued a stunning dismissal of the damaging report at Thursday’s hearing, writing it off as ‘not bombshell research.’ 

She was asked by Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) whether Facebook would retaliate against the whistleblower who leaked the research.

Democratic and Republican senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation grilled the Facebook exec

Democratic and Republican senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation grilled the Facebook exec

‘Senator, we would never take – retaliate against someone for speaking to Congress, that’s just not who they are,’ Davis replied. 

That whistleblower is testifying before Congress next week. 

On Monday, the company announced it was pausing development on its Instagram Kids app after blowback from the Wall Street Journal’s reporting and longstanding criticism from parents’ groups and mental health advocates.

THE DATA FACEBOOK WAS SHOWN ON HOW INSTAGRAM HARMED YOUNG GIRLS AND BOYS 

Question of the things you’ve felt in the last month, did any of them start on Instagram? Select all that apply

Not attractive

41% (US)

43% (UK)

 Don’t have enough money

42% (US)

42% (UK)

 Don’t have enough friends

32% (US)

33% (UK)

 Down, sad or depressed

10% (US)

13% (UK)

 Wanted to kill themselves

6% (US)

13% (UK)

 Wanted to hurt themselves

9% (US)

7% (UK)

Question: In general, how has Instagram affected the way you feel about yourself, your mental health? 

Much worse

US boys and girls: 3%

US boys: 2%

US girls: 3% 

UK total: 2%

UK boys: 1%

UK girls: 2% 

 Somewhat worse

US total: 16%

US Boys 12%

US girls: 18% 

 UK total: 19%

UK boys: 13%

UK girls: 23%

 No effect

US total: 41%

US boys: 37%

US girls: 43%

UK total: 46%

UK boys: 50%

UK girls: 44% 

 Somewhat better

US total: 29%

US boys: 32%

US girls: 29% 

UK total: 28%

UK boys: 31%

UK girls: 26%

 Much better

US total: 12%

US boys: 18%

US girls 8%

UK total: 5%

UK boys: 5%

UK girls: 4%

 

Asked by Blumenthal how long the pause will last, Davis said she didn’t have a ‘specific date.’

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) grilled Davis on why she chose to appear via teleconference instead of in person, despite admitting herself that she’s in Washington.

‘This is where I was told to come, there’s COVID protocols for the safety and security of my family,’ Davis replied.

Cruz used her non-appearance as a cudgel to accuse Facebook of avoiding scrutiny.

‘Facebook is in the process of hiding. Facebook is in the process of trying to avoid accountability. You are not physically here even though you are blocks away from us,’ he said.

‘By the way we have hearings every week even with COVID, so it is witnesses that want to hide and avoid us that are not physically here.’

He asked if it was true that Mark Zuckerberg was personally aware of the damaging research leaked by the Wall Street Journal, which Davis said she didn’t know.  

One troubling data point in the leaked documents is that Facebook was shown data indicating Instagram fueled suicidal thoughts in 6 percent of young American girls and boys, and 13 percent in the UK.

‘Has Facebook changed your policies after you had a report that said teenagers using your product were significantly more likely to kill themselves?’ Cruz asked.

Davis said Facebook updates its policies on an ‘ongoing basis.’ 

Blumenthal accused Facebook of doing nothing but ‘small, marginal changes’ to combat its issues. 

One of the slides in Facebook’s internal presentation was entitled: ‘Youth Privacy: Defining five groups to guide age-appropriate design’.

The slide showed ‘where we’ve been, and where we’re going’ – with diagrams showing that currently those aged under 13 are not theoretically allowed to use the site, but in the future there may be no restrictions, and instead content ‘tailored to user maturity’.

Even ‘young kids’ from 0-4 were included in the chart, suggesting that Facebook may eventually try and recruit infants to their site.

Another slide asked: ‘Is there a way to leverage playdates to drive word of hand/growth among kids?’

Researchers wanted to know whether the youngsters were using Messenger Kids – Facebook’s early foray into recruiting children to their world, from 2017 – on playdates, and if so, how. 

Blackburn asked Davis if their research on kids was done with the knowledge and consent of their parents.

Davis said it was, but didn’t say whether she could provide the committee with a tangible consent form.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) said she was ‘alarmed’ by the revelations from Facebook’s internal research.

‘This research did nothing more than confirm many of our earlier intuitions and suspicions – social media can dangerous to your mental health,’ Murkowski said.

She added that she was ‘concerned by the consistent lack of transparency from Facebook.’

‘This committee would not be here without the brave whistleblower who stepped up to shed light on this issue.’

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