Senators say Facebook used Big Tobacco’s book to exploit children

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Erin Scott | Reuters

US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree on almost anything these days. The exception is when the subject Facebook social networking site.

Questioning Republicans and Democrats Antigone Davis, head of global safety at Facebook, on Thursday, at a hearing before the Senate Trade Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. Antigone, who testified via video, was called to answer questions about Instagram’s impact on teens’ mental health and Facebook’s efforts to build more products aimed at children.

The session, titled “Protecting Children Online: Facebook, Instagram and the Damage to Mental Health” The Wall Street Journal series Earlier this month, it drew on internal studies by Facebook researchers. Those stories revealed that Facebook is aware of the harmful effects of Instagram on the mental health of young users. especially, Facebook’s own studies showed That 13% of British users and 6% of American users have followed their suicidal ideation to Instagram.

Davis answered questions for nearly three hours, listening to several senators comparing Facebook to the tobacco industry, which for years deliberately hid what it knew about the risks associated with the products it was selling.

“Facebook is like Big Tobacco, pushing a product they know is bad for young people’s health, and pushing them early, all so Facebook can make money,” said Senator Ed Markey, Senator from De Mas State.

Here are the highlights of Thursday’s hearing:

Facebook’s Global Safety Head Antigone Davis speaks during a roundtable discussion on cyber safety and technology at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Chip somophila | Getty Images

Facebook cannot hold itself accountable

Richard Blumenthal, chair of the subcommittee, began the hearing by accusing Facebook of showing its inability to hold itself accountable. Blumenthal said the Journal’s stories and the Facebook whistleblower who provided the documents gave “a deep insight into Facebook’s relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users.”

“We now know that while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is extremely harmful to teens, Facebook researchers and experts in particular have been sounding the alarm for years,” Blumenthal said. “We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits before children’s online safety, we know it chooses the growth of its products over the well-being of our children, and we now know it is untenably late in acting to protect them.”

Blumenthal also noted that Facebook documents proved the company had been dishonest in previous correspondence with senators.

He said that in August, he and Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, a prominent member of the subcommittee, wrote to the CEO. Mark Zuckerberg “Has Facebook’s research found that its platforms and products have a negative impact on the mental health or well-being of children and adolescents?” he asked.

In its response, the company said: “We are not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about the amount of screen time spent on too much.”

“That response was simply incorrect,” Blumenthal said. “She knows the evidence of harm to teens is great and specific to Instagram.”

Senator Ed Markey speaks at the Back the Thrive Agenda press conference at the Longworth office building on September 10, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Jamal Countess | Getty Images

Facebook is not binding on Instagram Kids

One of the main issues of concern to lawmakers on Thursday was the Facebook product Instagram Kids.

The project, First reported by BuzzFeed In March, the magazine revealed, Facebook pushed to announce this week that it would development pause In the Instagram app for people under the age of 13.

During the hearing, senators asked Davis if Facebook would commit to suspending Instagram Kids for good.

“Do you promise not to launch a site with features like buttons and follower count that allow kids to determine popularity?” Marky asked.

Davis was noncommittal and said the company would look further into the features that made the most sense for kids.

“Senator Markey, these are the kinds of features that we’re going to talk about with our experts who are actually trying to understand what’s more age-appropriate and what isn’t age-appropriate, and of course we’ll discuss those features with them,” Davis said.

US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) questions US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing examining the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill, Washington, September 14, 2021.

Bill O’Leary | pool | Reuters

Facebook Cherry chooses what search to share

Wednesday, Facebook has released two sets of slides Through her research on the impact of Instagram on adolescent mental health. The company published those decks knowing that the magazine was about to release all the documents that contributed to its reporting.

The magazine ended up publishing six stories, with far more information than what Facebook provides to the public. Facebook also included annotations that often discredit the work of its researchers.

Davis told senators at the hearing that the research was incomplete and/or improperly placed. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said her answers didn’t add up and asked if the company plans to release all of its research to the public.

“You’re telling us, ‘Only if you knew the full research,’ then at the same time, you wouldn’t publish the research. So what is it?” Cruz asked.

Davis said the company is in the process of determining what additional research it can release.

“So I picked the cherries you want us to see,” Cruz said.

Cruz then asked Davis about research showing the percentage of teens in the US and UK who track their suicidal desires to Instagram. Davis said these statistics were a mischaracterization of the company’s research.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, asks questions during a Senate Judicial Subcommittee hearing on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 27, 2021.

Tasos Catopodis | pool | Reuters

Tobacco’s Big Playbook

In his opening remarks, Blumenthal highlighted the findings of the Facebook research, explaining that many teens feel addicted to their Instagram use.

“In fact, Facebook has taken the Big Tobacco playbook,” he said. “She has concealed her own research on the addiction and toxic effects of her products, she has tried to deceive the public and we in Congress about what she knows, and she has used childhood vulnerabilities as a weapon against children themselves.”

Senator Markey echoed those remarks.

“Instagram is the first childhood cigarette intended to get teens addicted early on, exploiting peer pressure for popularity and ultimately endangering their health,” he said.

“We don’t actually do Fiesta”

As it seems in every hearing involving Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley, there was a moment that underscores lawmakers’ lack of understanding of the nuances of the Internet.

Near the end of the hearing, Blumenthal took the opportunity to ask Davis about “finsta,” a term referring to Instagram accounts that are not linked to someone’s actual identity. Finsta accounts are often used to hack other users’ posts in an anonymous manner.

“Are you going to commit to ending Fiesta?” asked Blumenthal.

Davis paused, before replying, “Senator, again, let me make it clear. We don’t actually do Vincent.”

Blumenthal followed with a question, “Finsta is one of your products or services. We’re not talking about Google or Apple. Is Facebook right?”

“Finsta is slang for some kind of account,” Davis said.

The conversation was reminiscent of an exchange in a Congressional Hearing in 2018. Oren Hatch, a Utah senator who has since retired, asked Zuckerberg, “How do you maintain a business model where users don’t pay for your service?”

It is well known that Facebook has become one of the most valuable companies in the world with its sophisticated ads which are used by most of the major companies to target potential customers.

“Senator, we’re running ads,” Zuckerberg said.

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