Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Facebook endured a grilling in Congress this week over its corporate conduct and how it may harm people. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it should.
Facebook executives have been carpeted on Capitol Hill so often over the past few years that one might expect them to get some sort of frequent visitor deal.
In March, Mark Zuckerberg himself was dragged, at least virtually, to answer lawmakers’ questions about his and other other online platforms’ role in the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories, such as the ones that precipitated the violent insurrection of 6 January.
This week it was the turn of a lesser Facebook executive to take a wigging from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The US Congress’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee had called for the hearing following the publication of an explosive investigation by The Wall Street Journal. In a series of damning reports based on leaked documents, the newspaper demonstrated how Facebook’s own internal research has repeatedly warned about the detrimental effect Facebook’s platforms, particularly Instagram, have on young people’s mental health.
The internal research highlighted how celebrity profiles – like those run by Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber and Charli D’Amelio – had hurt young users’ body image and self-esteem.
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The Wall Street Journal alleged that Facebook has repeatedly downplayed these issues, not least to Congress at previous hearings.
The UK’s former deputy prime minister turned Facebook mouthpiece, Nick Clegg, has publicly denied the findings of the report. As Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Clegg has said the newspaper’s reports “contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do, and conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.”
It’s against this background that Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, on Thursday endured over two hours of heated input from senators. They accused the $1tn company of burying research into how its services harm teens and younger people.
However, the display left market analysts doubtful that Facebook will really change its ways.
“What emerged from the Senate hearings is that Facebook puts profit before young users’ health,” Laura Petrone, principal analyst in the thematic team at GlobalData, tells Verdict. “The issue around Instagram’s harmful effect is rooted in its very business model.
“The platform is based on the collection of data, including on young users, with the aim of personalising content to reach those most likely to be influenced. Their ultimate purpose is to keep users engaged with the platform, showing them more tailored – no matter if harmful – content and ads and collecting more data about them.”
Richard Blumenthal, the chair of the subcommittee, kicked off the hearing with an opening statement, saying: “Facebook knows the disruptive consequences that Instagram’s design and algorithms are having on young people in our society, but it has routinely prioritised its own rapid growth over basic safety for our children.”
Blumenthal has a long history of questioning Silicon Valley giants and is one of the co-sponsors behind a bipartisan bill aimed at reeling in Google and Apple’s app store dominance. The bill would prohibit the web giants compelling app developers from using their own payment solutions.
He, as well as several other senators, also accused Facebook of having taken a few pages out of “big tobacco’s playbook”, including putting harmful products into the hands of children.
Blumenthal accused Facebook of having “attempted to deceive the public” and to have “weaponised childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves, it’s chosen growth over children’s mental health and greed over preventing the suffering of children.”
Others, like Maria Cantwell, chair of the commerce committee, argued that Facebook’s conduct highlights the need to update the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
Before the Congress hearing, Facebook vehemently opposed The Wall Street Journal’s reporting, giving credence to suggestions that the Menlo Park-headquartered giant has adopted a more aggressive stance against bad press coverage.
The company’s head of research Pratiti Raychoudhury published an official rebuttal on 26 September.
“It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls,” she said.
On the eve of the hearing, she added that the “research is designed to inform internal conversations and the documents were created for and used by people who understood the limitations of the research.”
At the same time, Facebook released a heavily annotated portion of its research. The Wall Street Journal subsequently released the full research, free of annotations, The Washington Post reported.
During the Congressional hearing, Republican senator Ted Cruz accused Facebook of cherry-picking parts of the research that would make it look good.
Senators Ben Ray Luján and Richard Blumenthal pushed Davis during the grilling to release the full data behind the internal research to “allow for independent analysis.”
No Instagram for kids. Yet
In response to The Wall Street Journal’s findings, Facebook has paused the rollout of a hotly contested Instagram service for kids. However, it hasn’t cancelled plans to roll out the offering eventually.
“As every parent knows when it comes to kids and tweens, they’re already online,” Davis told the committee via a video call.
“We believe it is better for parents to have the option to give tweens access to a version of Instagram that’s designed for them where parents can supervise and manage their experience – rather than to have them lie about their age to access the platform that wasn’t built for them.”
Lawmakers were left unconvinced by the assessment. Senator Edward J. Markey wasn’t satisfied with Facebook just pressing pause on the project: he wanted the company to commit to not launching any new product that would host influencer marketing targeting children.
He also asked Davis whether she would pledge to back a bill to expand restrictions on companies targeting ads to kids and platforms hosting harmful content. She declined.
Congressional questioning of Facebook executives won’t be the last result from The Wall Street Journal’s series of stories. Following the revelations, Facebook’s own semi-independent oversight board has said it will look into some of the newspaper’s accusations.