The bosses of a number of social networking platforms faced a grilling from US lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The session saw the CEOs of Meta (Mark Zuckerberg), TikTok (Shou Zi Chew), X (Linda Yaccarino) and other social media companies such as Snapchat face (at times) aggressive questioning from US senators.

The Associated Press reported that Mark Zuckerberg personally apologised to parents who held up pictures of their children who they said had been harmed by social media.

Senate hearing

The Senate panel sought to tackle the issue of young people being confronted by sexual predators, bullying, as well as suicide, eating disorders, and unrealistic beauty standards on social media platforms.

Authorities continue to argue that tech firms are not doing enough to safeguard children from these issues.

Indeed, in October 2023 Meta Platforms was hit with a lawsuit from dozens of US states, which allege that Instagram and Facebook are harming children’s mental health with deliberate designs features on Instagram and Facebook that addict children to its platforms.

New Mexico has filed a separate lawsuit, alleging Meta failed to protect children from online predators.

According to the Associated Press, the Senate hearing began with recorded testimony from children and parents who said they or their children had been exploited on social media.

Throughout the event, parents who lost children to suicide silently held up pictures of their dead children.

Zuckerberg apology

The apology from Mark Zuckerberg to these parents took place when he was being aggressively questioned by Republican Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who made headlines for his role in encouraging the deadly 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol building with a raised fist in front of the mob.

Hawley asked the Meta CEO if he has personally compensated any of the victims and their families for what they have been through.

“I don’t think so,” Zuckerberg reportedly replied.

“There’s families of victims here,” Hawley said. “Would you like to apologise to them?”

Zuckerberg stood up and faced the parents in the gallery.

“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered,” Zuckerberg reportedly said, adding that Meta continues to invest and work on “industrywide efforts” to protect children.

Hawley then continued to press Zuckerberg, asking if he’d take personal responsibility for the harms his company has caused. Zuckerberg repeated that Meta’s job is to “build industry-leading tools” and empower parents.

“To make money,” Hawley cut in.

Other CEOs

Questions were also aimed at the CEOs of other social media platforms, who reportedly touted their existing safety tools and the work they’ve done with non-profits and law enforcement to protect children.

According to the Associated Press, Snapchat broke ranks ahead of the hearing and backed a federal bill that would create a legal liability for apps and social platforms that recommend harmful content to minors.

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel reiterated the company’s support on Wednesday and asked the industry to back the bill.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew reportedly said his platform is vigilant about enforcing its policy barring children under 13 from using the app.

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew. Image credit: TikTok

The CEO of X (formerly Twitter), Linda Yaccarino, said the Elon Musk owned platform doesn’t cater to children.

“We do not have a line of business dedicated to children,” Yaccarino was quoted by the AP as saying. She said the company will also support Stop CSAM Act, a federal bill that makes it easier for victims of child exploitation to sue tech companies.

Engineer allegations

The Associated Press noted that there seems to be support from both Republican and Democratic senators on the need for more online protections for children.

It should be noted that these platforms have been questioned previously about protecting children. And there has been some notable warnings about this issue from whistleblowers in recent years.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had previously reported on leaked internal research which suggested that Instagram had a harmful effect on teenagers, particularly teen girls.

Meta had previously said it would require Instagram users to share their date of birth, in an effort to improve child safety.

A consortium of news organisations published their own findings based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified before the US Congress and a British parliamentary committee about what she found.

Another whistleblower, Arturo Béjar, a former engineering director at Meta who was known for his expertise in curbing online harassment more recently testified before Congress about child safety on Meta’s platforms, the AP reported.

“I’ve spoken to many of the parents at the hearing. The harm their children experienced, all that loss of innocent life, is eminently preventable,” Béjar was quoted as saying. “When Mark says ‘Our job is building the best tools we can,’ that is just not true.”

“They know how much harm teens are experiencing, yet they won’t commit to reducing it, and most importantly to be transparent about it,” Béjar was quoted as saying. “They have the infrastructure to do it, the research, the people, it is a matter of prioritisation.”

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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