On January 31st, a charged US Senate hearing saw Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, apologizing to the parents of children who were victimized on social media.
The hearing, on the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis, was also attended by the parents of those victims, who stood up and held pictures of the children.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley took the lead in the hearings and turned the heat on Zuckerberg, forcing him to apologize to the chilren who had been victimized on social media and, in some cases, took their own lives.
A Reuters report notes the context and highlights just how aggressive Hawley went after Meta’s CEO:
“Would you like now to apologize to the victims who have been harmed by your product?” Hawley asked, noting the hearing was being broadcast on live television.
Zuckerberg stood up, turned around, and addressed the families.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry-wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer,” he said.
Hawley aggressively criticized Zuckerberg during a contentious exchange. “Your product is killing people,” Hawley told Zuckerberg, whose firm owns social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.”
While Zuckerberg expressed sympathy for the victims and their families of victims, his statement didn’t include an admission of guilt. Of course, you’ll remember Facebook and Instagram have been linked time and time again to risks to children, from mental health damage to physical threats like stalkers and extortioners. In one internal report from a few years back, Facebook employees actually discussed how toxic Instagram is to teenage girls, and Mr Hawley did refer to these known issues.
Of course, this problem isn’t present on just Instagram or Facebook but is a systemic issue for most social media platforms.
During this senate hearing, the biggest social media platforms’ CEOs were present, including Linda Yaccarino of X Corp (formerly Twitter), Shou Zi Chew from TikTok, Evan Spiegel from Snap and even Jason Citron from Discord. To Mr Chu, Hawley directly posed a big question: “Why shouldn’t TikTok be banned in the US”, saying it’s made by a “Communist” company made in China. Knowing just how bad the TikTok tracking is and what a threat to privacy the app can be, this is one question that was answered a long time ago – too bad legislators aren’t doing anything about it!
You can watch the full Senate hearing below if you want to know what the social media CEOs had to say in their defense. Fair warning, most of the questions posed by the Senate just sound like setups for political campaign sound bites and a push towards large-scale censorship online in the name of “protecting the children”.
Case in point: just skip to 3:41 and you’ll see Ms. Butler ask some very pointed questions about how Facebook deals with teenagers whose self-worth is impacted selfie filters that mimic plastic surgery. You’ll also see her cutting off Mr. Zuckerberg before he can respond in any meaningful way, which does tend to give the proceedings the vibe of a witch hunt.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not a Zuckerberg fan, but this Senate hearing did little to inspire confidence in the US Senate’s effectiveness. As a outsider, this Senate hearing felt more like an opportunity for Senators to gain political capital rather than a solution-oriented meeting.
Anyway, the same day as these hearings, Bytedance’s CEO, the mother company of TikTok, was busy admonishing his staff for being behind the curve on ChatGPT and generative AI. Who knows, maybe next year the Senate will also address that one.
*The lead image in this story is a screencap from the YouTube AP live stream of these proceedings.