The CEOs of the nation’s largest social media platforms were grilled by Congress Wednesday over concerns that their companies are not doing enough to protect teens and children online.
The hearing, “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” had lawmakers from both sides of the aisle questioning Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook and Instagram’s parent company Meta, and the leaders of TikTok, Snap, Discord and X over their platform’s safety features.
“I use it, we all use it, there’s an upside to everything here. But the dark side hasn’t been dealt with,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said during the hearing. “It’s now time to deal with the dark side because people have taken your idea, and they’ve turned it into a nightmare for the American people.”
The hearing comes amid growing concerns that the mental health of America’s youth is being harmed by social media, from spreading child sexual abuse materials to serving as a gateway to drug dealing. A public health advisory from the surgeon general last year noted social media use presents “a profound risk of harm” for kids’ and teens’ mental health and called for “immediate action” from tech companies.
Lawmakers across both sides of the aisle used the hearing to advocate for a package of bills meant “to help stop the exploitation of kids online,” including the STOP CSAM Act, which would allow victims of child exploitation to sue tech platforms.
Who are the witnesses?
- Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg
- X CEO Linda Yaccarino
- TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew
- Snap CEO Evan Spiegel
- Discord CEO Jason Citron
This was Zuckerberg’s eighth time testifying before Congress. It was a first for Yaccarino, Spiegel and Citron, who were subpoenaed to appear. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, said Citron “only accepted services of this subpoena after U.S. Marshals were sent to Discord’s headquarters at taxpayer expense.”
The tech company leaders said they were open to working with lawmakers to address their concerns.
“I sincerely hope today is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue that results in real improvements in online safety,” Citron said.
Congress is targeting social media:Some aren’t sure about the push
Highlights from the hearing
Zuckerberg turned down requests to expand child safety team: Lawmakers on Wednesday released internal documents from Meta that showed Zuckerberg rejected 2021 requests to add dozens of employees to focus on children’s well-being and safety.
“(This) is the reason why we can no longer trust Meta, and, frankly, any of the other social media to in fact grade their own homework,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT.
Zuckerberg addressed the families of victims: Sen. Josh Hawley, R-MO, urged Zuckerberg to apologize directly to the families of victims. Zuckerberg turned to a crowd holding up photos of victims and said he was “sorry for everything you have all been through,” and that their experiences are “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.”
Hawley urged Zuckerberg to establish a victim compensation fund, which Zuckerberg would not commit to during the hearing.
Tiktok grilled for ties to China: Lawmakers raised concerns that Tiktok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, is sharing user data with the Chinese government. CEO Chew argued that the company has spent billions on a project aimed at protecting American user data, and said the company has “not been asked for any data by the Chinese government and we have never provided it.”
Lawmakers highlight unity across party lines: The welfare of children on social media is the rare issue that transcends partisan politics. Sen. Graham highlighted how both Democrats and Republicans agreed that tech companies need more regulatory oversight.
“We’ve found common ground here that just is astonishing,” he said.
Boeing comparisons: Both Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-DE, contrasted regulations in the tech and airline industries, highlighting the quick response after a Boeing plane lost a panel midair earlier this month.
“Nobody questioned the decision to ground a fleet of over 700 planes. So why aren’t we taking the same type of decisive action on the danger of these platforms when we know these kids are dying?” Klobuchar asked.
What do the platforms say?
The social media platform heads balked when asked if they support the five bills the committee is pushing as written, but say they have already taken steps to protect young users.
Yaccarino, head of X, said the company is building a content moderation center in Austin, Texas. She also noted that the company supports the STOP CSAM Act. Tiktok CEO Chew highlighted safety measures, like disabling direct messaging for accounts owned by people under 16 and automatically making their accounts private.
Zuckerberg’s written testimony notes that Meta has introduced various features to help parents and teens, including controls that let parents set limits on when and how long their children can use Meta’s services − settings that hide potentially sensitive content and a nudge tool that reminds teens when they’ve been using Instagram for too long or too late into the night.
“We’re committed to protecting young people from abuse on our services, but this is an ongoing challenge,” Zuckerberg says in his written testimony.
Snap, the company behind instant messaging app Snapchat, has already come out in support of the Kids Online Safety Act, which could lead to more lawsuits against tech companies that recommend harmful material to young users. (Some critics are concerned that it could also lead to the censorship of transgender content online.)
“Just like with all technology and tools, there are people who exploit and abuse our platforms for immoral and illegal purposes,” Discord CEO Citron said. “All of us here on the panel today and throughout the tech industry, have a solemn and urgent responsibility to ensure that everyone who uses our platforms is protected from these criminals, both online and off.”
Lawmakers noted that a number of these safety measures – including X’s new content moderation center and additional protections for teens on Meta’s platforms – were added in the weeks leading up to the senate hearing.
What do the lawmakers say?
Critics say social media platforms’ tools don’t go far enough, and hope the hearing will push lawmakers to take action.
“I think Congress is going to have to help you,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-LA, said. “I think the reforms you’re talking about, to some extent, are going to be like putting paint on rotten wood.”
Politico reports that Congress has passed just one kids’ safety law in the past decade.
“I’m tired of talking. I’m tired of having discussions,” Graham said. “Open up the courthouse door. Until you do that, nothing will change.”