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On Dec. 6, CEOs from some of the biggest social media platforms will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they are set to face tough questions about what their platforms are doing to keep children safe from sexual exploitation and abuse.
Sens. Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham on Monday announced the bipartisan subpoenas of three executives who have reportedly been less than communicative with Congress about the issue of child sexual exploitation on their apps: Linda Yaccarino, head of X (formerly Twitter), Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, and Discord‘s Jason Citron. Two other prominent tech executives — Shou Zi of TikTok and Meta‘s Mark Zuckerberg — are expected to appear voluntarily, as the committee is currently in discussion with both companies.
“Big Tech has failed to police itself — at the expense of our kids,” tweeted Durbin in announcing the subpoenas. “We’re informing our legislative push to protect kids online.” In a follow-up post, he reiterated that the CEOs would “have their chance to explain their failures to protect kids.”
The senators’ joint press release noted that both X and Discord have been particularly resistant to negotiations on sending leadership to Washington. “In a remarkable departure from typical practice,” it said, “Discord and X have further refused to cooperate by accepting service of the subpoenas on behalf of their CEOs, requiring the Committee to enlist the assistance of the U.S. Marshals Service to personally serve the subpoenas.”
X owner Elon Musk and his supporters have frequently claimed success in eradicating child sexual exploitation and abuse from the platform, but in reality, the company has struggled to get a handle on the problem since Musk gutted its child safety team. By some indications, X has actually gotten worse on this front: In June, the Stanford Internet Observatory discovered posts containing known images of child sexual abuse material that should have been automatically flagged and filtered out. In July, Musk also reinstated the account of a far-right conspiracy theorist who was suspended for posting child sexual abuse material.
While Musk has been quick to lash out at people and institutions critical of how he runs X, he did not immediately tweet about the subpoena or child safety on Monday, though he did engage with a user pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which rests on the false claim that political elites run a child sex ring out of the basement of a D.C. pizzeria.
The chat app Discord, an NBC News investigation revealed in June, has been used by a variety of sexual predators who prey on children, with at least “35 cases over the past six years in which adults were prosecuted on charges of kidnapping, grooming or sexual assault that allegedly involved communications” on the platform. Sextortion scams targeting minors have also been an issue. “As a parent, it’s horrifying,” Citron said in response at the time, insisting that Discord takes the threat “very seriously.”
Snapchat, meanwhile, has reportedly seen a rise in child exploitation since 2020. Meta was sued earlier this year by investment funds that own stock in the company for allegedly not doing enough to combat sex trafficking or the sexual exploitation of children. And some TikTok accounts have been found to act as portals to child sexual abuse material. Across the industry, there is also growing concern about the threat of AI-generated explicit material that harms adolescents.
Trust and safety teams were among those impacted by a wave of Silicon Valley layoffs over the past year, further reducing the social platforms’ abilities to combat hate speech, misinformation, and abuse amid a war in the Middle East and ahead of a U.S. presidential election. Whatever the Senate Judiciary Committee learns about moderation shortcomings in December, it may just be the tip of a very big iceberg.