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Senators accused Facebook on Thursday of concealing and ignoring the ills its apps, including Instagram, pose to children and teens amid a widening outcry over revelations from internal research leaked by a whistleblower.
"We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids' online safety. We know it chooses the growth of its products over the well-being of our children," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "The question that haunts me is how can we, or parents, or anyone trust Facebook?"
His fellow Democrat, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, compared Facebook to "Big Tobacco: pushing a product they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early, all so Facebook can make money."
Fielding their questions was Antigone Davis, the social media giant's global head of safety. She testified remotely before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection and got a bipartisan grilling over what the company knew, and when, about Instagram's effects on teenagers' mental health.
Republicans also slammed the company for not doing more to address the many risks identified by its own researchers and employees and exposed in a Wall Street Journal series.
"This is your company's reporting. You knew this was there. You knew it was there, but you didn't do anything about it," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the subcommittee's ranking member, referring to internal documents about the prevalence of sex trafficking on Facebook.
On Monday, the company announced it was "pausing" work on Instagram Kids, a platform intended for users under 13. That was not enough, the lawmakers told Davis at the hearing. They pressed her to commit Facebook to broader changes, including making its research public and agreeing not to launch any products for children under 13 with features that quantify popularity such as "likes" and follower counts. They also called for new regulations on privacy and protecting children's safety online.
Criticism of Facebook has escalated in recent weeks since The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles based on a trove of internal research and communications leaked by a company whistleblower.
Among the findings: One in three teenage girls said Instagram makes their body image issues worse. A small number of teens even traced their suicidal thoughts directly to the app.
On Thursday, Davis said that "we strongly disagree with how this reporting characterized our work" and that the research "showed that many teens say that Instagram is helping them with hard issues that are so common to being a teen."
She said Facebook takes "the privacy, safety and well-being of all those who use our platform very seriously, especially the youngest people on our services." The company conducts this sort of research, she said, "to make our platform better, to minimize the bad and maximize the good, and to proactively identify where we can improve."
Facebook made some of the research about Instagram and teens public late Wednesday, with heavy annotations that downplayed and cast doubt on some of the findings. Senators on Thursday accused the company of "cherry-picking" its data.
Davis said Facebook is working to release more documents, with appropriate protections for privacy. But she also dismissed their impact, saying, "I want to be clear: This research is not a bombshell."
"I beg to differ with you, Ms. Davis. This research is a bombshell," Blumenthal retorted. "It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children and that it has concealed those facts and findings."
The same subcommittee is slated to hear on Tuesday from a Facebook whistleblower who has turned over documents to Congress, Blumenthal said. He pressed Davis to commit that Facebook will not pursue legal action against the whistleblower.
"We've committed to not retaliating for this individual speaking to the Senate," she said.
Even as Instagram head Adam Mosseri acknowledged Monday that the company would suspend plans to build a version of Instagram for kids ages 10 to 12, he doubled down on Facebook's commitment to the idea.
"I still firmly believe that it's a good thing to build a version of Instagram that's designed to be safe for tweens," he told NBC's Today show.
The aggressive stance the company is taking against the whistleblower's revelations and public criticism illustrate how its strategy in crisis has shifted away from apologizing.
"Facebook's brand is bad, and I think Facebook, you know, would freely admit that," said Katie Harbath, a former public policy director at the company. "But, you know, nobody else is gonna come and defend the company besides themselves."
Facebook doesn't want to just play defense. It also wants to turn the page — to Silicon Valley's latest favorite buzzword: the metaverse. That's an ambitious effort, drawn from science fiction, to move more of what we do every day in the physical world into a shared digital world.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg says it's Facebook's future.
"In this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company," he told tech journalist Casey Newton this summer.
But critics say, before Facebook creates a new digital world, it needs to fix its current social network.
"They've been able to weather these storms over and over again," said Yael Eisenstat, who worked at Facebook on elections integrity for political advertising in 2018.
"What I think is different this time is that I don't think they're fully understanding that internal employees have questions now."
Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.
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