Facebook exec will testify at Senate hearing after report finds Instagram harms teen mental health

Facebook Head of Global Safety Antigone Davis speaks during a roundtable discussion on cyber safety and technology at the White House March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Facebook agreed to send Antigone Davis, its global head of safety, to testify before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection on Sept. 30, a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC.

The Washington Post reported the news earlier Thursday.

The hearing, called “Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, & Mental Health Harms,” comes after The Wall Street Journal published a series of reports detailing internal discussions at Facebook, based on documents it obtained. One of the articles revealed that Facebook conducted research that showed its Instagram app had a negative impact on many teenage girls’ mental health, despite testimony from top executives in the past that only highlighted the platforms’ positive impacts. Lawmakers in both parties demanded answers from Facebook.

Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, wrote in a blog post following the report that the company is exploring ways to nudge users toward more uplifting content.

In a statement alongside the hearing announcement, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chairs the subcommittee, said the panel would “examine the toxic effects of Facebook and Instagram on young people and others, and is one of several that will ask tough questions about whether Big Tech companies are knowingly harming people and concealing that knowledge.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the ranking member on the subcommittee, told CNBC last week about the upcoming hearing, saying she expected it would include representatives from Facebook, TikTok, TwitterSnap and Google-owned YouTube. But a press release on the hearing sent later on Thursday identified only Facebook’s Davis as a witness. Blumenthal said in his statement that other unnamed social media companies had committed to go before Congress and that more hearings would soon be scheduled.

A YouTube spokesperson told CNBC in a statement ahead of the subcommittee press release that the company is working to determine a date to testify on its privacy and child safety policies. According to YouTube, the company first learned of the Sept. 30 hearing date on Sept. 10, which it said was later than other witnesses learned of it.

A spokesperson for Snap also said the company is continuing to work with the committee.

Spokespeople for the other companies named did not immediately provide comment.

Blackburn told CNBC last week that her staff has spoken with a Facebook whistleblower with the same documents provided to the Journal. The Post reported Thursday that the whistleblower plans to go public before the end of the year, potentially by testifying before Congress, according to an unnamed aide to Blackburn.

Spokespeople for Blackburn and Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the whistleblower’s potential testimony.

At a hearing earlier this week that was meant to focus on data and antitrust law, lawmakers instead ended up grilling a Facebook privacy policy executive about the Journal article. Many of the same senators will get another chance to question Facebook at next Thursday’s hearing.

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