Facebook used Big Tobacco playbook to exploit teens and children, senators say at hearing

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Erin Scott | Reuters

U.S. lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle agree on virtually nothing these days. The exception is when the topic is Facebook.

Republicans and Democrats grilled Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, on Thursday, in a hearing before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection. Antigone, who testified by video, was called to answer questions about Instagram’s impact on the mental health of teens and Facebook’s efforts to build more products targeting children.

The hearing, titled “Protecting Kids Online: Facebook, Instagram, and Mental Health Harms,” follows a series of Wall Street Journal reports earlier this month that were based on internal studies conducted by Facebook researchers. Those stories revealed that Facebook is aware of the harmful effects of Instagram on the mental health of young users. In particular, Facebook’s own studies showed that 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced their desire to commit suicide back to Instagram.

Davis answered questions for close to three hours, and listened as multiple senators compared Facebook to the tobacco industry, which for years knowingly hid what it knew about the dangers associated with the products it was selling.

“Facebook is just like Big Tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early, all so Facebook can make money,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Here are the highlights from Thursday’s hearing:

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 can’t hold itself accountable

Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chair of the subcommittee, kicked off the hearing by accusing Facebook of showing that it’s incapable of holding itself accountable. Blumenthal said the Journal stories and the Facebook whistleblower who provided the documents gave “deep insight into Facebook’s relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users.”

“We now know that while Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful for teens, privately Facebook researchers and experts have been ringing the alarm for years,” Blumenthal said. “We now know that Facebook routinely puts profits ahead of kids’ online safety, we know it chooses the growth of its products over the wellbeing of our children, and we now know that it is indefensibly delinquent in acting to protect them.”

Blumenthal also noted that Facebook’s documents proved the company had been untruthful in prior correspondence with members of the Senate.

He said that in August, he and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., ranking member of the subcommittee, wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and asked, “Has Facebook research ever found that its platforms and products have a negative effect on children’s and teens’ mental health or well-being?”

The company said in response, “We are not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is too much.”

“That response was simply untrue,” Blumenthal said. “It knows the evidence of harm to teens is substantial and specific to Instagram.”

Senator Ed Markey speaks at the Back the Thrive Agenda press conference at the Longworth Office Building on September 10, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Jemal Countess | Getty Images

Facebook is non-committal on Instagram Kids

One of the central issues of concern to lawmakers on Thursday was Facebook’s Instagram Kids product.

The project, first reported by BuzzFeed in March and further exposed by the Journal, led Facebook to announce this week that it will pause development of an Instagram app for people under the age of 13.

Throughout the hearing, senators asked Davis if Facebook would commit to shelving Instagram Kids for good.

“Do you promise not to launch a site that includes features such as like buttons and follower counts that allow children to quantify popularity?” asked Markey.

Davis was non-committal and said the company will look further into what features make the most sense for children.

“Sen. Markey, those are the kinds of features that we will be talking about with our experts trying to understand in fact what is most age appropriate and what isn’t age appropriate, and we will discuss those features with them of course,” Davis said.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) questions U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 14, 2021 .

Bill O’Leary | Pool | Reuters

Facebook cherry picks the research it shares

On Wednesday, Facebook released two slide decks with its research on Instagram’s impact on teen mental health. The company published those decks knowing the Journal was about to release all of the documents that contributed to its reporting.

The Journal ended up publishing six decks, with far more information than Facebook provided to the public. Facebook also included annotations that often discredited the work of its own researchers.

Davis told senators at the hearing that the research was not complete and or framed incorrectly. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said her answers don’t add up and asked if the company planned to release all of its research to the public.

“You’re telling us, ‘If only you knew the full research,’ and then at the same time, you’re not releasing the research. So which is it?” Cruz asked.

Davis said the company was in the process of determining what additional research it could release.

“So you’ve cherry picked the ones you want us to see,” Cruz said.

Cruz then asked Davis about the research showing the percentage of teens in the U.S. and U.K. who trace their suicidal desires back to Instagram. Davis said those stats were a mischaracterization of the company’s research.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, asks questions during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC, April 27, 2021.

Tasos Katopodis | Pool | Reuters

Big Tobacco playbook

In his opening remarks, Blumenthal highlighted findings from Facebook’s research, showing that many teens feel addicted to their use of Instagram.

“In truth, Facebook has taken Big Tobacco’s playbook,” he said. “It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products, it has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves.”

Sen. Markey echoed those remarks.

“Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health,” he said.

‘We don’t actually do finsta’

As in seemingly every hearing involving Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley, there was a moment underscoring how little lawmakers often understand about the nuances of the internet.

Toward the end of the hearing, Blumenthal took the opportunity to ask Davis about “finsta,” a term that refers to Instagram accounts that aren’t associated with someone’s actual identity. Finsta accounts are often used to snoop on other users’ posts in an anonymous way.

“Will you commit to ending finsta?” Blumenthal asked.

Davis paused, before responding, “Senator, again let me explain. We don’t actually do finsta.”

Blumenthal followed by asking, “Finsta is one of your products or services. We’re not talking about Google or Apple. It’s Facebook correct?”

“Finsta is slang for a type of account,” Davis said.

The conversation was reminiscent of an exchange at a congressional hearing in 2018. Orrin Hatch, a Republic senator from Utah who has since retired, asked Zuckerberg, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”

It’s commonly known that Facebook has become one of the world’s most valuable companies through its sophisticated advertising that’s used by most of the largest businesses to target potential customers.

“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg said.

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