Senators spent three hours yesterday grilling Facebook’s head of global safety, Antigone Davis, as she attempted to defend the company’s approach to handling the mental wellbeing of children who use its services.
“Facebook has taken Big Tobacco’s playbook,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. “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.”
The hearings come on the heels of a Wall Street Journal investigation that revealed that Facebook has been sitting on a cache of research that shows just how harmful its products can be for children under the age of 18. The whistleblower documents, which also have been turned over to Congress, offer “deep insight into Facebook’s relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users,” Blumenthal said.
“You’ve lost trust, and we do not trust you with influencing our children,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.
Instagram makes teens feel worse
Facebook’s own research shows Instagram to be the cause of mental health issues in a startling percentage of teens. Around 20 percent of teens in the US and the UK said that they felt alone or lonely after using Instagram, and of teens who had suicidal thoughts, 6 percent in the US and 13 percent in the UK traced the origin of those feelings to Instagram.
“We care deeply about the safety and security of the people on our platform,” Davis, who testified via video, told the subcommittee. “We take the issue very seriously,” she added. “We have put in place multiple protections to create safe and age-appropriate experiences for people between the ages of 13 and 17.”
Though Davis said her company would not retaliate against the whistleblower for testifying to Congress, her response left open the possibility that Facebook would go after the person for handing them over to the media.
The senators were clearly frustrated with Facebook’s lack of transparency. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) zeroed in on the company’s unwillingness to share all of its research. For example, in anticipation of The Wall Street Journal exposé, Facebook released two presentations of its research into Instagram and teen mental health. But the Journal published six presentations, revealing far more about Facebook’s research than the company had wanted to share. Davis said the Journal’s slides offered an incomplete or incorrect picture of the company’s work.
Cruz pressed Davis to commit the company to releasing all of its research, and she demurred. Cruz pushed further. “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 Facebook was still evaluating which research it could share with the public. “So you’ve cherry-picked the ones you want us to see,” Cruz said.
Facebook’s response to Congress “simply untrue”
Facebook’s selective interpretation of its own research hasn’t been limited to managing public relations disasters, either. It seemed to take a similar approach when responding to questions that Blumenthal and Blackburn had sent in August to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In yesterday’s hearing, one of those questions was top of mind for Blumenthal: “Has Facebook research ever found that its platforms and products have a negative effect on children’s and teens’ mental health or well-being?”
In August, the company had responded, “We are not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is too much.”
To Blumenthal, that reply and subsequent disclosures and leaks suggested that the company was less than forthcoming. “That response was simply untrue. It knows the evidence of harm to teens is substantial and specific to Instagram,” Blumenthal said.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pushed Davis to commit to canceling its planned Instagram for teens app. “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 wouldn’t commit. “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,” she said.