In a contentious Senate hearing, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed regret to families who claimed their kids had suffered from social media abuse.
“No one should go through” what they had to go through, Mr. Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, said to them.
Senate members from both parties questioned him and the executives of TikTok, Snap, X, and Discord for nearly four hours.
Legislators were curious about the measures taken to safeguard minors on the internet.
The US senators had a unique chance to grill tech executives.
At first, the CEOs of Snap, X (formerly Twitter), and Discord refused to testify, and the government sent them subpoenas. However, Mr. Zuckerberg and Shou Zi Chew of TikTok willingly agreed to testify.
Families who claimed their children had self-harmed or killed themselves as a result of social media content sat behind the five tech executives.
Throughout, they made it clear how they felt by cheering when lawmakers posed difficult questions and hissing when the CEOs arrived.
The protection of minors from online sexual exploitation was the primary focus of the hearing, but the senators took advantage of the presence of five influential executives to ask a wide range of questions.
When asked if TikTok shared US user data with the Chinese government, Mr. Chew, the company’s CEO, denied doing so.
“As a father of three young children myself, I know the issues that we’re discussing today are horrific and the nightmare of every parent,” he said, acknowledging that the rules in Singapore prevent his kids from using TikTok.
But as he gave his eighth testimony before Congress, Mr. Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, was the one who was most questioned.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, once questioned Mark Zuckerberg, saying, “Mr. Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” when he displayed to the tech chief an Instagram prompt that requests users to choose whether to “see the results anyway” despite alerting them to the possibility of child sexual abuse content.
Zuckerberg stated that the “basic science behind that” is that “it’s often helpful too, rather than just blocking it, to help direct them towards something that could be helpful”. Additionally, he pledged to “personally look into it”.
In a subsequent conversation with Republican Senator Josh Hawley, Mr. Zuckerberg was invited to extend his condolences to the families seated behind him.
He got up, turned to face the crowd, and apologized for everything that had happened to them all. It was awful.
“No one should have to go through the things your families have suffered.”
Senators are irate over the slow pace of change.
The companies’ views toward legislation that is presently being considered by Congress and seeks to hold them accountable for content posted on their platforms were at the center of the hearing.
This was best encapsulated in a heated exchange between Republican lawmaker Lindsey Graham and Discord’s Jason Citron.
Mr. Graham asked Mr. Citron if he supported the various internet safety-related bills that were being considered by Congress.
The head of Discord seemed hesitant about the majority of them, even though he gave Mr. Citron limited time to reply.
Mr. Graham ended by saying: “So here you are – if you’re waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we’re gonna die waiting”.
Analyst for the social media sector Matt Navarra told the BBC that he felt the hearing was like many other similar showdowns, with “lots of US political grandstanding” and Mr. Zuckerberg’s apology providing a perfect opportunity for a picture.
He continued by saying that although senators concur that bipartisan legislation is necessary to control platforms, it is still unclear what will happen next.
“We’ve seen these hearings time and time again and they have often, so far, led still not actually to generate any significant or substantial regulation,” he stated.
“We’re in 2024 and the US has virtually no regulation, as was pointed out during the hearings, with regards to the social media companies.”
The bosses also disclosed the number of employees they had in charge of platform content moderation.
The platforms with the highest user counts, Meta and TikTok, claimed to have 40,000 moderators apiece, while Snap claimed to have 2,300, X 2,000, and Discord – which claimed to be smaller – “hundreds” of moderators.
The messaging app Discord has faced criticism in the past for its methods for identifying and stopping child abuse on its network.
Following the hearing, a few of the parents in attendance held a rally outside, with several of them urging lawmakers to enact legislation holding businesses accountable as soon as possible.
Joann Bogard, whose son Mason passed away in May 2019, said, “Like me, many parents continue to think that these harms that we’re talking about today won’t affect their families.” She claimed he had participated in the choking trend on TikTok.
“These harms are happening overnight to our average kids,” she stated. “The testimonials are here. Our lawmakers must enact the Kids Online Safety Act right away.
At the event, Arturo Béjar, a former senior staff member who testified before Congress in November 2023, told the BBC, stating, “Meta is trying to push their responsibility to provide an appropriate setting for teens to parents, yet won’t add an option where a teen can tell them they’ve experienced an unwanted advance.”