Today’s hearing with a Facebook whistleblower is the second of two hearings that the Senate Commerce Committee is holding on how Facebook approaches its younger users.
Last Thursday, Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, was grilled by senators about the impact its apps have on younger users, after an explosive report indicated the company was aware that Facebook-owned Instagram could have a “toxic” effect on teen girls.
“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,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in opening remarks at the hearing. “And we now know it is indefensibly delinquent in acting to protect them.”
“The question that haunts me,” Blumenthal added, “is how can we, or parents, or anyone, trust Facebook?”
In a sign of the bipartisan pressure on this issue, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn echoed Blumenthal in her opening remarks directed at Facebook. “We do not trust you with influencing our children,” she said.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier last month that researchers at Facebook have been conducting studies for the past three years into how Instagram, which it owns, affects its millions of young users. The research shows the platform can damage mental health and body image, especially among teenaged girls.
Blumenthal said his office created an Instagram account identifying as a 13-year-old girl. It followed some easily discoverable accounts associated with extreme dieting and eating disorders. Within a day, he said, the Instagram recommendations were “exclusively filled” with other accounts that promoted self harm and eating disorders. (Davis said those accounts would be in violation of Instagram’s policies that crack down on content promoting self-harm.)
Following the Journal report, Instagram said it was looking at new ways to discourage users from focusing on their physical appearance. The company also said that while Instagram can be a place where people have “negative experiences,” the app also gives a voice to marginalized people and helps friends and family stay connected.
“What’s been lost in this report is that in fact with this research, we’ve found that more teen girls actually find Instagram helpful — teen girls who are suffering from these issues find Instagram helpful than not,” Davis said Thursday. “Now that doesn’t mean that the ones that aren’t, aren’t important to us. In fact, that’s why we do this research.”
Davis, who identified herself as a mother and former teacher, also pushed back on the idea that the report was a “bombshell” and did not commit to releasing a full research report, noting potential “privacy considerations.” She said Facebook is “looking for ways to release more research.”
Read more about last week’s hearing here.