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Facebook tries to minimize its own research ahead of hearings on children’s safety

The company is going on the defensive as Congress is scheduled to grill a Facebook executive about the company’s record on children’s and teens’ mental health.

Facebook is trying to minimize its own researchers’ findings ahead of a congressional hearing on children’s safety. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)
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Facebook late Wednesday released heavily annotated documents discounting its own research into harm to users — an attempt to deflect criticism as lawmakers gear up to deliver the company a harsh rebuke on Capitol Hill.

The research documents, presented in slide decks, one called “Hard Life Moments — Mental Health Deep Dive” and another called “Teen Mental Health Deep Dive,” feature internal research into Instagram’s effects on the mental health of adults and teenagers.

The versions released Wednesday night added notes throughout the presentations downplaying the findings.

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“Contrary to how the objectives have been framed, this research was designed to understand user perceptions and not to provide measures of prevalence, statistical estimates for the correlation between Instagram and mental health or to evaluate causal claims between Instagram and health/well-being,” the company wrote in one of its annotations.

The documents provide a preview of Facebook’s strategy as it prepares for at least two key hearings in front of a Senate panel focused on children’s safety. The hearings were called after the Wall Street Journal’s initial report of Facebook’s findings of its products’ negative effects on children and teens’ mental health.

Facebook spokeswoman Liza Crenshaw said the company did not have additional comment beyond the blog it posted linking to the slide decks.

Facebook has been under mounting scrutiny in D.C. and statehouses as Big Tech’s effects on people’s privacy and security is examined. Facebook has been called by lawmakers to answer for how the platform was used in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, its alleged monopoly power and its use in the distribution of misinformation, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook was one subject of an extensive House committee report faulting tech giants as engaging in anti-competitive tactics, and it is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for alleged antitrust violations.

This week, Facebook said it would pause the creation of an Instagram app for children as it faced mounting challenges from law enforcement, child welfare advocates and lawmakers.

The Journal also published internal Facebook documents Wednesday night — free of annotations.

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Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, is to testify before Congress on Thursday, and the same committee has announced a hearing for next week featuring a Facebook “whistleblower” who shared key documents about the company with lawmakers.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), a top Republican on consumer protection subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, said lawmakers are planning to grill Davis about why the company continues to “entice” children onto its platform.

“We have lots of documents coming our way by the whistleblower, and what we will want to do is look at this children’s online safety issue and find out more about what Facebook knows and the research they’ve done,” she said in an interview.

Facebook’s annotations cast doubt on the scope of its own research, even on conclusions that seem positive for the company.

One slide draws the conclusion that “Instagram is more likely to make things better than worse.” But next to the slide, Facebook has noted that “the question wording asks users to self-evaluate causal impact of Instagram in a vague question with no reference, anchor or causal control.”

Another graph shows that 32.4 percent of teen girls said Instagram made their body-image concerns worse, compared with 22.1 percent who said the social media site made it better. The remainder said it had no impact.

Next to the slide, titled “But, we make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls,” Facebook’s heavy annotations call the “causal language” in the title “myopic.”

“The responses represent how survey takers already experiencing hard moments perceive the impact of Instagram on their experience, and not the teenage population of Instagram users in general,” Facebook wrote.