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Lawmakers hammer Facebook for hiding how its products may hurt kids

The hearing comes on the heels of explosive reporting asserting that Facebook played down how toxic Instagram is for teen girls

On Sept. 30, U.S. senators grilled Facebook on its own leaked internal research that showed it knew Instagram harmed teenagers’ mental health. (Video: Reuters)

Senators accused Facebook of dodging questions and burying internal research about how its products may harm children, pledging to further investigate the tech giant during heated confrontations with the company’s head of safety at a congressional hearing Thursday.

The session comes days after an explosive series of reports by the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook’s own internal research found that teen girls reported that Instagram made their body image issues worse.

The findings have ushered in a reckoning in Washington over how the tech giant’s services affect children’s mental health, galvanizing a bipartisan group of lawmakers in censure of the company and spurring a congressional investigation into its own research. Lawmakers say they have obtained the documents from a Facebook whistleblower who is set to testify before Congress next week

Facebook has gone on the offensive since the series’ release, claiming the Journal mischaracterized its findings. At the hearing, Facebook executive Antigone Davis argued the company’s research in fact showed that teen girls struggling with mental health issues largely reported that they found Instagram to be more helpful than not.

“Now that doesn’t mean that the ones that aren’t aren’t important to us,” she said while testifying remotely from Washington, D.C., before a Senate Commerce Committee panel. “In fact that’s why we do this research.”

Facebook’s latest scandal is putting the spotlight on children’s safety online

But lawmakers repeatedly disputed the executive’s assertions and challenged the company to commit to disclosing its full findings and to back legislative efforts aimed at boosting children’s safety.

“Facebook knows the destructive consequences that Instagram’s design and algorithms are having on our young people and our society, but it has routinely prioritized its own rapid growth over basic safety for our children,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), whose consumer protection subcommittee convened the session.

Blumenthal said that “Facebook has evaded, misled and deceived” the public about how its products affect consumers, a critique echoed by lawmakers across the panel.

On the eve of the hearing, Facebook released a heavily annotated portion of its own research on kids’ safety that minimized some of the findings. The Journal published the full research reports later Wednesday evening, free of annotations.

What parents need to know about social media for kids

But lawmakers at the session tore into the company for declining to commit to making its full findings available to the public. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) pressed Davis to release the data behind the internal research “to allow for independent analysis.”

Davis said the company is “looking to release additional research” and at ways to boost transparency at the company but did not make the pledge.

“With all due respect to you, the word transparency is easy to use,” Blumenthal said in response. “It’s hard to do, and so far there is nothing that you have said to indicate that disclosure of these findings … will be made available.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), a prominent Republican critic of Facebook, accused the company of “cherry-picking” what data to release.

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

Facebook has faced withering criticism from kids’ safety advocates and members of Congress over its plans to launch a separate version of Instagram tailored to children, with lawmakers calling on the company to scrap the plans altogether. And that chorus has only grown in the aftermath of the Journal series, with senators grilling the company on the plans Thursday.

The tech giant this week announced it was “pausing” plans to roll out the product to address those concerns. But Davis defended the plans behind the product, arguing that children and teenagers are “already online” and that developing a separate app gives parents more opportunities to protect them from online harm.

“We believe it is better for parents to have the option to give tweens access to a version of Instagram that’s designed for them where parents can supervise and manage their experience than to have them lie about their age to access a platform that wasn’t built for them,” Davis said.

But the “pause” hasn’t abated the ire of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who continued to press the company to shelve the plans and back tighter regulations to shield kids while browsing the Web.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has led efforts to expand federal protections for kids’ privacy online, asked Davis to commit that the company wouldn’t launch any new products that host influencer marketing targeted at children.

Davis didn’t directly answer but said one of Facebook’s products, Messenger Kids, doesn’t show ads to children.

“It’s not acceptable that you don’t have answers for these questions right now,” he said. “These are the obvious problems that exist.”

Markey later asked Davis whether the company would pledge to back his legislation to expand restrictions on companies targeting kids with ads and platforms amplifying harmful content at children.

After Davis declined to make the commitment, Markey accused the company of obfuscating. “I just feel that delay and obfuscation is the legislative strategy of Facebook.”

Blumenthal said the committee may look to subpoena Facebook for the full findings if it doesn’t voluntarily release them. “That’s an issue that we may be discussing if the company isn’t more cooperative,” he told reporters after the session.