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‘Baby steps’ won’t fix Instagram, lawmakers say in first hearing with social network head

‘It’s not an industry body that is going to set these standards,’ Sen. Marsha Blackburn told reporters at the hearing. ‘It is going to be the U.S. Congress.’

“The kinds of baby steps that you’ve suggested so far are underwhelming,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to the head of Instagram Adam Mosseri. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Lawmakers were unimpressed with the proposals that Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, made Wednesday to address revelations about the social network’s potentially detrimental effects on children and teens during his first congressional testimony.

With political pressure from both parties mounting against the photo-sharing company, Mosseri came armed for the hearing with a series of proposals to respond to criticism. He called for a new industry body to create standards for age verification, age-appropriate experience and online parental controls. The body would receive input from civil society and parents, and some of tech companies’ legal protections could be contingent on compliance with the board sets, he said.

The vision was more specific than many previous proposals from Facebook, and Mosseri sought to position it as one with teeth. He touted features recently introduced by Instagram to address well-being, including one that nudges users to take a break when they’re endlessly scrolling.

Yet this did little to appease lawmakers, who near universally expressed a strong desire to regulate the company, with several casting doubt on the idea of an industry-led body in particular.

“The kinds of baby steps that you’ve suggested so far are underwhelming,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce subcommittee hosting the hearing. “A nudge, a break, that ain’t going to save a kid from the addictive effects on your platform.”

He suggested that interventions well beyond Mosseri’s proposal were necessary. “Self policing based on trust is no longer a viable solution,” said Blumenthal, as Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), the top Republican on the subcommittee, nodded her head in agreement.

“It’s not an industry body that is going to set these standards,” Blackburn told reporters at the hearing. “It is going to be the U.S. Congress.”

After years of increased scrutiny of the tech industry, lawmakers appeared far more sophisticated than in previous testimony, asking pointed questions about Facebook’s proposal for regulation and internal documents. The hearing at times took on an emotional tone, as senators somberly recounted stories from parents and teens around the country grappling with Instagram’s role in suicide, self-harm and sexual exploitation. Lawmakers from both parties appeared exasperated with Mosseri, chiding him and the company for being too slow to act and failing to take responsibility for perceived harms.

Blackburn said she and her constituents were growing “frustrated” with the company.

“The conversation continues to repeat itself ad nauseam,” she said. “They continue to hear from you that change is coming. … But guess what, nothing changes. Nothing.”

Mosseri is the highest-ranking executive at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, to testify before Congress after revelations by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who exposed a trove of documents that she says show the company systematically prioritized profit over the safety of its users. Lawmakers fixated particularly on internal company research suggesting that Instagram is harmful to a significant portion of young users, especially teen girls. The hearing is part of a broader Senate probe into youth safety online, including previous hearings with executives from TikTok and YouTube.

Blumenthal told reporters Wednesday that his panel may still seek additional testimony from Meta and its subsidiaries as part of its investigation into children’s online safety.

“We’re not done yet here. My guess is we’re going to hear potentially from former Facebook employees,” Blumenthal said, though he declined to name any potential witnesses.

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Tech executive hearings have become a regular fixture on Capitol Hill over the past several years, but Mosseri was one of the most high-profile leaders to appear in person since the start of the pandemic. He began his Senate charm-offensive before the panel gaveled in, meeting Tuesday with lawmakers including Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), according to two aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. The meetings touched on proposals under consideration aimed at addressing concerns about how digital platforms algorithmically amplify content, the aides said.

Mosseri touted the company’s increased investment in child safety, adding that they were working to be able to identify the ages of users, caveating the statement with the opinion that it should be up to phone-makers, who could allow parents to set age limits across all apps. Pressed by Thune about the company’s algorithms, Mosseri said he believes in giving users more control and plans to launch an option to rank the feed chronologically next year.

Many lawmakers dismissed these commitments as a public relations stunt in the face of potential political blowback.

Blumenthal said in his opening remarks that his office had set up a fake Instagram account posing as a 13-year-old girl, repeating the test presented to Facebook head of safety Antigone Davis in September. The second attempt garnered similar results. This time, “within an hour” of opening the account, it began encountering content that glorified disordered eating and extreme dieting. Blackburn said Wednesday that her office had also created a false account posing as a 15-year-old girl, and that Instagram had automatically set the profile to “public” rather than “private.”

Mosseri said the test by Blackburn’s office had exposed what appeared to be an “oversight” in Instagram’s systems, in which users under the age of 16 who signed up for the service via the Web — as opposed to an Instagram app — had their profiles default to public instead of private. Mosseri said the company had just learned of the issue and was working to correct it.

With the senators’ questions focusing heavily on Instagram’s risks for young users, Mosseri argued that they were overlooking its benefits. “The definition of beauty here in the U.S. used to be very limited … and very unrealistic,” he said. “Social media platforms like Instagram have helped important movements like body positivity to flourish. … It has helped diversify the definitions of beauty.”

While leaked documents showed Facebook researchers knew that Instagram appeared to make body image issues worse for vulnerable teen girls, the company has repeatedly emphasized that the same research shows Instagram also made many of its young users feel better when they were struggling with issues such as depression, anxiety and loneliness.

The hearing concluded with a tense display, with Blackburn pressing Mosseri to speak to parents who had lost children to suicide or self-harm. She said he had come off as “callous” during the hearing when answering the lawmakers’ questions about these issues. Mosseri addressed her as a “father of three,” adding that he couldn’t imagine the pain of parents whose children harmed themselves. He said he recognized he has a responsibility to keep children, and all users, safe.

Blackburn appeared unmoved by the address. “We are asking you have some empathy and take some responsibility. It seems as if you just can’t get on that path,” Blackburn said.