Congress scolds Facebook over the harms its platforms cause: What's next?

Lawmakers on Thursday confronted Facebook over its internal research showing the way its platforms can negatively impact the mental health of young people.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Members of Congress on Thursday confronted a Facebook representative over the harmful mental health impacts of its platforms on young users, once again raising the prospect of new regulations to rein in the social media giant. But before advancing any new rules, they'll learn more about what Facebook knew when a whistleblower testifies next week. 

The fresh round of hearings began with testimony from Antigone Davis, Facebook director and global head of safety. She appeared before a subpanel of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to discuss the revelations of a Wall Street Journal investigation. The Journal published a series of articles showing how the company's leaders knew about the negative impacts of its platforms but failed to address them -- among other things; the investigation revealed that Facebook's own internal research showed that Instagram contributes to girls' body image issues, anxiety, and depression. 

Ahead of the hearing, the Wall Street Journal published six internal documents that informed its reporting. Facebook, after learning the Journal would publish the documents, released two of them on its own. 

There have been dozens of studies over the years showing the damaging effects of social media sites like Facebook and Instagram on teens and their perceptions of themselves. But the Wall Street Journal report was one of the few times that it was revealed the company itself knew the issues with their platform.

Meanwhile, the whistleblower who provided the documents to the Journal will testify before the same subpanel on Tuesday. Lawmakers on Thursday asked Davis whether Facebook could commit to not retaliating against the whistleblower. "We've committed to not retaliating for them coming to the Senate," she said, leaving open the possibility the whistleblower could face legal retaliation for leaking documents to the Wall Street Journal. 

Davis said in her prepared remarks that Facebook "strongly" disagrees with how the Journal's reporting characterized Facebook's research. "It did not measure causal relationships between Instagram and real-world issues," she said. In fact, she added, "Our research showed that many teens who are struggling say that Instagram helps them deal with many of the hard issues that are so common to being a teen."

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were sceptical. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chairman of the subcommittee, set up a fake Instagram account for a 13-year old girl. After following a few accounts associated with extreme dieting and eating disorders, the app quickly began promoting a number of other accounts associated with the same kinds of harmful content, Blumenthal said. 

"That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered," the senator said. "Facebook has asked us to trust it. But after these evasions and these revelations, why should we."

The congressmen brought up various legislative ways to address the negative impacts of social media, such as an update of the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says he's introducing his Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act.

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