Another Facebook employee just hurried for hours from members of Congress about the company’s policy, and whether it was doing enough to protect some of its most vulnerable users. And again, Facebook’s CEO – today it was security chief Antigone Davis – seemed to be trying to avoid the toughest issues.
But the last hearing on the mental health of teenagers, which followed in response to reports from WSJ, differed from previous hearings. This is because, thanks to the whistleblower, members of the Senate Trade Committee now have access to thousands of internal documents written by the company’s researchers.
The documents, some of which have been made public, give a very different picture of the perception of Facebook and Instagram of how their services affect the mental health of teenagers than what they have publicly shown. These documents are in the hands of legislators, which makes Facebook much harder to draw conclusions. The findings have already forced Facebook to “pause” work on the Instagram Kids app.
“We now have a deep insight into Facebook’s relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users,” Senator Richard Blumenthal said at the start of the hearing. “Now we know, although Facebook publicly denies that Instagram is deeply harmful to teenagers, privately, Facebook, researchers and experts have been ringing the alarm for years.”
This has put Facebook in an awkward position trying to grasp the importance of its own research. “This is not a bomb investigation,” Davis repeated several times during the hearing. The day before, Facebook posted strongly tagged versions of the two documents, with notes that also tried to explain their own findings. Those documents, which were just two of the “thousands” Blumenthal says he now has access to, used words like “myopia” and “sensationalization” to try to minimize findings like the fact that Instagram worsens “body images” by 1 in 3 teen “girls. ”
The tactic did not go well in the Senate on Thursday. “This research is a bomb,” Blumenthal said. “It’s strong, powerful and stunning evidence that Facebook is aware of the harmful effects of its website on children and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”
As in previous hearings, there were some eerie moments. At one point, Blumenthal asked to know if Facebook would “commit to ending the finstage” – a reference to secondary accounts that teens often use to remain anonymous. This forced Davis to clumsily explain that so-called “finstas” are not an official function of Instagram. At another point, Senator Ted Cruz asked Davis to explain why she did not appear in person at the hearing (she quoted COVID-19 protocols).
But even in those moments, it was difficult to ignore the importance of these issues. It may seem obvious, but kids and teens are incredibly important to the company, which consistently lags behind rivals like TikTok and Snapchat for that demographic. So much so that he is a former employee who worked at Messenger Kids that the loss of a teenage audience was considered an “existential threat,” for Facebook.
What’s worse for Facebook, it’s very likely that more bombs will arrive. The whistleblower who submitted the documents The Journal and legislators, appears 60 minutes Sunday night. She testified at a separate hearing of the Trade Committee. So while Facebook executives will be able to avoid questions and insist on the conclusions of their researchers that are mischaracterized, it will be much harder to disprove someone who has been closely involved in the business.
Some senators have hinted that more will come at the next hearing. Senator Ray Luján asked Davis if “Facebook has ever tested whether a change in its platform increases the propensity of an individual or group of users to post violent or hateful words.” Davis said it’s not her “area of expertise”.
“We could get more answers to that next week,” he said.
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