Senators call for new laws to hold social media companies accountable, issued scathing criticisms to Big Tech CEOs and Zuckerberg was pushed to apologise to affected families.
Five heads of social media companies were grilled in the US yesterday (31 January), as Congress appears to be losing its patience with Big Tech.
The US Senate hearing was focused on Big Tech companies and the “online child sexual exploitation crisis”. It aimed to address allegations that social media sites are not doing enough when it comes to child safety and that these sites can be harmful for young people.
The five CEOs – Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, Shou Zi Chew of TikTok, Linda Yaccarino of X, Evan Spiegel of Snap and Jason Citron of Discord – were questioned for nearly four hours, with some CEOs getting more attention than others.
The heads of these companies faced waves of criticism for allegedly failing to prevent the spread of child abuse on their platforms. The CEOs defended their platforms and explained the steps they had taken to protect young people online.
Zuckerberg and Chew were the only two CEOs to voluntarily attend the hearing, while the other three were issued subpoenas.
The hearing comes amid a push in the US for new tech laws, such as the Kids Online Safety Act which would require online services to take more measures to prevent harm to children – though critics argue it would harm free speech.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the US hearing on child safety online.
The senators appear united against Big Tech
Throughout the hearing, many of the US senators present appeared to be in agreement that they want more regulation to deal with Big Tech companies in the social media sector.
Various senators spoke of the need to hold social media companies accountable by making it easier for them to be taken to court. Senator Lindsey Graham pushed for the elimination of parts of Section 230, a notorious provision in the Communications Decency Act that largely shields tech platforms in the US from liability for content posted by users.
“If you’re waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we’re going to die waiting,” Graham said.
This viewpoint was echoed by senator Richard Blumenthal, who said social media platforms can’t be trusted to “grade their own homework”.
Zuckerberg drew a lot of attention
While all the CEOs were subject to questioning, Zuckerberg was targeted the most by certain senators. Blumenthal criticised Zuckerberg’s claims that his company was working to protect children.
Blumenthal referenced leaked emails from unredacted court documents, which suggest Zuckerberg turned down multiple initiatives that aimed to improve the company’s platforms for young people.
Those documents relate to a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts and is part of a broader move by dozens of US attorneys general that have accused the tech giant of harmful actions against children and teenagers.
“Mr Zuckerberg, do you believe that you have a Constitutional right to lie to Congress?” Blumenthal said at the hearing.
Statements from Meta whistleblower Arturo Béjar were also referenced. Béjar claimed last year that the tech giant is aware of the harm teenagers face on its platforms – based on internal research – but has failed to act.
Senator Ted Cruz called out Zuckerberg for claims last year that Instagram’s algorithms were being used to connect large paedophile networks. These claims stem from an investigation by The Wall Street Journal and was followed up on by The Stanford Internet Observatory.
The WSJ report claimed Instagram showed a warning if a user was searching for hashtags commonly associated with CSAM. This warning allegedly offered the viewer two options to select, one being ‘Get resources’ and the other being ‘See results anyway’. Cruz bluntly asked Zuckerberg “what the hell were you thinking?” in regard to this warning message.
Cruz asked Zuckerberg for data on how many times Instagram has shown this warning screen to users and how many times users clicked the ‘See results anyway’ option. Zuckerberg said he would look into it.
Impacted parents had a large presence
The senators and CEOs spoke in front of an audience that included families who had been impacted by child abuse on social media. The impact to children and their parents was a constant theme during the hearing, with senators referencing specific examples of young people who died by suicide – allegedly influenced by their experiences on these platforms.
In one dramatic moment of the hearing, Senator Josh Hawley pushed Zuckerberg to apologise to the families present at the hearing who claim their children were harmed by social media. Zuckerberg said he was sorry for “everything you have all been through”.
“No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer,” Zuckerberg said.
Chew was questioned McCarthy-style
TikTok CEO Chew was also subject to intense moments of questioning by some senators, with some claiming that the platform was biased when it came to showing young people certain types of content.
But the line of questioning turned McCarthy-esque when senator Tom Cotton focused on Chew’s citizenship, passports and bluntly asked “have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?”, to which Chew replied “Senator, I’m Singaporean, no”.
TikTok has been under scrutiny in the US for years due to security concerns over the app’s Beijing-headquartered parent company, ByteDance. Senators questioned Chew on whether TikTok had ever shared US data with China’s government.
The social media giant has been working on two initiatives, Project Texas and Project Clover, in a bid to ease concerns in the US and EU about TikTok’s data security practices. But some media reports claim some data is still shared between TikTok and ByteDance
The rest were largely ignored
While the other CEOs had their moments of questioning, the focus was mainly on Meta and TikTok. X CEO Yaccarino attempted to distance the platform from issues surrounding child safety and claimed that less than 1pc of the site’s US users are between the ages of 13 and 17 – though some reports appear to dispute this percentage.
X has been under more scrutiny in the EU and is currently being probed over concerns that it breached the Digital Services Act, particularly in areas linked to risk management, content moderation, dark patterns, advertising transparency and data access for researchers.
At one point, senator Graham asked Yaccarino and Discord CEO Citron if they supported certain children’s safety bills created by senators on the committee and labelled their long-winded answers as a “no”.