Zuckerberg ignored ideas to protect teens on Meta, documents claim

9 Nov 2023

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a keynote speech in 2019. Image: Anthony Quintano/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One accusation claims Zuckerberg vetoed a request to ban effects that mimic plastic surgery on Meta platforms, despite strong support from executives and concerns among mental health experts.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg turned down multiple initiatives that aimed to improve the company’s platforms for young people, according to recently unredacted court documents.

The documents relate to a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts and is part of a broader move by dozens of US attorney generals that have accused the tech giant of harmful actions against children and teenagers.

The unredacted documents allege that Zuckerberg declined multiple initiatives that had been strongly endorsed by top managers at the company. There are allegations that Zuckerberg vetoed a measure despite strong approval from executives, while another claims he ignored emails about teen issues for months.

Ignoring emails

One example is an email sent from the company’s wellbeing team to Meta head of communications Chris Norton and Global Affairs VP Nick Clegg in August 2021. This email recommended investing further into staff to address “currently underinvested” wellbeing areas, such as problematic use, bullying and harassment.

The email said this request was based on input from “key experts and policy shareholders” and that it was “highly aligned” with what teenagers want Facebook and Instagram to prioritise.

Clegg forwarded this email to Zuckerberg and recommended the investment, adding that it was becoming “increasingly urgent” to address mental health concerns among young people using these platforms.

The documents claim Zuckerberg ignored this request for months while Meta’s leadership continued to support the need to invest in wellbeing staff.

Clegg sent a follow-up email in November 2021, but then CFO Susan Li responded and said that staffing was too “constrained” to meet the request.

Vetoed request

Another example claims Meta product design VP Margaret Gould emailed various Meta executives in November 2019 to “disallow effects that mimic plastic surgery” such as certain filters on Facebook and Instagram.

The email claimed there were concerns from mental health experts about the negative impacts these effects were having on the mental health and wellbeing of users.

The documents claim this proposal received unanimous positive support until one executive said Zuckerberg questioned whether these filters actually “represent real harm”.

A meeting to discuss this issue was scheduled for 2 April 2020 but was cancelled the day before it was due to occur. On 1 April, Zuckerberg also vetoed the proposal by email and asked staff to lift the temporary ban that had been in place on the related filters.

“As of October 2023, filters that mimic the effects of cosmetic surgery remain available on Instagram, including for young users,” the documents claim.

“Even though Meta clearly knew and agreed that the filters caused young users harm and negatively affected their wellbeing, it nonetheless continued deploying them on Instagram because they were beneficial to Meta interests.”

Earlier this week, Meta whistleblower Arturo Béjar spoke out against the company’s practices, with claims that the tech giant is aware of the harm teenagers face on its platforms but has failed to act.

Béjar claimed that Meta has opted to give users “placebo” tools that fail to address issues impacting teenagers and that the company “continues to publicly misrepresent the level and frequency of harm that users, especially children, experience on the platform”.

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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a keynote speech in 2019. Image: Anthony Quintano via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic