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Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, asks questions during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC, April 27, 2021.
Tasos Katopodis | Pool | Reuters

WASHINGTON — Facebook’s testimony to members of the U.S. Senate on Thursday led to one overwhelming conclusion from the lawmakers in attendance: Instagram has no business creating an app for kids.

Using Facebook’s own internal research from documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal and some eventually released by the company, senators sharpened their preexisting criticism of the company and expressed their concern about its effect on young people.

In its series, the Journal detailed Facebook’s plan to build an Instagram service for kids under the age of 13. One of the stories described an internal company slide deck from 2019, stating that Instagram worsened body issues for one in three teenage girls.

While Facebook has billed the Instagram plan as an alternative and safer app for kids than its flagship product, lawmakers repeatedly expressed their deep skepticism to Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, during her testimony on Thursday.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, told reporters prior to the hearing that even though Facebook said it will pause its plans, “they should commit to a permanent end.”

“If we’re dealing with Facebook’s real world, where the safeguards are more illusory than real, there should be no Instagram for kids, period,” said Blumenthal, whose committee held the hearing. “If they were really committed to kids’ safety, if there were real-world evidence of it, I might think differently about it. But Instagram for kids is plainly just more of the same.”

Facebook released an annotated version of part of the Instagram slide deck the night before the hearing. The company wrote that its earlier phrasing of the research figure “may be sensationalizing the negative impact on the graph,” and even “ignores potentially positive interpretations — for example, more than half of respondents self-report that Instagram makes their feelings of loneliness better.”

Davis tried to contextualize and reframe the research in the Journal’s reporting, but senators reminded her the data was from Facebook’s own studies. They also presented her with quotes from other internal documents they said were provided by the whistleblower.

Davis said the research was “not a bombshell.” Lawmakers vehemently disagreed.

“For the parents that are losing their children, it is a bombshell in their lives,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. He referenced a stat from the internal research reported by the Journal showing that of teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 6% of American users surveyed traced those feelings to Instagram.

“This research is a bombshell,” said Blumenthal, during the hearing. “It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows the harmful effects of its site on children and that it has concealed those facts and findings.”

Seeing is believing

Facebook said after the Journal’s series that its reporting cherry picked data and lacked critical context. In response to a request for comment on Thursday, the company pointed to two earlier blog posts about the Journal’s report.

Blumenthal said his staff conducted its own experiment, creating a profile identified as a 13-year-old girl and following accounts associated with “extreme dieting and eating disorders.” He said that “within a day, its recommendations were exclusively filled with accounts that promote self-injury and eating disorders.”

Outside the hearing room, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told reporters that she was “disappointed” by Davis’ responses.

“Anyone that’s studied Facebook and really looked at the profit model, how the company started, how it makes money … it’s all based on using data from their users,” Klobuchar said. “It’s all a profit model, it’s a game. A profit game.”

Klobuchar said she wanted to see Facebook’s written responses on how much it makes off of younger users compared to other demographics.

Blumenthal told CNBC in an interview later on Thursday that the revelations from the whistleblower were reminiscent of what happened to the tobacco industry decades earlier.

“The analogy to Big Tobacco is very telling because when we sued Big Tobacco, we believed that they knew that their products were harmful,” Blumenthal said, expanding on commentary he provided in his opening statement. “And their own files showed they knew it. In fact, they had done studies that showed it. So the analogy is very apt.”

He added that both tech and tobacco “incorporate addiction into their business model” and have tried to hook kids to the products to “replenish their customer base.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., made the same comparison.

“Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health,” Markey said.

Few friends in Washington

Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., a vocal opponent of Instagram for kids and an advocate for kids’ online safety, told CNBC in an interview that the recent revelations make Facebook’s promises even harder to trust.

“How the heck do we have trust that they’re going to design an Instagram for kids when they knowingly didn’t fix their main platform, knowing what we know today in terms of how harmful it’s been for young people?” Trahan said. “So Instagram for kids was a bad idea before last week. It’s an even worse idea now.”

Every lawmaker who questioned Facebook Thursday expressed concern and urgency over the documents they’d seen. It’s a rare glimpse into what bipartisanship looks like in today’s Washington, D.C.

“There’s no partisan difference,” Blumenthal told reporters outside of the hearing room. “And I might add, there’s no sympathy for Facebook on its failure to act responsibly.”

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