A Senate hearing prompted by a company whistleblower began Thursday with a barrage of allegations against Facebook, the company now implicated in burying an internal investigation that portrays its Instagram product as a plague. on the mental health of adolescent users.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, head of the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, accused Facebook of lying to Senate officials and selectively publishing documents to mislead the public about the conclusions reached by the company’s own experts. “We now know that Facebook routinely puts profit ahead of children’s online safety. We know that you choose the growth of your products over the well-being of our children. And now we know that it is indefensibly criminal to act to protect them, ”he said.
Revealed by the Wall Street Journal this month, an investigation conducted quietly at Facebook’s behest into the effects of Instagram on young teens offered disturbing insight into the mental health risks associated with its photo-sharing platform. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” the Facebook researchers wrote in a document, saying the reaction was “spontaneous and consistent across all groups.”
The Journal further described Facebook’s efforts to bury its own findings, even as hunted for new ways ingratiate your brand with children in their preadolescence. Facebook was repeatedly informed of the damage caused by Instagram, mainly to girls, many of whom linked suicidal thoughts and eating disorders to their experiences on the app. However, the documents show that Facebook, in the face of these findings, came to characterize children up to 10 years as a “valuable” but “untapped” resource essential for the “growth” of the company.
“We are here today because Facebook has shown us, once again, that it is incapable of holding itself accountable,” said Blumenthal, who told of a Facebook whistleblower approaching his office this month, offering “deep insight into Facebook’s relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users.”
The whistleblower is now slated to testify before the subcommittee on Tuesday and will appear in 60 minutes this Sunday.
On the eve of Thursday’s hearing, Facebook preemptively released two reports intended to downplay the findings that are highlighted in the press. He went so far as to attack his own experts, calling their methods scientifically flawed, if not borderline incompetent. That referred to the findings as “preliminary” and “exploratory” as he strove to emphasize the limitations of his own work. Its researchers, for example, did not rely on any “clinical judgment” while repeatedly applying the term “mental health,” which, according to the company, should not be misinterpreted as a “clinical, formal or academic definition.”
Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, slammed Facebook for the preemptive release, describing it as carefully curated analysis. “We have those two reports among the documents that the whistleblower provided,” he said. “There are many other extensive and sophisticated reports that Facebook has not disclosed.”
“The fact is,” he continued, “Facebook has hidden research, studies, experts that show the harm that has been done to children on its site, how it found out about that harm, and how it continually concealed it. . “
Blumenthal added that both he and Senator Marsha Blackburn, a senior committee member and Republican from Tennessee, had written to CEO Mark Zuckerberg in August, asking if Facebook had ever heard of negative effects, such as suicidal thoughts, in children. and teenagers. mental health. Facebook’s response, he said, was that it was “not aware of a consensus among studies or experts on how much screen time is too long.”
“That answer,” he said, “was just untrue.”
Blumenthal revealed that her office had conducted its own experiment, creating a fake Instagram account pretending to be a 13-year-old girl. The account was made to follow others that were “easy to find” and associated with “extreme diets.” Instagram, in one day, recommended the “13-year-old” to follow a number of other accounts promoting “self-harm and eating disorders,” he said.
A card displayed during the hearing showed a series of accounts that Instagram had recommended to follow. Most of the names are crossed out, but some show biographies hinting at the type of content they contain. One reads, for example, “Thinner by the day,” while another is labeled “Anorexia subtype B / P,” a reference to the compulsive “binge-purge” behavior clinically associated with bulimia. Another account is labeled “EDTW,” an abbreviation intended to warn users that its content focuses on eating disorders.
“Facebook has taken over Big Tobacco’s playbook,” Blumenthal said. “He has hidden his own research on addiction and the toxic effects of his products, he has tried to mislead the public and us in Congress about what he knows, and he has armed the vulnerabilities of childhood against the children themselves.”