Instagram and other social media apps need tougher regulation, senators say

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WASHINGTON—The top Instagram executive clashed with senators on Wednesday over the photo-sharing app’s impact on young users, in a contentious hearing in which lawmakers from both sides advocated for stricter government oversight of social media apps.

Adam Mosseri, Head of Meta-Platforms Inc.

Instagram, claimed that many young users find Instagram to improve their lives.

“I’m proud of our work to help keep young people safe, support troubled young people and give parents tools to help their teens develop healthy and safe online habits,” said Mosseri, whose parent company Meta also owns Facebook.

Members of the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee painted a much different picture, citing internal documents leaked by the Wall Street Journal showing that Instagram is aggravating body image issues for a significant minority of teenage girls and being blamed by adolescent girls for increased anxiety and depression. .

Several senators pointed to Instagram accounts their own offices had created that repeatedly seemed to push teenage girls towards harmful content.

“I’m just a little frustrated,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tennessee), the top Republican on the panel. Parents “keep hearing from you that changes are coming, that things are going to be different…. Guess what? Nothing changes. Nothing.”

Mosseri pushed back against some lawmakers’ claim that the company’s social media products are addictive, saying he doesn’t believe the research shows it. “We have the same goal. We all want teenagers to be safe online,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) fired back, “I think we’re in diametrically opposed goals, parent goals and your business goals.”

“Our children are not cash cows,” she added. “When you look at what your company has done, it’s been to try to get more and more on board.”

The harrowing exchanges came as lawmakers worked on legislation creating new legal obligations for social media companies to prevent online harm and open the inner workings of their apps to outside scrutiny.

Mr Mosseri made his own suggestion for regulation, calling for the creation of a new industry panel to set safety standards for social media platforms to help protect young children from harm on the internet .

Among its responsibilities, the panel would set standards for all companies in critical areas such as user age verification, Mosseri said. It would also establish best practices on how to design age-appropriate experiences and how to add more parental controls.

He said the body’s decisions should be scrutinized by policy makers and there should be sanctions against companies that fail to meet the standards. Companies that fail to meet the standards would lose the broad legal protections that federal law currently offers to online platforms, he said.

“The reality is that people’s safety is not just any business,” Mosseri said.

The senators said tougher measures are needed. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Connecticut), who chairs the consumer protection subcommittee, said he was working with Ms. Blackburn on new legislation to require more transparency in the algorithms and datasets of social media.

“The time for self-policing and self-regulation is over,” Blumenthal said.

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Mr. Blumenthal and Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) both pushed Mr. Mosseri to publish the internal research cited by the Journal in its Facebook Files series. Mr. Mosseri said he could not commit to doing so due to privacy issues that may need to be addressed, and said some of the information may have been destroyed under the company’s data retention policy. the company.

Several senators said they tested Instagram’s content recommendation algorithms and were appalled by what they saw.

Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) said his office created a fake account for a 13-year-old girl and tracked the app’s first suggested user, a female celebrity.

“That changed and it went black quickly,” Mr. Lee said, posting content “that promotes body dysmorphia, the sexualization of women.”

“What appeals to me is that what has changed is following this female celebrity account,” which Instagram itself has recommended, he said.

Mosseri said specific examples don’t necessarily reflect general user experiences. “We absolutely do not want any content promoting eating disorders on our platform. We do our best to remove it.

Before the hearing, Instagram said it would implement new tools to protect teens who use the app. They include prompts to suggest users take breaks, controls for parents to limit their children’s use, limits on tagging or mentioning teenage users, and the ability for users to bulk delete their own. photos, videos and other content.

These measures, however, might not go far enough to satisfy lawmakers. Ms Blackburn said the new Instagram tools were an attempt to distract from their mistakes.

“This is a case of too little too late because there is now a bipartisan momentum here and in the House to tackle these issues that we see in Big Tech,” Ms Blackburn said during the hearing. .

Some lawmakers, including Ms Blackburn, want Instagram to drop plans to roll out a kid-friendly version, similar to YouTube Kids and other products. Mr Mosseri announced a pause on those plans in September, but said he still believed in the idea as a way to protect tweens who today might use the app despite its minimum age requirement of 13.

He maintained that position on Wednesday. “What I can commit to today is that no child between the ages of 10 and 12, if we ever manage to create Instagram for 10 to 12 year olds, will have access to it without their explicit parental consent. “, did he declare. .

So far, the senators’ legislative talks have not resulted in proposals with broad consensus.

Blumenthal said Meta and other companies should be required to open their platforms to independent researchers who can study how content recommendation algorithms work.

Mosseri said he believes researchers should have “regular access to meaningful data on social media usage across the industry”.

Sen. John Thune (R., SD) said users should learn more about how these algorithms work and be able to turn them off. “Do you think consumers should be able to use Instagram without being manipulated by algorithms designed to keep them hooked?” He asked.

“I believe it’s important for people to be in control of their experience,” Mosseri replied. He said the company hopes to release an Instagram feature next year that displays content in chronological order.

Wednesday’s consumer protection subcommittee hearing is the latest in a series that began in September after the Journal published the Facebook files.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, appeared before the panel on Oct. 5. The company took issue with his characterization of its culture and decision-making, saying it works hard to keep consumers safe and many users benefit from its apps.

The panel also interviewed executives from ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok, Snap Inc.’s Snapchat, and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube about child safety online.

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected] and John D. McKinnon at [email protected]

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