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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Instagram chief faces senators amid anger over potential harm

by Marcy Gordon and Barbara Ortutay

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of Instagram met on Wednesday on Capitol Hill with deep skepticism over new measures the social media platform is adopting to protect young users.

Adam Mosseri appeared before a Senate panel and with lawmakers angered by the revelations about how the photo-sharing platform could harm some young users. Senators are also calling on the company to make changes and increase its transparency.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who heads the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, dismissed some of the security measures announced by the popular photo-sharing platform as “a public relations strategy.”

“I believe the time for self-policing and self-regulation is over,” Blumenthal said. “Self-policing depends on trust. Trust is gone.”

Under fierce questioning by senators from both sides, Mosseri defended the company’s conduct and the efficacy of its new safeguards. He challenged the claim that research has shown Instagram to be addictive for young people. Instagram, which is part of Meta Platforms Inc. along with Facebook, has an estimated 1 billion users of all ages.

On Tuesday, Instagram introduced a previously announced feature that urges teens to take a break from the platform. The company also announced other tools early next year, including parental controls, which it says are aimed at protecting young users from harmful content.

Senators on both sides were united in their condemnation of the social network giant and Instagram, the photo-sharing juggernaut valued at nearly $100 billion that Facebook acquired in 2012 for $1 billion.

The hearing grew more confrontational and emotionally charged as well.

“Sir, I have to tell you, you sounded harsh,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the panel, told Mosseri at the end of the hearing.

Senators have repeatedly tried to win over commitments from Mosseri for Instagram to provide independent monitors and Congress the full results of its internal research and its computer formulas for ranking content. They also attempted to list their support for legislation that would curtail the ways in which Big Tech tailors social media to young people.

Mosseri responded mostly with a general endorsement of openness and accountability, emphasizing that Instagram is an industry leader in transparency.

This issue is becoming increasingly important. An alarming advisory issued by US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Tuesday warned of a mental health crisis among children and young adults worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. He said that tech companies should design social media platforms that strengthen rather than harm the mental health of the youth.

Meta, based in Menlo Park, California, has been surrounded by public and political outrage over the revelations by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. It has presented the case to lawmakers in the US, UK and Europe that the company’s systems fuel online hatred and extremism and that the company profits on the safety of users.

Haugen, a data scientist working in Facebook’s civil integrity unit, corroborated his claim with a trove of internal documents from the company, which he secretly copied and provided to federal securities regulators and Congress.

A Senate panel has examined Facebook’s use of information from its own researchers that may indicate potential harm to some of its younger users, especially girls, while downplaying the negative effects it publicly had. For some Instagram-dedicated teens, the peer pressure generated by the visually-focused app led to mental-health and body-image problems, and in some cases, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, detailed research in Facebook documents showed. .

The revelations, based on documents leaked by Haugen to a report in The Wall Street Journal, set off a wave of accusations from lawmakers, critics of Big Tech, child-development experts and parents.

“As the head of Instagram, I am particularly focused on protecting the youngest people using our services,” Mosseri testified. “This work includes keeping underage users off our platform, creating an age-appropriate experience for those ages 13 to 18, and building out parental controls for Instagram 13 years and older. Designed for people from the United States. If a child is under 13, they are not allowed on Instagram.”

Mosseri explained the measures he said Instagram has taken to protect young people on the platform. These include keeping children under the age of 13 away, banning direct messaging between children and adults, and banning posts that encourage suicide and self-harm.

But, as both internal and external researchers from META have documented, the reality is different. Children under 13 often sign up for Instagram, with or without their parents’ information, by lying about their age. And posts about suicide and self-harm still reach children and teens, sometimes with devastating effects.


Ortute reported from Oakland, Calif.


This story has been corrected to reflect that Adam Mosseri is the head of Instagram, not the CEO.


https://twitter.com/mgordonap . Follow Marcy Gordon on

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