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Leaders of the tech industry were summoned by the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify in front of Congress Wednesday, pressed on how safe their platforms are for children.
First-time Congress testers like X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel and Discord CEO Jason Citron joined seasoned figures like Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.
The leaders faced a bipartisan thrashing that lasted just under four hours. The audience included family members of victims.
“You have blood on your hands,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the tech leaders during his opening remarks.
Regulatory efforts against platforms in the U.S. have intensified, fueled by parental anxieties about the dissemination of child abuse content on social media and the perceived inadequacy of platforms in ensuring children’s safety.
Despite their renewed fury at CEOs, lawmakers spent much of the hearing pressing the tech leaders to support legislation to regulate social media. However, the outcome of the hearing remains uncertain, and the progress of the proposed bills remains elusive.
Here are some of the key moments.
‘I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,’ – Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg
In an unusual moment during the testimony, Zuckerberg—who perhaps faced the most grilling questions—apologized directly to the families of children who were victims of sexual exploitation and suicide perpetuated by Instagram. This followed Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) pressing him on whether he’d directly apologize to the parents in the audience who stood with pictures of their kids.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” said Zuckerberg.
In response to questions targeted at all tech execs, Zuckerberg told senators that Meta had 40,000 people working in its trust and safety division.
‘Mr. Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?’ – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
Hammering Zuckerberg over an Instagram feature that warns users that the content they’re looking for contains child abuse material with an option to “See results anyway,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) questioned Meta boss on why the platform would include such an option.
“In what sane universe is there a link to ‘See results anyway?’” Cruz said, to which Zuckerberg responded that the warning can be wrong in some cases.
Zuckerberg’s experience in testifying before frustrated lawmakers became evident in his interaction with Cruz. As the testy exchange continued, at one point, the Meta CEO asked Cruz, “Do you want me to answer your questions?” and followed up with, “Can you give me some time to speak then?”
“I’m just shocked that any advertiser could watch this exchange and invest in [Meta] tomorrow,” Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, told ADWEEK.
‘Let the record reflect a yawning silence,’ – Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)
As Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) closed his line of questioning and asked if any of the tech leaders supported the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act—a bill that aims to increase transparency and require social media companies to share more data with the public and researchers—no CEO responded with a yes.
“Mr. Chairman, let the record reflect a yawning silence from the leaders of the social media platforms,” said Coons.
Tech leaders wanted more discussions on the many bills presented at the hearing. When repeatedly pressed by Graham to support multiple bills, Citron said, “We are not prepared to support that today.”
Conversely, platforms like Snap backed bills like KOSA (Kids Online Safety Act), which nudges platforms to prevent the recommendation of harmful content, such as eating disorders, to children.
Zuckerberg passed the buck to Apple and Google for checking underage users of social media.
“My understanding is that Apple and Google, or at least Apple, already require parental consent when a child [makes] a payment with an application,” Zuckerberg said. “So it should be pretty trivial to pass a law that requires them to make it so that parents have control anytime a child downloads an app.”
‘Average age on TikTok in the U.S. is over 30,’ – TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew
In his opening statement to Congress, Chew said the average age of a TikTok user in the U.S.—with 170 million Americans using the platform—is over 30.
However, a May 2023 survey of U.S. social media users by Statista found that over 76% of TikTok users are 18 through 24, and nearly 70% of U.S. teenagers regularly engaged with the platform monthly.
“A social platform’s popularity among teens is now both a liability and a strength,” said Insider Intelligence principal analyst Jasmine Enberg. “But with AI (artificial intelligence) exacerbating the spread and scale of harmful content on social platforms, a pullback in some platform protections and a shift in young user engagement to more private spaces that are harder to moderate, teens now also represent one of social media’s biggest challenges.”
To that, Chew spoke of TikTok’s plans to invest $2 billion in its trust and safety initiatives, with a substantial portion of that investment earmarked for its U.S. operations, in his statement.