A much anticipated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing took place Wednesday that gave Senator Lindsey Graham and others a chance to grandstand on an issue that has rare bipartisan support, the problem of social media and kids.
Being grilled at the hearing are Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, X CEO Linda Yaccarino, TikTok CEO Shou Chew, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, and Discord CEO Jason Citron. After a couple of hours of remarks by senators and questions to the CEOs Wednesday morning, the hearing continued Wednesday afternoon and is ongoing as of this writing.
The title of the hearing is "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," but the topics touched on so far were quite wide-ranging. In addition to discussing the harms to children and teens via social media platforms that have been well documented, senators repeatedly raised the issue of Section 230 — the part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that has historically shielded platforms from legal liability for the content posted by their users.
Senator Lindsey Graham, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, was the most pointed and dramatic in his remarks.
"I am tired of talking. I’m tired of having discussions," Graham said. “Open up the courthouse door. Until you do that, nothing will change. Until these people can be sued for the damage they’re doing, it is all talk."
Graham also said, "Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don't mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands. You have a product that's killing people."
Tech pundit Kara Swisher called this all a "huge public disaster for tech."
Huge public disaster for tech here, though Lindsay Graham and the rest of the pols will do zip of substance to stop them. https://t.co/PrAyxpwWdO— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) January 31, 2024
Internal emails from Meta, which have been previously reported on and which were brought up again today by the senators, show that Zuckerberg appeared to rebuff calls to bolster the safeguards for children and teens. And in one 2022 exchange with Nick Clegg, Meta's president of global affairs, Zuckerberg appeared to ignore a suggestion to hire 45 new employees dedicated to safety issues and well-being of users across Meta's apps.
As CNN reports, Clegg followed up months later with Zuckerberg with a trimmed-down proposal for 25 new hires, saying this was "the bare minimum needed to meet basic policymaker inquiries" on child welfare issues.
Senator Marsha Blackburn [R-TN] also had a dramatic exchange with Zuckerberg in which she raised a dollar figure that was found in internal Meta documents which put a "lifetime" valuation on each teen user of Meta's apps at $270.
"How could you possibly even have that thought? It is astounding to me," Sen. Blackburn said. "Children are not your priority. Children are your product."
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said that the platforms had become "a killing field of information," with algorithms that have been developed "to punch people’s hot buttons."
The theatrics didn't end there! Senator Amy Klobuchar became visibly tearful discussing parents and children who were harmed through social media.
"I’m so tired of this," Klobuchar said. "It’s been 28 years … since the start of the internet. We haven’t passed any of these bills, because everyone’s ‘double talk, double talk.’ It’s time to actually pass them."
After being berated by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, Zuckerberg stood up in the hearing room to face families of kids who have died in connection with their social media use, saying, "I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer."
California Senator Laphonza Butler then goaded Snap CEO Evan Spiegel to do the same, with regard to kids who had died after purchasing drugs over Snapchat.
"I’m so sorry that we have not been able to prevent these tragedies," Spiegel said.
It's not at all clear that the Senate will be able to enact any sort of legislation, and this is hardly the first time that Zuckerberg has faced a grilling like this in Washington.
But with so much seeming support from both sides of the aisle, maybe there will be some sort of movement, policy-wise.
Top image: Ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from the heads of the largest tech firms on the dangers of child sexual exploitation on social media. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)