Instagram chief and lawmakers clash over app’s real world harms

Mosseri speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., US. The testy exchange, and other pleas from lawmakers for Mosseri to understand the real-world harm his platform causes, is part of growing political backlash over the company’s handling of young users. — Bloomberg

The executive who runs Instagram and US senators in a hearing on Dec 8 presented radically different views about how the platform functions in society and impacts young users.

Members of the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee asked Instagram’s Adam Mosseri about ads targeting young people, how the platform promotes inappropriate content and what legal options are available for users who suffered harm because of the social network. Mosseri pledged transparency, touted recent product changes and asked Congress to pass new regulations.

“I want to assure you we do have the same goal: We all want teens to be safe online,” Mosseri said during the hearing. “This is an industry-wide challenge that requires industry-wide solutions and industry-wide standards.”

Many senators, however, rejected Mosseri’s conclusion.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said Instagram’s parent company, Meta Platforms Inc, was trying to keep kids addicted to its products through marketing aimed at increasing its digital advertising business despite widespread concern among parents.

“Your company viewed losing teen users as, quote, an existential threat,” Klobuchar, a Democrat, said. “Whereas parents are viewing their kids’ addiction to your products and other products as an existential threat to their family.”

Mosseri replied that the company tries to make the network as “relevant” as possible while also investing in programs to maintain users’ safety.

The testy exchange, and other pleas from lawmakers for Mosseri to understand the real-world harm his platform causes, is part of growing political backlash over the company’s handling of young users.

The effect of Instagram on teenagers was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year by news reports based on internal documents disclosed by Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen.

The documents exposed how the company’s social networks spread hate speech and misinformation and harm the mental health of vulnerable teenagers. Company executives also privately worried about how its social networks were at risk of losing users among teens and young adults.

Lawmakers said the revelations by Haugen are adding to the bipartisan momentum to set tougher rules for privacy and platform accountability.

“Parents are asking, what is Congress doing to protect our kids?” said subcommittee Chair Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. “The resounding bipartisan message from this committee is: legislation is coming. We can’t rely on trust anymore. We can’t rely on self-policing.”

Mosseri argued that tech companies should only receive legal protection from liability for user-generated content if they adhere to kids’ safety rules established by a new oversight body – part of his pitch to diffuse congressional anger at the social media giant.

The proposal from Mosseri expands a previous call from Meta chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg for lawmakers to update technology companies’ legal shield, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Critics say reforming the law would only benefit dominant platforms that have resources to devote to complying with the new legal requirements.

Under Mosseri’s proposal, Congress would form “an industry body that will determine best practices” for how tech companies should keep children and teens safe online. In consultation with outside experts and advocates, that group would develop uniform standards for how internet platforms verify the ages of their users, design age-appropriate experiences and include parental controls in their services, Mosseri said.

Mosseri also faced questions about how Instagram uses algorithms to prioritise engagement and order user experiences. Senators offered a slew of examples of fake accounts their staff members created that easily found graphic content on suicide, illicit drugs and coaching for eating disorders.

Mosseri, who has been with Meta for 13 years and previously led the company’s News Feed product, repeatedly said much of that content is already prohibited, even though senators insisted that it’s still easy to find on the platform.

“I just feel there is a kind of real lack of connection to reality” in Mosseri’s testimony, Blumenthal said.

Feed ranking

Instagram also plans to give users the ability to see posts in their feed in chronological order instead of a ranking determined by the company’s internal engagement metrics, Mosseri said.

“We are working on more ways to give people more control over their experience,” he said.

When asked after the hearing about Mosseri’s plan for a chronological feed option for Instagram, Blumenthal said “actually implementing that kind of system would be a significant step”, depending on how it’s presented to users.

Haugen and other critics have argued that Facebook’s News Feed prioritises content that elicits strong emotions even if it’s hateful or misinformed.

Mosseri also touted a recent announcement by Instagram about a handful of new product features designed to improve teen safety and parents’ visibility into their children’s digital behavior. The changes will let users of the photo-sharing app set a reminder to take breaks from scrolling, limit the interaction between teens and people they don’t follow and provide more tools for parental control.

Instagram’s new features have already elicited scepticism among some lawmakers, who argue the moves don’t go far enough to protect children.

“Instagram pushed forward with what I call half-measures on the eve of the hearing trying to show that they are willing to give parents more tools in the tool box to regulate how children are online,” Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn told Bloomberg Television in an interview before the hearing. “It is not enough to satisfy parents who are concerned about this.”

One of the most troubling revelations from the Facebook documents shared by Haugen was that Instagram often makes teenagers who already have body-image issues feel worse about themselves. Both Democrats and Republicans have pointed to that internal research as proof that Facebook understood potential harms for its youngest users, but hid that information from Congress and the public.

“There is a such a frustration that you turn a blind eye towards taking responsibility and accepting accountability for your platform,” Blackburn said.

Later in the hearing, Blackburn asked Mosseri to speak to parents whose kids have harmed themselves because of their experience on Instagram. He touted parental controls and said he understands that some parents just don’t have time.

“It seems as if you just can’t get on that path” of understanding stories from concerned parents, Blackburn said. “I wish your response had been more empathetic.” – Bloomberg

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