Facebook is a menace to children. Maybe Congress will finally take action.

Facebook is a menace to children. Maybe Congress will finally take action.
Facebook has come under fire for it's research on how Facebook’s Instagram service harms young people Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
  • Whistleblower Frances Haugen testified to Congress that Facebook knew its products harm children.
  • After the testimony calls for regulating the company are receiving bipartisan support.

By Facebook's own count, its executives have testified before Congress 30 times in the last four years. These interactions are so routine that they can seem like by-the-numbers performance reviews, with the added catch that no one is exactly sure whose performance is being reviewed. Quite often, Facebook and its defenders use a prominent hearing as a way to belittle Congress and its members as preening fools ill-equipped to fix what's broken with social networks. Though its official position is that it welcomes regulation from Congress, naturally it wants that regulation to come from a Congress with as little swagger as possible.

There was something truly different about this latest hearing, however, featuring the whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has revealed damning reports about Facebook produced by its own researchers. In addition to the ample documentary evidence, there was the hearing's focal point - kids. There were at least two sources of profound concern: how Facebook's Instagram service harms young people's developing psyches and how the company views children as just another market to conquer.

Let's be candid: helping to fuel genocide in Myanmar, as Facebook has been accused of doing, is not something that activates the gut instincts of American politicians or the public they serve. And blowing up our democracy by encouraging conspiracy theories and hateful misinformation at best antagonizes only half the country.

Complimentary Tech Event
Discover the future of SaaS in India
The 6-part video series will capture the vision of Indian SaaS leaders and highlight the potential for the sector in the decades to come.25th Aug, 2022 Starts at 04:00 PM (40 mins)Register Now
Our Speakers
Dan Sheeran
Sandeep Gupta

Harming children and viewing them as your meal ticket, well, that is still stomach-churning to a healthy majority of the country.

Thus, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who don't even agree on who won the last presidential election, were able to act together to press Facebook to release all of its research showing that Instagram worsened teenage girls' body image and encouraged suicidal thoughts by promoting posts based on their popularity. And in a joint statement before the hearing, they criticized Facebook's stone-walling and impossible claims to "hold itself accountable." But their main reason for anger, they said, was the revelation in a Wall Street Journal series based on Haugen's documents of Facebook's "growth-at-all-costs mindset that valued profits over the health and lives of children and teens."


This is the real shift - for the first time, Facebook's maniacal emphasis on growth is causing politicians to confront the horror, rather than simply look away.

Facebook has been quite open about pursuing growth at all costs - a legendary memo from Andrew Bosworth, a Zuckerberg confidant and Facebook's new chief technology officer, was refreshingly direct. "The ugly truth," he wrote in 2016, "is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good," adding that, "Make no mistake, growth tactics are how we got here." (After the memo leaked, Bosworth explained that he didn't believe what he had written and was only trying to be provocative.)

But if we treat the memo as a policy statement, it happens to explain Facebook's behavior quite neatly. The Facebook-aided genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was about the company's growth in regions the platform lacked the expertise to be operating. The recent Facebook-aided political extremism and vaccine denial is about growth in daily usage numbers - that is, providing divisive, provocative content to encourage users to stay on the site. The revelation in the Wall Street Journal that Facebook published a report that begins, "Why do we care about tweens? They are a valuable and untapped audience," is about grooming a new generation through products like Messenger Kids. As that same Facebook report pointed out, "Our ultimate goal is messaging primacy with US tweens, which may also lead to winning with teens."

You knew something was different this time, because of Facebook's energetic response. Certainly, there were standard defenses like, what about TikTok or YouTube? To which Blumenthal responded: "I would emphasize that each company bears its own responsibility. The race to the bottom has to stop. Facebook in effect has led it." But this time, Facebook showed an unusual willingness to retreat, at least temporarily, from growth-at-all-costs.

In the runup to the hearing, Instagram announced that it was pausing development of Instagram Kids. After trying to ignore Facebook's controversy, Zuckerberg chose to comment on the issue, claiming Facebook was misunderstood. "I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it's very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids," he wrote. Zuckerberg said he was astounded that anyone could accuse Facebook of prioritizing profit over the safety of minors. "That's just not true," he said.


Helpfully, if Washington did decide to regulate Facebook there is already legislation. The Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, sponsored by Senators Blumenthal and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Representative Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), would eliminate addictive features like auto-play and follower counts from children's versions of YouTube or Instagram. The bill has no Republican co-sponsor yet - illustrating the partisanship gap that still must be crossed. But this too might be changing. In May, Markey managed to gain a Republican co-sponsor, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, for a proposal to expand the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and Ms. Haugen received bipartisan praise for her testimony this week.

Facebook's pillaging of foreign lands for growth or even our neighbors' minds is one thing, but when the company starts applying growth-at-all costs inside our homes, perhaps we as a nation will insist Facebook reverse course. As long as we are talking about children, such legislation may stand a chance.