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Lawmakers grilled the CEOs of top social media companies in a hearing today

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When the CEOs of top social media companies testified before the Senate today, they received this not-so-warm welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: 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.

KELLY: Lawmakers say apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat have failed to keep children safe online. NPR tech correspondent Dara Kerr joins me, and we ought to note this conversation will deal with child abuse and suicide. Hey, Dara.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: Hi. Tell us more about what happened during this hearing.

KERR: Yeah. So as you heard, Senator Lindsey Graham told Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg that he had blood on his hands, and that was just the beginning. This hearing was as contentious as you get on Capitol Hill. The senators really laid in to the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snap, X, which is formerly known as Twitter, and Discord. They basically said these companies have failed parents and children. The main focus of the hearing was about child sexual abuse and exploitation. Listen to this exchange from Senator Marsha Blackburn and Mark Zuckerberg.

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MARSHA BLACKBURN: It appears that you're trying to be the premier sex trafficking site...

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Of course not, Senator.

BLACKBURN: ...In this country.

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, that's ridiculous. Senator...

BLACKBURN: No, it is not ridiculous.

ZUCKERBERG: Of course we don't want...

BLACKBURN: You want to turn around and tell these people that...

ZUCKERBERG: We don't want this content on our platforms, and we...

BLACKBURN: Why don't you take it down?

KERR: The lawmakers say it's easy for predators to find minors on these social media apps, and they say parents have told them that this has led to their children's being abused and which has sometimes even, horrifically, resulted in suicide.

KELLY: Was there some specific incident or incidents that led to this hearing being called now, Dara?

KERR: Yeah, it's actually really reached a boiling point. First of all, there's been a ton of lawsuits filed by both parents and state attorneys general. And then last fall, a Facebook whistleblower came forward with internal data that showed nearly a quarter of all teens have received unwanted sexual advances on Instagram, and he said the company did little to stop it. Facebook, on the other hand, says it takes the issue seriously. Meanwhile, parents have been heavily lobbying Congress to do something to hold these companies account.

KELLY: And what are the companies doing to address this?

KERR: Yeah. So before this hearing, there was a mad scramble to - in which all the companies were trying to show that they take this matter really seriously. Meta rolled out new tools that stops teens from seeing certain content, and the other companies said they're investing in improvements on that front. But there's no real specifics about whether these new policies and tools actually make an impact, and lawmakers and parents say the platforms remain toxic for young people.

Also, just hours before the hearings started, senators released internal emails from Facebook showing Zuckerberg refused to hire more employees in 2021 to work on child safety, despite his staff's recommendations.

KELLY: So where do we go from here? What's next?

KERR: Yeah. So this is a rare bipartisan issue where you hear Republicans and Democrats fully agreeing. Democrat Senator Chris Coons is working with his colleagues to get legislation passed this year. Here he is trying to get the companies on board.

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CHRIS COONS: Is there any one of you willing to say now that you support this bill?

Mr. Chairman, let the record reflect a yawning silence from the leaders of the social media platforms.

KERR: There are four other federal bills right now that address kids' safety online, which lawmakers are trying to pass as soon as possible. Snap is the only company so far that said it will support one of them, so this is likely to remain a heated issue for months to come.

KELLY: That is NPR's Dara Kerr.

And if you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Hotline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.