WASHINGTON – Near the end of a dramatic hearing this month on the harm Instagram poses to teenagers, Sen. Richard Blumenthal picked up his phone and read a text from a distraught parent who was watching the proceedings live.
“I am in tears right now," the father wrote, describing how his 15-year-old daughter – who once loved her body – had developed an eating disorder after posting images constantly on Instagram.
"Suddenly she started hating her body, her body dysmorphia, now in anorexia and was in deep, deep trouble before we found treatment," said the dad, a constituent from Blumenthal's home state of Connecticut. "I fear she’ll never be the same. I am brokenhearted.”
The emotional moment capped a three-hour hearing of the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee where Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified on algorithms used by the social media giant – and its subsidiaries such as Instagram – to draw in users. The techniques often captivate impressionable children, Haugen said.
'Profits before people': After Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen argued her case, will Congress act?
Another eye-catching part of the hearing: The bipartisanship on display. Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee shared Blumenthal's outrage, telling Haugen that, “as a mother and a grandmother, this is an issue that is of particular concern to me.”
Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much these days, including climate change, government spending and how to fix health care. Even their concerns about social media diverge, with Republicans accusing Big Tech of censoring conservative voices and Democrats criticizing the unchecked disinformation about election fraud and the Jan. 6 insurrection on Twitter, Facebook and other prominent platforms.
But Instagram’s potential harm to children has united a liberal Democrat from the Northeast (Blumenthal) and a hard-right conservative Republican from the South (Blackburn).
As the top Democrat and the top Republican on the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, the two have joined forces to go after one of the most ubiquitous forces on the planet. Any legislation that carries both their support will be seriously considered given their committee leadership and divergent political backgrounds.
And Blumenthal and Blackburn are holding their fourth bipartisan hearing on social media titled “Protecting Kids Online: Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube" on Tuesday where officials from all three companies are expected to testify.
They've spent years challenging social media companies. Will anything change?
Is Congress ready to go after Facebook, which spends millions lobbying lawmakers and lining their campaign coffers?
The company spent more than $9.5 million in the first half of 2021 lobbying Congress, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Open Secrets. And through its PAC, individual executives and soft money donors, it collectively contributed nearly $8 million to federal candidates and political parties (the vast majority of them Democrats) during the 2020 election cycle, Open Secrets found.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has spent years challenging Big Tech, said Haugen's testimony could turn the tide.
"It feels like we have finally reached a tipping point," she said in a statement to USA TODAY. "The road ahead isn’t easy – Amazon and Facebook are the top business lobbyists in the U.S. – but the good news is that there is bipartisan momentum to get something done, and the public is on our side."
Other senators on the subcommittee are hopeful as well, especially because Blumenthal and Blackburn hail from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told USA TODAY the pair created a “level of seriousness” regarding the Facebook issue. That’s a sentiment shared by Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second most powerful Republican in the Senate.
"Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen brought a lot of new energy and sense of urgency to doing something, and so I think the conditions are right," Thune said. "I'm hoping they are for bipartisan action, so I'm always encouraged to see both sides working together on that issue, it's an important one."
On the same day Haugen testified before Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pushed back against the allegations, claiming they "don’t make any sense."
"At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That's just not true," he wrote in a Facebook post.
But even before the hearing this month, Blumenthal and Blackburn worked to hold social media giants accountable.
In April, the senators sent Zuckerberg a letter calling for Facebook to release internal research on social media's impact on children's mental health. "An expanding volume of scientific research shows that social media platforms can have a profoundly harmful impact on young audiences," they wrote. "As one of the largest platforms for young audiences, Facebook has a profound obligation to ensure its products do not contribute to this crisis."
They also singled out "grave concerns" they had with a now-paused Instagram Kids announcement, which targeted users under the age of 13.
More recently, Blumenthal said his office created a fake Instagram account posing as a 13-year-old girl who followed "easily findable" accounts associated with extreme dieting and eating disorders.
"Within a day, its recommendations were exclusively filled with accounts that promote self-injury and eating disorders," he said during a September hearing. "That is the perfect storm that Instagram has fostered and created."
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Last year, Blumenthal and Blackburn, along with Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into the use of children’s personal information by tech companies as the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to turn to online learning.
“Children are a uniquely vulnerable population that deserve heighten (sic) privacy protections. The FTC should take extreme caution not to weaken – either purposefully or inadvertently – privacy protections under COPPA [Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act]," the lawmakers wrote.
Signed into law in 1998, COPPA protects the privacy of children under 13 years of age. But advocates warn it is not enough to protect children due to the evolution of the internet. COPPA was enacted long before social media giants and streaming websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok were launched.
Blackburn in a 2019 Senate floor speech called Snapchat "a child predator’s dream." That same year she and Blumenthal wrote to YouTube's CEO Susan Wojcicki about the video platform's failures in protecting children from sexual predators.
“The sexualization of children through YouTube’s recommendation engine represents the development of a dangerous new kind of illicit content meant to avoid law enforcement detection,” they wrote. “Action is overdue; YouTube must ... end this disturbing risk to children and society.”
Serge Egelman is “hopeful” about Congress’s spotlight on protecting children’s privacy.
The research director at the International Computer Science Institute, which is affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley, led a team of scientists four years ago analyzing whether child-directed apps on the Google Play Store complied with federal privacy laws. “We found that about half of them had evidence of violating federal privacy laws,” Egelman told USA TODAY.
One of the reasons that child-targeted apps can skirt federal laws is because of a lack of enforcement of COPPA. FTC employees are competent and do good work, but the organization is chronically underfunded and lacks the resources commensurate to investigate more cases, Egelman said.
“The FTC has brought an average of around two cases a year since the law was enacted, whereas a small underfunded research group at a university was able to uncover literally thousands of apps that are violating the law,” said Egelman.
In response to his team’s research, Google and Apple changed their privacy practices, but “it's kind of surprising that there wasn't really much enforcement action at the federal level,” Egelman said.
Enacting legislation won't be easy
Then came the Haugen bombshell, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, where she shared thousands of pages of internal company documents, warning lawmakers that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about how its apps drive division and harm users, especially children.
Blumenthal, who went after cigarette makers in the '90s as part of an aggressive effort by several states, calls Haugen's testimony "a Big Tobacco moment of reckoning."
"The parallel is striking," he told USA TODAY. "I remember very, very well the moment, in the course of our litigation, when we learned of those files that showed not only that Big Tobacco knew that its product caused cancer but that they had done the research (and) they concealed the files. And now we knew. And the world knew. And Big Tech now faces that Big Tobacco, jaw-dropping moment of truth."
Blackburn, who opposes the Equality Act and has been criticized for anti-trans stances she sometimes expresses on social media, has accused Facebook of continually putting its corporate interests ahead of the public good.
“Facebook knew Instagram has a negative impact on its youngest users and failed to hold itself accountable. Thoughts of suicide and eating disorders were amplified for teenage girls on the platform," she said in a statement to USA TODAY. "Worse, the company knew this but chose to prioritize its profits over the wellbeing of children and teens."
In his response this month, Zuckerberg pushed back.
"We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health. It's difficult to see (news) coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don't recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted."
Blumenthal and Blackburn are not alone in their efforts to clamp down on Facebook and other social media companies.
Cassidy and Markey introduced The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act of 2021, an updated version of COPPA, in May. Markey also reintroduced the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, which would authorize the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of technology on infants, children and adolescents.
And last month, the Massachusetts senator reintroduced with Blumenthal his Kids Internet Design and Safety Act, which would create new protections for online users under 16 by banning push alerts encouraging users to pull out their devices and increase screen-time, badges that reward kids and young teens for increasing time spent on apps and websites, and interface features such as “like” buttons and follower counts that quantify levels of popularity for children and teens.
"For teens, Instagram is worse than popularity contest in a high school cafeteria because everyone can immediately see who's the most popular or who's the least popular," Markey said at a Sept. 30 hearing on Facebook held by the Senate Commerce Committee. "Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health."
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Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., reintroduced the Protecting the Information of Our Vulnerable Children and Youth (PRIVCY) Act in July, which would strengthen COPPA. The bill would put the onus on social media companies that collect information through third-party apps and websites to minimize the data collected from children.
One proposal that lawmakers have contemplated is repealing or amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which shields social media companies from legal liability over what users post. Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Klobuchar announced the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms Act, which would reform Section 230, in February.
The bill would shield social media platforms from liability for third-party posts regarding "any speech," not "any information," as Section 230 currently designates. Immunity would not be provided for ads and paid content or for victims of online abuse, harassment and discrimination who file lawsuits.
Big Tech companies say Section 230 has been critical to the industry's growth and that limiting its protections would likely tamp down the flow of free speech on the platform. Both Blackburn and Blumenthal have said they want to limit Big Tech's liability protections, but it's not clear yet whether they agree on the same reforms.
"I’m focused on reducing the chokehold big tech has on consumers – by working to secure a national data privacy standard framework, reforming Section 230, protecting Americans’ data security and increasing competition,” Blackburn said in a statement.
It’s not clear among the bipartisan group of lawmakers how legislation will lay out enforcement of data privacy. Lawmakers could increase funding for the FTC, send grant funding to states to enforce COPPA or allow private citizens to sue social media companies that violate their privacy. Without provisions that proactively target enforcement of children's privacy, much of these bills will not likely have high impact, Egelman said.
Still, advocates remain optimistic lawmakers will pass legislation into law in the coming months given current public momentum.
James Steyer, CEO of the children's advocacy nonprofit Common Sense Media, told USA TODAY he's met with Blumenthal, Blackburn, Markey and other lawmakers more than a dozen times over the past several years to work on legislation protecting children online. "I personally have had numerous meetings with all of these senators on both sides of the aisle," Steyer said.
Common Sense Media is a champion of several of the bills lawmakers have introduced. "We're optimistic that several of these pieces of legislation are going to move forward on a bipartisan basis in the next couple of months," Steyer said.
In years past, Republican lawmakers resisted interfering in private businesses, but that's changing as online privacy proves popular with parents and the American public.
"I think that the best interests of kids and families and consumers finally have a chance to prevail — after years of inaction in Washington," Steyer said.
The vulnerability of kids is personal for Blumenthal.
Although his four children came of age before Instagram became endemic to American teenage life, he routinely hears the stories of its negative impact from constituents, including the father who texted him during the recent hearing with Haugen. And he witnessed first-hand social media's destructive side when the parents of the 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Ct., faced harassing posts on Facebook from conspiracy theorists who say the shooting never happened.
"The gun violence issue is not unrelated to algorithms that drive disruptive content to children, exacerbating their anxieties and insecurities or even heightening anger and hostility," Blumenthal told USA TODAY.
Blumenthal on Wednesday called for Zuckerberg or Instagram head Adam Mosseri to testify on Instagram's impact on children's wellbeing.
“Parents across America are deeply disturbed by ongoing reports that Facebook knows that Instagram can cause destructive and lasting harms to many teens and children, especially to their mental health and wellbeing,” said Blumenthal. “Those parents, and the twenty million teens that use your app, have a right to know the truth about the safety of Instagram.”
Noor Soomro, an anti-gun activist and high school senior in Missouri City, Texas, said social media "takes a mental toll on youth."
"Students already bear the burden of looking out for each other," Soomro, a national youth advisory board member with the Sandy Hook Promise Students Against Violence Everywhere Club, wrote in a letter to the committee in advance of the Oct. 5 hearing. "Social media companies and responsible adults should help us stay safe, not actively endanger us."
Contributing: Savannah Behrman
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Instagram, Facebook harm to teens creates rare bipartisan momentum