Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 1 February 2024

Tech CEOs Face Another Ritual Denunciation

Feb. 1, 2024 5:53 pm ET

Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg responds to questions during a hearing in Washington, Jan. 31. Photo: Rod Lamkey - Cnp/Zuma Press

It was the first time I felt hope. Then I felt irritated with myself for feeling hope. But it was a heck of a hearing. (Was it what used to be called boob bait for Bubba, Bubba being American parents?)

It was Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee grilling of the heads of social-media companies—Meta, TikTok, X, Snapchat. The subject was the online abuse of the young—child sexual exploitation, sexual predation, porn, extortion, internet-purchased pills laced with fentanyl.

The senators seemed serious, even grave. Parents of kids who’d committed suicide after what happened to them on social media were there, holding pictures. No one after all these years, not senators or spectators, needed to be informed of the depth of the problem. One senator referred to an investigation in the Journal last June. It reported that Instagram “helps connect and promote a vast network of accounts openly devoted to the commission and purchase of underage-sex content.” The platform doesn’t merely host pedophiles, “its algorithms promote them. Instagram connects pedophiles and guides them to content sellers.”

Since the turn of the century, families have wondered about a great unanswered domestic question: Exactly when did we as a people decide that a new technology could come along, make itself pervasive by making its products addictive, and feed our children images and information that are actively harmful to them—and this is not only fully legal, it can’t even be regulated by the government? Put another way: When do the American people get to have a say on the culture in which they raise their kids?

The social-media giants position themselves as missionaries: They’re just trying to help people be in touch so the world might grow closer and warmer. Mark Zuckerberg of Meta trotted it out Wednesday in an exchange with Sen. John Kennedy: “We give people the ability to connect with people they care about.”

As to the threat their services pose to the young, their response has been that it’s up to parents to monitor and control what their children do online. This is like cigarette companies getting away with saying, “It’s not our fault, don’t smoke cancer sticks if you don’t want to get sick.” The social-media giants have shown a stunning indifference to two key facts. One is that America has a lot of parents who are neglectful or incapable and don’t or can’t monitor and control their children. The other is that parents who are excellent and on the case are simply overwhelmed by tech. It’s coming in every portal; dam one up and a new one opens. They can’t fully “control” what their kids and their kids’ friends are exposed to. They need help. They have a right to expect this of their government.

Ranking Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was fiery: “Social-media companies as they are currently designed and operate are dangerous products” that must be “reined in.” He told Mr. Zuckerberg: “You have blood on your hands.” He said “it is now time to repeal section 230,” the 1996 statute giving tech companies liability protection for content posted on their platforms. It was written before modern social media. Facebook wasn’t launched until 2004; TikTok arrived in 2016.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn was angry: “Children are not your priority, children are your product.” She said to Mr. Zuckerberg: “It appears that you’re trying to be the premier sex trafficking site in this country.” He hotly denied it.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) speaks to Mark Zuckerberg during a Senate committee hearing in Washington, Jan. 31. Photo: Rod Lamkey - Cnp/Zuma Press

Sen. Josh Hawley’s grilling of Mr. Zuckerberg made an impression. Mr. Hawley enjoys enacting indignation in hearings and is good at it.

“Did I hear you say in your opening statement that there’s no link between mental health [in teens] and social-media use?” Mr. Hawley asked.

“I think it’s important to look at the science,” Mr. Zuckerberg replied. “The bulk of the scientific evidence does not support that.”

Mr. Hawley pointed out that one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s own subsidiaries, Instagram, studied the effect on teenagers and found it “harmful for a sizable percentage of teenagers, most notably teenage girls. . . . That’s your study.” Mr. Zuckerberg answered with deflection and doubletalk.

Mr. Hawley: “You’ve been doing this for years,” testifying that “your product is wonderful . . . while internally you know full well your product is a disaster for teenagers.” He showed sworn testimony from an Instagram whistleblower that 37% of Instagram users between 13 and 15 had encountered unwanted nudity in the previous seven days, and 24% had received unwanted sexual advances in the same period. “You knew about it, who did you fire?”

Mr. Zuckerberg: “Senator, we study all this because it’s important and we want to improve our services.”

Had Meta compensated or helped any of the victims? “Our job is to make sure that we build tools to help keep people safe.”

Mr. Hawley persisted: “Will you take personal responsibility?”

Mr. Zuckerberg: “I view my job and the job of our company is building the best tools that we can—to keep our community safe.”

Mr. Hawley: “Well, you’re failing at that.”

Mr. Zuckerberg: Meta is involved in an “industry-leading effort, We’ve built AI tools that—”

Mr. Hawley interrupted: “Oh, nonsense, your product is killing people.” “Your job is to be responsible for what your company has done. You’ve made billions of dollars on the people sitting behind you here. You’ve done nothing to help them. . . . You’ve done nothing to put it right.”

It was satisfying. Why are we skeptical it will lead to helpful legislative action?

Congress has been holding these hearings for years with little to show for it. Reforming social media would require focus, tech sophistication, a real commitment of time. Congress isn’t known for these things. Repealing Section 230 is likely the one thing that would make a huge difference, but that would require an ideological and philosophical struggle in Congress and disruption in the tech industry. Do lawmakers have the stomach for that?

A friend who worked in Washington a few years ago was struck by the question he was asked at a lunch of think tankers and lobbyists: “Who owns you?” Not who do you work for, what do you believe, but who bought your loyalty? It is the Washington problem in three words.

The social-media companies have bought up Washington. They give money to politicians and political action committees, to think tanks and media shops; they hire the most influential and respected. They give the children of politicians jobs. They’ve got it wired. Mr. Kennedy mordantly joked about this at the hearings: “We know we’re in a recession when Google has to lay off 25 members of Congress.”

There’s reason to believe it’s all Kabuki. The CEOs show up for a day of ritual denunciation, then go on unbothered. It’s not a high price to pay for the lives they lead.

But it’s a crucial and popular issue, what our children see on the screens. Parents understand what’s at stake and will thank those who help. All the money and power is on the other side, and money and power guarantee you can play the long game.

When you know what you know, it can feel immature to be hopeful. But hope is what we’ve got. And attentiveness: watching who came through and who didn’t.

Wonder Land: Queen Elizabeth II's personal virtues were an antidote to our era's self-promotion and social-virtue signaling. (09/14/22) Images: WPA Pool/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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