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Watch: Zuckerberg apologises to victims of online exploitation
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologised to families who say their children had been harmed by social media, during a fiery hearing in the US Senate.
Mr Zuckerberg – who runs Instagram and Facebook – turned to them and said “no one should go through” what they had.
He and the bosses of TikTok, Snap, X and Discord were questioned for almost four hours by senators from both parties.
Lawmakers wanted to know what they are doing to protect children online.
It was a rare opportunity for the US senators to question tech bosses.
Mr Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew voluntarily agreed to testify – but the heads of Snap, X (formerly Twitter) and Discord initially refused and were sent government-issued subpoenas.
Behind the five tech bosses sat families who said their children had self-harmed or killed themselves as a result of social media content.
They made their feelings known throughout the hearing, hissing when the CEOs entered as well as applauding when lawmakers asked tough questions.
While the hearing mostly focused on the protection of children from online sexual exploitation, the questions varied widely as the senators took advantage of having five powerful executives sitting in front of them under oath.
TikTok’s Mr Chew was asked whether his company shared US users’ data with the Chinese government, which he denied.
He said “as a father of three young children myself I know the issues that we’re discussing today are horrific and the nightmare of every parent” – and admitted his own children do not use TikTok because of the rules where he lives in Singapore.
But it was Mr Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta – which owns Facebook and Instagram – who came under the most scrutiny, as he testified before Congress for an eighth time.
At one point, Republican Senator Ted Cruz asked, “Mr Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” when he showed the tech boss an Instagram prompt that warns users they may be about to see child sexual abuse material, but asks if they would like to “see the results anyway”.
Mr Zuckerberg said the “basic science behind that” is “it’s often helpful to, rather than just blocking it, to help direct them towards something that that could be helpful”. He also promised to “personally look into it”.
During another exchange with Republican Senator Josh Hawley, Mr Zuckerberg was invited to apologise to the families sitting behind him.
He stood up, turned to the audience and said: “I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through, it’s terrible.
“No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”
Called under subpoena
While Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Chew came voluntarily to the hearing after being asked, Linda Yaccarino of X (formerly Twitter), Discord boss Jason Citron and Snap chief Evan Spiegel, all received subpoenas meaning they legally had to appear.
At the heart of the hearing was the companies’ attitudes to legislation currently going through Congress which aim to hold them to account for material posted on their platforms.
This was summed up in a tense exchange between Jason Citron of Discord and Republican lawmaker Lindsey Graham.
Senator Graham listed a number of bills going through Congress related to online safety, asking if Mr Citron supported them or not.
While he gave Mr Citron little opportunity to respond, the Discord boss appeared to have reservations about most of them.
Mr Graham concluded: “So here you are – if you’re waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we’re gonna die waiting”.
Social media industry analyst Matt Navarra told the BBC he thought the hearing resembled many similar showdowns between US lawmakers and tech executives, with “lots of US political grandstanding” and a perfect photo opportunity provided by Mr Zuckerberg’s apology.
He added that despite senators agreeing on the need to spur on bipartisan legislation to regulate platforms, the question of what happens next, and what exactly will come of this hearing, remains unclear.
“We’ve seen these hearings time and time again and they have often, so far, led still to not actually generate any significant or substantial regulation,” he said.
“We’re in 2024 and US has virtually no regulation, as was pointed out during the hearings, with regards to the social media companies.”
The bosses also revealed how many people they employed to moderate content on their platforms.
Meta and TikTok, with the largest user numbers of the platforms represented, said they had 40,000 moderators, while Snap said it had 2,300, X had 2,000 and Discord – who said it was smaller – had “hundreds” of moderators.
Discord is a messaging platform and has previously been questioned over how it detects and prevents child abuse across its platform.
The senators recounted a number of personal stories from families whose loved ones had died following social media use – for example after online bullying, extortion or buying drugs via social media.
Though the Senate can rarely agree on any piece of legislation, they were united in their shared goal of getting some legislation through to help protect young people online.
Republican Senator Thom Tillis invited the tech bosses to collaborate on the bills currently going through Congress.
“If you got a problem with them, state your problem, let’s fix it,” he said. “No is not an answer.”
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