Accusations, tears and rants: Takeaways from today’s tech CEO hearing

Brian Fung, CNN | 1/31/2024, 12:27 p.m.
A group of social media bigwigs is currently being grilled by Congress on Wednesday about the risks their products pose …
The chief executives of five big tech companies are set to testify in a Senate committee hearing Wednesday about the impact of their products on teens. Mandatory Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

A group of social media bigwigs is currently being grilled by Congress on Wednesday about the risks their products pose to young people — yet again.

The chief executives of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Discord and X, formerly known as Twitter, are testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee starting right now.

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Zuckerberg apologizes to families during Senate hearing

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to families, who have accused Meta of not doing enough to stop harm to children, during a Senate hearing. Source: CNN

The hearing became even more relevant Wednesday, a day after a gruesome video was posted on YouTube showing a man holding what he claimed was his father’s decapitated head. The video circulated for hours on YouTube — garnering more than 5,000 views — before it was taken down.

Here are our main takeaways so far.

Zuckerberg, Spiegel personally apologize to families

Meta CEO Zuckerberg stood to apologize to the families in the hearing room.

“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” he said. “No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”

In response, Sen. Josh Hawley called on Zuckerberg, as a billionaire, to “compensate” the families whose children have been affected by his platforms.

In response to prompting from California Democrat Sen. Laphonza Butler, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel also apologized to families whose children have died after they purchased drugs on Snapchat.

“I’m so sorry that we have not been able to prevent these tragedies,” Spiegel said, before detailing some of the efforts the company takes to protect young users.

GOP Sen. Graham: ‘The dark side of social media products ‘is too great to live with’

Social media companies have created products that have an upside, but they also have a dark side that is “too great to live with,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday while grilling chief executives of four such companies.

Until social media companies are sued for the damage they are doing, Graham warned that there will be no change.

“I am tired of talking. I’m tired of having discussions,” he said. “Open up the courthouse door. Until you do that, nothing will change. Until these people can be sued for the damage they’re doing, it is all talk.”

He added, “I’m a Republican who believes in free enterprise, but I also believe that every American who’s been wronged has to have somebody to go to to complain. There is no commission to go to that can punish you. There’s not one law in the book because you oppose everything we do, and you can’t be sued. That has to stop, folks.”

Graham stressed on the importance of having legal framework to hold the companies accountable.

“Because for all the upside, the dark side is too great to live with,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar got visibly upset while questioning CEOs

There have elements of theater during Wednesday’s hearing.

Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared visibly upset as she recounted the stories of parents whose children were harmed by social media platforms, including young people who committed suicide after being threatened by predators online.

“I’m so tired of this,” Klobuchar said. “It’s been 28 years … since the start of the internet. We haven’t passed any of these bills, because everyone’s ‘double talk, double talk.’ It’s time to actually pass them.”

Klobuchar pressed the CEOs to endorse several proposed bills.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel agreed to endorse the Cooper Davis Act, which would require platforms to report certain instances of illicit drug trafficking on their platforms to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A rare unifying force on Capitol Hill: Hating social media companies

Wednesday’s hearing again demonstrates the breadth of criticism for social media companies among lawmakers, a rare bipartisan topic on Capitol Hill.

In an early instance, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham highlighted how he has “almost nothing in common” with his Democratic colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren and how he has a different political philosophy from Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. However, he noted that they agree on the issues of how tech is affecting society.

“Elizabeth and I see an abuse here that needs to be dealt with. Sen. Durbin and I have different political philosophies, but I appreciate what you’ve done on this committee. You’ve been a great partner. To all my Democratic colleagues, thank you very, very much. To my Republican colleagues, thank you all very, very much,” Sen. Graham said.

Despite both parties’ appetite for going after tech platforms, however, Congress has yet to pass meaningful legislation to regulate social media companies.

Most of the action has taken place in state legislatures and in the courts, which have become battlegrounds for new policies including age minimums for social media.

A South Carolina lawmaker is suing Instagram after his son died by suicide

In his opening remarks, Sen. Graham mentioned a state lawmaker who lost his eldest son and who is now suing Meta. That lawmaker is South Carolina state house Rep. Brandon Guffey.

About two weeks after his oldest son’s funeral, Guffey says he received a private Instagram message with a laughing emoji.

Gavin Guffey, 17, fatally shot himself in a bathroom in July 2022, and the grieving father was searching for clues on what led to his suicide.

Then Guffey and his younger son began to get messages demanding money in exchange for nude photos of his late son. Anyone on Gavin’s Instagram followers list who had the last name Guffey got similar messages, his father says.

‘You have blood on your hands’: Sen. Graham says to tech CEOs

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told tech CEOs in his opening remarks, “You have blood on your hands.”

It triggered an applause and cheers from many in the audience.

“You have a product that’s killing people … You can’t be sued, you should be!” Graham added. “It is now time to repeal Section 230.”

Section 230 is the federal law that immunizes websites and social media platforms for their content moderation decisions and from lawsuits arising from user-generated content.

Wednesday hearing gets contentious

Congress has done little to rein in the industry in recent years, even as consumer groups say social media puts young users at risk of everything from depression to bullying to sexual abuse. But lawmakers now cite a growing procession of whistleblowers, consumer lawsuits and new state legislation around the country to argue this time is different.

“We’re going to work hard to hold their feet to the fire,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the hearing.

The spotlight is likely to be brightest on Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as the company that controls Instagram and Facebook has faced particular pressure over the issue because of its size and popularity with younger users.

Zuckerberg is expected to tout the company’s more than 30 safety controls, according to prepared testimony released ahead of the hearing. Still, lawmakers are likely to call on Meta to do more.

Lawmakers say that the longer platforms drag their heels on meaningful changes, the more harm and the more victims it will produce.

‘We had no idea the damage they could cause’

One of social media’s self-described victims is Rosemarie Calvoni, a woman who is suing Meta and other social media companies over her daughter’s struggle with anorexia.

Calvoni blames Meta for sending her daughter down a rabbit hole of eating disorder content, leading to inpatient treatment and multiple relapses that have caused her to miss “most of high school.”

“When these platforms were first launched, we had no idea of the damage they could cause, not only to my daughter but our family as a unit,” Calvoni told reporters on a call Tuesday.

New Meta docs raise questions about Zuckerberg culpability

Senior Meta executives tried to sound the alarm internally about Instagram and Facebook’s handling of kid safety in 2021, according to new documents published Wednesday by Blumenthal and Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn.

The new communications include warnings to Zuckerberg that “we are not on track” and that the company faces “increased regulatory risk” due to underinvestment in user safety.

The issue would culminate in a public relations disaster and harm to Meta’s future metaverse ambitions, executives warned, if the company did not urgently hire dozens of new employees to meet the challenge.

The documents were provided to lawmakers by Meta in response to earlier requests for information.

Two years after the warnings, however, Zuckerberg has instead laid off thousands of employees, including staff dedicated to user well-being. And his company is confronting a rising global tide of litigation and regulation.