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Meta failed to address harm to teens, whistleblower testifies as senators vow action

Facebook and Instagram parent Meta is under fire for not doing enough to protect young users.
Lionel Bonaventure
AFP via Getty Images
Facebook and Instagram parent Meta is under fire for not doing enough to protect young users.

Meta is a company that encourages a culture of "see no evil, hear no evil," former company engineer Arturo Bejar said on Tuesday.

He was testifying in front of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing centered on how algorithms for Facebook and Instagram (both owned by parent company Meta) push content to teens that promotes bullying, drug abuse, eating disorders and self-harm.

Bejar's job at the company was to protect the social media site's users. He said that when he raised the flag about teen harm to Meta's top executives, they failed to act.

"I observed new features being developed in response to public outcry, which were, in reality, kind of a placebo," Bejar said during his testimony. "A safety feature in name only to placate the press and regulators."

Bejar is the latest Facebook whistleblower to supply congress with internal documents that show Meta knows kids are being harmed by its products. His testimony comes after The Wall Street Journal reported on his claims last week. Lawmakers have now heard testimony from dozens of kids, parents and even company executives on the topic. And it seems to have reached a boiling point.

"We can no longer rely on social media's mantra, 'Trust us,'" Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said on Tuesday. "My hope is that we will move forward so that, in fact, we can make Big Tech the next Big Tobacco in terms of a concerted effort to reduce its harm and inform the public."

During the 2 1/2-hour hearing, several senators vowed to pass legislation regulating social media this year.

"Before the end of this calendar year, I will go to the floor of the United States Senate and I will demand a vote," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. "I'm tired of waiting."

Last year, Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced the Kids Online Safety Act, which made it out of committee with unanimous support, but didn't clear the entire Senate. In light of the new testimony from Bejar, senators in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law are pushing to pass the law this year.

This comes as a group of more than 40 states have filed lawsuits against Meta accusing it of designing its social media products to be addictive. The states say this has fueled the mental health crisis for teens. Their lawsuits rely on evidence from Bejar and come two years after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen detailed similar findings in the Facebook Files.

In a statement, Meta spokeswoman Nkechi Nneji said the company has worked with parents and experts to introduce more than 30 tools to support teens. "Every day countless people inside and outside of Meta are working on how to help keep young people safe online," she said.

Bejar's testimony

Bejar worked at Facebook from 2009 to 2015, largely focusing on cyberbullying. He returned to the company in 2019 as a consultant to work on Instagram's Well-Being team. He said one of the reasons for his return was seeing how his daughter was treated on Instagram.

"She and her friends began having awful experiences, including repeated unwanted sexual advances, harassment," Bejar testified on Tuesday. "She reported these incidents to the company and it did nothing."

Bejar spent the next year collecting data and researching what was going on. He said the numbers were alarming.

He found 51% of Instagram users say they've had a "bad or harmful experience" on the app within the previous week. And of those users who report harmful posts, only 2% have that content taken down. For teens, 21% said they'd been the target of bullying and 24% received unwanted sexual advances.

"It is unacceptable that a 13-year-old girl gets propositioned on social media," Bejar testified. "We don't tolerate unwanted sexual advances against children in any other public context, and they can similarly be prevented on Facebook, Instagram and other social media products."

In 2021, Bejar emailed his findings in a two-page letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, then Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox and Instagram head Adam Mosseri.

"I wanted to bring to your attention what l believe is a critical gap in how we as a company approach harm, and how the people we serve experience it," he wrote. "There is no feature that helps people know that kind of behavior is not ok."

Bejar wrote in the letter that the company needed to create solutions. He said he was specifically appealing to the heads of the company because he understood such solutions "will require a culture shift."

He said he never heard back from Zuckerberg. The other executives responded at the time, but Bejar said his concerns weren't addressed. He left the company shortly after he sent the letter.

"When I left Facebook in 2021, I thought the company would take my concerns and recommendations seriously," Bejar testified on Tuesday. "Yet, years have gone by and millions of teens are having their mental health compromised and are still being traumatized."

The senators on the judicial subcommittee all appeared to agree that the only way to get Meta to change is to pass a law that will hold the social media company accountable. Many of them said they'd bring the issue to their colleagues in Congress.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.