The heads of the world’s leading social media companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, facing a combative, angry group of lawmakers whose patience with the risks to young people posed by the platforms appeared to have run out.
Here are some of the highlights.
Fiery rhetoric from senators
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina laid into the social media CEOs, blaming them for the deaths of children who have used the platforms, whether from suicide or drug overdoses.
“You have blood on your hands,” Graham said before telling them it was time for Congress to repeal a statute that protects the companies from being sued by their users.
“You have a product that’s killing people. … You can’t be sued, you should be!” he said. “It is now time to repeal Section 230.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota brought up instances of children who committed suicide after being bullied on social media.
“I’m so tired of this. It’s been 28 years … since the start of the internet,” she said. “We haven’t passed any of these bills, because everyone’s ‘double talk, double talk.’ It’s time to actually pass them.”
In an especially heated exchange with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas demanded to know why the company didn’t do “more to protect children” from harmful images and contact from known pedophiles.
Cruz criticized a warning screen that alerts Instagram users that they may be about to view images depicting child abuse, but then allows them to choose to either “get resources” or “see results anyway.”
“Mr. Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” Cruz asked.
“Alright, senator,” Zuckerberg responded. “The basic science behind that is that when people are searching for something that is problematic, it’s often helpful to, rather than just blocking it, to help direct them towards something that could be helpful to getting them to get help—”
“I understand ‘get resources,’” Cruz interrupted. “In what sane universe is there a link for ‘see results anyway’?”
“Well, because we might be wrong,” Zuckerberg replied.
Zuckerberg offers apology to families who ‘have suffered’
Pressed by Republican Sen.Josh Hawley of Missouri to address the families in the hearing room who had lost loved ones in their use of social media platforms, Zuckerberg stood, turned around and did just that, saying he was sorry for “the things that your families have suffered.”
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. 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 industrywide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer,” Zuckerberg continued.
Snapchat CEO also apologizes to parents
After defending his platform as fundamentally different from Instagram, TikTok and X because user likes are not part of the algorithm that guides content, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel was confronted by Democratic Sen. Laphonza Butler of California, who, like Hawley, asked him to address the families of children who died of overdoses of drugs purchased on Snapchat.
“I’m so sorry that we have not been able to prevent these tragedies,” Spiegel said, citing measures taken by the company to protect and educate users about the dangers of fentanyl.
In response, Butler said, “I know that there are good efforts. None of those things are keeping kids from getting access to drugs on your platform.”
TikTok’s ties to China come under further scrutiny
Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, faced withering questioning from senators that largely centered on its ownership by the Chinese government and the Chinese company ByteDance.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas pressed Chew on the company’s data collection policies, leading to one particularly sharp exchange.
“Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” Cotton asked Chew.
“Senator, I’m Singaporean. No,” he responded.
That answer wasn’t good enough for Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who noted that TikTok was banned in Chew’s home country.
Today in the Judiciary Committee, I asked @tiktok_us CEO Shou Chew about some of the risks his company poses to Americans, including our children.
He and his family live in Singapore, where TikTok is banned for children – so why do we allow it here?
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) January 31, 2024
‘I am worth more than $270’
Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee also went after Zuckerberg about an internal Meta document that placed a lifetime value to the company of a young user at $270.
“How could you possibly even have that thought? It is astounding to me,” Blackburn said. She then invited members of the gallery to stand who wore T-shirts that read “I am worth more than $270.”
Blackburn also echoed Cruz’s line of inquiry.
“It appears that you’re trying to be the premier sex-trafficking site in this country,” she told Zuckerberg.
“Of course not, senator,” Zuckerberg shot back. “Senator, that’s ridiculous.”
Cover photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP