[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) pressed Facebook Vice President of Privacy & Public Policy Steve Satterfield to commit to Facebook providing a witness at a hearing next week in the Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, which Blumenthal chairs.
During today’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, Blumenthal questioned Satterfield on Facebook’s response to recent reporting in the Wall Street Journal that revealed Facebook’s knowledge of its platforms’ negative impact on teenagers and young users, and demanded that Facebook answer questions about the reporting at next week’s hearing.
Blumenthal and U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Ranking Member of the Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in August calling on the company to make a senior executive available to testify about his companies’ platforms’ impact on children’s mental health.
The senators also asked Facebook specifically whether it had conducted research on teens that found “a negative effect on children's and teens' mental health or well-being such as increased suicidal thoughts, heightened anxiety, unhealthy usage patterns, negative self-image, or other indications of lower well-being.” In its response, Facebook provided misleading and evasive answers – responses directly contradicted by subsequent reporting in the Wall Street Journal.
Blumenthal’s full exchange with Satterfield is copied below.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT): Thank you, Madam Chair. I want to thank both you and the Ranking Member for holding this hearing. I hope it will be the beginning – or maybe another step – in an effort to forge a bipartisan effort on privacy law.
I've been working with one of our colleagues, Senator Moran, on a draft for quite some time. We have come very close and I am very hopeful that we'll continue to make progress because this issue of privacy is one of the central ones of our time. There is no question, as you, Madam Chair, pointed out so well, that data is the source of pay and power to these companies. It is not only a source of vast revenue, it is also the fulcrum of dominance and the ability to prevent others from entering the market. And the companies have learned to do it very adroitly and have adapted to the challenges that have been put to them by the kinds of answers we've seen today.
I want to return to those issues that my colleagues have raised so well. But first let me ask a few questions about the Wall Street Journal investigative report that was published last week showing the heinously destructive impact of Instagram on teens.
The simple fact of the matter is that Facebook has known for years that Instagram is directly involved in an increase in eating disorders, mental health issues, and suicidal thoughts – especially for teenage girls.
Despite that horrifying risk, Facebook is now dead set on pushing Instagram to even younger children. Far from being transparent about this danger, as Mr. Satterfield just attempted to represent, Facebook in fact has been blatantly deceptive and disingenuous about it.
Last month, on August 4, Senator Blackburn and I wrote to Mark Zuckerberg and asked him specifically about this issue. We asked, and I'm quoting, “Has Facebook’s research ever found that its platforms and products can have a negative effect on children's and teens' mental health or well-being such as increased suicidal thoughts, heightened anxiety, unhealthy usage patterns, negative self-image, or other indications of lower well-being?”
It wasn't a trick question. It preceded the reports in the Journal. We had no idea about the whistleblower documents that were ultimately revealed.
Facebook dodged the question. “We are not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is too much.”
We are not aware.
Well, we all know now that representation was simply untrue. Internal documents reported on by The Wall Street Journal demonstrate that Facebook has known for years that Instagram harms children and young people and for years, Facebook studies have found clear links between Instagram and mental health problems. And it was common knowledge in the company so that the response was a clear attempt to mislead Congress and misinform parents. I ask that The Wall Street Journal report of September 14 by Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Deepa Seetharaman be made part of the record madam chair.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): It will be, thank you.
Blumenthal: Thank you. So, the comparison to Big Tobacco made by Senator Lee is entirely apt. And I know something about Big Tobacco because I sued Big Tobacco. And I remember the revelation of the documents that showed Big Tobacco not only knew, but had done experiments proving that cigarettes cause cancer. They denied it for years. They had the knowledge about the damage done to people who smoked. My question to you, Mr. Satterfield, is why did Facebook misrepresent its research on mental health and teens when it responded to me and Senator Blackburn?
Steve Satterfield, Facebook Vice President of Privacy & Public Policy: Senator, thank you. Respectfully, I don't agree with that characterization but I do understand the frustration and concern that we're hearing about these reports. The safety and well-being of the teens on our platform is a top priority for the company. We’re going to continue to make it a priority. This was important research. We're proud that we did it. We're going to continue to, you know, study these really important issues.
Blumenthal: Why did you conceal it?
Satterfield: Senator, we didn't make it public because we don't, with a lot of the research we do because we think that is an important way of encouraging free and frank discussion within the company about hard issues.
Blumenthal: Do you have more research that shows the destructive effect of your platform on teens?
Satterfield: Senator, I'm not aware of any other research on teens. I don't work on these issues. I work on privacy and data.
Blumenthal: Are you not aware in the same way that the company responded that it was “not aware” when in fact it knew about the research?
Satterfield: Senator, I apologize. I am not familiar with the context of that letter or what went into the response. You know, what I can tell you is that we think it is important to be having a dialogue with Congress on these issues and we're prepared to work with you and your team going forward.
Blumenthal: Will you work with me and my team by appearing on September 30 at a hearing that we've invited you to do?
Satterfield: Senator, I know our folks have been in touch with your staff, you know, to discuss that. It's something that I think we're discussing right now.
Blumenthal: Well, we are discussing it right now. I'm asking you for a commitment that your company will send a high ranking, qualified, and knowledgeable representative to that hearing on September 30. Senator Blackburn and I are respectively the Ranking Member and Chairman, but it includes Senator Klobuchar and Lee. They are members as well. We need to hear from someone who is capable of answering these questions and it should be next week. Will you commit to have someone at that hearing?
Satterfield: Senator, we’re going to follow up promptly on this. We know these are incredibly important issues and we want to work with you and your staff going forward.
Blumenthal: Mr. Satterfield, I just want to point out to you that your company, contrary to what you’ve just told this Committee, is continuing with this really unfortunate charade. Vice President Nick Clegg doubled down on the misleading statement, in fact this weekend, when he said the research is, “still relatively nascent and evolving.” But according to one of these studies, Facebook found 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced a desire to kill themselves to Instagram. How is it not misleading to tell this Committee that the research is unclear if, according to your own research, tens of thousands of teens have suicidal thoughts directly because of Instagram? Don't you think you owe us an explanation next week?
Satterfield: Senator, I appreciate the concerns. I do. I do think that Nick was accurate in his op-ed. What I can tell you is that we can commit to working with you and your staff going forward on these issues.
Blumenthal: Has Facebook ever conducted research that found Instagram was more toxic to teens than other social media platforms?
Satterfield: Senator, I am not aware of that. These, again, aren't issues I work on at the company. You know, we're happy to follow up with you and your staff.
Blumenthal: Well, will you follow up [this] September 30th by having someone at the hearing who can tell us the answer? By the way the answer is that you have found Instagram is more toxic than Snapchat and TikTok. It’s more of a Facebook problem, your own research has shown it. I'd like someone to come provide an answer and explanation next September 30th.
Satterfield: We're going to get back to you promptly, Senator. I can commit to that.