This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Friday, October 1st. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. A lot of questions have been raised about the potentially toxic impact Instagram has on young users following a Wall Street Journal investigation that exposed Facebook’s own internal research on the topic. Yesterday, senators demanded answers. And while lawmakers aren’t always the most up-to-date on social media trends, our reporter Georgia Wells says the level of preparation and types of questions show just how seriously senators are taking this issue. On today’s show, Georgia joins us to discuss what we learned from the hearing and what it tells us about how lawmakers and Facebook might move forward. That’s after these headlines.
Video conferencing company Zoom and cloud-based customer service software provider Five9 have agreed to terminate their merger deal. The all-stock deal was valued at nearly $15 billion, but it failed to get the approval of enough Five9 shareholders to move forward. The deal had come under scrutiny by US regulators and questions were raised about the influence of China on Zoom’s business. Amazon has settled a case brought against it by a worker’s union. The union claimed the e-commerce giant wrongfully terminated two employees for speaking with other workers about safety and working conditions. Amazon denied the allegation and said the workers were fired for repeatedly violating internal policies. Amazon workers in the US are not unionized, but anyone aware of a workplace violation can file a complaint with the national labor relations board.
Virgin Galactic has been cleared to operate space flights again by the federal aviation administration. An FAA probe found Virgin Galactic strayed from its assigned aerospace during a July flight that carried the company’s founder, billionaire Richard Branson, and five others. Virgin Galactic said the aviation regulator agreed to designate a larger area as protected aerospace during its missions. The company also said it would ensure it communicates with FAA air traffic control as space flights are occurring. An FAA spokesman declined to comment on Virgin Galactic’s planned communications changes.
Okay. Coming up, Facebook’s safety chief faced off with senators over Instagram’s impact on young users’ mental health. It was a bipartisan push to get answers from Facebook. What does that mean for the future of the social media giant? We’ll discuss after the break.
There was a lot happening on Capitol Hill on Thursday, but lawmakers still found time for social media. Facebook’s head of global safety Antigone Davis faced off with senators. Lawmakers grilled Davis about the impact Facebook’s platforms have on the wellbeing of children following Wall Street Journal reporting that Facebook knew from its own internal research that Instagram can be harmful to the mental health of young users. Here’s how Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey put it.
Senator Ed Markey: Instagram is that first childhood cigarettes meant to get teens hooked early, exploiting the peer pressure of popularity, and ultimately endangering their health. Facebook is just like big tobacco pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early, all so Facebook can make money.
Zoe Thomas: Joining us now is reporter Georgia Wells. She co-wrote the story on Instagram’s impact on young users and was following the hearing. Hey, Georgia.
Georgia Wells: Hi.
Zoe Thomas: So, we heard Senator Markey compare Facebook to cigarettes. What does that tell us about how senators are approaching this issue?
Georgia Wells: Senator Markey’s comparison showed us that senators are taking a more aggressive stance towards Facebook than they have previously. Comparing Instagram to cigarettes … I mean, cigarettes are a product that’s very heavily regulated that children are not allowed to buy. He really came out swinging and set the tone for much of the hearing today.
Zoe Thomas: I mean, one thing that stood out to me is this comparison to big tobacco. Those companies knew about the addictiveness of their product and knew its harmful properties, but didn’t tell anybody. Facebook now has a similar charge placed against them. It’s, of course, an imperfect analogy because smoking is inherently harmful and deadly, and social media isn’t always bad. But given that the senators are making this comparison, does it mean that they’re doubling down on attacking Facebook?
Georgia Wells: What we saw today was a more bipartisan effort to understand what’s happening at Facebook and also to attempt to hold Facebook accountable for certain practices that the senators found concerning. So, the intensity of their concerns comparing Instagram to tobacco, and also the bipartisanship just gave an indication that this would be unlike any of the crises Facebook has faced in the past.
Zoe Thomas: One thing we also learned right at the top of the hearing was that Senator Blumenthal and his team set up this fake account pretending to be a 13-year-old girl using Instagram. Why would they do this? What did they learn from it?
Georgia Wells: Yeah. So, Senator Blumenthal said that his office did create this fake 13-year-old account on Instagram and then they followed accounts related to extreme dieting and eating disorders and that, within a day, this account was inundated with content around eating disorders and even self-harm. This shows us the senators are getting savvy. In the past, when tech companies went to testify, some of the questions from lawmakers sometimes were quite cringy just when they revealed the lack of understanding they had around how tech worked. But what we saw today was a group of senators who by and large appeared to have done their homework and were really trying to understand how Instagram works.
Zoe Thomas: Lawmakers were citing the WSJ’s investigation and documents from an individual who provided senators with internal research from Facebook. What was Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis’ response?
Georgia Wells: Antigone Davis said that Facebook’s research was mischaracterized, but she did provide specifics. There was a back and forth about whether or not this research should be characterized as a bombshell. So, there’s this back and forth between Antigone Davis and Senator Blumenthal.
Antigone Davis: I want to be clear that this research is not a bombshell. It’s not causal research. It’s in fact just directional research that we use for product teams.
Senator Richard Blumenthal: Well, I beg to differ with you, Ms. Davis. This research is a bombshell. It is powerful, gripping, riveting evidence that Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children and that it has concealed those facts and findings.
Georgia Wells: The senator’s point was that this research provided a granularity that we hadn’t been aware of before. Even if external researchers had made some of these points, we weren’t aware that Facebook’s researchers were looking at this to such a serious degree internally, and that some of their findings were really concerning.
Zoe Thomas: Facebook has been pressed for this kind of research in the past and it hasn’t given it senators before. Now that some of this is already in the public domain and some of it is with senators, did Facebook say whether or not it’s going to release more of its research?
Georgia Wells: Antigone Davis said that Facebook would commit to trying to share more research and to trying to grant outside researchers broader access to Facebook’s own proprietary data, but she didn’t make any firm commitments. So, I know that is something that senators will be wanting to follow up on with her.
Zoe Thomas: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen executives from Facebook testifying before Congress. It’s not the first time they’ve been asked for research. It does seem to be sort of surprising in some ways given the magnitude of what’s been revealed that Facebook didn’t send one of its big names. It didn’t send Mark Zuckerberg. It didn’t send Cheryl Sandberg. That instead it sent Facebook’s head of global safety, does it tell us anything about their strategy that she’s the one testifying?
Georgia Wells: Facebook’s strategy is a little bit of a head-scratcher. She’s not even the highest executive at Instagram the company could send. That would be Adam Mosseri who is the head of Instagram. And it was notable because in multiple instances, senators asked Antigone Davis questions and her response was “That’s not my area. I can follow up with you, but I’m not the person to answer that.” So I don’t quite know why Facebook would send an executive who wasn’t prepared to answer many of the questions that I think the company could have expected to receive.
Zoe Thomas: Right. And one of those questions that we got kind of a vague answer on was about Instagram kids. Earlier this week, Facebook said it was pausing its plans for Instagram kids, but senators were really pushing about what it intended to do eventually and when it might restart that effort.
Georgia Wells: Senator Markey specifically asked Antigone Davis if Facebook would commit to not having, for example, follow counts on Instagram for kids. She did not commit to that. She was very vague. She sort of indicated all things were on the table, that Facebook was having these discussions, but she didn’t provide Senator Markey or other senators with I think some of the reassurances that they were looking for around wanting to make sure that Instagram for kids would be a safe product or one that they thought they could trust children on.
Zoe Thomas: Other than calling out Facebook and raising these concerns though, do we expect senators are actually going to do anything else?
Georgia Wells: Senator Markey said that this whole episode shows that Facebook has been unable to regulate itself. So, he kind of implied there that he’d like to see more regulation of Facebook in the future. I don’t know what kind of teeth this will look like. Other senators mentioned that they hope to reform some of the legislation that is intended to keep children safe online.
Zoe Thomas: And what about on Facebook’s mind? I mean, what’s next for it going forward?
Georgia Wells: So, on Tuesday next week, the whistleblower is scheduled to testify, and we’ve heard that already Facebook has started clamping down on the extent to which internal employees have access to some of the internal research that Facebook has done. So, we can kind of see evidence that the company is circling the wagons. Facebook is appearing to go on the PR offensive a little bit more than it used to in the past.
Zoe Thomas: I want to ask you about that last point because Antigone Davis was asked repeatedly to guarantee that there would be no retaliation against the whistleblower, but if we’re seeing Facebook or if we’re hearing reports that Facebook is tightening access to its internal research, that it’s maybe clamping down to make sure this kind of leak doesn’t happen in the future, what does it say about how they’re approaching this and what they might do to protect the company going forward?
Georgia Wells: Senator Blumenthal asked Antigone Davis “Will you commit there will be no legal actions based on the disclosure of the whistleblower’s documents?” And Antigone Davis said that Facebook would not take legal action related to the person furnishing documents to the Senate. She said, “I’m aware that there are rules in terms of the Senate and we will comply with those rules.” But she wouldn’t make any further guarantees beyond just the specific action that happened with the relation to the Senate.
Zoe Thomas: All right. That was our reporter, Georgia Wells. Thanks for joining us, Georgia.
Georgia Wells: Thank you, Zoe.
Zoe Thomas: All right. That’s it for Tech News Briefing this week. Our producer is Julie Chang. Our supervising producer is Chris Insley. Our executive producer is Katara Yokum, and I’m your host, Zoe Thomas. Thanks for listening and have a great weekend.