'Blood on your hands': Mark Zuckerberg among social media chiefs grilled in Senate hearing

Meta's chief executive apologises to families with children harmed by social platforms

The chief executives of Discord, Snap, TikTok, X and Meta are sworn in before a US Senate committee on the dangers of child sexual exploitation. AFP
Powered by automated translation

The chief executives of Meta, X, TikTok, Snap and Discord appeared before Congress on Wednesday to face questions from US senators about the alleged damage their platforms are causing to children.

The hearing, titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis”, came as Congress faces pressure on how to respond to the online spread of child sexual abuse.

The committee's Democratic chairman Dick Durbin said Wednesday's hearing would build on the efforts it has made in examining the “plague of online child sexual exploitation”.

Mr Durbin and Republican senator Lindsey Graham subpoenaed X chief executive Linda Yaccarino, Snap's Evan Spiegel and Discord's Jason Citron, as well as Meta's Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok's Shou Zi Chew.

In prepared testimony, Mr Zuckerberg pledged to work with Congress to make his company's platforms safer for teenagers. The company has faced criticism for years over its child-safety practices.

“Mr Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don't mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands,” Mr Graham said.

“You have a product that's killing people.”

Mr Chew said: "As a father of three young children myself I know that the issues that we're discussing today are horrific and the nightmare of every parent.

"I intend to invest more than $2 billion in trust and safety. This year alone, we have 40,000 safety professionals working on this topic."

He said that more than 170 million Americans use TikTok each month, 20 million more than last year.

The Senate judiciary committee last month approved bills to stop the “exploitation of kids online”, including one that removes companies' immunity from criminal and civil liability under child sexual abuse laws.

Another gives federal regulators more power to address the online distribution of sexual imagery.

None of the bills have become law.

Under prodding from Republican senator Josh Hawley, Mr Zuckerberg apologised to families who were holding up pictures of children they said had been harmed by social media.

As the hearing started, the committee played a video in which children spoke about being bullied on social media platforms.

Senators recounted stories of young people taking their own lives after they were extorted for money by sexual predators with whom they shared photos.

"I'm sorry for everything you have all been through," Mr Zuckerberg 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."

The abrupt and public apology received mixed reactions.

“As a survivor, it was like, this is what I’ve wanted for 10 years,” Leah Juliett told Bloomberg News.

“But it was so laced with excuses and justifications for the harm that it didn’t feel like a true apology, and I don’t think that I’ll ever feel like Zuckerberg or any of the other CEOs is sorry until something genuinely changes.”

Meta said 40,000 of its employees work in online safety and that $20 billion has been invested since 2016 to make the platform safer.

"Keeping young people safe online has been a challenge since the internet began and as criminals evolve their tactics, we have to evolve our defences too," Mr Zuckerberg told the senators

Mr Spiegel also apologised to parents for the social network's responsibility in not preventing overdose deaths since victims obtained access to the drugs through the app.

Updated: February 01, 2024, 8:48 AM