Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley took Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to a Capitol-sized woodshed Wednesday for the harm his social media sites reportedly cause to teenagers, challenging the Facebook founder in a now-viral confrontation to personally compensate the victims.
Hawley followed his fiery takedown of a stunned Zuckerberg in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing by announcing Thursday he’ll ask the Senate next week for “unanimous consent on legislation giving victims of sexual exploitation online the right to sue social media platforms.” Such companies are currently exempt from lawsuits by federal law.
Meta owns Facebook, Instagram, Threads and WhatsApp.
Even as Zuckerberg claimed the “bulk of the science” does not indicate a link between social media use and mental health, Hawley blistered Zuckerberg with proof from his own company that it does: The company’s internal studies, Hawley reminded Zuckerberg, have shown that “we make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls,” and “teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”
Those survey results, Hawley said, were unprompted and “consistent across all groups.”
Later in the contentious exchange, Hawley noted a whistleblowing former Meta executive has told Congress:
- 37% of female Meta users ages 13-15 reported experiencing unwanted nudity in the past seven days;
- 24% incurred unwanted sexual advances online in the past seven days;
- And 17% reported self-harm content being pushed at them in the past seven days.
“Who did you fire for this?” demanded Hawley. “Who got fired because of that?”
When Zuckerberg said that wasn’t “appropriate” to talk about, an indignant Hawley noted the presence of victims and their families in the hearing room.
“There’s families of victims here today. Have you apologized to the victims?” asked Hawley. When Zuckerberg seemed speechless, Hawley persisted. “Would you like to do so now? They’re here. You’re on national television. Would you like now to apologize to the victims who have been harmed by your product?”
As Hawley invited the victims to hold up pictures of their loved ones, Zuckerberg stood, turned and addressed them. “I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” Zuckerberg said. “No one should go through the things that your families have suffered.”
As noted by The New York Times, “He did not address whether Meta’s platforms had played a role in that suffering and said the company was investing in efforts to prevent such experiences.”
That wasn’t near enough for Hawley.
“Your own study says that you make life worse for 1 in 3 teenage girls,” Hawley noted earlier in his prosecutor-style questioning. “You increase anxiety and depression. That’s what [Meta’s] study says.”
Saying Zuckerberg has been denying the causation for years, claiming that the “product is wonderful, the science is nascent, full speed ahead,” Hawley added, “while internally you know full well your product is a disaster for teenagers. And yet you keep right on doing what you’re doing.”
That prompted applause from the gallery, while Zuckerberg meekly protested, “That’s not true. That’s not true.”
In an exclusive interview Thursday, The Heartlander asked Hawley what he thought was gained by his dogged questioning of Zuckerberg.
“Well, I think we finally got an acknowledgment, for the first time ever, that Facebook does real harm to kids online,” Hawley said, “so much so that he had to actually face the parents and apologize for what Facebook has done. He’s made billions – billions of dollars. Facebook has made billions of dollars – in part by allowing kids to be exploited on their platform. That has got to end, and I hope that this will be a beginning.
“Apologies are good. That’s a good first step. What needs to happen now is, Congress needs to act. Congress needs to pass a law to allow victims to sue these companies for what they’ve done to them.”
The Heartlander asked Hawley what he thought of Zuckerberg’s apologizing to victims, which made for front-page headlines.
“Well, he didn’t want to. I mean, he clearly was hating every minute of it. And what’s just as telling is when I asked him if he was going to compensate these victims. He’s got $140 billion of his own money. Is he willing to spend any of it to help these victims – particularly these young girls who have been propositioned, who’ve had suicide videos pushed at them, who have been chased around by pedophiles? Is he going to do anything to help them?
“And he looked like he never considered that in his life. You could tell he didn’t even know what to say. The answer should be easy. It should be, ‘We will do everything we can to help them.’
“And I tell you, the way to incentivize them is to let them be sued.”
What if Hawley’s line of questioning had been in front of a jury?
“Oh man,” Hawley replied, briefly lost in thought. “You know, if you could get a jury on this, I think a jury would absolutely convict. You’d get a multibillion-dollar verdict. And you want to know what would happen then? Facebook would change its behavior.
“You want to drive change? Open up the courtroom and allow normal people, allow victims, to get into court and have their day in court. They probably won’t win every case, but they’d have their day in court. And I tell you what, they’ll win some of the cases, and that would make that company change – and every other company too.
“All it would take would be one verdict in favor of these victims, and all of those tech executives, they’d be scurrying to get rid of the child porn on their platforms. They would do it in a heartbeat. But right now, they think they’re untouchable. That has got to change.”
Hawley did ask Zuckerberg why his company shouldn’t be sued for dead and harmed children allegedly linked to Meta’s social media use. Zuckerberg responded with bland assurances that his company is leading the industry effort to build the best tools it can to “keep communities safe.”
“Oh, nonsense,” Hawley blurted. “Your product is killing people.”
The Missouri senator then challenged Zuckerberg to compensate victims himself, even though his company is impervious to lawsuits.
“Will you personally commit to compensating the victims? You’re a billionaire,” Hawley said, suggesting Zuckerberg set up a compensation fund with his own money. Zuckerberg’s reply was unresponsive, which Hawley said “sounds like a ‘no.’”
At the very least, Hawley told The Lion, there ought to be a higher minimum age for social media accounts.
“It ought to be 16 years old before you can open up a social media account. That would help parents so much. I can say this from experience: It would be a huge help for parents to know that those media companies aren’t even available, the platforms aren’t even available, till their kids are 16.
“I just hope that every parent in America will encourage their kids to stay off social media as much as possible. There’s very little good that comes from social media, especially in those early teen years.”