February 2, 2024

Zuck’s Doublespeak

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg bobbed and weaved and apologized during a Senate hearing Wednesday, but will any good come of it?

When Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologizes for the harm his Facebook platform has caused, people take notice. Naturally, however, there’s more than meets the eye.

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” related in part to the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill introduced in Congress by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D‑CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R‑TN). Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois opened the hearing by playing a video in which victims of sex crimes spoke about the harm done to them.

“We got a phone call to find out that my son was in his room and was suicidal,” one victim revealed. “He was only 13 years old at the time. [He] and a friend had been exploited online and trafficked, and my son reached out to Twitter. [Twitter’s] response was, ‘Thank you for reaching out. We reviewed the content and … we did not find a violation of our policies, so no action will be taken at this time.’”

That’s just one of countless victims and their families, some of whom attended the hearing, whose lives have been destroyed by social media.

“These apps have changed the ways we live, work, and play, but as investigations have detailed, social media and messaging apps have also given predators powerful new tools to sexually exploit children,” Senator Durbin explained. “Discord has been used to groom, abduct and abuse children. Meta’s Instagram helped connect and promote a network of pedophiles. Snapchat’s disappearing messages have been co-opted by criminals who financially extort young victims. TikTok has become a ‘platform of choice’ for predators to access, engage, and groom children for abuse and the prevalence of CSAM on X has grown as the company has gutted its trust and safety workforce.”

Then it came time for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and Meta owner, to address the senators.

“With so much of our lives spent on mobile devices and social media, it’s important to look into the effects of teen mental health and well-being,” Zuckerberg proclaimed during his opening remarks. “I take this very seriously. Mental health is a complex issue, and the existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes.”

But he also spent a lot of time touting the benefits of social media and explaining how hard he and his staff are working to ensure platforms are safe for children. It was a smooth political statement crafted to put forth a good image.

Zuckerberg’s appearance before a congressional committee is no different than anyone else who comes to Capitol Hill. While you might get grilled by lawmakers, it’s also a chance to spin the narrative in your favor or to apologize while denying any responsibility.

Senators from both sides of the aisle gathered to question Zuckerberg and other representatives of social media companies.

National Review reports: “The chief executives of Meta, TikTok, Discord, Snap, and X (formerly known as Twitter) listened as the assembled lawmakers recounted the stories of constituents whose children had been harmed by their use of social media. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Chew appeared before the committee voluntarily while Jason Citron of Discord, Evan Spiegel of Snap, and Linda Yaccarino of X appeared under force of a subpoena.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham “emphasized that the best way to address the harm caused by social media would be to reform Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act of 1996],” NR added, “which provides liability protection for online platforms, to allow parents to sue the companies for harm caused to their children.”

At one point, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley confronted Zuckerberg by bringing up his previous denial of causality between social media and mental illness. Again, Zuckerberg denied there was any evidence.

Then again, Zuckerberg’s job was to portray social media in the best light possible considering the circumstances. As for the evidence, Zuckerberg is just plain wrong.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has studied this issue extensively. After Zuckerberg’s remarks, he pointed to evidence from the Centers for Disease Control showing that depression and suicide rates have soared in teens, especially young girls, since about 2012 — which just happens to be when smartphones and their social media apps became ubiquitous.

Hawley also pushed Zuckerberg to apologize to the families of children harmed or lost by social media. Surprisingly, Zuckerberg stood up, turned to face these families, some of whom held up photos of their kids, and apologized.

It was a great moment for television, and it forced one of the most powerful people in social media to express some remorse, though he did so only because Hawley pushed him.

The truth is that Zuckerberg’s Orwellian doublespeak is an insult to the victims of social media, their families, and the American people. Clearly, the senators at the hearing are on the record admitting there’s a problem, but we’ll soon see if they’re really interested in making a difference and combatting the mental health crisis among young people in this country or engaging in their own art of deception for political gain.

Notably, and predictably, according to The Washington Post: “More than 100 human rights and LGBTQ groups have condemned the [Kids Online Safety Act], saying it would endanger minors, especially LGBTQ youth. First Amendment lawyers and organizations focused on protecting free speech also have lambasted the proposal and similar state laws, saying they would place dire restrictions on free speech and expression.”

By “human rights and LGBTQ groups” they mean “groomers.”

We can’t rely on Big Tech to make a difference, thus, congressional reformation of the Section 230 protections now afforded these behemoth platforms is our best option. Currently, Section 230 has enabled these social media companies to become wealthy and powerful at the expense of our children. If their product is as safe as they claim, they have nothing to fear.

Finally, while Congress is taking on the dangers social media platforms pose to youth, our representatives also should be taking on the grave danger social media giants pose to all Americans — the systemic suppression of free speech.

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