Snap, TikTok, and YouTube set out with one important goal for Tuesday’s Senate hearing on child safety: to convince lawmakers that they are nothing like Facebook. While lawmakers were encouraged by the companies’ transparency, their humble approach hasn’t dissuaded lawmakers from pursuing new legislation.
While YouTube’s parent company Google has testified before, it was the first time representatives from Snap and TikTok testified before Congress, and they came prepared to differentiate themselves from the social media giant at the center of yet another series of scandals. It was Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s leaks that led senators to pursue these hearings. The Facebook Papers loomed over the event, reinforcing Snap and TikTok’s desire to set themselves apart and promising Congress greater transparency into their internal research and algorithms.
“Snapchat was built as an antidote to social media,” Jennifer Stout, Snap’s vice president of global public policy, said on Tuesday, attempting to remove Snapchat from the Facebook comparison. “In fact, we describe ourselves as a camera company.”
“TikTok is a global entertainment platform where people create and watch short-form videos,” said Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s vice president and head of public policy for the Americas. Beckerman continued, noting that direct messages and other social features are turned off by default for young users.
“Being different from Facebook is not a defense”
Still, the testifying companies’ statements did not quell lawmakers who feared these platforms could be used in the same harmful ways as Facebook and Instagram.
“Being different from Facebook is not a defense,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), chair of the subcommittee, said in his opening remarks on Tuesday. “That bar is in the gutter. It’s not a defense to say that you are different.”
Before Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers brought in Facebook head of safety Antigone Davis and whistleblower Frances Haugen to discuss how the company’s products, like Instagram, drive young users to content encouraging self-harm and unhealthy behaviors. For years, lawmakers have vowed to produce new legislation to protect children online, but recent Wall Street Journal reporting on a cache of internal Facebook documents leaked by Haugen breathed new life into their willingness to regulate tech.
Specifically, lawmakers pointed to internal research from Facebook noting that Instagram makes “body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
At a September hearing, lawmakers noted Davis’ unwillingness to answer questions and her refusal to publish Facebook’s entire body of research on the effects its platforms have on young users.
“I don’t understand, Ms. Davis, how you can deny that Instagram isn’t exploiting young users for its own profits?” Blumenthal asked her at the time. “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.”
“Facebook knows of the harmful effects of its site on children”
While Facebook may have refused to publish the research, reporters from a variety of different news publications gained access to additional documents leaked by Haugen and authored a deluge of articles on Monday examining Facebook’s own research and documents on teens and other issues like content moderation lovingly titled the “Facebook Papers.”
Clearly, Snap, TikTok, and YouTube didn’t want to be on the receiving end of their own “Papers” scandals. During Tuesday’s hearing, all three companies committed to releasing research, data, and independent studies they have conducted to Congress. Lawmakers like Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said that the committee could send these documents to independent experts to review.
In a press call with reporters Tuesday, Blumenthal said that his subcommittee would “hold them” to that promise and that lawmakers were “going to pursue legislation,” including updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and a potential markup on the KIDS Act. The latter bill would place new limits on the types of features and content tech companies could provide for children under the age of 16.
Even as Snap, TikTok, and YouTube try to remove themselves from Facebook’s toxic regulatory groundswell, CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to pull them closer in the company’s latest earnings call on Monday. Zuckerberg explained that the company has made changes to its services to support older users, many of whom don’t use platforms like Snap and TikTok.
“So much of our services have gotten dialed to be the best for the most people who use them, rather than specifically for young adults,” Zuckerberg said. Later, he called TikTok “one of the most effective competitors we’ve ever faced.” He also announced that the company would refresh Instagram’s app design, making its Reels product “a more central part of the experience.” Reels is Facebook’s answer to TikTok’s growing popularity with young people, allowing users to post videos in a similar style.
Still, it’s unclear when the companies that testified Tuesday plan to release the internal reporting. Snap, TikTok, and YouTube did not immediately answer requests for comment from The Verge regarding the timing of these disclosures.