It took just under two hours, but Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg eventually received a congressional dressing down over child safety, culminating in a remarkable scene where the billionaire stood up and issued a rare public apology to users of his company’s services.
As the founder and CEO of Meta, the world’s most prominent social media company, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Zuckerberg drew particular scrutiny from lawmakers on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the child safety policies of online platforms.
Two Republican senators known for both their firebrand personalities and outspoken criticism of Big Tech, Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), pressed Zuckerberg about claims he’d made in his opening statement that there was no evidence linking social media use to declines in teen mental health.
To close his allotted seven minutes of time for questions, Hawley took the remarkable step of urging Zuckerberg to apologize to the families of teenagers who had been victims of online sexual abuse, some of whom committed suicide. A visibly uncomfortable Zuckerberg then turned around, faced the gallery, and addressed the audience of reporters and parents holding up signs with pictures of their deceased children.
“It’s terrible,” Zuckerberg told them. “No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered. And this is why we invest so much and are going to continue doing industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”
Many of the families in the audience were parents of teenagers who had suffered either sexual abuse or exploitation online or had faced severe mental health struggles as a result of their social media use. Underage victims had been extorted over the release of nude pictures—a crime now referred to as “sextortion”—contacted by child molesters, overdosed on drugs purchased on the platforms, and developed eating disorders when social media algorithms promoted content about them.
Zuckerberg’s apology came after Hawley accused him of “taking no action” to address these issues when they were brought to his attention over the years.
Hawley also questioned why Zuckerberg and Meta hadn’t compensated any of the victims, to which Zuckerberg replied it was his job to “build tools” that keep Facebook and Instagram users safe.
Hawley shot back that “your job is to be responsible for what your company has done.”