USA Today

By Matthew Brown Jessica Guynn

Tuesday's groundbreaking Senate hearing by a former Facebook product manager highlighted critical problems within the influential technology company. The hearing also showcased another rare phenomenon: bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill.

“I will not stand by while our kids, our health and our democracy become collateral damage in the profit game being played by Facebook and other platforms. There is growing momentum on both sides of the aisle to take action, and I believe Frances Haugen’s testimony will be a true catalyst," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told USA TODAY on Wednesday. 

The White House reiterated that President Joe Biden supports significant changes to Section 230 after the hearing, as well as reforms on the nation's antitrust laws and data privacy issues.

"More needs to be done, reform should happen, we also need to do more on privacy and antitrust, and certainly watching testimony yesterday raised a lot of those issues again," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a news briefing.

For years, Facebook navigated scandal after scandal, emerging bruised but seemingly indomitable as efforts by lawmakers and regulators to rein in the social media giant were bungled. 

Yet the consensus of outrage on display at the hearing, as well as the line of questioning taken by lawmakers, indicates a shift in dynamics. Has Facebook's moment of political reckoning finally come?

Haugen was questioned Tuesday by Democrats and Republicans over internal Facebook documents she leaked to the Wall Street Journal showing the company's apps can harm teenagers' well-being and poison public discourse.

Bipartisan frustration boils over

The hearing offered a road map of what's to come for Facebook: additional appearances by Haugen on other congressional panels including over national security concerns and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, demands that CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear before Congress, and momentum for bipartisan legislation to regulate social media in a deadlocked Congress.

It may have alsojolted cooperation between lawmakers on the issue. 

"Bipartisan legislation is already advancing in Congress, including my bill with Senator Grassley to provide federal antitrust enforcers with more resources," Klobuchar said, adding that there is energy "on both sides of the aisle to take action."

It may have alsojolted cooperation between lawmakers on the issue. 

"Bipartisan legislation is already advancing in Congress, including my bill with Senator Grassley to provide federal antitrust enforcers with more resources," Klobuchar said, adding that there is energy "on both sides of the aisle to take action."

”I think we need to give a serious look at updating COPPA, especially in light of the changes to technology that have taken place since it was first enacted," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told USA TODAY, referring to the Children's Online Privacy Protection rule. 

"Now that more and more young adults are on social media, we need to examine how their online identities are being protected. Additionally, a national consumer privacy bill is more than overdue, and I’m pleased to be discussing that with Senator Blumenthal as well."

Lee has introduced the PROMISE Act in Congress, which would hold social media platforms legally liable for content on their platforms that contradicts their own terms of service.

Lee's legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Mike Braun, R-Ind., is not bipartisan but would target political speech and the platform's marketing practices toward minors, according to the senator's office.

Congressional aides told USA TODAY they expect the issue will continue to gain traction. Several expect Facebook executives to be called for hearings and say they may subpoena documents from the company.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., called for the House Energy and Commerce Committee to subpoena all documents related to Haugen's testimony "particularly those related to the mental health of children, Covid-19, election misinformation, algorithmic amplification, and targeted advertising.”

Lawmakers floated the need for legislation that protects consumer privacy and children online, that creates new competition rules, and that provides more visibility into how Facebook’s algorithms shape the experiences of its billions of users.

“I would simply say, 'Let’s get to work,'” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who has sponsored measures on algorithm transparency. “We’ve got some things we can do here.”

Mark Zuckerberg breaks his silence

In a Facebook post responding to Haugen’s testimony, Zuckerberg did not address the calls for him to testify. He has testified seven times in the past four years, and Facebook executives have testified nearly three dozen times in all.

Zuckerberg emphasized the company assertion that Facebook is being unfairly portrayed in the media and that the internal research Haugen leaked has been taken out of context “to construct a false narrative that we don’t care.”

“At the most basic level,” he wrote, “I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.” 

Haugen urged lawmakers to overhaul Section 230, which shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users, by focusing on how their algorithms amplify that content "to prioritize virality and growth and reactiveness over public safety.” She also urged them to create a new federal oversight body to regulate social media.

“I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profit and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved these conflicts in favor of its own profits,” Haugen told a Senate consumer protection subcommittee. “As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change.”

Facebook has also called for government regulation. "It is time for Congress to act," Lena Pietsch, Facebook's director of policy communications, said in a statement to USA TODAY after Tuesday's hearing.

"For example, what is the right age for teens to be able to use internet services? How should internet services verify people's ages? And how should companies balance teens' privacy while giving parents visibility into their activity?" he said in a Facebook post.

Facebook is tapping the brakes on rolling out new products and also has executives reviewing products to make sure they don't harm children in light of the congressional scrutiny, the Journal reported Wednesday. Last week, Facebook said it would hold off on its Instagram Kids product amid concerns over the harmful effects of social media on young people’s mental health.

Could this be Facebook's moment of reckoning?

Longtime watchers of Facebook were heartened by Tuesday's hearings, but many analysts are waiting to see the talk from Capitol Hill become meaningful action.

“Facebook's operations are a study in malignance, greed, hypocrisy, egomania, irresponsibility and power. And yet it would be difficult to regulate the company's content-related practices and policies," said Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia.

The momentum to take action may run headlong into thorny legal questions.

“I think these Facebook revelations will produce a lot of public discussions as well as legislative and regulatory action, but I'm not optimistic that much of it would pass constitutional muster, particularly where the action is aimed at the company's content-related practices and policies and involves types of speech protected by the First Amendment," he said.

“Unless it actually wants to specifically target Facebook, it has to identify what kind of legislation would have positive effects on social media more broadly,” he said. “There is no consensus on what that regulation would be (or) what the legislation would look like, so in the absence of consensus, Congress is really just trying to do fact-finding at this point.”

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