Mark Zuckerberg, Big Tech CEOs face Senate grilling on child safety

A group of social media bigwigs was grilled by Congress on Wednesday about the risks their products pose to young people.

The chief executives of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Discord and X, formerly known as Twitter, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier Wednesday. The hearing got emotional at times, with apologies from two CEOs, tough questions by senators and reactions from families in the room who have seen harm come to some of their children.

Families and victims were a massive force in the hearing

The families of people harmed by social media proved to be an immense force in Wednesday's hearing.

Through applause, laughter at CEO testimony, hisses and moments of silence, the parents who say their children suffered or died as a result of social media served as a key theme.

They drove tensions higher and in some cases appeared to fuel the attacks of lawmakers against the CEOs. Congress has held many tech CEO hearings. But more than any other factor, the presence of so many parents in the room transformed the hearing and injected an unprecedented sense of urgency.

Zuckerberg, Spiegel personally apologise to families

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood to apologize to the families in the hearing room.

"I'm sorry for everything you have all been through," he said. "No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer."

In response, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley called on Zuckerberg, as a billionaire, to "compensate" the families whose children have been affected by his platforms.

In response to prompting from California Democrat Sen. Laphonza Butler, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel also apologized to families whose children have died after they purchased drugs on Snapchat.

"I'm so sorry that we have not been able to prevent these tragedies," Spiegel said, before detailing some of the efforts the company takes to protect young users.

'The foothills of creepy': Senators express outrage over tech practices

Sen. Marsha Blackburn confronted Zuckerberg on internal Meta documents suggesting that the company estimates the lifetime value of a teen user at $270.

"How could you possibly even have that thought? It is astounding to me," Blackburn said, before recognizing a group of youth advocates in the audience and inviting them to stand.

When they did so, the advocates revealed that they were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "I am worth more than $270."

"Children are not your priority. Children are your product," Blackburn told Zuckerberg in the tense exchange.

Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy said Meta platforms have become a "killing field of information" where users "see only one side of an issue."

"You have convinced over 2 billion people to give up all of their personal information -- every bit of it -- in exchange for getting to see what their high school friends had for dinner Saturday night," he said.

Asking if Facebook makes it clear to its users how their data is monetized by the platform, Kennedy said, "Does your user agreement still suck?"

This prompted some laughter in the room.

Zuckerberg said people get the basics of how social media works.

"You're in the foothills of creepy. You track people who aren't even Facebook users," Kennedy said. "I just wonder if our technology is greater than our humanity in the interest of this funnel."

Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared visibly upset as she recounted the stories of parents whose children were harmed by social media platforms, including young people who committed suicide after being threatened by predators online.

"I'm so tired of this," Klobuchar said. "It's been 28 years ... since the start of the internet. We haven't passed any of these bills, because everyone's 'double talk, double talk.' It's time to actually pass them."

Lawmakers grill TikTok CEO on the platform's connection to China

TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled several times on the company's connection to China, via its parent company ByteDance, and the amount of access and influence the platform grants to the Chinese government.

In one instance, Chew told Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton that it was "a coincidence" that he was appointed CEO of the platform a day after the Chinese Communist Party's China internet investment fund bought a 1% stake in ByteDance's main Chinese subsidiary, getting a seat on the board of the subsidiary.

Sen. Hawley also questioned Chew, who is Singaporean, about the company's connections to China and its communist party.

In another instance, under questioning from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz during a timed answering period, Chew described the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing as a "massive protest."

While Chew's characterization of the event is accurate, it omits the subsequent bloody crackdown against pro-democracy activists by the Chinese government that today is heavily censored on the Chinese internet.

In later testimony, Chew did refer to Tianamen Square as a massacre.

Chew has previously testified to Congress that TikTok allows content about Tiananmen Square on its platform. TikTok does not operate within China. But its parent company, ByteDance, distributes a substantially similar app known as Douyin in China.

A rare unifying force on Capitol Hill: Hating social media companies

Wednesday's hearing demonstrated the breadth of criticism for social media companies among lawmakers, a rare bipartisan topic on Capitol Hill.

In an early instance, Sen. Graham highlighted how he has "almost nothing in common" with his Democratic colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren and how he has a different political philosophy from Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. However, he noted that they agree on the issues of how tech is affecting society.

"Elizabeth and I see an abuse here that needs to be dealt with. Sen. Durbin and I have different political philosophies, but I appreciate what you've done on this committee. You've been a great partner. To all my Democratic colleagues, thank you very, very much. To my Republican colleagues, thank you all very, very much," Graham said.

Despite both parties' appetite for going after tech platforms, however, Congress has yet to pass meaningful legislation to regulate social media companies.

Most of the action has taken place in state legislatures and in the courts, which have become battlegrounds for new policies including age minimums for social media.

"I am tired of talking. I'm tired of having discussions," Graham said. "Open up the courthouse door. Until you do that, nothing will change. Until these people can be sued for the damage they're doing, it is all talk."