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Members of Congress Request Facebook Halt ‘Instagram For Kids’ Plan Following Mental Health Research Report

Letter follows Wall Street Journal story that reports Facebook knew about mental health damage Instagram has on teens.

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WASHINGTON, September 15, 2021 – Members of Congress have sent a letter Wednesday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging the company to stop its plan to launch a new platform for kids, following a report by the Wall Street Journal that cites company documents that reportedly shows the company knows its platforms harm the mental health of teens.

The letter, signed by Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, Kathy Castor, D-Florida, and Lori Trahan, D-Massachusetts, also asks Facebook to provide answers by October 6 to questions including whether the company has, and who, reviewed the mental health research as cited in the Journal report; whether the company will agree to abandon plans to launch a new platform for children or teens; and when the company will begin studying its platforms’ impact on the kids’ mental health.

The letter also demands an update on the company’s plans for new products targeting children or teens, asks for copies of internal research regarding the mental health of this demographic, and copies of any external research the company has commissioned or accessed related to this matter.

The letter cites the Journal’s September 14 story, which reports that the company has spent the past three years conducting studies into how photo-sharing app Instagram, which Facebook owns, affects millions of young users, and found that the app is “harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.” The story uses the story of a teen who had to see a therapist due to an eating disorder due to exposure to images of other users’ bodies.

The story also cites a presentation that said teens were blaming Instagram for anxiety, depression, and the desire to kill themselves.

The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, told the Journal that research on mental health was valuable and that Facebook was late to realizing the drawback of connecting large swatch of people, according to the story. But he added that there’s “a lot of good that comes with what we do.”

Facebook told Congress it was planning ‘Instagram for kids’

Back in March, during a congressional hearing about Big Tech’s influence, Zuckerberg said Instagram was in the planning stages of building an “Instagram for kids.” Instagram itself does not allow kids under 13 to use the app.

On April 5, Markey, Castor and Trahan penned their names on another letter to Zuckerberg, which expressed concerns about the plan. “Children are a uniquely vulnerable population online, and images of kids are highly sensitive data,” the April letter said. “Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfil this obligation.”

The plan was also met with opposition from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Humane Technology, Common Sense Media, and the Center for Digital Democracy, who said the app “preys on their fear of missing out as their ravenous desire for approval by peers exploits their developmental growth.

“The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and well-being,” the opponents said. “Younger children are even less developmentally equipped to deal with these challenges, as they are learning to navigate social interactions, friendships, and their inner sense of strengths during this crucial window of development.”

At the March hearing, Zuckerberg, however, claimed that social apps to connect other people can have positive mental health benefits.

And then in August, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, sent a letter to Zuckerberg asking for their research on mental health. Facebook responded without the company’s research, but said there are challenges with doing such research, the Journal said. “We are not aware of a consensus among studies or experts about how much screen time is ‘too much,’” according to the Journal, citing the response letter to the senators.

Assistant Editor Ahmad Hathout has spent the last half-decade reporting on the Canadian telecommunications and media industries for leading publications. He started the scoop-driven news site downup.io to make Canadian telecom news more accessible and digestible. Follow him on Twitter @ackmet

Social Media

Vague Social Media Laws Create Fear in the Middle East. Can Encryption Tools Help?

Experts discuss how social media is being treated in the Middle East and how to respond.

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Chris Meserole, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2022 – Far from being the savior of democracy in the Middle East, four experts said Monday that social media, and government regulation of it, is beginning to hurt civil rights activists.

The world is witnessing an increase in laws restricting social media access and hence regulating freedom of speech, especially in the Middle East, agreed the panelists, speaking at a Brookings Institution event.

Dina Hussein, the head of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at Facebook, and Chris Meserole, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated that too many countries are passing vague laws about what is and isn’t allowed on social media.

These new laws are purposefully unclear, they said. This new strategy has made it easier for the government to take down posts and restrict critics’ internet access while leaving up the posts of supporters and government officials.

These laws also spread fear within the regime because the vagueness puts anyone at risk of being arrested for something they post, they said.

When asked what can be done, Hussein said that Facebook promotes honesty through a website that focuses on Facebook’s own transparency and raises awareness of other countries’ laws for their users. In addition, Facebook is personally working to support civil rights activists in the areas of the world that are implementing such laws, Hussein said.

Encryption to avoid surveillance

Meserole said that democratic governments should not be fighting “fire with fire.” Instead, he wants civil rights groups in the Middle East to strengthen their ability to operate without social media. Many activists rely on social media to build their bases and spread their message. So, Meserole emphasized that as the authoritarian regimes increase their abilities to watch, manipulate, and censor social media, democratic governments should invest in technology that will help those who are fighting for civil rights encrypt their media or work outside of the surveillance of government.

Another concern of the guest speakers was the rise in online misinformation and the trend of authoritarian regimes making new accounts to promote their message rather than trying to censor the language of the opposition.

Some people wonder why these groups don’t just eliminate media within their countries. Meserole’s answer is that the government has it is own various benefits to having social media, and so they pass vague internet laws that allow them to have more legal control instead.

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Free Speech

Former GOP Congressman and UK MP Highlight Dangers of Disinformation and Urge Regulation

Will Hurd and Member of Parliament Damien Collins say disinformation on social media platforms a worry in midterm elections.

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Photo of Will Hurd from March 2016 by Paul Morigi used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 11, 2022 – Former Republican Rep. Will Hurd said that disinformation campaigns could have a very concerning effect on the upcoming midterm elections.

He and the United Kingdom’s Member of Parliament Damien Collins  urged new measures to hold tech and social media companies accountable for disinformation.

Hurd particularly expressed concern about how disinformation sows doubts about the legitimacy of the elections and effective treatments to the COVID-19 virus. The consequences of being misinformed on these topics is quite significant, he and Collins said Tuesday during a webinar hosted by the Washington Post.

The Texan Hurd said that the American 2020 election was the most secure the nation has ever had, and yet disinformation around it led to the insurrection at the Capitol.

The British Collins agreed that democratic elections are particularly at risk. Some increased risk comes from ever-present disinformation around COVID and its effects on public health and politics. “A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence, and in some cases even loss of life,” he said.

In regulating tech and media companies, Collins said citizens are reliant on whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and self-serving reports from companies that manipulate their data.

Unless government gets involved, they said, the nation will remain ignorant of the spread of disinformation.

Tech companies need to increase their transparency, even though that is something they are struggling to do.

Yet big tech companies are constantly conducting research and surveillance on their audience, the performance of their services, and the effect of their platforms. Yet they fail to share this information with the public, and he said that the public has a right to know the conclusions of these companies’ research.

In addition to increasing transparency and accountability, many lawmakers are attempting to grapple with the spread of disinformation. Some propose various changes to Section 230 of the Telecom Act of 1996.

Hurd said that the issues surrounding Section 230 will not be resolved before the midterm elections, and he recommended that policy-makers take steps outside of new legislation.

For example, the administration of President Joe Biden could lead its own federal reaction to misinformation to help citizens differentiate between fact and fiction, said Hurd.

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Section 230

Greene, Paul Social Media Developments Resurface Section 230 Debate

Five days into the new year and two developments bring Section 230 protections back into focus.

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Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene

WASHINGTON, January 5, 2022 – The departure of Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul from YouTube and the banning of Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Twitter at the beginning of a new year has rekindled a still lit flame of what lawmakers will do about Section 230 protections for Big Tech.

Paul removed himself Monday from the video-sharing platform after getting two strikes on his channel for violating the platform’s rules on Covid-19 misinformation, saying he is “[denying] my content to Big Tech…About half of the public leans right. If we all took our messaging to outlets of free exchange, we could cripple Big Tech in a heartbeat.”

Meanwhile, Greene has been permanently suspended from Twitter following repeated violations of Twitter’s terms of service. She has previously been rebuked by both her political opponents and allies for spreading fake news and mis/disinformation since she was elected in 2020. Her rap sheet includes being accused of spreading conspiracy theories promoting white supremacy and antisemitism.

It was ultimately the spreading of Covid-19 misinformation that got Greene permanently banned from Twitter on Sunday. She had received at least three previous “strikes” related to Covid-19 misinformation, according to New York Times. Greene received a fifth strike on Sunday, which resulted in her account’s permanent suspension.

Just five days into the new year, Greene’s situation – and the quickly-followed move by Paul – has reignited the tinderbox that is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields big technology platforms from any liability from posts by their users.

As it stands now, Twitter is well within its rights to delete or suspend the accounts of any person who violates its terms of service. The right to free speech that is protected by the First Amendment does not prevent a private corporation, such as Twitter, from enforcing their rules.

In response to her Tweets, Texas Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw called Greene a “liar and an idiot.” His comments notwithstanding, Crenshaw, like many conservative legislators, has argued that social media companies have become an integral part of the public forum and thus should not have the authority to unilaterally ban or censor voices on their platforms.

Some states, such as Texas and Florida, have gone as far as making it illegal for companies to ban political figures. Though Florida’s bill was quickly halted in the courts, that did not stop Texas from trying to enact similar laws (though they were met with similar results).

Crenshaw himself has proposed federal amendments to Section 230 for any “interactive computer service” that generates $3 billion or more in annual revenue or has 300 million or more monthly users.

The bill – which is still being drafted and does not have an official designation – would allow users to sue social media platforms for the removal of legal content based on political views, gender, ethnicity, and race. It would also make it illegal for these companies to remove any legal, user generated content from their website.

Under Crenshaw’s bill, a company such as Facebook or Twitter could be compelled to host any legal speech – objectionable or otherwise – at the risk of being sued. This includes overtly racist, sexist, or xenophobic slurs and rhetoric. While a hosting website might be morally opposed to being party to such kinds of speech, if said speech is not explicitly illegal, it would thus be protected from removal.

While Crenshaw would amend Section 230, other conservatives have advocated for its wholesale repeal. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, put forward Senate Bill 2972 which would do just that. If passed, the law would go into effect on the first day of 2024, with no replacement or protections in place to replace it.

Consequences of such legislation

This is a nightmare scenario for every company with an online presence that can host user generate content. If a repeal bill were to pass with no replacement legislation in place, every online company would suddenly become directly responsible for all user content hosted on their platforms.

With the repeal of Section 230, websites would default to being treated as publishers. If users upload illegal content to a website, it would be as if the company published the illegal content themselves.

This would likely exacerbate the issue of alleged censorship that Republicans are concerned about. The sheer volume of content generated on platforms like Reddit and YouTube would be too massive for a human moderating team to play a role in.

Companies would likely be forced to rely on heavier handed algorithms and bots to censor anything that could open them to legal liability.

Democratic views

Republicans are not alone in their criticism of Section 230, however. Democrats have also flirted with amending or abolishing Section 230, albeit for very different reasons.

Many Democrats believe that Big Tech uses Section 230 to deflect responsibility, and that if they are afforded protections by it, they will not adjust their content moderation policies to mitigate allegedly dangerous or hateful speech posted online by users with real-world consequences.

Some Democrats have written bills that would carve out numerous exemptions to Section 230. Some seek to address the sale of firearms online, others focus on the spread of Covid-19 misinformation.

Some Democrats have also introduced the Safe Tech Act, which would hold companies accountable for failing to “remove, restrict access to or availability of, or prevent dissemination of material that is likely to cause irreparable harm.”

The reality right now is that two parties are diametrically opposed on the issue of Section 230.

While Republicans believe there is unfair content moderation that disproportionately censors conservative voices, Democrats believe that Big Tech is not doing enough to moderate their content and keep users safe.

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