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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologises to families in fiery Senate hearing

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In a heated Senate hearing, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologised to families whose children were harmed by social media.


Looking directly at them, Facebook and Instagram CEO Mark Zuckerberg told them that "no one should go through" what they had.


Over nearly four hours, senators from both parties interrogated him and the executives of TikTok, Snap, X, and Discord.


Their efforts to safeguard children's online safety were the subject of questions from lawmakers.


The goal of the legislation now making its way through Congress is to make social media platforms more accountable for the content that users submit.


The senators from the United States had a unique chance to grill tech CEOs at their hearing on Wednesday.


The CEOs of Snap, X (previously Twitter), and messaging platform Discord initially declined and were served subpoenas by the government; however, Mr Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew willingly consented to testify.


Sitting behind the five tech CEOs were the families who claimed their children had committed suicide or self-harm due to things they saw on social media.


Whenever the CEOs came in or lawmakers asked them tough questions, they let their emotions be known.


The senators made good use of having five influential executives testify before them by asking a broad range of questions, even though the hearing's primary focus was on safeguarding children from sexual exploitation in the digital realm.


CEO Mr Chew of TikTok, a Chinese company owned by ByteDance, was asked if his company shared data from US users with the Chinese government; he denied the accusation.


Tom Cotton, a senator from the United States, questioned Singaporean Mr. Chew about his possible past membership in the Chinese Communist Party.


A Singaporean here, senator. Mr. Chew respectfully declined.


"Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party?" Mr. Cotton followed up with the question.


"No, senator," Mr. Chew said in response. I am, once again, a Singaporean.


He continued by saying that the topics being discussed were "horrific and the nightmare of every parent" because he was a father of three small children.


Because of Singapore's regulations that prohibit users under the age of 13, he confessed that his children did not have TikTok accounts.


Mr Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, was the centre of attention as he appeared before Congress for the eighth time.


Senate Republican Ted Cruz once questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, "Mr Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?" while he was showing the tech boss an Instagram prompt that asks if they want to "see the results anyway" despite warnings that users may be about to see child sexual abuse material.


Zuckerberg stated that the "basic science behind that" demonstrates "it's often helpful too, rather than just blocking it, to help direct them towards something that could be helpful". He asserted his intention to "personally look into it" as well.


Senator Josh Hawley (R-WI) asked Mr. Zuckerberg to apologise to the families seated behind him during another exchange.


"I apologise for the hardship you have all endured; it is truly terrible," he said, rising to his feet and turning to face the crowd.


"No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered."


The lapse in action leaves senators fuming


The companies' stances on the online safety bills presently pending in Congress were the main points of discussion during the hearing.


Jason Citron of Discord and Republican senator Lindsey Graham had a heated exchange that encapsulated everything.


Mr. Graham inquired as to Mr. Citron's support for several internet safety bills currently pending in Congress.


Even though Mr. Graham didn't give Mr. Citron much of a chance to answer, it seemed like the Discord boss had some reservations about most of them.


Mr Graham said: "So here you are - if you're waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we're gonna die waiting."


Meta had previously announced new safety measures before the hearing, one of which was the automatic disabling of Instagram and Messenger for children under the age of 13.


According to social media expert Matt Navarra, who spoke to the BBC, the hearing was typical of similar confrontations, featuring "lots of US political grandstanding" and an ideal photo opportunity given by Mr. Zuckerberg's apology.


He went on to say that senators had reached a consensus on the need for bipartisan legislation to control platforms, but that the next step was still up in the air.


"We've seen these hearings time and time again and they have often, so far, led still to not generate any significant or substantial regulation," according to him.


"We're in 2024 and the US has virtually no regulation, as was pointed out during the hearings, with regards to the social media companies."


The number of staff members employed to oversee content moderation on their platforms was also disclosed by the bosses.


Snap reported 2,300 moderators, X had 2,000, and Discord, which claimed to be smaller, had "hundreds" of moderators; the platforms with the highest user numbers were TikTok and Meta, which claimed 40,000 moderators each.


There have been concerns raised about Discord's ability to identify and prevent child abuse on its platform.


Some of the parents present at the hearing went on to hold a demonstration outside afterwards, with some of them pleading with lawmakers to quickly enact measures to make businesses pay.


"Just like I did, many parents continue to think that these harms that we're talking about today won't affect their families," added Joann Bogard, whose son Mason passed away in May 2019. He was allegedly involved in a TikTok choker trend, according to her.


"These harms are happening overnight to our average kids," according to her. The witnesses have testified. Our lawmakers must act immediately to enact the Kids Online Safety Act.


As reported by the BBC, Arturo Béjar, a former senior staff member who testified before Congress in November 2023, was present and said: "Meta is trying to push their responsibility to provide a safe environment for teens to parents, yet won't add a button where a teen can tell them they've experienced an unwanted advance."


"How can they make it safe for teens without that?"


Meta announced the addition of "over 30 tools" to help create a safe space for teenagers to use the internet during today's hearing.


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