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At heated Senate hearing on social media, Meta's Mark Zuckerberg apologizes to families

Discord CEO Jason Citron (L to R), Snap co-founder Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Chew, X CEO Linda Yaccarino and Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg are sworn in before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Discord CEO Jason Citron (L to R), Snap co-founder Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Chew, X CEO Linda Yaccarino and Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg are sworn in before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

Jan. 31 (UPI) -- During a Senate hearing on social media on Wednesday, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to families who lost loved ones because of harm from social media harm.

His apology came after South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham said the tech executives have "blood" on their hands.

Turning to face the families in the room for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Zuckerberg told them, "I'm sorry for everything you have all been through. 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 industrywide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer."

The apology came after Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., urged Zuckerberg to say he was sorry to the families gathered to watch the hearing.

"You have blood on your hands," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared to the tech giant executives in his opening statement. "You have a product that's killing people."

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, apologizes to victims and families harmed by online child sexual abuse during a Senate Judiciary Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, apologizes to victims and families harmed by online child sexual abuse during a Senate Judiciary Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI

Graham vowed social media would have a day of reckoning regarding the harm he said social media is causing to young people.

The hearing centered on concerns about social media harm to children stemming from safety issues encountered by kids and teens when on social media platforms.

During a Senate hearing on social media on Wednesday, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to families who lost loved ones because of harm from social media harm. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
During a Senate hearing on social media on Wednesday, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to families who lost loved ones because of harm from social media harm. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

The senators took turns in a bipartisan grilling of the social media execs.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, displayed a prop showing a warning that users see when searching for child abuse content in Instagram that presented the user with choosing to "get resources" or "see results anyway."

At a Senate hearing Wednesday on social media, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told social media execs they have "blood" on their hands because of harms experienced by youth using social media. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
At a Senate hearing Wednesday on social media, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told social media execs they have "blood" on their hands because of harms experienced by youth using social media. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

"Mr. Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?" Cruz asked.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., appeared visibly upset as she repeated stories of harm triggered by social media that she said included young people committing suicide following online threats.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, points to a placard during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis" at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, points to a placard during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis" at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI

"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."

The hearing takes place amid the prevailing sentiment that the platforms have fallen short on adequate measures to prevent sex offenders from targeting children or engaging in the trade of child sexual abuse material.

Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., used a floor speech Tuesday to make the case for passing the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act of 2023. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., used a floor speech Tuesday to make the case for passing the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act of 2023. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

When asked if they would declare support for legislation to address social media harm to youth, the tech execs were silent.

Zuckerberg, in a heated exchange with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., was asked whether social media sites are trying to use their platforms to become sex trafficking sites.

At Wednesday's hearing, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Meta's Mark Zuckerberg if users understand how their personal data is used, processed and monetized on his social media platforms. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
At Wednesday's hearing, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Meta's Mark Zuckerberg if users understand how their personal data is used, processed and monetized on his social media platforms. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

"That's ridiculous," Zuckerberg responded.

At one point, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Zuckerberg if users understand how their personal data is used, processed and monetized on his social media platforms.

An audience participant expresses emotion during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on social media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
An audience participant expresses emotion during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on social media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI

Zuckerberg said users "understand the basic terms."

Durbin presses for legislation

Jaime Puerta lays his hand on a photo of his son Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on social media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Puerta's son died from fentanyl poisoning at age 16. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
Jaime Puerta lays his hand on a photo of his son Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on social media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Puerta's son died from fentanyl poisoning at age 16. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI

In a Tuesday speech on the Senate floor, Judiciary chairman Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., vowed to grill the witness panel -- which also included X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, and Discord CEO Jason Citron -- "about the harms Big Tech is inflicting on our kids."

Lawmakers have recently condemned the tech industry for failing to protect kids from a "plague of online child sexual exploitation" as the social media apps have gone viral among America's youth, Durbin said.

Family members hold photos of their loved ones before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Family members hold photos of their loved ones before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

The committee hearing is pivotal in shaping upcoming legislation that aims to regulate the social media platforms, while focusing on new measures to safeguard children.

In November, the Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to Yaccarino, Spiegel and Citron to testify at the hearing.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Sam Chapman (L) and Jaime Puerta hold pictures of their sons Sammy Chapman and Daniel Puerta-Johnson, who both died of fentanyl poisoning from pills purchased on Snapchat. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
During a Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Sam Chapman (L) and Jaime Puerta hold pictures of their sons Sammy Chapman and Daniel Puerta-Johnson, who both died of fentanyl poisoning from pills purchased on Snapchat. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

Durbin used the floor speech to make the case for passing the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act of 2023, which aims to support child victims and increase accountability and transparency across all social media platforms.

Durbin also called for Congress to update a landscape of antiquated laws amid a flood of technological innovations.

He also noted that some of the companies recently launched new child safety measures "that are long overdue."

"Because these changes are half measures at best, I welcome the opportunity to question them about what more needs to be done," Durbin said.

Not new concerns

A year ago, the Judiciary Committee held a similar hearing, which included powerful testimony from those working to increase children's privacy and safety online, however, no new laws have emerged yet amid escalating calls for regulation.

Last October, a bipartisan coalition of 33 attorneys general filed a joint federal lawsuit against Meta, asserting the tech giant incorporated addictive features into its apps, adversely impacting children's mental health and contributing to issues such as cyberbullying, body image concerns and teen suicide.

In an op-ed published Wednesday in The Hill, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., called attention to suicides by three teenagers who faced online bullying, cyberstalking and peer pressure to perform dangerous online challenges.

"There are countless more heartbreaking stories just like these, of kids who have died or been severely harmed on social media," the lawmakers wrote. "We have heard the immeasurable grief from their families and the resounding frustration about the dark and addictive rabbit holes these young people were pulled down."

Blumenthal and Blackburn cited "empty promises" by the social media companies to act on their own to fix the problems, claiming they "rushed to announce new safety features" in the days before the congressional hearing.

"Our legislation has one goal: to ensure an online environment for kids that is safe by default," the lawmakers wrote. "We accomplish that by creating a Duty of Care for those sites that know they are catering to young users."

They also cited another piece of legislation, called the Kids Online Safety Act, which would force the platforms "to bear the responsibility for recklessly promoting suicide, bullying, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation."

The legislation would require tech companies to provide options to protect a child's privacy, disable addictive product features, and opt out of algorithmic recommendations.

"This is not a Democrat or Republican issue," they wrote.

Meta's lawsuits

Meanwhile, Meta -- the parent company of Facebook and Instagram -- faces a series of lawsuits concerning child safety on its platforms. In December, New Mexico's attorney general filed a civil suit, claiming that Meta's apps enable sexual predators to exploit children and distribute harmful content, while Meta neglected the issue as its leadership team prioritized profits.

Last November, a Meta whistleblower Arturo Bejar testified before Congress about Instagram's product design, alleging that the popular social media platform knowingly created products at the expense of teens' mental health and safety, increasing the demand for a social media regulation bill.

Previously, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation named five social media companies to an annual "Dirty Dozen" list for facilitating child sexual exploitation.