(Bloomberg) -- In an unscripted scene during tense testimony Wednesday, Meta Platforms Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg stood before a packed Senate hearing room and apologized directly to the families of children who were victims of sexual exploitation on social media platforms.
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“I am sorry for everything that you have all gone through,” Zuckerberg said Wednesday while facing a crowd of safety advocates and parents holding photos of their children. “It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”
The impromptu moment came during an hours-long Senate hearing on protecting children online. Zuckerberg had faced intense criticism and pressure from Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who ripped into the executive personally and blamed Meta’s photo sharing app, Instagram, for an alleged failure to protect its young users against mental health issues and exposure to sexually explicit content.
Hawley challenged the Meta co-founder on whether the victims of sexual exploitation online should be compensated by companies like Meta — and Zuckerberg personally — and then prompted him to apologize directly to the families in attendance.
“Let me ask you this, there’s families of victims here today. Have you apologized to the victims?” Hawley asked. “Would you like to do so now? They’re here, you’re on national television.”
“Would you like to apologize for what you’ve done to these good people?”
Zuckerberg then stood up at the table and turned around to address the audience.
Leah Juliett, an activist for youth online safety and child sexual abuse survivor who was at the hearing, had mixed reactions to Zuckerberg’s apology, but ultimately said it wasn’t good enough.
“As a survivor, it was like, this is what I’ve wanted for 10 years,” Juliett said. “But it was so laced with excuses and justifications for the harm that it didn’t feel like a true apology, and I don’t think that I’ll ever feel like Zuckerberg or any of the other CEOs is sorry until something genuinely changes.”
No stranger to the congressional hot seat, Zuckerberg received most of the attention and attacks during the first few hours of the hearing, despite sitting next to the CEOs of Snap Inc., TikTok, X and Discord. At several points, he became visibly frustrated as senators laid into him, often talking over him.
At one point, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas raised his voice at Zuckerberg, who pushed back. “Senator, do you want me to answer your question?” Zuckerberg quipped. “Give me some time to speak.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a leading lawmaker on kids’ online safety efforts, also ripped into Zuckerberg, accusing him of wanting to draw more young users to Instagram while not being able to guarantee their safety. Blackburn said Meta was trying to thwart the committee’s attempts to pass regulation that would impose controls on the social networks, and also asserted that Meta aspired to be the “premier sex trafficking site” on the internet.
Zuckerberg scoffed at the accusation. “Of course not, senator,” he said in response. “That’s ridiculous.”
(Updates to add exchanges with Senator Blackburn and comment from victim)
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