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Facebook Will Be Back On Capitol Hill To Face Senators' Questions

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Facebook faces a Senate committee today as it pauses plans to build a version of Instagram aimed at kids 10 to 12 years old. It's the latest in a long list of public crises for the company, which, we should note, is a financial supporter of NPR.

And this report from tech correspondent Shannon Bond includes topics that might be inappropriate for children.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: For Facebook, it's a big concession to put Instagram Kids on hold. Here's what the app's head, Adam Mosseri, told NBC's "Today" show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

ADAM MOSSERI: I still firmly believe that it's a good thing to build a version of Instagram that's designed to be safe for tweens. But we want to take the time to talk to parents and researchers and safety experts and get to more consensus about how to move forward.

BOND: For months, Facebook brushed off concerns from critics about kids' privacy and mental health. It says kids are already on Instagram, despite its age limit of 13, so it would be better to build a version just for them. So why did it back off?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARSHA BLACKBURN: What we know is a lot of this anecdotal information that we had from parents, teachers, pediatricians about the harms of social media to children that Facebook was aware of this.

BOND: That's Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking to CNBC.

This crisis was ignited by a Facebook whistleblower who turned over a trove of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal. It exposed how Facebook's own researchers found Instagram is deeply toxic to some of its youngest users. One in 3 teenage girls said Instagram makes their body image issues worse. A small number of teens even trace their suicidal thoughts directly to the app. But the journal reported when Facebook's growth collides with its own research, growth usually wins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLACKBURN: You know what? In pursuit of the dollar, they did it anyway.

BOND: And the leaked documents make clear Facebook knows how harmful its platform can be, including how it's used by human traffickers to sell people.

Now Blackburn and her colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, will demand answers at today's hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLACKBURN: It is time for them to engage with us and say, these are going to be the guardrails; this is how we're going to prevent drug traffickers, sex traffickers, human traffickers from using our platforms to conduct their business.

BOND: Facebook says it rejects the claim that it's ignoring its own research, which it says The Wall Street Journal mischaracterized, and says it welcomes regulation. Still, the company is facing a lot of heat right now. There's pressure from the White House over vaccine misinformation, a federal antitrust lawsuit, a congressional probe of social media's role in the January 6 Capitol insurrection.

KATIE HARBATH: Facebook's brand is bad. And I think Facebook, you know, would freely admit that.

BOND: Katie Harbath is a former public policy director at the company. She says that's why Facebook has stopped apologizing and started hitting back at critics.

HARBATH: You know, nobody else is going to come and defend the company besides themselves.

BOND: And Facebook doesn't want to just play defense. It also wants to turn the page to Silicon Valley's new favorite buzzword, the metaverse.

Here's Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in an interview this summer with tech journalist Casey Newton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: You can kind of think about the metaverse as an embodied internet.

BOND: If that sounds like science fiction, well, that's exactly where the idea came from. The metaverse is an ambitious effort to move more of what we do every day in the physical world into a shared digital world, where people's avatars go to work, play games, even attend concerts, all in virtual reality.

Zuckerberg says, it's Facebook's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZUCKERBERG: In this next chapter of our company, you know, I think we'll - we will, I think, effectively transition from, you know, people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.

BOND: But critics say, before Facebook creates a new digital world, it needs to fix its current social network.

Yael Eisenstat, who worked at Facebook on elections integrity for political advertising in 2018, says the company may be miscalculating this moment.

YAEL EISENSTAT: They have been able to weather these storms over and over again. What I think is different this time is that I don't think they're fully understanding that internal employees have questions now.

BOND: Because this crisis stems from Facebook's own research, it's harder to dismiss. Today, senators get a chance to grill the company about these issues. Next week, the same committee will hear from a Facebook whistleblower.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "DIVIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.