‘You have blood on your hands’: Congress accuses social media giants of child sexual exploitation

by Renata

Renata Kiss, FISM News

 

The Senate Judiciary Committee is starting the new year with a renewed commitment to tackle the danger social media poses for minors. Big Tech social media CEOs headed to D.C. on Wednesday to testify about child sexual exploitation on their apps. 

The bipartisan effort to protect children from cyber harm followed Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s social media advisory last year, which warned that social media is harmful to the mental health of minors and required immediate action from the tech platforms.

The Big Tech leaders in attendance included Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Discord CEO Jason Citron, TikTok CEO Shou Chew, Snap co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel, and X CEO Linda Yaccarino. 

“Online child sexual exploitation is a crisis in America,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durban (D-Ill.) said. He added that in the past 10 years, there were 100,000 daily cyber reports of child sexual abuse, based on data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). I

In 2023, the NCME’s CyberTipline received 36.2 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation online. In recent years, there has also been a growing number of “financial sextortions,” a form of blackmail in which teens are tricked into sending photos or videos of themselves and then forced to pay money to keep those images private. 

The NCME calls this form of sexual abuse the “most rapidly evolving online sexual exploitation crimes against children that NCMEC has ever witnessed.” Online enticements grew by 300% between 2021 and 2023. 

According to the organization, most tech companies have not made “even minimal efforts” to combat these kinds of abuses online. Meanwhile, the rest of the social media companies reportedly fell short of implementations that would have led to greater online safety for children. 

While all major platforms were called into question about explicit content on their sites, the committee’s primary target proved to be Zuckerberg. 

“I know you do not mean for it to be so, but you have blood on your hands,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in his address to Zuckerberg. “You have a product that is killing people.” 

The accusation comes as multiple studies have correlated social media use with higher rates of teen suicide, including platforms such as Instagram. 

Similarly, Sen.Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called out the Meta CEO for allowing sex predators to view child sex abuse material on their platform through a push of a button. 

“Instagram had the following warning screen to individuals who were searching for child abuse material,” Cruz said. “These results may contain images of child sexual abuse’, and then you gave users two choices. ‘Get resources’ or ‘see results anyway.”

Zuckerberg defended the platform’s system by saying it is more helpful to present an option to get help concerning problematic content than to block it in its entirety. He added that the warning screen may also flag material that does not go against guidelines. But after much pressure from both political sides, the Meta founder turned to the victims’ families to apologize for the harm his platform may have caused.

Cruz also questioned TikTok CEO Shou Chew about the platform’s content in the United States. He accused the social media site of pushing self-harm and propaganda videos that reportedly only American teens can see.

“If you look at what is on TikTok in China, you are promoting to kids science and math videos, educational videos, and limit the amount of time they can be on TikTok. In the United States, you are promoting to kids self-harm videos and anti-Israel propaganda,” Cruz said. 

This is not the first time TikTok has come under fire for unethical policies. Chew testified in Congress last year when lawmakers were pushing for a ban on the app due to national security concerns. 

TikTok leaders say there are plans to invest $2 billion in trust and safety efforts this year, an effort to counteract American lawmaker hostility toward the platform. 

Nevertheless, the fiery Senate hearing included some optimism as well. 

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he did not believe that social media platforms were created for evil.

“At the end of the day, I find it hard to believe that any of you people started this business, some of you in your college dorm rooms, for the purposes of creating the evil that is being perpetrated on your platforms,” Tillis said. “But I hope that every single waking hour, you’re doing everything you can to reduce it.”

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) echoed that sentiment by saying that there is a “consensus” among lawmakers regarding online platform safety that did not exist before.

“There is a consensus today that didn’t exist, say, 10 years ago, that there is a profound threat to children, to mental health, to safety. There’s not a dispute,” Welch said. 

He suggested the addition of a new government agency that would help monitor safety issues “on a systemic regular basis.” 

 

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