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Meta’s Zuckerberg ‘ignored’ executives on kids safety, lawsuit says


Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg “ignored” top executives who called for bolder actions and more resources to protect users, especially kids and teens, even as the company faced mounting scrutiny over its safety practices, a newly unredacted legal complaint alleges.

Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, and Instagram head Adam Mosseri in 2021 directly urged their fellow executives, including Zuckerberg, to devote more staff and resources to address bullying, harassment and suicide prevention, according to an updated 102-page complaint filed this week by Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell (D).

Campbell is one of 42 attorneys general who last month filed lawsuits accusing Meta of endangering children by building addictive features into its popular social media platforms, Instagram and Facebook.

According to the new court filing, Clegg passed the request for resources to Zuckerberg, calling for “additional investment to strengthen our position” in the area. Zuckerberg “ignored Clegg’s request for months,” the complaint alleges, even as “Meta’s leadership continued to espouse the need to invest in well-being.” Eventually, Meta chief financial officer Susan Li shot down the proposal, saying that staffing at the company was too “constrained,” according to the filing.

In another October 2021 exchange about Clegg’s well-being plans, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri expressed concern about the company’s approach to protecting users, telling another senior leader the company had been “talking about this for a long time but have made little progress.” The executive, Meta’s vice president of product management, Emily Dalton Smith, replied that the company had not received any “new well-being funding for 2022,” and would have to consider “trade-offs against other priorities,” the complaint alleges.

Meta has over 30 tools and resources “to help keep teens safe and away from potentially harmful content or unwanted contact,” Meta spokeswoman Liza Crenshaw said in a statement Wednesday.

“The complaint is filled with selective quotes from handpicked documents that do not provide the full context of how the company operates or what decisions were made,” she added.

While 33 states, including Colorado and California, filed a joint complaint in federal court, Massachusetts and other states filed individual complaints in local courts, part of a sprawling legal broadside against the tech giant. The barrage of complaints represent the most significant effort yet by state enforcers to rein in the impact social media may have on children’s mental health.

As Meta chased younger users, employees raised safety concerns

Campbell’s initial complaint last month was heavily redacted, obscuring details about the exchanges between executives regarding Meta’s safety investments 2021. Molly McGlynn, a spokesperson for the attorney general, said that while their office had a confidentiality agreement with Meta during the investigation into its practices, the company ultimately agreed to remove nearly all redactions in the legal complaint.

“We allege that Meta knowingly targeted and exploited young people just so the company could make a profit — and the public is now able to see exactly how they did it,” Campbell said in a statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday.

The new details in the legal filing offer a rare glimpse into how senior executives at Meta discuss — and sometimes clash — over how best to protect vulnerable users on their sprawling social media networks while preserving their ability to foster growth and engagement on those platforms. The allegations could bolster arguments from advocates and lawmakers who argue that the company’s senior leaders often ignore internal research and warnings from their own employees about the dangerous effects of social media.

Arturo Béjar, a former senior engineering and product leader at Meta, on Tuesday testified before a Senate judiciary subcommittee that senior executives failed to heed his warnings that Meta needed to take a different approach to fight high rates of bullying, harassment or unwanted sexual advances faced by teens.

In his email to Zuckerberg in 2021, Clegg said they “need to do more” to protect users’ well-being. Meta’s efforts in that area were understaffed and fragmented,” Clegg wrote.

The lawsuit also accuses Zuckerberg of rebuffing calls from his senior leaders to prohibit some beauty filters that might harm the mental health of women and young people.

In a November 2019 email, Margaret Gould Stewart, Meta’s vice president of product design, urged Meta leaders including Mosseri and former Facebook leader Fidji Simo to ban camera filters that “mimic plastic surgery” because mental health experts worried about negative impacts on the “mental health and wellbeing” of “vulnerable users,” the lawsuit alleges.

The proposal “received unanimous positive support” until Meta Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth said he discussed the idea with Zuckerberg, who “might want to review before implementing” because he questioned whether these filters actually represent “real harm,” according to the lawsuit.

Ahead of an April 2020 meeting with Zuckerberg to discuss removing the filters, the company circulated a document entitled, “Cosmetic Surgery Effects Pre-Read,” which cited 21 experts who “generally agree that these effects are cause for concern for mental health and wellbeing.”

But the meeting was canceled a day before it was scheduled to take place. Instead, Zuckerberg sent an email vetoing the proposal, according to the lawsuit. Zuckerberg stated that there was a “clear demand” for the filters and that he had seen “no data” suggesting that they were harmful, the legal filing alleges.

Stewart expressed her reservations to Zuckerberg.

“I respect your call on this and I’ll support it, but want to just say for the record that I don’t think it’s the right call given the risks,” Stewart said, according to the lawsuit.

“I just hope that years from now we will look back and feel good about the decision we made here,” she added, according to the lawsuit.

Crenshaw, the Meta spokeswoman, said the company bans filters that directly promote cosmetic surgery including changes in skin color or weight loss.

“We clearly note when a filter is being used and we work to proactively review effects against these rules before they go live,” Crenshaw said.

Several of the alleged exchanges took place just weeks after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen disclosed internal studies showing the company knew its image-sharing app Instagram at times made teen girls feel worse about their body image. The disclosures, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, ushered in a political reckoning over the company’s approach to children’s safety.

“These unredacted documents prove that Mark Zuckerberg is not interested in protecting anyone’s privacy or safety,” said Sacha Haworth, executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, an advocacy group critical of the tech giants that receives funding from the Omidyar Network philanthropic firm. “The rot goes all the way to the top.”

Massachusetts is using the evidence to accuse Meta of making deceptive statements about the safety of its platforms in violation of state law.

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