A bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general today launched an investigation into Meta. The coalition seeks to determine whether Meta (formerly Facebook) promoted Instagram to children despite knowing the associated mental and physical health risks.
The coalition is known so far to include attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, New York and Vermont. The full list of participating states has not been made public.
"When social media platforms treat our children as mere commodities to manipulate for longer screen time engagement and data extraction, it becomes imperative for state attorneys general to engage our investigative authority under our consumer protection laws," said Nebraska AG Doug Peterson in a press release announcing the probe.
"Time and again, Mark Zuckerberg and the companies he runs have put profits over safety, but our investigation seeks to end that behavior," added New York AG Letitia James. James further clarified that the investigation would focus on techniques used to boost children's screen time and engagement on Instagram and the resultant harms.
In September, the Wall Street Journal published leaked internal research that showed Facebook knew of Instagram's potential harm to teenagers, with teenage girls facing particularly acute risks.
One of the slides, leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, said: "Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse." Another concluded, "we make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls."
The Wall Street Journal found that top Facebook executives reviewed the research. In spite of this, the leadership team went forward with plans to launch Instagram Kids. The company has since put those plans on hold.
State AGs played an important role in pressuring Meta, then Facebook, to halt the planned roll-out of Instagram Kids. The investigation launched today doesn't have as clear-cut of an objective, and could instead involve a fine intended to dissuade Meta and other social media platforms from knowingly promoting harmful products to vulnerable users.One of the biggest issues is identifying those vulnerable users. For instance, Meta has admitted that many children skirt Instagram's age restrictions by simply lying about being younger than 13. The state AGs could pressure Meta to add ID verification systems, though this would likely elicit pushback from privacy and free-speech advocates.