‘Blood On Your Hands’: Lawmakers Grill Tech CEOs On Child-Exploitation ‘Crisis’

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported receiving 100,000 reports of online child sexual-abuse material per day in 2023.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, speaks to victims and their family members as he testifies during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, speaks to victims and their family members as he testifies during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31. (photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images)

Executives from TikTok, Meta, X and other major social-media outlets faced tough questioning from senators from both sides of the aisle on Wednesday for their role in the ongoing “crisis” of online child exploitation.

The hearing, titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” was held by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., opened the hearing by stating that “online child sexual exploitation is a crisis in America.” Durbin cited the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which reported receiving 100,000 reports of online child sexual-abuse material per day in 2023.

Durbin claimed that social-media companies have exacerbated the “disturbing growth in child exploitation,” saying that companies such as TikTok, Meta (Facebook’s parent company), Snap, Reddit and X have become platforms of choice for predators and child sexual abusers.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking Republican on the committee, said that “social-media companies as they are currently designed and operate are dangerous products” that are “destroying lives” and “threatening democracy itself.”

Addressing Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg directly, Graham said that Meta and the other companies present at the hearing “have blood on your hands.”

“These companies must be reined in, or the worst is yet to come,” he said.

Extent of the Crisis

According to a Tuesday NCMEC press release, the group received a total of 36.2 million reports of suspected child online sexual exploitation in 2023, containing 105 million images, videos and other files.

In addition to sexual exploitation, another study released in 2018 by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) found a significant link between social media and depression and suicidality in the nearly 81% of American teenagers who use social media.

The study said that social media use has led to “increased exposure to and engagement in self-harm behavior due to users receiving negative messages promoting self-harm, emulating self-injurious behavior of others, and adopting self-harm practices from shared videos.”

What Happened During the Hearing?

In one particularly heated exchange, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, berated Zuckerberg for Meta’s policies, which he said are “actively connecting pedophiles to accounts that were advertising the sale of child sexual-abuse material.”

Cruz cited a 2023 report by The Wall Street Journal that found Instagram, which is owned and operated by Meta, allowed users the ability to view material that was flagged for containing child sexual abuse.

“You gave users two choices: ‘get resources’ or ‘see results anyway.’ Mr. Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” Cruz pressed.

Zuckerberg responded that “the basic science” behind that message “is that when people are searching for something that is problematic it’s often helpful to, rather than just blocking it, direct them toward something that could be helpful for getting them to get help.”

Cruz also accused TikTok, an outlet owned by the Chinese company “ByteDance,” of targeting American children to promote harmful content.

“If you look at what is on TikTok in China, you are promoting to kids science and math videos and educational videos and you limit the amount of time kids can be on TikTok. In the United States, you are promoting to kids self-harm videos and anti-Israel propaganda. Why is there such a dramatic difference?” Cruz questioned TikTok CEO Shou Chew.

Chew, who is a citizen of Singapore, denied Cruz’s allegations, saying “that is just not accurate” and that the version of TikTok available in China, called “Douyin,” “is a separate experience.”

The viral moment from the Senate hearing came when Zuckerberg, at the behest of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., stood up and apologized to a crowd of parents in the gallery whose children either died by suicide or were harmed in various ways because of social media.

As photographers crowded around, Zuckerberg turned to the gallery, in which many parents were holding up pictures of their victimized children, and apologized.

“No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we have invested so much and are going to do new industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things that your families have had to suffer,” Zuckerberg said to the families.

What Happens Next?

Both Democratic and Republican senators on the committee discussed several bipartisan policies and bills to combat child online exploitation.

Among the bills discussed during the hearing was the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require social-media companies to take more stringent measures to prevent such things as online bullying and sexual harassment as well as increase privacy features for minors.

Also discussed was the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment (STOP CSAM) Act, which would make it easier for victims to sue tech companies for promoting or facilitating sexual exploitation.

Senators voiced support for repealing a portion of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social-media companies from liability for harmful content on their platforms as well as for establishing a governmental oversight board to monitor social-media companies’ development and implementation of online child-protection policies.

Durbin said the current laws regarding social media have allowed “Big Tech to grow into the most profitable industry in the history of capitalism without fear of liability for unsafe practices.”

“That has to change,” he said. “Let this hearing be a call to action that we need to get kids’ online safety legislation to the president’s desk.”

The popular social-media app is Chinese-owned.

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