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More than 40 U.S. states on Tuesday sued Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram, alleging the tech giant knowingly and deliberately “misled the public about the substantial dangers of its Social Media Platforms.”
The 233-page complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, accuses Meta of violating consumer protection laws, deceiving users about the safety of its platforms, and deliberately causing mental and physical harm to youth with its “psychologically manipulative product features” that “prioritize profit over safety.”
The lawsuit alleges that Meta “concealed the ways in which these Platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable” and that the company “has ignored the sweeping damage these Platforms have caused to the mental and physical health of our nation’s youth.”
It also accuses the social media company of continuing “to engage in … deceptive and unlawful conduct in violation of state and federal law” — including violations of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) — by harvesting “the personal data of its youngest users,” under age 13, without parents’ permission.
“Kids and teenagers are suffering from record levels of poor mental health and social media companies like Meta are to blame,” New York Attorney General Letitia James, who joined the lawsuit with 32 other states, said in a statement.
“Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem.”
In a separate action, nine other attorneys general sued Meta in their states, based on similar allegations, bringing the number of states suing Meta to 41.
Meta features designed to entice kids and teens into ‘rabbit holes’ of toxic content
Meta — which also owns WhatsApp and Messenger — issued a statement saying that its social media platforms were safe and it was working to improve them with more than 30 tools to support teenagers and families.
In June, the company introduced new features “giving teens and parents more ways to manage their time on our apps,” including tools “nudging teens to set time limits on Facebook and giving parents even more ways to supervise their teens on Instagram.”
“We’re disappointed that instead of working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use, the attorneys general have chosen this path,” the company said in a statement.
Meta is the seventh largest company in the world after Apple, Microsoft, Saudi Arabian Oil, Alphabet (Google/YouTube), Amazon and Nvidia (graphic processing units for computers and video games).
In 2021, the company’s market capitalization was greater than the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Advertising accounts for “the vast majority of the social network’s revenues.” As of 2016, Facebook earned more advertising revenue than all U.S. newspapers combined. Meta posted $113 billion in ad revenues in 2022, more than 215 times greater than the 2022 ad revenues, for instance, of The New York Times.
To keep this vast revenue stream flowing, the complaint says, Meta developed a highly sophisticated, continually evolving and deliberately deceptive “scheme to exploit young users for profit” that “monetizes young users’ attention through data harvesting and targeting advertising.”
In their complaint, the 33 states said Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms created “psychologically manipulative product features to induce young users’ compulsive and extended use” of social media — engagement the Big Tech company then sells to advertisers.
According to the complaint, the company’s algorithms and features were designed to entice children and teenagers down into “rabbit holes” of toxic content from which they found it difficult to escape.
These addictive features include “infinite scroll” that lures youths deeper into toxic content; social comparison features such as “Likes” that are mentally harmful for youths; recommendation algorithms that “encourage compulsive use”; “disruptive audiovisual and haptic notifications” that exploit the senses including touch and interfere “with young users’ education and sleep”; visual features “known to promote eating disorders and body dysmorphia in youth,” and constant alerts to “discourage attempts to disengage.”
Meta promotes a false and deceptive marketing story that its social media features are “designed to support young users’” well-being and to “promote connection between friends,” the lawsuit alleges.
The company is “keenly aware” that its profits and business model are based on addictive features that “cause young users significant physician and mental harm,” while it “misrepresents and omits this information in public discourse.”
Despite numerous independent studies and publicly available data showing its social media features harm young users, “Meta still refuses to abandon its use of known harmful features,” the complaint says.
Instead, the company has “redoubled its efforts to misrepresent, conceal, and downplay the impact of those features on users’ mental and physical health.”
Meta’s own research revealed harm to kids
The attorneys general are seeking financial damages and an end to Meta’s unlawful practices.
The federal lawsuit stems from an investigation led by a bipartisan coalition of eight states’ attorneys general — from California, Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Nebraska, Kentucky and Tennessee — that took shape after Meta announced plans to develop Instagram Kids for children under 13, which it has since put on hold.
According to the Pew Research Center, almost all teens ages 13-17 in the U.S. report using a social media platform, with about a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.”
Meta’s plans to target its app at children under 13 sparked criticism of Instagram Kids across society.
“Parents and child welfare advocates say the app could weigh on kids’ mental health at a critical moment in their cognitive development,” The Washington Post reported.
Lawmakers have used the episode to call for new regulations on social media companies. Law enforcement officials have said Instagram is already used by pedophiles to meet children online, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation said Instagram for kids “was an irresponsible idea from its inception.”
The outcry against Meta grew after a Wall Street Journal investigation, based on internal data leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, showed Meta’s own research documented harms to teenagers, especially teenage girls, who told Facebook researchers that Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies and increased thoughts of suicide.
Despite what its own research showed, Meta did not abandon its harmful practices, the states said.
“Our bipartisan investigation has arrived at a solemn conclusion,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta. “Meta has been harming our children and teens” and “cultivating addiction to boost corporate profits.” With the 33-state lawsuit, he said, “We are drawing the line.”
Experts weigh in on pros and cons of lawsuit
Greg Glaser, a California vaccine rights attorney and digital privacy expert, said that years of independent documentation and reams of data showing Facebook, Instagram and other Big Tech social media sites profit from a disturbing and malign influence on young people hasn’t stopped the practice.
He cited evidence that the U.S. has done little to stop the harm tech companies cause children. Privacy laws, such as COPPA, aim to protect the personal information of children under 13 online, including by limiting targeted advertising and pushing for parental consent in children’s online decisions.
But it “doesn’t do anything to protect children from harms to their mental, and even physical, well-being once they are online. And even when it openly flouts these laws, Big Tech gets a slap on the wrist,” according to The Daily Signal.
If Meta gets a slap on the wrist like the $5.7 million the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Musical.ly (now TikTok, whose owner ByteDance is a $220-billion company) in 2019 for illegally collecting personal information from children, or the “Record $170 Million for Alleged Violations of Children’s Privacy Law” Google (a $1.7-trillion company) paid the FTC to make the violations go away, Big Tech reform is not likely to happen, Glaser said.
But Glaser said he was hopeful that the power of the massive attorneys general lawsuits against Meta could force real change.
“I wouldn’t say this case would only create a ‘slap on the wrist,’” Glaser told The Defender. “The complaint makes very serious allegations that when proven in a court of law create momentum to completely overhaul Meta by a combination of market and regulatory forces.”
A resounding victory by the states would “send shockwaves through similar companies — such as Google, Apple and Microsoft — that “creatively” utilize children’s data Glaser said.
“Meta has ambiguous terms of service and creepy plans for our children’s future,” he said.
The threat to children was amplified when Facebook in 2021 rebranded itself as “Meta” and began spending billions to create a “metaverse” aiming to draw users, including the youngest and most vulnerable, into a virtual reality fantasy world encompassing every human experience, he said.
“Meta is creating a virtual reality world where children can fulfill their supposed desires with adults and other children,” Glaser said.
“Would you ever let Meta make an interactive hologram of your child for other people to ‘enjoy’? What if Meta did it anyway using AI and your old uploaded videos from Facebook? Should there be a law against that? These are the kinds of questions that privacy experts and lawyers are asking today.
“This is what the slope to pedophilia looks like. Just as boys become addicted to video games, the same is proving true for Meta. Every year the technology will become more intrusive into children’s psychology where it effectively becomes AI surveillance and psychological manipulation.”
Glaser, an expert in digital surveillance, said, “people who are being surveilled 24-7 become psychologically unstable.” With children, it causes the well-documented malign social media effect on children of depression, anxiety, and isolation to worsen.
John Whitehead, a civil liberties attorney and author, told The Defender he was skeptical about the state governments’ sudden eagerness to go to court to protect children from social media harms.
“Without a doubt, over-exposure to social media is harmful to young people, who are easy prey for advertisers, marketers and the like,” he said. “This is not a new revelation. Indeed, internet addiction was already a recognized problem more than a decade ago, taking a toll on users of all ages.
“So you’ve got to wonder what’s behind this sudden move by dozens of states to sue Meta for its profit-driven technologies aimed at ensnaring youth and teens,” Whitehead said.
The federal government has not only “done little to regulate this industry or safeguard the rights of consumers,” letting corporations dictate highly intrusive data collection policies, but “the government has been complicit in taking advantage of these very same technologies for their own gains” in mining data, he said.
The lawsuit fits a government pattern he has observed “whether you’re talking about social media technologies, drones, surveillance or military weapons.
“The government wants us to believe they’re so concerned about our safety that they will protect us from the dangers we might inflict on ourselves — through laws, regulations, fines and lawsuits. But who will protect us from the government when it inflicts these very same things on the citizenry?”
“Meta’s Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger seduce children and young adults into social media addiction and programming. But the state should not be determining what children encounter on social media. The locus of control should be parents.”
Rectenwald said that should the lawsuit be successful, it “will bring us one step closer to state control over all media, including social media, a far worse prospect than the negative externalities of social media.”