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NC Attorney General Josh Stein discusses lawsuit against Meta over platforms' targeting of children

Facebook's parent company, Meta, faces a lawsuit brought by 42 attorneys general.
Facebook's parent company, Meta, faces a lawsuit brought by 42 attorneys general.

This week, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced a federal lawsuit filed by a bipartisan group of 42 attorneys general, including his office, against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. The suit alleges the company deliberately targeted children and withheld evidence of psychological damage. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman spoke with Stein about the case.

Benjamin Schachtman: Ok, Attorney General Josh Stein, thanks for being with us –—so, first up, this lawsuit is against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. One of the issues is features of social media platforms to try and capture and retain attention. We're talking about like algorithms that supply content, the infinite scroll feature notifications. Obviously, some adults struggle with the addictive qualities of these features. But why is this more important to look at how it impacts children?

AG Josh Stein: Children are more vulnerable, children's brains are still developing until they're in their early mid-20s. And because of that, they don't have the emotional maturity to make decisions that are always in their own self-interest. And they're more likely to become victims of addiction, because their brains are still going developing all those neural pathways. And so we owe a special obligation to young people, because they're not yet adults,

BS: Your suit lists some of the potential harmful content and how it can impact children. But can you kind of spell that out a little bit for our listeners?

JS: Yeah. There is all kinds of research. And by the way, a lot of this research was done internally by Meta — by Facebook — about what were the impacts of Instagram on kids. And there's anxiety, loneliness, depression, body image issues, anorexia, even, unfortunately, self-harm, and suicide. And these are things that Meta knew about as consequences of their efforts to addict kids. And they did not disclose it to the public. In fact, they misrepresented the harms, to parents and people all across this country. That's why we're taking them to court.

BS: In addition to, you know, the potential harm psychologically, and then the ramifications of that, there's also alleged violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Can you say something about that?

JS: Sure, that's a federal law that exists to protect pre-teens. Because clearly, young children don't have the ability to give informed consent to share their personal information. And that's what the law says: you cannot collect data from pre-teens without the parents consent, yet Meta designed content that appealed to kids and targeted kids with that content, knowing full well that there are 1000s and 1000s, or millions of pre-teens on Instagram misrepresenting their age, and that violates federal law.

BS: I also wanted to touch on this, this fairly bipartisan group of attorneys general involved here and we certainly hear from our listeners who are liberal and conservative alike, that are concerned about the politicized use of the justice system. That doesn't seem to be the case here.

JS: This is 42 state Attorneys General working together from across the country. And to your point, about half and half Democratic and Republican attorneys general. I'm honored to be on the executive committee of the lead group of states that have been working on this case since the beginning. And we are working together because social media is hurting kids all over this country. It's hurting them and red states and blue states. And it's hurting them and families whose parents are unaffiliated families whose parents are democratic families whose parents are Republican, this is something that's affecting all American kids. And we are unified and wanting and demanding Facebook and Meta to do better.

BS: So my last question about the Meta case is that you are asking for injunctive and monetary relief from Meta, maybe split those into and talk about what would the injunctive relief look like?

JS: It would impose design changes on Meta. I mean, Meta has spent billions of dollars and millions of staff hours, fine-tuning in designing this to be maximally addictive to young people. And we want to undo those elements that lead to misuse by youngsters. We want there to be much greater transparency to parents about how their children use Instagram, the amount of hours they're on for, what content they're exposed to when they're on, what the risks of too much use and that content can pose to young people. And we also want to impose financial penalties, civil penalties, because they've broken the law. And we want to deter Facebook and Meta from doing this in the future and we want to deter other companies from doing similar acts.

BS: To that point, what level of monetary relief might the attorneys general be thinking about and where would that money go, if you were successful in court.

JS: They would be civil penalties. And so in North Carolina, our civil penalties go to the school fund under our state constitution, and it's premature to talk about dollar amounts

BS: So you mentioned, you know, concerns beyond Meta, other platforms. Is there anything you can say about the ongoing investigation into TikTok for some of these same concerns?

JS: Exactly that that it's ongoing. We started with Facebook, Instagram, because remember the whistleblower Frances Haugen sort of precipitated all this a couple years ago. And then we then embarked on our investigation of TikTok and that work is still happening as we speak.

BS: All right, Attorney General Josh Stein, thank you very much for your time.

JS: Ben, Good talking to you.

Attorney General Stein is joined in filing the federal lawsuit by the Attorneys General of Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Attorneys General of District of Columbia, Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont are filing lawsuits in their own states.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.