On December 20, 2023

New details in state’s lawsuit against Meta allege concerted effort to target Vermont teens, avoid public scrutiny

 

By Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

New details released Thursday, Dec. 14, in the Vermont Attorney General’s lawsuit against Meta describe how the tech giant studied teenagers in Vermont as part of efforts to make its social media platform Instagram more addictive — and how top company leaders allegedly ignored repeated warnings that the popular app is harmful to young people.

The details come in a recently unsealed version of the lawsuit, which Attorney General Charity Clark’s office filed in Chittenden County Superior civil court in October. The suit alleges that Meta violated Vermont’s Consumer Protection Act by engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices — namely, by lying to the public about the safety of Instagram despite knowing its adverse impacts on young people.

Instagram has detrimental impacts on young users’ mental health, the 114-page lawsuit asserts, and that usage correlates with social media addiction, sleep deprivation, poor self-image, feelings of loneliness and even the desire to self harm.

Clark coordinated with more than 40 other attorneys general across the country who also sued Meta in state and federal court. Vermont is one of just a handful of states bringing its case before a local judge; Clark said Thursday that this is because she feels the state’s consumer protection law is particularly strong. 

A Vermont superior court judge granted a motion by the Attorney General’s office to unseal the complaint, in its entirety, earlier this month.

The unredacted complaint cites internal Meta documents to suggest that the company made specific efforts to increase the time that Vermont teenagers spend on the platform.

Meta research showed that “at times,” Vermont had the highest percentage of teenagers using Instagram, per capita, of any U.S. state — about 80%, according to the Attorney General’s Office. 

At the same time, a 2017 Meta analysis found that the amount of time Vermont teens spent on Instagram each day was — at that time — lower than in several other states. Looking at that data, the suit alleges, Meta researchers concluded that the company needed to build new features to keep teens engaged with the platform. 

“In other words: Meta concluded that it needed to refine Instagram such that teens like those in Vermont, specifically, would spend more of their time on Instagram each day,” the attorney general’s complaint states. 

Between July 2020 and June 2021, more than 41,500 Vermont teenagers used Instagram monthly, and nearly 30,000 used it daily, according to the complaint. 

Clark was determined to make the full complaint public so that Vermonters could get the most complete picture possible of Meta’s practices, she said in an interview Thursday.

“This is just incredibly important to me personally,” she said. “I’m not just an attorney general. I’m a mom. I’m an aunt.” 

Meta did not respond to a request for comment Thursday about the unredacted complaint. The company previously wrote in a statement responding to Vermont and other states’ litigation that it shares “the attorneys general’s commitment to providing teens with safe, positive experiences online,” but was “disappointed” in their approach.

By Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Attorney General Charity Clark speaking during a press conference at the Statehouse.

 

 

‘Bad Experiences and Encounters’

Newly unsealed portions of the complaint allege that there were repeated instances in which Meta researchers raised internal concerns about Instagram’s detrimental impacts on young people — especially girls. But senior leaders, up to the highest levels of the company, took no action in response, the complaint alleges. In some cases, it states, those leaders instead seemed far more concerned with protecting the company’s image.

Some of these concerns were based on specific Instagram features that the company knew, from its own internal research, made the platform more addictive and more harmful, Clark said. The lawsuit cites a feature that teases new content below what a user is already seeing, called “infinite scroll,” and another that plays videos as soon as they appear in a user’s feed, called “autoplay,” as two examples of this.

Researchers ran concerns as high up the chain as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, arguing that the company needed to invest more resources into initiatives to make the platform safer and less addictive to teens, the lawsuit states, but Zuckerberg and others failed to act accordingly. 

The unredacted complaint also includes more details that back up the state’s allegations that Meta deliberately deceived the public about how frequently teenage users were accessing harmful content.

Clark’s office cites data from a mid-2021 survey that Meta conducted of some 240,000 Instagram users, called a “Bad Experiences and Encounters Framework survey,” which measured users’ exposure to a wide array of harmful experiences and content. 

Meta researchers found that, over the seven days prior to taking the survey, 28% of users witnessed bullying on Instagram, 25% witnessed discrimination, 16% viewed nudity they “did not want to see” and 7% saw images of self-harm, according to the complaint. Among all age groups on the platform, teenagers reported having the highest rates of these “bad experiences,” according to the lawsuit.

But around the same time that data was collected — and in the years that have followed — Meta has publicly reported data showing far lower rates of interactions with that kind of content, which the company simultaneously states it does not want young people to see.

For instance, while the survey found that 19% of 13- to 15-year olds were exposed “to adult nudity and sexual activity” on the platform, the company stated in one of its 2021 quarterly reports that only between 0.02% and 0.03% of users that age were exposed to such content, according to the lawsuit.

‘Internal culture of secrecy’

In another case, the suit describes an Instagram feature implemented in 2018 that tells users how much time they have been spending on the app — the “time spent” tool. Two years after the feature rolled out, the complaint alleges, Meta employees were raising concerns that the metrics the tool was showing to users were “materially incorrect.” 

“It’s not just that Apple / Google have better data. Ours is wrong. Far worse. We’re sharing bad metrics externally,” Instagram’s director of engineering allegedly stated at the time, according to the complaint. “The reason this is relevant is we vouch for these numbers. Any day they’re out there is a legal liability.”

By mid-2020, an internal team at Meta recommended that the “time spent” tool be removed from the app, the lawsuit alleges, but company leadership pushed back, arguing that the tool was important because it created a public perception that Instagram was taking steps to curb addictive use of its platform.

“The regulatory and brand risk from removing our only addiction-related features outweighs … the wins around user trust in the data,” one Meta employee said, according to the lawsuit. 

Vermont’s lawsuit also alleges that Meta leaders deliberately hid research that showed how Instagram was harming young users from their own employees. That concern was heightened in August 2021 after company officials learned that the Wall Street Journal obtained leaked company research on the negative impacts that Instagram has on teenage girls, the lawsuit states. The Journal reported on its findings that fall. 

After learning about the leaked slides, the suit alleges, Meta’s communications department began “sanitizing” some of its research findings in internal company communications. One manager instructed a research colleague to “make sure that any of our shareable deliverables or insights docs that you own on the mental well-being space are locked down,” according to the lawsuit. 

Multiple researchers raised concerns internally about the practice, the suit states, with one writing in late 2021 that “this is a huge moral hazard, in my opinion.” Another Meta employee allegedly responded by saying, “(a)greed!”  

“Meta’s internal culture of secrecy regarding Meta’s harms to Young People was and is designed to keep consumers — including Young Users and their parents and guardians — in the dark about the harms Instagram causes to Young People,” the suit states.

The Attorney General’s Office said Meta has until Jan. 19 to file a response to its complaint.

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