A bipartisan group of state attorneys general said on Thursday they had opened an investigation into Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, for promoting its social media app Instagram while knowing of mental and emotional harms caused by the service.
At least 10 states are involved in the investigation, including California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.
Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general and one of the leaders of the investigation, said the states were examining whether the company’s actions violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk.
“Facebook, now Meta, has failed to protect young people on its platforms and instead chose to ignore or, in some cases, double down on known manipulations that pose a real threat to physical and mental health — exploiting children in the interest of profit,” Ms. Healey said.
The move comes after a trove of documents from a former employee detailed research inside of the social media company that suggested teenagers suffered body image issues when using Instagram. The documents, called The Facebook Papers, were shared with journalists in October. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the documents and the issues at Instagram with the help of Frances Haugen, the whistle-blower.
Doug Peterson, the Nebraska attorney general and another leader of the investigation, said the states would examine “the techniques utilized by Meta to increase the frequency and duration of engagement by young users and the resulting harms caused by such extended engagement.”
“When social media platforms treat our kids as mere commodities to manipulate for longer screen time engagement & data extraction, it becomes imperative for state attorneys general to engage our investigative authority under our consumer protection laws,” Mr. Peterson said in a tweet.
The states’ investigation adds to building regulatory pressure on Meta and other giants of Silicon Valley.
Ms. Haugen and public interest groups have filed at least nine complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission claiming Meta mislead investors about its efforts to protect users from disinformation and hate. The Federal Trade Commission and dozens of states have filed antitrust lawsuits to break up Meta, and members of Congress have also vowed to create privacy, speech and antitrust legislation aimed at reining in the power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.
Spanning tens of thousands of pages and gigabytes of data, the Facebook Papers show a company struggling to deal with many issues that come as a byproduct of its enormous scale and billions of users, spanning topics like misinformation, addiction and manipulation of users around the world. Much of the information came in the form of detailed reports investigating the issues, laid out by the company’s research division.
Meta has said the research efforts are intended to address the issues they pinpoint, with the aim of improving the company’s products and services.
Understand the Facebook Papers
A tech giant in trouble. The leak of internal documents by a former Facebook employee has provided an intimate look at the operations of the secretive social media company and renewed calls for better regulations of the company’s wide reach into the lives of its users.
How it began. In September, The Wall Street Journal published The Facebook Files, a series of reports based on leaked documents. The series exposed evidence that Facebook, which on Oct. 28 assumed the corporate name of Meta, knew Instagram, one of its products was worsening body-image issues among teenagers.
The whistle-blower. During an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Oct. 3, Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager who left the company in May, revealed that she was responsible for the leak of those internal documents.
Ms. Haugen’s testimony in Congress. On Oct. 5, Ms. Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, saying that Facebook was willing to use hateful and harmful content on its site to keep users coming back. Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, called her accusations untrue.
The Facebook Papers. Ms. Haugen also filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided the documents to Congress in redacted form. A congressional staff member then supplied the documents, known as the Facebook Papers, to several news organizations, including The New York Times.
New revelations. Documents from the Facebook Papers show the degree to which Facebook knew of extremist groups on its site trying to polarize American voters before the election. They also reveal that internal researchers had repeatedly determined how Facebook’s key features amplified toxic content on the platform.
The documents detail that roughly a third of teenage girls in a survey who already felt bad about their bodies said Instagram made them feel worse. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves,” the documents said.
Meta has disputed the characterization of the initial reporting on Instagram’s issues, saying that the story lacked context, left out vital information and was a poor interpretation of the data obtained by The Journal. The company argued that on 11 of 12 well-being issues, the surveyed teenage girls said that Instagram made them feel “better and not worse.”
“It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is ‘toxic’ for teen girls,” Pratiti Raychoudhury a vice president and head of research at Facebook, said in a company blog post in September.
In a statement on Thursday, a representative for Meta strongly disputed the claims made by the state attorneys general against Instagram.
“These accusations are false and demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the facts,” said Liza Crenshaw, a spokeswoman for the company. “While challenges in protecting young people online impact the entire industry, we’ve led the industry in combating bullying and supporting people struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-injury, and eating disorders.”