Bipartisan Senators Try To Regulate Social Media. Will They Succeed? : The NPR Politics Podcast Four senators — two Democrats, two Republicans — are joining forces on a bill to regulate how social media companies can interact with users under the age of 18. They're one of many groups in Congress trying to increase oversight and regulation in this field, but given the country's polarized politics, does their legislation have any chance of making its way to President Biden's desk?

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh, and technology correspondent Dara Kerr.

The podcast is produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Bipartisan Senators Try To Regulate Social Media. Will They Succeed?

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JEFF: This is Jeff (ph) from Tacoma, Wash. I am a band teacher, and I'm sitting in the car listening to Tamara's story about her French horn practice log. And for that exact same reason, I have never used a practice log with my students in my 17 years of teaching band.


JEFF: This podcast was recorded at...


1:08 p.m. on Monday, May 15.

JEFF: Things may have changed when you listen to this, but I know I will still not be using a practice log. Enjoy the show.


KEITH: This is so glorious. Yes, it's all a lie. Practice logs are all a lie.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: I had to use one.

KEITH: Yeah. And they're all a lie.

WALSH: (Laughter).

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And NPR's Dera Kerr is with us. She covers technology for NPR. Hey there.


KEITH: It is your first time on the pod, so welcome. We will not have any hazing today.


KERR: Good to hear.

KEITH: And you're here because, as is often the case, Big Tech is getting talked about on Capitol Hill. Deirdre, there is a bipartisan group of senators who are working on new oversight measures for social media companies. You've been reporting on this. So tell us about who is behind this effort.

WALSH: It's a really interesting group of very different senators from very different ideological places in the political spectrum. There's four senators who rolled out a bill recently called the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act. It's Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton and Alabama Republican Katie Britt. These are not senators that typically team up a lot on legislation. I mean, for example, Chris Murphy has been sort of the leading Democrat focused on gun control measures, and Tom Cotton has been on the other side of that issue for years. So what brought them together is that they're all parents. They all have young kids or teenagers, and they have a lot of concerns about the impact social media is having on their own families, and they're hearing a lot from their constituents about it.

KEITH: So what are they actually trying to do? This seems like such a big challenge to get your arms around.

WALSH: It is. And it's one of several bipartisan bills attacking safety online. But their bill focuses specifically on young kids and teenagers. Their bill sets a minimum age of 13 for kids getting access and being able to sign up for accounts on social media platforms. From 13 to 17, their bill would require that any individual who wants to sign up for an account have parental consent as part of that. Another big part of their bill would ban the tech companies from using their algorithms to push out any content to users under the age of 18. And that's a big deal because I think that's a lot of where the discussion is these days, is how the algorithms that various social media platforms use are targeting kids and teenagers and what kind of content are they sending them and what message does that send them.

KEITH: Yeah, this algorithm thing - you know, my kid will be watching something sort of reasonable on YouTube, and then next thing I know, I look up, and it's - he is watching something that is definitely not what I would want him to be watching. And it happens really fast.

KERR: Right. And Senator Brian Schatz talked a lot about the power that these algorithms have in terms of what kids are seeing online.

BRIAN SCHATZ: These algorithms are probably more powerful than an adult's brain, but certainly more powerful than a developing child's brain. And their business model is to make kids linger.

KEITH: Deirdre, you mentioned this a little bit, but I want to dig in on it a bit more. These are not senators who I would assume agree on much anything else.

WALSH: Right. And they say that openly, and they said that this is something that is not a Republican issue, is not a Democratic issue, but it's something they started talking to each other about as parents. And they all had their own personal stories about their kids, their kids' friends, a lot of their constituents that they see. For example, Katie Britt, the freshman Republican senator from Alabama, was saying she was just at a track meet over the weekend and was talking to other moms about concerns about the impact social media is having. And she actually talks a lot about the statistics and pushed back at the idea that parents shouldn't be more involved. I mean, she said it really comes down to the numbers.

KATIE BRITT: That it doesn't lie. From 2011 to 2019, we more than doubled the feeling of depression amongst our teens. One in 3 young women in high school has said that she has considered suicide. And when you think about that, inaction is not an option.

KEITH: Dara, I do want to ask about how these companies are reacting to this. Certainly, this is not the first time that there has been a discussion about social media being toxic for kids' brains.

KERR: Yeah. You know, this conversation has been going on for a really long time. And it's obviously really sensitive because the companies don't want to come out and say they're against safety and for toxic content. So it's kind of this delicate dance that they're doing. But it really gained momentum around the time when there was the Frances Haugen leaks. If you remember, she was the Facebook whistleblower...

KEITH: Right.

KERR: ...That leaked a bunch of documents. And in those documents, we saw that Facebook knew Instagram's algorithm was being marketed to teens and pushing more harmful content to teens. And so, you know, around that time, Facebook really started to say that it was going to, you know, change course. It was going to make things safer for teens. It did a whole bunch of new measures on its platform. One of the features they have is this, quote, "nudging" of teens, where if the teens are repeatedly looking at the same content that Facebook says is not helpful, they will nudge them to move on. But Facebook doesn't fully define what not-helpful content is, so we can only infer. And so rather than say much about the bills, they've really have been trying to say that they're working on this from the inside.

KEITH: So, Deirdre, before we head to the break, I want to key in on one other thing that is making this effort interesting. As you said, these are younger lawmakers. These are lawmakers who have young children. In the past, there have been a lot of hearings about social media and conversations about potential difficulties with social media. But the members of Congress leading these hearings and asking the questions really didn't seem to understand the technology they were asking about. Has there been sort of a generational turnover that is changing the conversation?

WALSH: I think there's been a big change on Capitol Hill. There are a lot more younger members with young kids, not as much in the Senate as in the House. I mean, the Senate still is largely - skews a little bit older. But I do think that there are more lawmakers from both parties in Washington now that have firsthand knowledge of using these social media platforms, or like this group of four senators, or have seen their kids use it. So I think that there is a better understanding.

But I will say, I talked to Senator Schatz about this exact question, and he admitted that Congress doesn't have a great track record at regulating the tech industry. Each and every time something comes up, the industry, he says, has an army of lobbyists, and so they're sort of bracing for that. I mean, he sort of said that when they rolled out this bill, is we know that they're going to be coming for this bill, and they're going to try to stop it. But his argument is that because there's such bipartisan concern and it's really not a partisan issue, he thinks that there could be some momentum around targeting something, some types of steps to increase safety for kids online.

KEITH: All right, we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more on how the tech companies are responding.

And we're back. And, Dara, I think there have been mixed messages from the social media companies. At times, they have said, sure, we want regulation. And then they have lobbied the heck out of not actually being regulated. And then other times they've said, oh, no, we can regulate ourselves. So where are they on these latest ideas?

KERR: Yeah, with these kids safety bills, as I was saying earlier, they tend to not come out swinging, saying this will be harmful and bad. They're using a light touch, saying kid safety is important. We need to look at how this will work. We will work with the lawmakers. On one hand, they're doing that. On the other hand, we've seen major upticks in their lobbying. For example, Meta, you know, which owns Facebook and Instagram, spent nearly 20 million in lobbying, federal lobbying, in 2022, making it the 10 biggest spender of all companies in the U.S. That's ahead of Pfizer and ahead of Lockheed Martin.

WALSH: That's saying something.

KEITH: Yeah. Wait, wait, wait, wait. Let's just pause on that.

WALSH: (Laughter) When Big Tech is bigger than Big Pharma. They've got a lot of lobbyists in Washington.

KEITH: Yeah. And why would they have a lot of lobbyists in Washington? What are the stakes here for them?

KERR: Their entire business models. You know, these business models are really based on collecting data and selling ads, you know, in a very simplistic form. And so if there are laws that stop the data collection, which some of these kids laws are doing that in part - each law is kind of different, but all of them have elements that will curb data collection on teens and kids. That could, like, eat into their business profits.

WALSH: And the parents, too, right? Because this particular proposal has a parental consent component of it. So it would be parents putting in their data to allow their kids to be online. And that's another thing that I'm sure that they want to avoid.

KERR: Yeah. There's all sorts of issues. And, you know, there's a whole big group of advocacy people who are against these bills, people you would think would kind of be for it. Like, the ACLU, for example, is against the bill because some of them, like the ones we're talking about, include more data collection just on the basic factors, like getting kids' age.

WALSH: Right. And I talked to Senator Cotton about that issue, about the requirement that parents would have to put in, you know, identifying information to allow their kids to sign up for these platforms, and he really pushed back, making the argument that this isn't really any different than a lot of other processes for other big websites, like the Veterans Administration or other state government things, when people sign up for various things.

TOM COTTON: The data we're talking about here is your birthday - your birthday - stuff that many people put online voluntarily or that government agencies at your local, state and federal level all have access to and know and your parent-child relationship. That's it.

KEITH: Deirdre, obviously, there's a fair bit of pushback already. Do you have any sense of whether this legislation and other similar bills have any chance of moving both in this political climate and also just in this lobbying climate?

WALSH: I mean, I think it's an uphill battle. I think just the combination of things that you just mentioned, right? The political reality of a very closely divided Congress right now makes it tough to pass any bill. I think the fact that there are multiple bills dealing with online safety that have different approaches - the bill that we're talking about focuses very much on parental consent, and the algorithm bills have other ways to keep the social media platforms themselves more accountable - advertising bans, you know, kids bill of rights, in terms of their ability to do things online, different types of proposals. I think that helps the tech companies when there's a lot of different stuff out there, and there's not broad agreement on one thing.

And Chris Murphy, the Democrat from Connecticut, who is one of the lead co-sponsors, said on this issue he does think there is a chance.

CHRIS MURPHY: If the four of us can agree on this, you know, who come from very different political and ideological backgrounds, I think there's real hope that this approach can get to the Senate floor and get 60 votes.

WALSH: But I do think, on the flip side, just looking at the group of senators that I talked to and how different they are, but they all sort of fundamentally want to do something, and they all really get at the issue of the mental health crisis that they think is really hurting America's kids because of the impacts of social media, you know, I do think there's a lot of value. I guess the thing that I don't know is, you know, you do have what we heard about the numbers in terms of the lobbying from the tech industry. You know, who are the lobbyists for this bill? I guess it's parents, right? And so how motivated are they going to be to push their senators to push it through?

KEITH: All right. Well, I guess this is one of those stay-tuned situations. And I know, Deirdre, you and Dara will also be watching that. That is it for today. NPR's Dara Kerr, thank you so much for joining us on the pod. We'd like to have you back.

KERR: Thank you.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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