10 Feb 2024

Arturo Bejar: Meta whistleblower

From Saturday Morning, 9:35 am on 10 February 2024

Photo: Monica Semergiu

Warning: This story includes details about suicide and harassment

A Meta whistleblower says Meta's founder and CEO's apology to parents of children harmed by social media was "just not enough".

Last week Mark Zuckerberg was forced to apologise at a US Senate hearing, to parents whose children died following sexual exploitation via social media or cyberbullying.

He expressed regret about what they had experienced and pledged to work to prevent it from happening to others but stopped short of taking responsibility for facilitating the abuse.

Meta owns Instagram, WhatsApp and Threads as well as Facebook.

Arturo Béjar, who worked for the company between 2009 and 2015 and then again from 2019 to 2021, told Saturday Morning most of Zuckerberg's answers did not go far enough.

While Béjar was "glad" Zuckerberg apologised to the parents, "it was just not enough".

"I think that most of his answers, if not all of his answers to the questions were along the lines of, 'we're doing enough, what we're doing works, we're putting money into it', whereas really the work should be to sit down with those parents and listen to them as to what happened to their kids and figure out how you can change the product so that those things don't repeat themselves."

Béjar said when he was working his second stint at Meta, his team asked teens about their experiences on Instagram.

One in eight said they had received unwanted advances in the last seven days, while one in ten said they had been bullied and harassed in the last seven days.

They also asked the teens how supported they felt by Instagram when those incidents happened and half of them said "not at all", said Béjar.

"Ultimately the measure of the work, whether [Meta] are doing enough on this, you would ask kids if they're experiencing these things and you wouldn't have 10 or 20 percent saying 'yes' in the last seven days, you would have like 1 percent, 2 percent ... and the work is pretty straight forward but you have to be willing to do [it]."

Béjar spoke to the parents at that hearing and they told him they found it "very disrespectful" that Zuckerberg said studies did not show a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health.

"To say that there's no link ... in front of a parent whose child committed suicide because of bullying seems pretty ... insensitive at a minimum but most of all, not really acknowledging these harms."

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, speaks to victims and their family members as he testifies during the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis" in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2024. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

 Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, speaks to victims and their family members in Washington, DC, on 31 January, 2024. Photo: AFP

Béjar said his own daughter got Instagram when she was 14 and started getting unwanted advances from adults and boys.

She did not receive any help from Instagram, despite asking for it through the help tools on the social media platform.

"She started getting harassed in her posts with deeply misogynistic comments and she tried reporting them. I asked her, even like a couple of weeks ago, because she tried to use those tools where you ask for help, if she ever got help from Instagram ... and her response was 'not once'."

Béjar said it would be "very easy" for Meta to put in modifications to prevent harm.

He pointed to the case of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old who killed herself in 2017 after seeing graphic images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram and Pinterest.

"Most of the content that [Molly saw] is still up on the platform and is still getting recommended to teenagers," he said.

"They have systems that are pretty sophisticated, they're able to provide billions of people with personalised recommendations within milliseconds of you opening the application.

"So, it would be easy for them to say ... 'For teenagers we're going to provide a more PG experience'."

Béjar said he believed in freedom of speech and the good that social media could provide.

"But Mark seems to think that in order to get the good, you have to have the bad, which is not true."