Zuckerberg accused of OK'ing Insta plastic surgery filters despite fears of harm to kids

'Meta knows what it is doing is bad for children ... it is now there in black and white'

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been accused of vetoing a proposed ban of Instagram and Facebook image filters that simulate the effects of plastic surgery, despite being told that such software may cause mental harm for children.

This allegation surfaced on Monday in a mostly unredacted version of the lawsuit [PDF] filed in October by California Attorney General Rob Bonta on behalf of a coalition of 33 State Attorneys General. The state AGs are suing Meta for allegedly designing and deploying features on Instagram and Facebook that harm children and teens.

Those features include the ability to make people, including minors, appear in photos as if they've had plastic surgery, which may have all kinds of negative effects on their and other's self image, confidence, and mental health, it is essentially claimed.

"Meta knows that what it is doing is bad for kids – period," said Bonta in a statement. "Thanks to our unredacted federal complaint, it is now there in black and white, and it is damning. We will continue to vigorously prosecute this matter."

In November 2019, according to the complaint, Margaret Gould Stewart, who was at the time Meta’ veep of product design and responsible innovation, initiated an internal conversation about the PR damage being caused by news reports that Meta was allowing the promotion of plastic surgery to Instagram's youngest users.

This debate continued, with data from experts about the potential for mental harm, for several months among Meta executives, according to the legal filing. It was to be discussed in a meeting scheduled for April 2, 2020. But one day before the due date, it's alleged, the event was canceled.

"Rather than rescheduling the meeting, Zuckerberg vetoed the proposal to ban camera filters that simulated plastic surgery," the complaint says. "Zuckerberg dismissed concerns about the filters (from the public, from experts, and from his own employees) as 'paternalistic.' Zuckerberg stressed that there was a 'clear demand' for the filters, and wrongly asserted that he had seen 'no data' suggesting that the filters were harmful."

According to the complaint, Zuckerberg had been provided with a summary document detailing the expert consensus on "the dangers these filters have in advancing unrealistic beauty standards and impacting mental health and body image," and continued to be briefed by colleagues on the subject.

The complaint continues, "After Zuckerberg rejected the proposal to permanently ban plastic surgery simulation camera filters, Gould Stewart wrote to Zuckerberg, 'I respect your call on this and I’ll support it, but want to just say for the record that I don’t think it’s the right call given the risks . . . I just hope that years from now we will look back and feel good about the decision we made here.'"

The unredacted version of the complaint undermines Meta's claims about the extent to which it prioritizes the safety of teens and children on its social media services. It argues Meta knows millions of children under the age of 13 use its services and that the company unlawfully collects their information.

In addition to the 33 State Attorneys General suing Meta and two other state lawsuits – from the District of Columbia and seven states, and from Florida – hundreds of school districts have joined together in multi-district litigation [PDF] to hold Meta, Snapchat developer Snap, TikTok maker ByteDance, and Google accountable for its mental health impact on teens and children.

Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this month, Meta voiced support for a federal law that would require Apple and Google, as app store operators, to take more responsibility for preventing teens under 16 from downloading social media apps. ®

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