Mark Zuckerberg stood to directly address relatives of online child abuse victims in the Senate gallery on Wednesday, a first for the chief executive of Meta and a singular moment in a morning full of tense exchanges during a Judiciary Committee hearing on child safety.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, turning his back away from the bipartisan panel of Senators and toward the family members, many of whom were holding photos of their deceased loved ones. “No one should go through the things that your families have suffered.”
Mr. Zuckerberg added that the company was continuing to work on the issue to prevent other families from going through similar experiences.
The moment came after a tense exchange with Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri. The senator pressed Mr. Zuckerberg on a number of issues, including what he said was Meta’s failure to adequately act on what he characterized as rampant child exploitation and abuse across the social media company’s many apps — Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
Mr. Zuckerberg drew some of the most scrutiny from senators during the wide-ranging hearing on online child safety, in which X, Snap, Discord and TikTok chief executives also testified. They pressed him on topics including child sexual abuse content and whether he supported proposed legislation to halt it.
Mr. Zuckerberg has staunchly defended his company’s actions, noting during the hearing that he has authorized more than $20 billion to help safeguard the platform and has hired tens of thousands of employees.
But he has also said that operating Meta inherently means trade-offs, attempting to elevate good experiences — facilitating connections between friends, loved ones, celebrities and interests — and mitigating the bad. The senators questioning him emphasized that he should focus the company’s efforts on doing a much better job on the latter category.
Before Mr. Zuckerberg addressed the gallery, Mr. Hawley asked whether Meta would offer any remuneration to the families of deceased children who suffered abuse on the platform, adding that “your product is killing people.” Mr. Zuckerberg did not directly answer the question. Most of Mr. Hawley’s questions were shouted at the chief executive.
“Your job is to be responsible for what your company has done,” Senator Hawley said before Zuckerberg stood to address the room. “You have made billions of dollars on the people sitting behind you here. You’ve done nothing to help them, you’ve done nothing to compensate them, and you’ve done nothing to put it right. You could do so here today, and you should.”
After Mr. Zuckerberg finished speaking, members of the families in the Senate gallery remained silent.
Reached afterward, Mary Rodee, a parent in the hearing room, said she and other parents of victims were skeptical of Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments to them. She said she’s waited two years for a response from Meta on the death of her son, who she said died of suicide in 2021 after sexual exploitation in Facebook Messenger.
“The companies are not doing enough,” she said. “Enough talking.”
Cecilia Kang contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.