Mark Zuckerberg personally rejected Meta’s proposals to improve teen mental health, court documents allege

By Brian Fung | CNN

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has personally and repeatedly thwarted initiatives meant to improve the well-being of teens on Facebook and Instagram, at times directly overruling some of his most senior lieutenants, according to internal communications made public as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the company.

The newly unsealed communications in the lawsuit — filed originally by Massachusetts last month in a state court — allegedly show how Zuckerberg ignored or shut down top executives, including Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri and President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, who had asked Zuckerberg to do more to protect the more than 30 million teens who use Instagram in the United States.

The disclosures highlight Zuckerberg’s sway over decisions at Meta that can affect billions of users. And they also shed light on tensions that have occasionally arisen between Zuckerberg and other Meta officials who have pushed to enhance user well-being.

Rejecting safety suggestions

Zuckerberg vetoed a 2019 proposal that would have disabled Instagram’s so-called “beauty filters,” a technology that digitally alters a user’s on-screen appearance and allegedly harms teens’ mental health by promoting unrealistic body image expectations, according to the unredacted version of the complaint filed this week by Massachusetts officials.

After sitting on the proposal for months, Zuckerberg wrote to his deputies in April 2020 asserting that there was “demand” for the filters and that he had seen “no data” suggesting the filters were harmful, according to the complaint.

Despite Zuckerberg’s conclusion, the proposal had enjoyed broad support, the lawsuit said, including from Mosseri; Instagram’s policy chief, Karina Newton; the head of Facebook, Fidji Simo, and Meta’s vice president of product design, Margaret Gould Stewart. (Simo and Mosseri had lamented at other times, according to the lawsuit, that a lack of investment in well-being initiatives meant Meta lacked “a roadmap of work that demonstrates we care about well-being.”)

Stewart had first pitched the idea to disable beauty filters, citing recommendations by academics and Meta’s outside advisors, while Newton wrote an email adding it had strong backing from departments including “comms, marketing [and] policy,” the lawsuit said.

But after Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth brought the matter to Zuckerberg’s attention, Zuckerberg ultimately rejected the plan and the filters were allowed to remain, according to the complaint.

Stewart later wrote to Zuckerberg, fretting that his decision not to disable the filters could come back to haunt the company.

“I respect your call on this and I’ll support it,” Stewart wrote, according to a message cited in the complaint, “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.”

In response to the newly unsealed communications, Meta spokesman Andy Stone said such image filters are commonly used in the industry.

“While filters exist across every major social platform and smartphone camera, Meta bans those that directly promote cosmetic surgery, changes in skin color or extreme weight loss,” Stone said. “We clearly note when a filter is being used and we work to proactively review effects against these rules before they go live.”

Stone added that Meta offers 30 tools to support teens and families, including the ability to set screen-time limits and the option to remove like counts from posts. (In the unredacted portions of the complaint, the Massachusetts suit alleges that the experiment to remove like counts from posts, codenamed Project Daisy, had originally been proposed as an app-wide default but was later downgraded to an opt-in feature that is rarely used.)

At the time of the original Massachusetts lawsuit, which was one of several filed on the same day by multiple state attorneys general, Meta had said it was committed “to providing teens with safe, positive experiences” and that it was disappointed that the states had not worked with Meta to develop industry standards.

Some executives worried about well-being

A year after the beauty filter decision, in August 2021, Clegg pressed Zuckerberg to make “additional investment to strengthen our position on wellbeing across the company,” citing a staff recommendation to address issues of addiction, self-harm and bullying, according to the complaint. By this time, the company was just weeks away from being hit with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s bombshell allegations that Instagram knew its services could be harmful to teens.

Haugen’s anonymous allegations in September jumpstarted intense scrutiny of Instagram. As Haugen revealed her identity in October, Mosseri wrote to another Meta product executive that same month in reference to Clegg’s proposal, the lawsuit said, saying he was “really worried” about well-being “but have made little progress.”

Zuckerberg allegedly remained silent on Clegg’s proposal throughout this time, prompting Clegg to reiterate his concerns to Zuckerberg in November. Finally, Zuckerberg appeared to respond through Meta’s chief financial officer, Susan Li, who “tersely respond[ed] that staffing was too ‘constrained’ to meet the request,” the lawsuit said.

Li responded similarly on Zuckerberg’s behalf after another product executive, David Ginsberg, emailed Zuckerberg in 2019 highlighting internal and external research suggesting that the company’s services were having a negative impact on people’s well-being. Ginsberg proposed hiring more engineers to build well-being tools to respond to addiction, social comparison and loneliness, but Li “responded that Meta’s leadership team declined to fund this initiative,” according to the complaint.