Nebraska joins 40 other states in suing Facebook/Instagram owner Meta

State AGs say they’re pushing for change in how social media handles teens

By: - October 24, 2023 3:43 pm

State attorneys general filed a barrage of lawsuits against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Nebraska and 40 other states announced a barrage of federal and state lawsuits Tuesday against the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. The filings allege Meta designed social media platforms it knew were addictive and damaging to teens.

The Facebook logo is displayed at the 2018 CeBIT technology trade fair on June 12, 2018, in Hanover, Germany. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of state attorneys general from California, New Hampshire, Colorado, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Nebraska discussed a shared goal: They want social media companies to protect and not exploit the mental health of teenagers. 

A total of 33 states, including Nebraska, joined the federal lawsuit filed in federal court in northern California. Another seven states and the District of Columbia are filing separate state lawsuits against Meta based on a mix of consumer protection laws. Florida is filing a separate federal lawsuit as well.

AGs: Meta went too far

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell said she appreciates that companies seek to make a profit but said some steps Meta took went “beyond what is legal and permissible.”

Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers speaks during a recent press conference. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Of particular note, the federal lawsuit alleges, was Meta’s work to advertise and collect data on children younger than 13 years old, which the cooperating attorneys general said violates a federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Nebraska was one of eight states that started an “industry-wide” investigation in 2021 into how social media companies gathered data and tailored their products to lure and keep young people engaged online, said State Attorney General Mike Hilgers, who took office in January.

“It’s really about dismantling this apparatus that has been built, this machine that’s been built to pull in young people and sort of chew them up and spit them out,” Hilgers said of the legal effort. “Ultimately, we want behavior change.”

More companies could be sued

Meta was the first company sued as part of this investigation, Hilgers and other attorneys general said, but it is unlikely to be the last. Tennessee has already begun separate legal action against Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok.

Several state attorneys general participated in an online news conference discussing the lawsuits against Meta on Tuesday. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said the multistate investigation began with the mutual recognition that teenagers’ mental health is worsening. He and others discussed research showing declines related to increased use of social media.

Skrmetti criticized Meta’s actions on that score, saying, “They have constantly used the data that they have to refine their products and make them more and more difficult to stop using … They made them addictive and targeted them at kids.” 

Meta, in a statement to the Associated Press, said it would “work productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use.” It complained about the attorneys general going to court.

Lack of trust

The attorneys general, including Rob Bonta in California and Phil Weiser of Colorado, said the state prosecutors decided to file suit, in part because a Meta whistleblower’s documents contradicted Meta’s testimony to Congress on teen safety.

Bonta said: “Not only did they disregard the dangers, they lied to us.” Weiser added: “This is not an action we take lightly.”

The whistleblower’s internal documents and others unearthed since asserted that Meta knew Instagram was addictive and potentially harmful to teen girls. They also asserted that the company tweaked its products to boost teen engagement despite an increased risk of mental health issues.

Academic studies are starting to find evidence of adverse mental health effects from excessive social media use by young people. Those include increasing reports of depression, body image issues, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts and actions.

“We have a youth mental health crisis in the United States of America,” Weiser said. “It’s a challenge made harder because of social media platforms. … Young people were brought down dark rabbit holes. They suffered.”

Changes sought

Hilgers and the other attorneys general said they want social media companies to stop targeting children and provide parents with clearer, more accurate information about the risks of using their social media platforms.

Members of a U.S. Senate committee detailed a complicated patchwork of issues that contribute to youth mental health challenges, including violence and trauma within schools and communities, the damaging effects of social media. (Getty Images)

He said he knows as a father that it’s easier to get an account online as a young person than the social media companies want to admit and said he would like to see Meta and others create a more robust system for verifying users’ ages.

Skrmetti, Hilgers and Weiser said social media companies should take notice of the seriousness of the issue because both Republican and Democratic attorneys general came together and agreed on the need for action in a time of deeply polarized politics.

Several state prosecutors compared the social media lawsuits s to the ways states have worked together against tobacco companies and Standard Oil. 

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella filed a state consumer protection lawsuit against Meta. He said his state “values the pursuit of success and profit.” But he said that must be balanced against “the health and wellness of our kids.” 

Said Hilgers: “It’s incumbent on us to protect this generation of kids and the next generation.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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