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‘Victims of Instagram’: Meta faces novel legal threat over teen suicides

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Meta is facing a fresh storm of lawsuits that blame Instagram for eating disorders, depression and even suicides among children and teens — and experts say the suits are using a novel argument that could pose a threat to Mark Zuckerberg’s social-media empire.

The suits — which are full of disturbing stories of teens being barraged by Instagram posts promoting anorexia, self-harm and suicide — rely heavily on leaks by whistleblower Frances Haugen, who last year exposed internal Meta documents showing that Instagram makes body image issues and other mental health problems worse for many teens.

The leaks provide proof that Meta was well aware its products were hurting children but chose to put growth and profits over safety, the suits claim. Some of the suits also name Snapchat and TikTok, which the plaintiffs argue have also pushed addictive products despite knowing the deadly downsides. 

“In what universe can a company have a product that directs this kind of vile filth, this dangerous content to kids — and get away with it?” said Matthew Bergman, the founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center, which has filed more than a half-dozen of the lawsuits. “These products are causing grievous harm to our kids.” 

Parents are accusing Mark Zuckerberg’s Instagram of fostering mental harms in their children.
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Section 230

Bergman faces an uphill battle due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that has largely protected social-media companies from similar litigation. But Bergman also has a novel legal strategy based on Haugen’s leaks that the families he represents hope will force Meta to change its ways.

Meta and other tech companies have fought off lawsuits for years using Section 230, which was intended to preserve internet users’ free speech by preventing web platforms from being held legally liable for content posted by third parties.

But Bergman argues that the problem with Instagram is not just that third parties post harmful content on the app — it’s that Instagram’s design can intentionally route vulnerable users toward such content, as detailed by Haugen’s leaks. Therefore, he argues, the company shouldn’t be protected by Section 230. 

“It’s our belief that when you attack the platform as a product, that’s different than Section 230,” Bergman said. “230 has been a barrier and it’s something we take seriously and we believe we have a viable legal theory to get around it.” 

Frances Haugen
Frances Haugen’s leaks show that it’s Instagram’s addictive design choices — not just third-party users — that are hurting kids, the lawsuits argue.
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Meta did not return a request for comment. 

Self-harm, addiction and death

One suit centers around a Louisiana girl named Englyn Roberts, who committed suicide in 2020 at age 14.

According to the suit filed in July in San Francisco federal court, Roberts’ parents had no idea the extent to which she was quietly being “bombarded by Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok with harmful images and videos,” including “violent and disturbing content glorifying self-harm and suicide.”

The more Roberts allegedly interacted with such photos and videos, the more the apps recommended similar content that kept her hooked in a vicious cycle. Roberts started exchanging self-harm videos with her friends, including one disturbing video in September 2019 of a woman hanging herself with an extension cord from a door, according to screenshots included in court papers. 

Englyn Roberts
Englyn Roberts, who committed suicide at age 14, was allegedly barraged by “violent and disturbing content glorifying self-harm and suicide” on Instagram.
Englyn Roberts
Roberts became addicted to Instagram after she was given her first cellphone at 11 years old, her parents say.

In August 2020, Roberts appeared to imitate the video when she used an extension cord to hang herself from the door. Her parents found her hours later and she was rushed to the hospital. She was put on life support and died days later.

About a year after Roberts’ death, her father saw a report about Frances Haugen’s leaks about Instagram’s harms. He subsequently searched his daughter’s old phones and social media accounts and uncovered her posts and messages about suicide. 

“What became clear in September of 2021 is that Englyn’s death was the proximate result of psychic injury caused by her addictive use of Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok,” the suit reads. 

This maneuver around Section 230 means “Meta should be worried,” according to a recent analysis of one of Bergman’s suits by Gonzaga School of Law Professor Wayne Unger.

“The reasons for Section 230 immunity fall flat with respect to Spence’s lawsuit,” Unger wrote. “If the primary beneficiary of Section 230 protection is the internet user, then it follows that platforms should not be allowed to use Section 230 immunity for the harms the platforms directly cause their users.”

‘Knowingly releasing a toxin’

Bergman previously represented Asbestos victims before switching to social media lawsuits last year in the wake of Haugen’s testimony. 

“To me that was basically everything I’ve seen in the asbestos industry times one hundred,” Bergman said of Haugen’s leaks. “Both [asbestos producers and Meta] were knowingly releasing a toxin.” 

Other alleged victims of social media represented by Bergman’s firm include two other teens from Louisiana and another from Wisconsin who all committed suicide after being hooked on social media apps. 

An additional disturbing suit filed by a Connecticut mother alleges that her daughter killed herself at just 11 years old after becoming addicted to social media apps and being barraged by sexually explicit videos from strangers. The pre-teen girl even made a video of herself taking the pills that killed her, the suit claims.

Other suits have been filed by victims who are still alive but who say they have suffered from severe anorexia, mental trauma and other harms harm due to their social media use. 

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Robinhood to pay a 1% ‘match’ on customer contributions to retail individual retirement accounts

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Rafael Henrique | Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Robinhood is bringing the concept of a 401(k)-style contribution match to its retail customers who may not have access to a retirement plan through the workplace.

The retail brokerage will pay a 1% “match” on contributions its customers make to a Robinhood individual retirement account, the firm said Tuesday.

The firm is billing it as the first-ever match paid to retail IRA customers (i.e., outside of a workplace retirement plan.) Robinhood has more than 12 million active monthly users and 23 million funded accounts, said Stephanie Guild, head of investment strategy.

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It’s rolling out its Robinhood Retirement service broadly in January. Customers may also sign up for a waitlist starting Tuesday and get access on a rolling basis in coming weeks.

A 401(k) match is a common retirement benefit offered by employers that sponsor a workplace retirement plan. It’s a financial incentive for workers who save for retirement.

Some experts view Robinhood’s IRA match as a benefit that may encourage and boost savings, particularly among gig workers, younger investors and people of color — groups more likely not to have access to retirement savings at work.

Others are skeptical whether the relatively small dollar amounts at stake will amount to a positive behavioral shift, and wonder if it’s more a marketing effort to stand out amid ample competition.

“There is no free lunch, ever,” said Philip Chao, principal and chief investment officer at Experiential Wealth in Cabin John, Maryland. “You always need to ask the motivation of the entity or the individual giving you a free lunch.

“Why are you buying me lunch?” he added. “I think that is the central question.”

How the match works

A 401(k) match is generally structured as a share of employee contributions. Let’s say a worker saves 6% of their annual salary in a 401(k); an employer might match 50% or 100% of that dollar total, up to a federal limit.

Robinhood’s concept is similar. The firm will match 1% of new contributions in a pre-tax or Roth account, up to the annual IRA contribution limit. Some IRAs — like SIMPLE IRAs, which are offered through the workplace — allow employers to give a match to employees; the Robinhood match arrangement, however, is not tied to workplace savings.

But there are some key differences in how the match works. A typical 401(k) match is generally a percentage of a worker’s compensation, while Robinhood’s is a share of an investor’s contribution.

There is also a lower annual cap: In 2023, savers can’t contribute more than $6,500 to an IRA, per federal rules. That total includes any match from Robinhood.

If it gets people in the habit of saving, that could be the big impact.

John Scott

director of retirement savings at The Pew Charitable Trusts

So, an investor who contributes $6,435 in 2023 would get about $64.35 in matching funds from Robinhood — for a total balance of almost $6,500.

By comparison, the dollars at stake are much higher in a 401(k) plan. Savers can contribute up to $22,500 to a 401(k) in 2023. Total contributions (including employee contributions and employer match, for example) are capped at $66,000.

There aren’t any contribution or account minimums to get the Robinhood match, and trades don’t carry commissions. Savers can invest in the universe of stocks and investment funds available on Robinhood’s platform, or opt to get a one-time asset-allocation recommendation that includes up to about 10 exchange-traded funds.

Why Americans are finding it more difficult to retire

While investors would receive the match money right away, they must keep their Robinhood IRA account open for at least five years to permanently retain the matching funds — a concept that’s similar to 401(k) vesting.

Rollovers from a 401(k) or IRA to a Robinhood Retirement account don’t count toward the IRA match, the firm said in an e-mail, adding that it is “exploring a separate match option for rollovers in the future.”

Marketing gimmick or positive savings impact?

Robinhood expects the money to add up over time. A long-term investor who gets a $60 match each year and earns a 10% annual return would have an additional $26,000 after 40 years, according to the firm’s analysis.

“I think any sort of offset to [investment] fees or any sort of small addition [to savings], it all adds up over time,” said John Scott, director of retirement savings at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“I think the big question will be, what’s the behavioral effect?” Scott said.

In other words: To what extent will the financial incentive encourage people to save? Many employers have adopted automatic enrollment to combat relatively low 401(k) participation despite the availability of matching funds.

I can’t imagine trying to build up an IRA business and not having a program like this to kind of fuel the prospecting efforts.

Neil Bathon

founder and partner of FUSE Research Network

To date, most policy initiatives to encourage savings have focused on the workplace. A lack of access to 401(k) plans at work is among the U.S. retirement system’s primary shortfalls. States have passed legislation in recent years establishing automatic-enrollment IRAs for workers who don’t have a retirement plan at work, for example.

“Maybe it’s just a marketing gimmick, the 1%,” Scott added. “But if it gets people in the habit of saving, that could be the big impact.”

Retirement experts likened the match to banks that used to offer “free” toasters and other perks to customers who opened a certificate of deposit.

Here, Robinhood is likely aiming to grow its customer base — and then likely make money elsewhere by trying to sell them to other services, experts said.

Robinhood has seen growth reverse as a pandemic-era boom in retail trading lost steam. The firm has announced a few tranches of layoffs this year.

“It just keeps getting harder to get in front [of customers] and break through the clutter,” said Neil Bathon, founder and partner of FUSE Research Network, an asset-management market researcher. “I can’t imagine trying to build up an IRA business and not having a program like this to kind of fuel the prospecting efforts.”

Robinhood alluded to meeting demand for current customers and expanding its footprint, but declined to offer a forecast for growth or total cost.

“We have heard from our existing customer base that they have a strong interest in Robinhood expanding into the Retirement space,” the company said in an e-mail. “We want to provide great value for an expanded base of customers through a platform that supports investing for the long term, and Retirement is just the beginning.”

It may be difficult to entice people to take the steps to open an account when the incentive might amount to $50 or $60 a year in dollar terms, Chao said.

“One percent sounds nice, but do you think that 1% will incentivize people to save anyway, when 3% doesn’t get them to save in a 401(k)?” he said.

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Indonesia to ban insults against president under new criminal code

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Indonesia has legislated to outlaw insults against the president and sex outside marriage as part of an extensive overhaul of its criminal code.

The revised code, which was approved by the parliament on Tuesday, will apply to both foreigners and locals in the south-east Asian nation, the world’s third-biggest democracy and home to its biggest Muslim population.

Activists, business figures and analysts said the revised code was a setback for human rights and that it threatened Indonesia’s attempts to improve its global reputation and attract more foreign investment for its fast-growing economy.

The sweeping changes include new defamation articles and a bar on insulting the president. Blasphemy and promoting apostasy also become criminal offences.

President Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi” as he is known in his country, in 2019 suspended plans for revision of the code, which is based on Dutch colonial law from 1918, after widespread protests by students and activists against what they said was infringement of their civil rights.

However, there were only a few small protests this week against the revisions, which received less attention than the 2019 proposals.

Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the new legislation could endanger sexual, religious and ethnic minorities and was a “sad day for freedom of expression and press freedom”.

“The problem with this oppressive law is it cannot be broadly enforced,” Harsono said. “It can only be enforced selectively, meaning that it will provide an avenue for extortion. It is a political weapon to jail opponents and creates an atmosphere of fear.”

The revised code criminalises sex outside marriage and cohabitation between unmarried couples, with punishment including fines and prison time. However, any charges must be filed by a parent, spouse or children.

Indonesia’s justice ministry defended the new code as protecting the institution of marriage and national values.

The revisions are expected to be implemented over the next three years. Opponents could seek to petition the constitutional court to revoke some of the articles, but analysts said such an effort was unlikely to succeed.

The US ambassador to Indonesia, Sung Kim, said in a speech on Tuesday the new rules could have a “negative impact on the investment climate”.

Other observers argued that Widodo needed to replace the current antiquated criminal code and that an ebbing in the political prominence of more extremist Islamic groups made this a good time to do so.

Kevin O’Rourke, a Jakarta-based analyst and principal at consultancy Reformasi Information Services, said there had been dispute over changes to the criminal code since the 1960s.

“This is actually not as broad as feared in terms of anybody being able to file charges,” O’Rourke said of the criminalising of sex outside marriage. “[The revision] goes against the grain of international trends, but is being denounced by Islamic hardline groups advocating for stricter changes.”

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Oversight Board Criticizes Meta for Preferential Treatment

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Meta was harshly criticized by an internal oversight board on Tuesday for policies that give celebrities, politicians and business partners special treatment compared with the vast majority of Facebook and Instagram users.

People with a high number of followers have been able to say and share things on Facebook and Instagram that would otherwise be quickly removed for violating company policies, according to the Oversight Board, created by the company to adjudicate thorny policy questions related to free speech, human rights and content moderation.

A program called cross-check ensured that high-profile users received additional review from a human moderator before they had their posts removed for running afoul of Meta’s terms of service. In a report, the oversight board criticized Meta for a lack of transparency about the program, which the board said provided “unequal treatment” to Facebook and Instagram’s most influential and powerful users at the expense of its human rights and company values. Meta has taken as long as seven months to reach a final decision on a piece of content posted by an account in the cross-check program, the report said.

“The board is concerned about how Meta has prioritized business interests in content moderation,” the report said. The program, it said, “provided extra protection for the expression of certain users.”

The board began investigating the cross-check program last year after its existence was reported by The Wall Street Journal and a whistle blower, Frances Haugen.

Nick Clegg, Meta’s vice president of global affairs, said Tuesday that the cross-check system was created to prevent erroneously removed posts from having an outsize impact. He said the company would respond to the oversight board’s report within 90 days.

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