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Arkansas sues TikTok, ByteDance and Meta over mental health claims

Washington CNN  — 

The state of Arkansas has sued TikTok, its parent ByteDance, and Facebook-parent Meta over claims the companies’ products are harmful to users, in the latest effort by public officials to take social media companies to court over mental-health and privacy concerns.

All three lawsuits claim the companies have violated the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and seek millions, if not billions, in potential fines. The suits were filed in Arkansas state court.

The complaints come amid mounting pressure in Washington on TikTok for its ties to China and as states have grown more aggressive in suing tech companies broadly, particularly on mental health claims. Suits by school districts or county officials in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington state have targeted multiple social media platforms over addiction allegations.

The suit against Meta particularly zeroes in on the company’s impact to young users’ mental health, alleging that Meta’s implementation of like buttons, photo tagging, an unending news feed and other features are addictive and “intended to manipulate users’ brains by triggering the release of dopamine.”

In a statement, Meta’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, said the company has invested in “technology that finds and removes content related to suicide, self-injury or eating disorders before anyone reports it to us.”

“We want to reassure every parent that we have their interests at heart in the work we’re doing to provide teens with safe, supportive experiences online,” Davis said in the statement. “These are complex issues, but we will continue working with parents, experts and regulators such as the state attorneys general to develop new tools, features and policies that meet the needs of teens and their families.”

The remaining two suits, both naming ByteDance and TikTok as defendants, target TikTok’s alleged shortcomings in content moderation and also reiterate claims about TikTok’s alleged threat to US national security.

The first suit alleges that TikTok has misled users by identifying its app as suitable for teens on app stores because of the “abundant” presence of content showing profanity, substance use and nudity. The suit further alleges that TikTok’s Chinese sister app, Douyin, does not make such content available within China.

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“TikTok poses known risks to young teens that TikTok’s parent company itself finds inappropriate for Chinese users who are the same age,” the complaint said. “Yet TikTok pushes salacious and other mature content to all young U.S. users age 13 and up.”

The second suit against ByteDance and TikTok accuse the companies of having made misleading statements about the reach of Chinese government officials and their purported inability to access TikTok user data. TikTok has migrated US user data to servers operated by the American tech giant Oracle and has established organizational controls intended to prevent unauthorized data access. But, the suit alleges, that does not mean the data is necessarily protected.

“Neither TikTok’s data storage practices, nor its data security practices, negate the applicability of Chinese law to that data or to the individuals and entities who are subject to Chinese law and have access to that data, or the risk of access by the Chinese Government or Communist Party,” the complaint said.

The suit also claims TikTok has misrepresented its approach to privacy and security by omitting the potential risks of Chinese government access from its privacy policies and in its statements to app store operators.

TikTok and ByteDance didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement announcing the lawsuits, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the suits reflect a “failed status quo.”

“We have to hold Big Tech companies accountable for pushing addictive platforms on our kids and exposing them to a world of inappropriate, damaging content,” Sanders said. “These actions are a long time coming. We have watched over the past decade as one social media company after another has exploited our kids for profit and escaped government oversight.”