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News brief: democracy summit, NPR political poll, Mosseri defends Instagram

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden wants to promote democracy.

NOEL KING, HOST:

To that end, he's hosting a virtual summit with representatives from more than 100 countries. It is a two-day event. And while the equivalent of a two-day Zoom call doesn't sound like a thrill a minute, the White House really does consider it a chance to focus on the global challenge of our time. Democratic practices are under pressure in a lot of countries. The U.S., of course, witnessed an effort to overturn the results of our last presidential election. And open societies across the world face a challenge from China, which often uses the word democracy but means something very different.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is covering this summit. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why is this virtual summit happening now?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, part of the reason is to fulfill a campaign promise. Biden committed to holding a democracy summit within his first year of office. The idea, though, was to do it in person, but the pandemic made that difficult. But also, this is a really important issue for Biden. He talks all the time about how democracy is under attack, as you were mentioning, and how the U.S. and others need to show that they have a better model than countries like China and Russia. So there is some symbolism here. It's a chance to plant a flag and declare that this is an important issue. I spoke with Charles Kupchan, who was a senior adviser on European affairs in the Obama administration, and he says the clock is ticking, that the sooner the better because steps need to be taken to address the increasing fragility of democracy in the world.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: This is an effort to go out into the world and to say, hey, Houston, we have a problem. Liberal democracy is not as solid as we thought it was.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, and Biden himself says that history is watching. He argues that the world is at an inflection point in what he describes as a global struggle between democracy and autocracy.

INSKEEP: So how are they going to spend these two days?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the focus is quite broad and not really specific. Senior officials tell us the summit will have three themes - first, strengthen democracy and defending against authoritarianism, second, fighting corruption, and third is promoting respect for human rights. The White House says they're expecting leaders to use this summit to announce new commitments in these areas. You know, these are all noble and ambitious things, of course. But, you know, really, much of this can be written in a statement without taking much concrete action.

INSKEEP: Well, listening to you, Franco, I feel like the most important thing here, then, is who shows up and says we're on the side of democracy and we have a country that's democratic enough to qualify. So tell us a little bit about that. Who's there and who's not?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Obviously, countries like China and Russia were not included, and the president has spent a lot of time this week on Russia and its military buildup on the border with Ukraine. But Taiwan was invited, and that's a really big deal because of the impacts it could have on relations with China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory. The ambassador of China to the United States wrote an op-ed, actually along with the ambassador of Russia, blasting the summit as being anti-democratic. They argued it represented a Cold War mentality and would create greater ideological rifts in the world. So it seems to have at least got under their skin.

INSKEEP: There certainly would be an opportunity, at this point, for people to criticize the United States' own democracy since there was a violent attack on the Capitol when the last election was being certified as part of a larger disinformation campaign to lie about the election results.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, we're coming up on that anniversary of Januar 6, you know. And Biden himself says that democracy here is facing its biggest test since the Civil War. An official said that he is not going to shy away at this summit from talking about the issues like integrity of elections in the U.S. and voting rights protections.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. Why is President Biden's approval rating down?

KING: It's certainly not what the White House would have expected at the end of this year. The economy is growing. Unemployment is down. Millions of people are vaccinated against COVID. But a new NPR-Marist poll identifies some reasons that Americans are skeptical of the country's direction. Many people affirm that they did get pandemic payments or child tax credits that Congress passed and the president signed into law. Many say the hundreds of dollars per child just did not help them much. And they're also worried about inflation.

INSKEEP: So let's talk through these findings with NPR's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is the president's approval rating?

MONTANARO: His approval rating's down at 42%, and that's where it's been stuck the last few weeks and ties his worst mark in the polls since he's taken office. The majority of independents also, by the way, disapprove of the job he's doing. That's a group that was key to his election. Sixty-one percent of adults say the country is headed in the wrong direction. And that's down from their relative optimism over the summer. And that's when you'll remember the president was close to declaring independence from the coronavirus pandemic. And while people are mostly supportive of the infrastructure bill that was recently signed into law, they're less supportive of the Democrats' social safety net legislation that passed the House. And they're pessimistic that it would help people like them and don't think either bill would likely address their top economic concern, which, Steve, is inflation.

INSKEEP: Well, let's follow up on a thing that Noel said there. There are millions of people who really did get this child tax credit who really got an extra several hundred dollars, I believe, per child in many cases, but they do not seem to be too positive about it.

MONTANARO: No, there seems to be a real perception disconnect here. You know, take the child tax credit, for example - 59% of respondents who were eligible to get those credits said they actually received them. But that's far below the number of families that the government expects should be getting these funds. And like you said, we're talking about hundreds of dollars per child per month. But those who said they got them mostly said the money has only helped them a little while.

INSKEEP: Wow. That's really interesting. So there's two categories of people here or three categories of people, I guess. There are people who say, I got this and it benefited me. There are people who say, I got this and it made no difference, even though it definitely is money. But there are also people who seem statistically to have received it and have no idea. For those who do agree that they got something of benefit, where do they give the credit?

MONTANARO: Well, when you look at those direct payments, up to $1,400, a plurality, 40% credit Democrats in Congress with their passage, which makes sense, but not the president himself. In fact, Biden received the same share of credit from respondents who gave credit to Republicans, only 17%, even though not a single Republican in Congress voted to authorize these payments. This really jumped out to the pollsters because, traditionally, a president is the one who pushes the policy and is the one who gets the credit and the blame. But that's not the case for Biden. And part of that is because of how he's tried to lead. You know, he's tried to be more collaborative. He's almost like a Senate majority leader rather than a president who's taken, you know, the bully pulpit and, you know, saying exactly what he wants. He's tried to find consensus within his own party. He's tried not to offend any of those essential 50 votes that he needs. But that means he's slid somewhat to the background. And for months, remember, there was tons of attention on Democrats in Congress and their differences. While Biden was very much involved, that didn't become clear till late in the process just how much he was doing.

INSKEEP: Well, Biden is not on the ballot next year, but most Democrats in Congress are.

MONTANARO: No, and it's not good for them. I've talked to Democrats who aren't confident of Biden's ability to be the spokesperson for the party. These are warning signs ahead of next year's election and shows you how Democrats' messaging just isn't breaking through.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: For the first time, the head of Instagram defended the platform before Congress.

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ADAM MOSSERI: Now, I recognize that many in this room have deep reservations about our company. But I want to assure you that we do have the same goal. We all want teens to be safe online.

KING: Adam Mosseri was in Washington yesterday trying to convince lawmakers that Instagram does take kids' safety seriously, but a lot of senators seemed unconvinced.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shannon Bond covered yesterday's Senate hearing and joins us now. And we should note that Instagram's parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content. We cover them like any other company. Shannon, good morning.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is Adam Mosseri?

BOND: Well, he's the highest ranking executive to come before Congress since a whistleblower leaked this trove of internal documents showing just how much Facebook, or now Meta, knows about the potential harms of its platform. And that included internal Instagram research about how it affects its youngest users, including a survey in which some teen girls said the app makes their body image issues worse. So here's what Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said at the hearing yesterday.

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AMY KLOBUCHAR: I think that we are in diametrically opposed goals - the goals of parents out there and the goals of your company. Our kids aren't cash cows.

BOND: And we heard from both Democrats and Republicans really outraged at this portrait that's emerged that Instagram knows it may actually be toxic, especially to teenagers, but that it's brushed aside those concerns in the name of growth because it needs to capture this younger age group to ensure its longevity.

INSKEEP: Well, to an extent, Klobuchar has a point there. Instagram's business is delivering viewers, delivering users to advertisers, including kids. So how did Mosseri defend Instagram?

BOND: Well, he acknowledged these concerns, and he reiterated he's a dad himself of three kids. He talked about new features the company is rolling out to keep young people safe, like reminders to take a break from scrolling, some new parental controls that are coming. But Mosseri also pushed back on the idea that Instagram is harmful. He says the research that found it exacerbated body image issues was more nuanced than it had been portrayed.

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MOSSERI: Research actually shows that on 11 of 12 difficult issues that teens face, teens are struggling, said Instagram helps more than harms.

BOND: And he suggested that tech companies come together to propose safety standards for kids on social media because he says it's not just about Instagram. It's about competitors like TikTok and YouTube, where kids are actually spending more of their time.

INSKEEP: Well, Mosseri makes an interesting point because advocates for a lot of marginalized groups are out there saying, listen, be careful about how you change this, be careful about how you regulate this because this social media is how a lot of us find each other and communicate and share ideas. So how did senators respond?

BOND: They were deeply skeptical of everything they heard from Mosseri. Here's Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee after the hearing.

MARSHA BLACKBURN: He does not understand the intensity of opposition that the American public has to how they are managing the Instagram platform.

BOND: And she said the safety changes that the company has announced are just too little, too late. So lawmakers are saying, you know, it's time for new laws to regulate tech. But of course, Steve, they've been saying that for a while. We are still waiting for them to move forward on any of these legislative proposals.

INSKEEP: Shannon, thanks for your reporting.

BOND: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shannon Bond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.