Senior executives at Meta and Pinterest have been ordered to appear in person at the inquest of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who killed herself in 2017 after viewing harmful content online.
Lawyers representing Meta – the owner of Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook – and Pinterest told a pre-inquest hearing that evidence could be given remotely, citing factors such as the risk of becoming infected with Covid, the short notice involved and busy work schedules.
However, senior coroner Andrew Walker said potential difficulties over viewing evidence while giving testimony made an in-person appearance necessary.
“The questioning of the witnesses will involve the witnesses looking at video footage, referring to documents, and that will be best done in the setting of the court itself,” said Walker.
Meta’s head of health and wellbeing policy, Elizabeth Lagone, and Jud Hoffman, head of community operations at Pinterest – both based in the US – are due to give evidence at the inquest, which opens on 19 September at Barnet coroner’s court. The inquest has been delayed multiple times due to legal and procedural wrangles, including Meta seeking more time to redact evidence to protect users’ privacy.
Molly, from Harrow, north-west London, viewed an extensive volume of material, including some linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide, in the months before she died in November 2017. Her father, Ian Russell, has become a prominent campaigner for stronger regulation of social media platforms to protect young people from harmful content.
Meta has uncovered 12,576 pieces of Instagram content seen by Molly in the six months before her death, while she had more than 15,000 engagements on Pinterest, including 3,000 saves, in the last six months of her life.
Oliver Sanders QC, representing the Russell family,said: “For Meta and Pinterest to say their witnesses cannot attend because it is not convenient is disrespectful to the family and the court.”
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, representing Meta, said Lagone would be willing to give evidence from the east coast of the US, with “considerable IT support”, and could start her day at 10am UK time.
“We do not see that the value of Lagone’s evidence to this inquest will be improved in any way by her remote attendance,” said Gallagher.
Andrew O’Connor QC, representing Pinterest, said it would cause Hoffman “professional difficulties” to appear and he also had concerns about transmitting Covid to his elderly parents upon his return from the UK. He said: “The fact is that the risk of Covid has not disappeared, in particular in the US, and international travel is a risk.” Legal representatives attended the hearing at Barnet coroner’s court remotely.
However, Walker said that managing interaction between witnesses and evidence such as video footage was “extremely difficult” and ruled that the tech company witnesses appear in person.
Meta will not be required to name the handles of anonymous Instagram accounts viewed by Russell after the company produced guidance from the UK data watchdog stating that revealing such details would breach data laws.