At a Hoover Institution event in May, “Big Tech and the Future of the Free & Open Internet,” the newly-sworn in Senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, was scheduled as a keynote speaker. Attendees expected him to talk about conservative bias in social media moderation, and to propose specific fixes for that problem.
Instead of talking about bias, Hawley questioned whether Silicon Valley—and its big tech companies—were good for America, period.
But Sen. Hawley surprised everyone. Instead of talking about bias, Hawley questioned whether Silicon Valley—and its big tech companies—were good for America, period. He argued that rather than being the “crown jewel of the American economy,” Silicon Valley was instead “a source of peril” for America.
He traced this potential peril to the business models of social media companies, which he likened to “attention arbitrage.” The more these companies attract Americans’ attention, Hawley argued, the more money they make – which incentivizes those companies to make their products as addictive as possible.
This was a novel argument to make, especially for a Republican Senator. Republicans are generally hostile to regulation. Some have dipped their toe in the water of the regulatory pool, criticizing big tech companies for abusing their moderation platforms to hurt conservatives.
Hawley was suggesting something more. He was implying that the entire social media industry was hurting America, and that we should view it as akin to the tobacco industry or the gambling industry.
Here’s the thing. Josh Hawley isn’t wrong.
ADDICTIVE BY DESIGN
The everyday Facebook or SnapChat user can intuit that there’s a problem. We don’t log on to these services out of a genuine desire to connect with “community,” or to learn about the world; we log on to Facebook to be on Facebook. The impulse we feel to reach for our phones, the fear of missing out when we haven’t logged on for a while, the inability to enjoy everyday experiences without mediating them through an Instagram filter: for most of us, these compulsive behaviors exist somewhere on a spectrum between uncomfortable and pathological.
But the problem isn’t just that social media use can be addictive; the problem is that it’s designed to be addictive.
For some users, the experience has long since passed the threshold of being merely problematic. Anxiety, depression, loneliness, ADHD, and addiction are all directly correlated with social media use. And though the jury is still out on genuine biological addiction to these platforms, problematic social media use manifests itself with the ‘classic’ addiction symptoms: neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, concealment of the addictive behavior from family and loved ones, and others.
There are also broader, society-wide correlations that should concern us. As Americans’ screen time increases, so too do rates of teenage suicide and depression. And as study after study rebuts the idea that anyone can meaningfully “multi-task,” there is valid concern around the effects of our always-online, always-distracted culture on workplace productivity. The risks become lethal when these distractions spill over into more hazardous areas of our lives, like driving.
But the problem isn’t just that social media use can be addictive; the problem is that it’s designed to be addictive. Features like ‘infinite scroll’ and ‘autoplay’ are implemented to hijack the neural processes in our brain to preclude us from rationally assessing our consumption of social media.
“It’s as if they’re taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back,” former Mozilla and Jawbone employee Aza Raskin told the BBC. “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.” Raskin would know—in 2006, he invented infinite scroll.
The social media economy incentivizes addiction by design. These companies have, as Senator Hawley argued, built their business models around “attention arbitrage.” Facebook and Instagram are in the business of selling attention, and they have every incentive to concentrate and manage as much of that attention they possibly can. These interfaces aren’t designed for community or conversation or expression—or any of these aspects of social life they brand themselves as cultivating. They are designed to keep our attention.
The best way to do that? Engineer addiction.
A SMART ACT
Following up on his presentation at Hoover, Senator Hawley introduced legislation the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act. This bill takes an uncompromising approach to address the social media industry’s parasitic business model.
We need public officials to acknowledge the mounting evidence and growing public concern over the consequences of widespread social media addiction.
The SMART Act includes ban on the addictive design features of most social media platforms, like infinite scroll and autoplay. These addictive design features have proven incredibly lucrative for platform companies because, again, their primary function is to commandeer the neural circuitry of the user. They are also the reason why users will find themselves at the tail end of a weekend-long binge-watch of Breaking Bad wondering where the time has gone. That’s not to say Breaking Bad isn’t excellent television—it is—but binge-watching shouldn’t be regularly sneaking up on people without them meaningfully consenting.
Consent is another design problem that the SMART Act takes seriously. The bill requires “choice parity,” between the company and the user, meaning that “[c]ompanies would no longer be allowed to manipulate people into consenting by making it difficult to decline consent.” The SMART Act also gives users the power to monitor and control their screen time. It forces companies who, quite literally, profit off of the time we spend on their platforms, to offer some modicum of agency to the “produser.”
That said, the bill is perhaps a touch aggressive. For example, the SMART Act would require companies automatically limit the time users can spend on a platform across all devices to 30 minutes a day: the so-called “30-minute limit.” Users would be able to change the limits, but they would have to do so every month. This seems like an attempt to retrain users to have a different relationship to social media, rather than just eliminating an addictive feature, and there is room for reasonable debate about the wisdom of such a provision, and others like it.
To have a reasonable debate, however, we need public officials to acknowledge the mounting evidence and growing public concern over the consequences of widespread social media addiction. Few elected representatives recognize the issue as one that might merit government intervention; even fewer have demonstrated a willingness to do something about it.
Josh Hawley, to his credit, is the exception.
ENOUGH FLIPPANCY: ADDICTION MATTERS
Josh Hawley’s project has generated a swath of responses. One, no doubt the product of substantial workshopping, coined it the “not-so-SMART Act,” and others denounced the measure as authoritarian, “anti-internet,” “nannyish,” and the product of an empty moral panic.
Nearly all of us carry around pocket-sized slot machines all day, every day. That’s a real problem.
The common refrain that the science is still out on social media addiction shows restraint in the face of uncertainty—but it also defies all of the evidence we do have. It’s not alarmist to say that social media threatens all Americans’ wellbeing, and therefore deserves, at a minimum, a closer examination by lawmakers.
This is one of those peculiar issues where we get to watch liberal media pundits transform into hysterical libertarians, decrying the imminent tyranny of big government overreach. Labeling Josh Hawley’s response as a “moral panic” trivializes social media addiction, a genuinely serious problem that affects millions of Americans.
If there is a moral panic related to regulating big tech, it’s the consistently hysterical reaction from establishment conservatives when anyone even mentions regulation. People are rightfully concerned with social media’s infiltration into our lives. Why, then, are we so hostile toward practical efforts to solve the very problems created by that infiltration?
This sycophancy toward big tech and the various knee-jerk reactions from both the right and left point to the more significant issue of how we frame discussions of regulating technology—a framing which benefits the tech giants, not the American people. Market failures are real, and yet legislation designed to rectify an obvious market failure is being treated as an all-out attack on our freedom.
This is silly. Nearly all of us carry around pocket-sized slot machines all day, every day. That’s a real problem.
NECESSARY AND PROPER
The United States government should protect Americans from exploitation. The data that Facebook and Instagram generate from our use positions us as something akin to workers—but not quite. The avenues available for the government to act based on current law are limited, making innovative legislation like Hawley’s a necessity.
Hawley’s proposal may not be perfect, but it’s an essential start to an overdue conversation. Conservatives need to confront this unwarranted aversion to using government power to achieve conservative ends. We need to champion an agenda that cares more about protecting citizens than placating tech giants. Above all, we need to see social media companies for what they are: companies that prey upon human frailty to turn a profit.
And yes, Josh Hawley’s bill would restrict your liberty, to a degree.
So do stoplights.