Social Media Addiction and a US Senator’s move to fix it
The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Bill is Senator Hawley’s attempt to fix something that isn’t broken.
You know what they say - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
US Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, has made his name waging a war on tech. In particular, he has targeted what he calls Big Tech. In a recent speech, the Senator stated his biggest critique of big tech, asking, “What big innovation have they really given us?” Without going into the extremely problematic lack of knowledge the Senator displays, let’s proceed to his latest project: the SMART Act, or the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act.
In an absurd news release filled with bad science, Senator Hawley said, “Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction. Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away. This legislation will put an end to that and encourage true innovation by tech companies.”
Sen. Hawley’s campaign platforms rest on what he perceives as Silicon Valley’s hegemony over the global economy, and his hopes to impose sanctions on tech giants for their dominance as such. Some of his previous anti-tech bills have covered issues such as data tracking, privacy for children online, and data monetisation; some of which had the backing of big names like Senator Elizabeth Warren. He also made a name for himself by rigorously questioning representatives of Big Tech in Congressional hearings, as well as for lobbying for more control from federal regulators on Silicon Valley.
The Senator takes this further with this bill, which specifically bans practices employed by tech companies and social network sites to keep users returning, and to ensure continuous engagement. Examples of this would be YouTube’s autoplay feature, Snapchat’s snap streaks, Instagram’s continuous scroll on stories, IGTV and posts, and so forth. He also proposes that awards granted for continued engagement with these platforms must be banned, particularly if the practice is deemed to be one that “exploits human psychology or brain psychology”.
In addition to controlling app usage practices, it has been proposed that all sites and applications allow users to set limits on the time they have spent on the app, and provide the use with notifications showing how much time a user has spent on the app every day. Moreover, an additional layer of control is being proposed, by granting the Department of Health as well as the Federal Trade Commission to impose rules that curb “unfair” practices by social media providers. This control, however, is an extremely invasive imposition. Under the Bill, by default, all apps would limit a user’s time on the platform to 30 minutes a day. While this can be changed or bypassed by the user, the app would have to require that the user resets this every month.
This is how the Senator's website addresses the objectives of the Bill:
This is not the first bill to target the practices of Silicon Vally. Increased polarisation and paranoia has made the innovate environment in the US rather hostile. It was just last week that the FTC imposed a $5 billion fine on Facebook, which was the largest sanction ever ordered in FTC history. This also comes hand-in-hand with the Justice Department ordering a far reaching anti-trust review, to investigate fair practices in the tech industry, with particular focus on online retail and social networking.
There is a strong anti-tech lobby group that backs Senator Hawley’s proposed bill. Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, “Social media companies deploy a host of tactics designed to manipulate users in ways that undermines their wellbeing. We commend Senator Hawley for introducing legislation that would prohibit some of the most exploitative tactics, including those frequently deployed on children and teens.”
But here’s the thing - social media addiction has not been proven yet. There’s no scientific backing to say that social media use is damaging, nor is there any evidence that says this is a problem that needs fixing. In fact, this claim is so far without evidentiary backing, that the WHO has vocally refrained from recognising social media addiction as a disorder. However, Hawley, who happens to be the youngest Senator in Congress, has decided to fix this anyway. In a USA Today opinion piece, the Senator once wrote, “Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society.”
In a far more balanced approach, Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts has sponsored the CAMRA Act, which uses a data-based approach to investigate the possibilities of social media addiction. There is a clear lack of comprehensive research on this area, and the CAMRA Act addresses that. This proposed legislation focusses more on building research, by allowing National Institutes of Health to conduct intensive studies into the effects of technology and social media on children. Here’s the interesting part - this Bill is considered so well drafted and balanced, that it has 5 co-sponsors, three of which are Republicans. Senator Hawley is not one of them.
The rather mundane SMART bill is unlikely to ever be passed by the Congress. It has not managed to scrounge up support like his previous ventures. While the conversation on the impact of big tech, and the effect social media has on the popular psyche is of immense importance, such an authoritarian, paternalistic law is not the way to go about it.
People haven’t taken well to the proposed legislation, and are making their voices heard:
So here’s me asking Josh Hawley about his stupid SMART Act in which he:— Greg Price (@greg_price11) July 31, 2019
1) Didn’t answer my question
2) Unironically said that social media wasn’t an innovation
3) Said that we don’t consent to them taking our data even though there’s this thing called terms and conditions pic.twitter.com/JHZSeitPj0
Josh Hawley needs to go away pic.twitter.com/VIYWqftY99— Ben McDonald (@Bmac0507) July 30, 2019
The problem isn't just that this bill is such a pathetically trivial distraction. It's that it's designed to treat Americans like weak-willed children who need a politician like Josh Hawley to tell them how to live their lives. https://t.co/tESvAd8oxT via @reason— reason (@reason) July 31, 2019
Josh Hawley's proposals keep sounding more and more like parodies of nanny state overreach. pic.twitter.com/lsBrrlJkjg— Adrenochrome Harvester (@ClenchedFisk) July 30, 2019
You can read the full text of the Bill here.