Josh Hawley Has Bad Ideas for Fixing Social Media

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator desperate to brand himself as the future of the conservative movement, has spent the last few months attaching his name to pretty much any legislation that addresses problems with the tech industry. That includes pushing for antitrust inquiries, criticizing YouTube recommendations, looking into Big Tech censorship concerns, and banning loot boxes in video games. Hawley seems pretty willing to slap his name on any related legislation, and today he slapped his name on the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act. The legislation targets the software tactics that social media companies use, but does nothing to address why said companies use these tactics. Unfortunately, the SMART Act is very stupid.

Hawley’s bill is designed to reduce social media addiction, itself a largely undefined condition, but it does so in ways that are superficial and effectively useless, attacking the surface mechanisms of addiction instead of the cause. The topline feature of the bill is that it prohibits systems meant to reduce friction on social platforms. This includes things like feeds that automatically refresh or can be scrolled down infinitely, or videos that autoplay infinitely. The bill also prevents gamification, outlined as “Providing a user with an award for engaging with the social media platform (such as a badge or other recognition of a user’s level of engagement with the platform)” and requires platforms to present users with statistics about how prevalent their use of the specific platform is (think iOS’s Screen Time feature).

Hawley is correct that these features increase users’ time on site, but placed in a larger context, explicitly targeting them with legislation seems absurd. Imagine if television channels were required to get users to opt-in before proceeding to the next program, or had a message pop up every half hour informing the viewer how long they’d spent watching cable news (come to think of it, there are probably a few geriatric Fox viewers who could use a nudge).

The idea to apply these restrictions to social media companies is poorly considered, given that the bill defines a “social media platform” as something that “primarily serves as a medium for users to interact with content generated by other third-party users of the medium.” That definition doesn’t just apply to large platforms, it applies to any message board or chat room as well. While large platforms track user actions and engagement in minute detail, smaller sites — hobby forums, side projects — might not. In effect, Hawley’s bill requires online services to collect more user data than they might otherwise, in order to remain in compliance and to quantify a user’s engagement levels.

What is ironic about this is that Hawley, in announcing this legislation, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of cause and effect. “Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction,” he writes. “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.” Sure, he’s not wrong, but the key words here are “business model.”

The features this legislation targets — feeds that auto-refresh or scroll infinitely, for example — are designed to increase engagement because social media platforms monetize the data collected through that engagement. Increasing engagement is designed to allow platforms to collect as much behavioral data as possible, classifying user interests and habits. That data is then used for ad targeting, or recommendation algorithms that increase engagement and lead to more data for ad targeting. These software systems that keep users on an app are a symptom, not the disease. Take away these tactics, and the incentive to create addictive software still remains exactly the same.

The best way to reform addictive software would be to go right to the root and limit the behavioral data that platforms can collect and monetize. Limiting the data collection reduces the incentives for creating addictive software. Outlawing a handful of very specific types of software features does absolutely nothing.

Senator Josh Hawley Wants to Outlaw Infinite Scrolling