SMART Bill Attacks Social Media Platforms for ‘Addictive’ Features

A bill introduced by Republican Senator Josh Hawley would force social media companies like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat to drop certain settings that are “addictive” features so that consumers are less affected by them, according to a story in The Washington Post.

Some critics say it doesn’t fix the problem, but could even make it worse. The bill targets infinite scroll, autoplay video and other features that make social media sticky. A story says the bill would “blow up” the business models for Facebook, Google and Twitter, affecting 30 million U.S. users, 300 million global users and impacting companies with $500 million in revenue.

U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (credit: Wikimedia)

Hawley, a Missouri Senator who is the youngest of his peers at 39, said in a press release:

“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.”

The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act would force platforms to add “natural stopping points,” or places where a video or post stops and the users are prompted to click or select another piece of content, rather than it appearing or playing automatically. This could affect the way Instagram stories endlessly rotate from one to the next. Also, it would eliminate user reinforcement tricks, like Snapchat’s “streaks,” which reward a user with badges for repeated use.

Another aspect of the bill is called “neutral presentation,” which requires an operator who asks for consent to give users the same option to decline.

The story on pointed out that the bill could have dire effects on the U.S. companies that use those features:

“Repealing the immunity provision could force these companies to use an editorial system where every piece of user-posted content would have to be vetted for illegal or libelous material before it’s posted, instead relying on algorithms and human checkers to scan it after it was already online and had a chance to spread to millions of people. This would fundamentally alter the business models of companies that depend on huge volumes of user-generated content, including all the big social networks.”

In the story, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers funded organization, slammed the bill for its potential to limit free speech. The Internet Association, a lobbying group for web companies, said aspects of the bill would force companies to host hate speech and impede their ability to monitor illegal activities.

A story on puts the bill in context as reflecting a shift among the tech-savvy. The story also cites the efforts by wealthy parents to reduce the use of social media and screen tech by their own children as a sign of the times.

“The bill, intended to turn social media use into less of a time-suck, would serve as protection from some features so manipulative that Silicon Valley parents don’t want their kids using the services they create,” the futurism story says.

New York Magazine, however, pointed out that Hawley’s bill was flawed for several reasons, including its lack of scientific grounding. The article notes that limiting data collection would make more sense.

“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.”

It’s no small irony that a Republican, someone who represents the party that decries the “nanny state” wants to legislate what parents should be doing instead—limiting screen time so that their children don’t become “addicted,” whatever that means. The bill does not define the term.