WASHINGTON, May 2, 2019 - Social media and technology platform companies are wasting the talents of a generation, addicting and impoverishing middle America, and even driving teenagers to commit suicide in record numbers, Sen. Josh Hawley said Thursday.
In a blistering speech attacking Facebook, Google, and the supposed "crown jewel" of the American economy known culturally as "Silicon Valley," the Missouri Republican slammed Facebook's business model, and also suggested some narrow political fixes.
"The evidence more and more strongly suggests that there is something deeply troubling, and maybe even deeply wrong, with the entire social media economy," Hawley said.
While concurring that social media "presents so many novel problems" and that "none of them admit of easy answers," he set his aim squarely on this bigger question: What is "the worth of these social media platforms, and the social media business, to the American economy and to American society?"
Hawley did not hide his conclusion: Facebook is pretty much worth-less.
Hawley began his critique by latching onto the basic business model of the dominant social media platforms: "attention arbitrage," or aggregating the interests of billions of users and selling them to advertisers.
With other intermediaries, such as financial institutions engaged in arbitrage, the value of the arbitrage eventually narrows. Not so with "attention arbitrage," said Hawley.
"How is that that the attention arbitrage is preserved and renewed?"
These companies maintain their leverage by "hijacking users' neural circuitry. What to click and where to spend time is preserved through addiction," said Hawley.
"Social media only works as a business model if consumers' usage times and attention increase day after day. It needs to replace the activities we once did perfectly well – with itself," he said.
"You don't log on to Facebook" to reach out to friend, which he said you could easily do by calling or text messaging the friend. "You log on to Facebook to be on Facebook. The attention arbitration market becomes the destination."
This is why, he said, Facebook owners and shareholders are no better that drug lords: "They are investing in the addiction."
Social media is linked to loneliness, depression and teen suicide
Hawley tied Facebook and growing use of social media to loneliness, depression, and even teen suicide. He said that the surge of suicide among younger teenagers coincided with the introduction of smart phones optimized for the use of social media platforms.
"It could just be correlation, not causation," he said. But there is a "strong correlation" between social media use and teen suicide.
And for those young people who don't fall prey to suicide, Hawley said, social media has drained value and talent from the best and brightest, and from middle America.
"An entire generation [has succumbed to activities of] little or no productive value" in developing apps for social media, he said. As to technology talent, the tech giants are "sucking them from communities that need talent to outposts on the coasts."
"Social media platforms might define the future of our economy, but it doesn't value the things that matter. It produces a society that is shaped in its own image."
'No one answer' to the problems wrought by social media
When it came to specific political proposals to restrain or throttle the power of such social media networks, Hawley was less specific.
He said there was "no one answer" to the many problems created by social media.
"We need to have a broader conversation about whether these business models are truly beneficial not so that we ban them, [but so that] we can decide to what we give our attention and our time."
At a minimum, antitrust laws need to be brought to bear: "What do we need to do to make the market function in a way that is free, fair and open," he asked.
As attorney general of Missouri before he was elected senator, Hawley initiated the first state-level antitrust inquiry of Google.
Additionally, Hawley supports privacy regulation, particularly as it related to children. He cited legislation he had introduced to ban online tracking of and advertising focused on children. It would also allow parents to hit the "eraser button" for all posts by their children, up to the age of 15.
He also criticized Silicon Valley companies for their lack of patriotism, saying that "they don't view themselves as American," so much as they look to their "global bottom line." While he said he would not force them to work with the U.S. military, he did strongly criticize their cooperation with China and the Chinese military.
Changes to Section 230 may not fix the problem of powerful incumbents
Asked by this reporter about his views regarding Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a provision that has been judicially interpreted as giving immunity from liability to internet platforms, Hawley was cautious.
On the same afternoon that Hawley was speaking, Facebook announced that it had banned an array of speakers considered by some to be extremist, including Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan.
Hawley said that Section 230 is "predicated on [platforms] providing open, fair and free platforms. If they are not going to do that, but insert their own political biases, then they start to look a lot more like a newspaper, or TV station, but don't qualify for Section 230."
At the same time, limiting the scope of the existing immunity might hurt startup social platforms at the expense of Facebook and Google. "We need to make sure that [changes to Section 230 are] not a benefit to incumbency."
Hawley spoke at the Washington outpost of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley. Hawley is a graduate of the university's law school.
(Photo of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, by Drew Clark.)