Why Senator Josh Hawley wants to kill your Snapstreak

Screen time… all the time.
Screen time… all the time.
Image: Reuters/Thomas White
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Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, proposed legislation Tuesday (July 30) to prohibit social media companies from exploiting users through addictive features. The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act suggests banning features such as autoplay, badges for engagement, and infinite scroll.

If the bill passes, YouTube’s Autoplay, Snapchat’s Snapstreaks, and Facebook’s limitless Newsfeed could be outlawed. The bill also proposes capping content at three minutes of scroll time, unless a user expressly requests more.

The SMART Act has some obvious shortcomings. For one, what is a social media company anyway? Does Spotify count? (It has a Facebook integration.) And what about dating apps, like Bumble or Tinder?

At a more basic level, Hawley’s bill seems aimed an essential truth of commerce: Marketing has always exploited human psychology. Drink this beer & you’ll be surrounded by friends and sunshine; eat this hamburger and you’ll look like a swimsuit model; drive this car and you’ll go on blissful camping adventures. But in Hawley’s view, social media companies have crossed some line, and no longer are just engineering mechanisms for effective advertising but are preying on the human proclivity to addiction.

In his short time in the Senate—he was elected in 2018—Hawley has focused his energies on antagonizing Big Tech. He’s proposed breaking up Facebook and challenged CEO Mark Zuckerberg to explain why his company wasn’t a “parasitic” force in American life. While many in congress and the media share Hawley’s skepticism about tech companies, his SMART bill is coming under fire for being trivial in its scope and paternalistic in its approach. “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,” Peter Suderman wrote for Reason. “For someone who claims to champion the idea of individual dignity, Hawley has an awfully condescending view of human agency.”

Social media giants probably deserve a good bit of the criticism they receive, from the right and left. The influence Facebook and Google wield is undeniable, and we’d be naive to ignore it. Same goes for Twitter, Snapchat, and others. The algorithms matter.

But banning conveniences like YouTube’s autoplay or entertaining functions, like Snapstreaks, feels like overreach. If Congress wants to clamp down on social media for being too enthralling, perhaps it should also limit Netflix for being too binge-worthy.