Government Attacks Social Media (2019 Sep)

by Barry A. Liebling

Only a few years ago internet-enabled social media firms did not exist. Today social media is dominated by two titans, Facebook and Twitter. Many millions of people rely on social media as an omnipresent source of entertainment, of general news, and as a primary method of maintaining and expanding their personal relationships. The footprint of social media is gigantic. People who follow events via the internet but do not participate in social media (that would be me) are constantly learning about what was posted on Facebook and Twitter, what policies the two companies are either enacting or discontinuing, who is pleased or angry with the firms, and how their relationships with the government are developing.

If you appreciate liberty you understand that social media companies have a right to operate if private citizens voluntarily decide to sign up and participate. You may not choose to get involved yourself, and you might regard the entire social media universe as having little or no value (again, that would be me). But free market principles and protections apply to all businesses – providing the firms do not engage in force or fraud.

Recently Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri proposed legislation that would severely regulate and punish social media companies. His call to action is titled the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act or the SMART Act. The bill does not mention Facebook or Twitter by name, but it is obvious that these firms are the target of his animus. What is not obvious is whether or not the senator is aware that his proposal is inimical to the principles of freedom.

It is very difficult to launch a social media company and achieve success. In the past two decades there have been a lot of well-funded attempts that barely survive or closed down entirely. Famous entities that crashed include Friendster, Myspace, and Google+.

If a new firm were to attempt to thrive as a social media player it would have to fascinate its target audience and employ persuasive techniques that encourage users to be active, long-term members. Consider a thought experiment where an attempt is made to start “Newcomer” a social media company.

Of course, Newcomer management will do everything they can to make the content as interesting and as sticky as possible to its target audience. Sprinkled throughout the site, the company might deliberately put in teasers that suggest there is something interesting for users to discover if they return at a later time. For example, it might automatically show them part (or even all) of the next chapter of what they have been viewing.

This tactic is equivalent to what television shows have been doing for more than 75 years with the familiar, “tune in next week for the next exciting episode.” Before television, movie theaters ran serials that would use this technique to entice patrons to return to the theater regularly. And long before movies, novels were serialized in periodicals (such as Dicken’s Great Expectations which was serialized in All The Year Round in the mid nineteenth century) to motivate sales of the tabloid.

What is the status of this teaser – automatically showing additional content? In plain language, it is a common way of persuading the audience to be enthusiastic participants. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it fails. People who are targeted can comply with the request to stay at the site, or they can leave. Unless force or fraud is used, free will prevails.

Go back to the proposed SMART Act which is designed to alarm American citizens. It does not come right out and assert it is bad to sell content to users. Instead, it uses fancy terminology insinuating that persuasion is sinister. The Act labels sales tactics as “practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice” and aims to prohibit them. If you take the wording of SMART seriously nearly all communications that come from a social media company can be forbidden by the government.

The details of the SMART Act are more explicit. It makes it illegal for a social media company to “auto refill” which is “a process that automatically displays additional content… without requiring the user to specifically request… that additional content be loaded and displayed.” Apparently the law would give government bureaucrats the power to designate teasers as criminal activity. Certainly not all teasers would be illegal, just those that annoy federal officials.

The text of the SMART Act goes on to say that social media companies would not be allowed to “autoplay” content – which means that users would have to explicitly request additional content by “pushing a button or clicking an icon.” This puts a brake on the company’s activities and makes participation more difficult for the user. The clear intention is to demonstrate who is in charge – the federal government.

And here is something that is sure to delight meddlers who yearn to be kindergarten teachers with American citizens as their pupils. The SMART Act would put a limit of 30 minutes of play time on any social media platform unless the user “elects to adjust or remove the time limit.” Notice that the author of the SMART Act neglected to include a required bedtime for social media users.

Of course, the proposed law gives new responsibilities to the enforcers. It requires that “the Commission shall submit to Congress a report on the issue of internet addiction and the processes through which social media companies and other internet companies, by exploiting human psychology and brain physiology, interfere with free choices of individuals on the internet.” Notice that this assumes that social media companies are guilty of nefarious activities and have the power to override free choice. You can bet that government employees charged with hunting for instances where a company is “exploiting human psychology” will have no trouble finding them. What communications do not exploit “human psychology?”

The probability that the SMART Act will become law any time soon is small. As of this writing there are not a lot of social media users who are calling for the government to muzzle their favorite activities. If legislation were to occur, it would have the greatest impact on the formation of startups – such as “Newcomer.” Facebook and Twitter have vast resources to resist attacks, and they might welcome the prospect of making it harder for their potential competitors.

Still, there is an important implication of the federal proposal. The author of the bill is one example among many of government boosters who are yearning to direct the lives of American citizens. If you value liberty you should be alert to these threats.

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