A Republican senator who works on antitrust says that social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, have done more harm than good and they should “disappear.”
In an op-ed published Wednesday in USA Today, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley made the strongest comments against Facebook and other social media giants by a prominent elected official. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have said that Facebook and other tech giants should be broken up; Hawley said that social media has given us an “addiction economy” and that it shouldn’t exist at all.
“Social media’s innovations do our country more harm than good. Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society,” he wrote. “Maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, as well as several of their executives, have appeared numerous times before Congress in the past few years, mostly to discuss data protection, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the “health” of conversation online.
But many politicians have used the hearings as an opportunity to grandstand about the supposed “bias” of social media platforms against conservatives.
Some lawmakers asked Zuckerberg why Facebook shouldn’t be broken up, but, for the most part, Zuckerberg has gotten off easy by pitching himself as living the quintessential American dream: From humble beginnings in a Harvard dorm room, a college dropout made an all-American company that has connected the world and created many thousands of high-paying jobs.
Hawley called out those lofty claims in his op-ed: “Ask the social giants what it is they produce for America and you’ll hear grand statements about human interaction,” he wrote. But “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—they devote massive amounts of money and the best years of some of the nation’s brightest minds to developing new schemes to hijack their users’ neural circuitry.
"That’s because social media only works—to make money, anyway—if it consumes users’ time and attention, day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we enjoyed and did perfectly well before social media existed.”
The argument that social media is a public health mess and a drain on our economy and productivity is relatively new among social scientists, who have just started studying the effects of social media on mental health.
The economic argument hasn’t been deeply researched but intuitively makes some sense: Facebook, Twitter, and Google have hired tens of thousands of people at astronomical salaries and have largely tasked them with finding better ways to deliver ads, combat hate speech, spam, disinformation, and graphic imagery shared on their platforms, and further tweak the algorithms that keep people addicted.
“High salaries and stock options have encouraged a generation of our brightest engineers to enter a field of little productive value. This is, to put it mildly, an opportunity missed for the nation,” Hawley wrote. “What marvels might these bright minds have produced had they been oriented toward the common good?”
Hawley’s argument is persuasive, but there is, of course, no way to magically make social media disappear. Considering that he’s on the subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy, and consumer rights, breaking the social media giants up might be the next best choice.