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This essay was originally delivered as a speech at the Hoover Institution on May 2, 2019.

Social media is challenging for us to grapple with because it presents so many novel problems, and none of them seem to have easy answers.

How do we preserve online data privacy for those using products whose very purpose is hyper-personalized service? How is it possible for big tech platforms to keep the digital public square pruned and free of criminal activity or other vices—without inserting their own political or content biases? What does competition even look like in this space? That is a really tough question. After all, the supposed value of this space for consumers is a kind of integration—an integration of various services and various platforms, various lines of business all in place. 

These are largely the questions of the day on Capitol Hill. I have my views on each of them. They are rightly the subject of serious debate, and I hope that debate will continue and grow. 

But I want to suggest to you today that all of those questions are downstream of a larger one, a bigger question which I think we ought to be devoting more time to as a society and which I want to talk with you about briefly. It is the question of the worth of these social media platforms and the social media business model. What is its actual worth to the American economy and to American society? 

One of the most difficult things about acting in this area is the fear that any significant change in this space, any significant adjustment to the rules of the road—whether it be privacy requirements or content requirements—might end up stifling Silicon Valley, which we are told is the great crown jewel of the American economy. But is it? It is heresy to say that here, with Stanford University over my shoulder, but is Silicon Valley—the platforms, the products, the business models it has been giving us of late—really the best that our best minds have to offer? 

My thesis is that the evidence strongly suggests there is something deeply troubling, maybe even deeply wrong, with the entire social media economy. My thesis is that it does not represent a source of strength for America’s tomorrow, but is rather a source of peril. Consider for a moment the basic business model of the dominant social media platforms. You are familiar with them. You might think of it as akin to financial arbitrage. Maybe we’ll call it attention arbitrage. Users’ attention is bought by tech giants and then immediately sold to advertisers for the highest price. 

Now arbitrage opportunities, as those of you familiar with markets know, are supposed to close. The market eventually determines that something is off. So how is it that this attention arbitrage in the social media market is preserved and renewed over and over again? That’s where things get really scary, because it’s preserved by hijacking users’ neural circuitry to prevent rational decision-making about what to click and how to spend time. Or, to simplify that a little bit, it’s preserved through addiction. 

Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race, with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. Addiction is actually the point. That’s what social media shareholders are investing in: the addiction of users. 

I think that social media users understand this intuitively even if they would put it a bit differently. You don’t log onto Facebook to connect with a friend when you could just as easily call him or shoot him a text. You don’t log on to find an article you’ve been meaning to read when you could just as easily go and find that specific article yourself using a service or a platform that’s designed to do that. You log on to Facebook to be on Facebook. The attention arbitrage market itself becomes the destination. 

And we all know the effects. Our attention spans dull. Our tempers quicken. We reduce our friends to their public presentation in short posts. We substitute comments and likes for phone calls and direct human interaction. And those are the benign effects. 

Each day seems to bring fresh data, fresh reports, fresh studies detailing the significant social consequences of social media use in such large quantities. Today’s Washington Post, for instance, has a chilling story about the rash of teenage suicide, especially in younger teenagers. Reporters have walked through the evidence, tracing the researchers’ attempt to isolate what is driving this surge in teen suicide. They tried various theories mapped onto various events in society and eventually what they discovered was the uptick—not just an uptick, a surge—in teenage suicide, particularly among younger teenagers, coincides eerily with the introduction of the iPhone. Particularly in its later models, where the social media platforms and social media apps were readily available and optimized for use. 

Now it could just be correlation, not causation, but each day brings new studies strongly suggesting that there is a significant relationship between growing social media presence, between the avalanche of social media usage, and these terrible social consequences. 

Depression is another example. We are struggling society-wide with an epidemic of teenage depression and rising depression rates among young adults—and older Americans, too, for that matter. Again, many studies now suggest that the time spent on social media and on social media platforms at least correlates to some degree with increased depression, loneliness. All of these social consequences are significant, you might even say that they are severe. The question we need to be asking is what is the role of social media in driving them, in encouraging them, in promoting them? And is this really something that is good for our society in the long run, or for our economy? 

While we are talking about the economy, think for a second about the opportunity cost that this social media business model and these social media platforms—what you might call the social media economy—represents. For years now, this is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time: Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. 

What else might they have been doing? Just think about it. What else might these bright minds, these talented women and men, have been doing that might have been truly productive for the American economy and for American consumers? We have encouraged an entire generation of our bright engineers to enter a discipline that provides little or no productive value to the United States economy. We have sucked them from communities that need their talents to outposts on the coasts, encouraging them to forget the problems of the people they left behind. And then the capital follows them to those places. 

These are economic developments that reward some, no doubt about that. But attention arbitrage, like financial arbitrage, is no foundation for long-term growth. And that’s my thesis for you today. The most frightening thought to take away from all of this is that the social media platforms might come to define our future economy. A social media economy—imagine that. 

An economy that does not value the things that matter produces a society shaped in its own image. That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time. I think it is incumbent upon all of us, as we consider the place that we’re in now, as we consider the new era that we’re living in—particularly those of us who believe in free markets, in the free and open economy—to be asking ourselves: What kind of economy are we encouraging? What kind of a society is that producing? And what is our responsibility, as members of that society, to shape it in the best way for the future? 

Josh Hawley is the junior United States Senator from Missouri.

Photo by Jason Howie via Creative Commons

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