US could ban social media apps from using ‘psychological tricks’

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Josh Hawley, the Republican Senator from Missouri, has introduced a bill to stop social media apps using techniques that encourage addictive behavior, reports the Guardian. Hawley’s proposed bill is called the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (Smart) Act, and he proposes several measures the federal government can take to prevent social media giants from capturing users’ attention “by using psychological tricks”.

Specifically, the bill targets “practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to significantly impair freedom of choice.” If the law is passed by Congress, three months after it is passed, it will become illegal for social media companies to use the following four techniques to keep users engaged with their platforms:

  1. Infinite Scroll or Autofill: Using a process that automatically loads and displays additional content, other than music or video content that the user has invited to play, when a user approaches or reaches the end of the loaded content without requiring the user specifically requests (e.g. pressing a button or clicking an icon, but not simply continuing to scroll) that additional content be loaded and displayed.
  2. Removal of natural stops: Using a process that, without the user specifically requesting additional content, loads and displays more content in a content stream than the typical user scrolls through in three minutes.
  3. Autoplay: Using a process that automatically plays music or video (other than advertisements) without an express, distinct user prompt (such as pressing a button or clicking an icon) [with exceptions for playlists and music streaming services].
  4. Badges and other rewards related to engagement with the platform: Offer a user a reward for engaging with the social media platform (such as a badge or other recognition of a user’s level of engagement with the platform) if that reward does not significantly increase access to new or additional services, content or features.

Needless to say, just one aspect of Hawley’s bill — banning infinite scroll — would drastically change how popular platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest work. And eliminating autoplay would greatly affect how YouTube works. Then again, social media addiction is a reality, and some people even want it classified as a disease.

But given the power of the tech lobby, it’s unlikely Hawley’s bill could pass Congress without broad support from both sides of the aisle — or massive popular support. But given how dependent large swaths of the public seem to be on their social media feeds, they are unlikely to be willing to see those feeds changed. Announcing the bill via Twitter, Hawley said, “Big Tech has embraced addiction as a business model. Their “innovation” is not designed to create better products, but to capture attention using psychological tricks that prevent looking away. It’s time to expect more and better from Silicon Valley.

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