MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Tuesday, February 25th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: “Notable Speeches, Past and Present.”
Today, an address from Missouri’s junior U.S. Senator Josh Hawley. He speaks on “Big Tech” and “Social media”—specifically, its role in the American economy and its impact on American society.
BASHAM: After he graduated from Yale Law School, Hawley served as law clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts. He also spent two years as Missouri’s Attorney General before taking his senate seat in 2019. At 40 years old, he’s the youngest serving senator.
EICHER: Last year, the Hoover Institution invited Hawley to speak during its “Big Tech and the Future of the Free & Open Internet” series. In his 15-minute speech, he argued that social media companies and investors unethically profit from their users’ addictions. Here’s an excerpt.
SENATOR JOSH HAWLEY: I want to focus your attention in the brief time we have together on the issue of social media in particular. What is its actual worth to the American economy and to American society?
My thesis is the evidence is more and more strongly suggesting there is something that is deeply troubling, maybe even deeply wrong, with the entire social media economy, 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’re familiar with them. You might think of it as akin to financial arbitrage. Users’ attention is bought by the tech giants and then immediately sold to advertisers, for the highest price of course.
How is it that this attention arbitrage in the social media market is preserved and renewed over and over again? And 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, just 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. So that addiction is actually the point. That’s what social media shareholders are investing in.
And I think that social media users actually 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 her a text with your phone. You don’t log on to find an article that 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 have dulled. Our tempers have quickened. 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.
Day after day it seems brings 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, I don’t know if you saw it, has a chilling story about the rash of teenage suicide especially in younger teenagers.
The researchers’ attempt to isolate what is driving this surge in teen suicide. And eventually what they discovered was the uptick – it’s not just an uptick, it’s 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 the social media apps were readily available and optimized for use.
Now it could just be correlation not causation, but day after day brings new studies that strongly suggest that there is significant correlation if not causal relationship between growing social media presence, 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 for that matter too. And 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, these are significant, you might even say that they are severe, and 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 for that matter?
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, think what it represents.
This is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time for years now. Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. What else might they have been doing?
We’ve encouraged an entire generation of our bright engineers in a discipline that provides a little or no productive value to the United States economy, sucking them from communities that need their talents out to outposts on the coasts, encouraging them to forget the problems of the people that they left behind, and of course capital then follows them to those places.
These are economic developments that reward some, there’s no doubt about that, but attention arbitrage like financial arbitrage is no foundation for long-term growth. And that’s my thesis to you today.
You know the most frightening thought of all of this is that the social media platforms might come to define our future economy. An economy that does not value the things that matter produces a society that is 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.
And 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, who believe 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 – all of us as members of that society – to shape it in the best way for the future? Thank you so much for having me here today. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
BASHAM: That’s Senator Josh Hawley from a 2019 address at the Hoover Institution. If you’d like to hear his entire speech, we’ve included a link to the full recording online: pull up this transcript at worldandeverything.org and you’ll find the speech link there.