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The U.S. could ban social media apps from using ‘psychological tricks’ like infinite scrolling and autoplay

The U.S. could ban social media apps from using ‘psychological tricks’ like infinite scrolling and autoplay
[Photo: Prateek Katyal/Unsplash]

Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, has introduced a bill aimed at putting a stop to social media apps using techniques that encourage addictive behaviors, reports the Guardian. Hawley’s proposed bill is called the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (Smart) Act, and in it he proposes several steps the federal government can take to stop social media giants from capturing user attention “by using psychological tricks.”

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

  1. Infinite scroll or auto refill: The use of a process that automatically loads and displays additional content, other than music or video content that the user has prompted to play, when a user approaches or reaches the end of loaded content without requiring the user to specifically request (such as by pushing a button or clicking an icon, but not by simply continuing to scroll) that additional content be loaded and displayed.
  2. Elimination of natural stopping points: The use of a process that, without the user expressly requesting additional content, loads and displays more content into a content feed than the typical user scrolls through in three minutes.
  3. Autoplay: The use of a process that automatically plays music or videos (other than advertisements) without an express, separate prompt by the user (such as pushing a button or clicking an icon) [with exceptions for playlists and music streaming services].
  4. Badges and other awards linked to engagement with the platform: Providing a user with an award 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 such award does not substantially increase access to new or additional services, content, or functionality.

Needless to say, just one aspect of Hawley’s bill—banning infinite scrolling—would radically alter how popular platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest work. And eliminating autoplay would greatly affect the way YouTube works. Then again, social media addiction is a real thing, 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 make it through Congress without broad support on both sides of the aisle—or massive popular public support. But given how large swaths of the public seem to be addicted to their social media feeds, it’s not likely they would be willing to see those feeds altered. Announcing the bill via Twitter, Hawley said, “Big Tech has embraced addiction as a business model. Their ‘innovation’ isn’t designed to create better products, but to capture attention by using psychological tricks that make it impossible to look away. Time to expect more & better from Silicon Valley.”

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