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Senate bill targets social media ‘psychological tricks’

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A bill has been introduced to the US Senate seeking to clamp down on addictive features used by companies such as Facebook and Google to keep users hooked on social media platforms.

The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (SMART Act) is sponsored by Republican Senator Josh Hawley. As Attorney General of Missouri, Hawley opened an antitrust investigation into Google, with a focus on its data collection practices, and issued a subpoena to Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

According to the bill, social media companies would be prohibited from “using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of chain”, while also requiring them to take measures to mitigate risks of internet addiction.

The SMART bill proposes a ban on features such as autoplaying videos on YouTube, awards for frequent use, such as Snapchat streaks, and the infinite scroll (which automatically loads more content into a feed). These features encourage excessive use, such as by gamifying regular check-ins.

The bill also calls for changes to how social media companies sign up users for their services, which can use ‘dark patterns’ designed to gently manipulate people into selecting more permissive settings. According to the terms of the bill, when a user is asked to check a box to accept or decline terms of service, both options must be similar in appearance and prominence.

The bill would also require social media companies to add a default time limit of 30 minutes per day for all users, which could be changed by the user. The companies would be required to inform users of how much time they have spent on the platform every 30 minutes.

“Big Tech has embraced a business model of addiction. Too much of the innovation in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away,” Hawley said, according to a report from The Verge.

The bill is the latest salvo fired in a growing pushback against the influence and practices of Big Tech from legislators, regulators and campaign groups around the world. Regulation of technology companies is a major policy issue within the race for the Democratic presidential candidacy, while the UK government recently published a white paper proposing regulation of online platforms to reduce harms, such as child exploitation online.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey of US citizens, negative views of technology companies’ impact on the country have nearly doubled over the last four years, rising from 17 per cent to 33 per cent. These negative perceptions were similar for both Democrat and Republican respondents.

Much of the criticism directed at internet giants is centred on the issue of excessive social media use and its possible impact on mental health. However, independent researchers have limited access to the data required to carry out comprehensive studies into the impact of social media on wellbeing.

This year, Aza Raskin, engineer and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, apologised for his leading role in the creation of the ‘infinite scroll’. According to Raskin, the feature is an example of the “behavioural cocaine” integrated into social media and wastes the equivalent of 200,000 human lifetimes every day.

Speaking at an event in November 2017, Facebook co-founder Sean Parker confirmed that Facebook had been deliberately designed for “exploiting” psychological weaknesses, explaining: “The thought process that went into building these [social media platforms], Facebook being the first of them to really understand it, that thought process was all about: how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.”

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