WASHINGTON — Stepping up his anti-Silicon Valley rhetoric, Sen. Josh Hawley said recently that the engineers and scientists who created the social media universe have provided questionable value to American culture and society, and that they are essentially capitalizing on the addictions of their consumers.
Speaking at an event sponsored by the Hoover Institution, a think tank affiliated with his Stanford University alma mater, Hawley declared that “we have encouraged an entire generation of our bright engineers” to work in “a discipline that provides little or no productive value to the United States economy.”
The Missouri Republican said Silicon Valley is taking the best and brightest “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 follows them to those places.”
Hawley added: “I think the evidence is more and more strongly suggesting that 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.”
His remarks also came at a time social media giants are taking steps to head off tougher government regulations and anti-trust oversight. The day after Hawley spoke at the Hoover event, Facebook announced it had banned the National of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones as “dangerous individuals,” along with a handful of right-wing figures who had developed followings on social media.
Conservatives, including Hawley and President Donald Trump, have attacked big social media platforms for what they say is a bias in how they police content on their sites.
In many appearances before Congress over the last several years, executives for Google, Twitter and others broadly denied bias while publicly acknowledging mistakes in how they have walked the line between free expression and offensive or hateful speech.
In the 20-minute Hoover speech, Hawley again raised the possibility of changing or repealing a 23-year-old provision of the Communications Decency Act that gives broad exemption for online hosts for others’ content posted on it.
That provision, in Section 230 of the act, was a major debate point last year in anti-sex trafficking provisions pushed into law by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and others.
Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for the e-commerce trade association NetChoice, was in the Hoover audience. In a question, he tried to reinforce Hawley’s acknowledgement that “we should be doing this through market reinforcement” rather than government intervention.
Szabo, whose organization represents a veritable alphabet of big tech companies, said that Hawley “is too dismissive of the widespread benefits of social media.
“Never before in the history of the world have so many people had access to so much information,” he said. “No longer is our access to news about (the) world dictated by a small number of news outlets.
“Social media is not destroying democracy, as Sen. Hawley suggests,” Szabo added. “Rather, social media connects us to our government like never before.”
In a short question-and-answer session following his speech, Hawley was confronted by a college professor at the University of Virginia and at a Chinese university. She questioned Hawley’s assertions that social media had attracted the best brains while producing little good.
She called Silicon Valley “one of our most important national security advantages” and told Hawley that “all of my best students want to go to Silicon Valley, even those in Beijing.”
“Let me just be on record saying I don’t believe in this Silicon Valley worship that says that it is unquestionably the very best of American society,” Hawley responded.
“We need to question whether they are actually giving us the best, and whether the investment of their time and talent — whether it is really being put towards truly socially and economically productive use. I do question that.”
Hawley saved his toughest language for how he described social media’s business model and how big tech is working with China and other potential foes.
Social media companies earn off “attention arbitrage,” Hawley said, where “users’ attention is bought by the tech giants and immediately sold to advertisers, for the highest price of course.”
That attention, he said, “is preserved by hijacking users’ neurocircuitry to prevent rational decision-making about what to click and how to spend time.
“It is preserved through addiction,” he said, adding that shareholders of social media companies “are investing in the addiction of users.”
He accused big tech companies of working with a “repressive Chinese government” that could produce “an authoritative state to the likes that this world has never seen before.
“Forget surveillance capitalism,” Hawley said. “Surveillance communism is truly, truly startling — I think to a degree that most Americans have no idea.”
But, Szabo responded, “Social media, like any tool, can be used for good and ill.
“Knee-jerk reactions to perceived problems could harm small businesses and our ability to connect with friends and family,” the NetChoice executive said.
Hawley has introduced legislation restricting what data social media companies can collect on children and giving parents greater ability to erase children’s online content.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Hawley serves, has begun hearings probing social media. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has also ramped up investigations of social media.
“I’ve got a 14-year-old son, so I don’t think it has had very positive impacts on kids growing up,” Blunt said. “But there is a lot of information available to them that we didn’t have a few years ago.”