Social Media Addiction: Big Tech Lobbying Increases

Show Notes

Addictions come in many forms, because humans are susceptible to many different kinds of stimuli, from drugs and alcohol to pornography and food. The modern digital world adds another: the addiction to feeds.

All the online platforms are based around the business model of attention. The longer you stay, the more you scroll and the more ads you see. Advertising today is dynamic, instantly recording your likes and engagement with text, video, and images to tune algorithms that keep you entertained by giving you more of the same while adjusting the ads you get using carefully guarded psychometric profiles.

When does it become too powerful? Too accurate? Too manipulative? Or even a national security threat?

In the case of TikTok, that company’s algorithm is so powerful that it is not just a company secret, but classified as a state secret by the People’s Republic of China. And it’s probably running on your or your children’s digital devices right now.

Peter Schweizer and Eric Eggers talk about scroll-addiction on the most recent episode of The Drill Down.

TikTok, the ubiquitous app popular with teenagers, gets all the press. A new law was just passed that demands it be sold by its Chinese government-connected owner, ByteDance, or face a ban in the US. But American-owned social media platforms such as Facebook, X, YouTube, and SnapChat also profit from your scroll-addiction; they are just not as known for it.

New York City is suing TikTok and Instagram for ‘addicting’ children, and the New York state legislature is considering two bills. One, the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act, would allow parents to opt their kids out of getting feeds curated by an algorithm. Instead, it would have them get a chronological feed of content from users they already follow. The second bill, the New York Child Data Protection Act, would prohibit all online sites from collecting, using, sharing, or selling personal data of anyone under 18 years old, unless they receive informed consent or it’s otherwise necessary. Both bills enjoy broad, bipartisan support and are likely to pass.

Peter points out that big tech companies are employing expensive lobbyists to fight these and similar bills, and scoffs at the arguments they offer. Their lobbyists have argued that without the use of algorithms they would not be able to stop “hate speech” and even claim the legislation would hurt migrants.

One lobbyist was even quoted as saying the legislation’s age and identity verification requirements “could have prevented people without government IDs, such as undocumented immigrants, from accessing the Internet to find legal services.”

As more government action takes shape against the addictive power of scroll-addiction on young people, the tech industry has spent millions on lobbying. Schweizer points out that Amazon and Facebook combined now spend twice as much as the oil industry on lobbying lawmakers in Washington.

He adds that big tech can and does also hire the children of influential lawmakers, as the Government Accountability Institute has reported. One relevant example is Facebook’s hiring of the daughter of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Schweizer’s most recent book, Blood Money, notes the importance China places on TikTok and how it prevents the same addictive algorithm from influencing its own young people. He calls it a part of China’s “cognitive warfare” on America. It’s worth noting, by he way, that TikTok rejected ads he wanted to purchase to advertise the book.

The addictive nature of social media algorithms was also the subject of a 2018 documentary called “The Creepy Line,” that both Schweizer and co-host Eric Eggers were involved with. They recall that one of their interview subjects, Prof. Jordan Peterson, observed that people tend to use technology for a long time before they learn to use it properly.

“Online addiction is a real thing, Eggers says, “and it’s not getting better.”