Were we better off before Facebook?

The bipartisan sentiment building up in Washington against social media giants Facebook and Google suggests that in the not-too-distant future, changes will be forced on them to reduce their monopolies, curb their snooping and better police the content they distribute.

The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are reportedly pursuing antitrust investigations into not only these two Big Tech companies but also Apple and Amazon. Congress is considering proposals to rein in social media’s harvesting of personal information, as Europe has done, and redefine social media companies as publishers, thus making them legally responsible for what they disseminate. There is even a suggestion to give newspapers and other news media outlets the power to crack down on the pilfering of their content by social media.

Facebook has been particularly criticized for what it has done (distributing the personal data of its users without their knowledge) and what it has failed to do (stopping the disinformation campaigns of Russia and other adversary nations in U.S. elections).

In a recent op-ed column, one of Facebook’s congressional critics, Josh Hawley, a freshman Republican senator from Missouri, wondered whether “maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”

Certainly, Facebook, Instagram and President Trump’s personal favorite, Twitter, provide entertainment and a convenient way for people to keep up with family, friends and the famous. But these social media platforms also seem to bring out the worst in people, whether it’s being self-absorbed or bullying the weak or rushing to judgment based on unfiltered falsehoods.

Hawley writes that in order for these companies to be profitable, their business model depends on “constantly developing new schemes to hijack their users’ neural circuitry.” In other words, to addict people on posting to these platforms and reading what other people post. Anyone who doubts the addicting qualities of social media must have their own heads stuck in their smartphones.

As with most addictions, the result is usually not good. “For all social media’s supposed wizardry ‘connecting’ us to content and to each other,” writes Hawley, “we’re not a more literate or more social nation thanks to social media. We are not a happier or kinder one. We are, in fact, more impoverished, lonely and despairing.”

Maybe Hawley’s criticism is a little overwrought. Nevertheless, it’s worth pondering whether social media has brought more ill than good, even if it is here to stay.