Social media platforms help us connect with family and friends, find help and do our jobs. Sen. Hawley uses them so his comments ares hypocritical.
In a recent essay, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley warns about the pitfalls of social media, describing it as an “addictive digital drug” that is “a source of peril” for our society. He theorizes that social media causes shorter attention spans, quicker tempers, depression, and even suicide (while admitting that researchers can’t show such effects). He states that social media might be “best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society.”
Sen. Hawley sounds like someone who looks at a rose garden but sees only weeds and thorns.
Most of us have experienced the downsides of interacting with people on social media: annoying posts that sour our views on friends and relatives, frustrating debates that lead nowhere, and unwanted messages or spam. Even worse, we sometimes hear disturbing stories of the darkest aspects of human nature manifested online.
But is it true that “social media waste[s] our time and resources”? Sen. Hawley is so focused on potential downsides of these communications tools that he overlooks their many benefits.
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A powerful tool
He forgets that, thanks to these platforms, we can — without paying a cent — reconnect with family members and old friends after being out of touch for years. We can find communities right in our backyard or around the world with whom we share interests. Parents of children with disabilities or rare diseases can connect and support each other. Those threatened by natural disasters can seek assistance and let loved ones know they are safe. On Figure8, parents can coordinate and communicate about car pools with community parents they trust. Through Patreon, fans can directly support artists and causes they love. On LinkedIn, people can build and maintain professional relationships and even search for or be offered new jobs.
And many of these platforms enable public servants like Sen. Hawley to communicate directly with their constituents. Indeed, Hawley has 2,700+ tweets and 53,000 followers on Twitter, accounts on every major social media platform, and his Senate campaign spent more than $30,000 on 60+ targeted Facebook ads. If Sen. Hawley thinks social media is so worthless and harmful, it’s curious that he remains so active on it.
An American invention
Like many other powerful tools, social media was created in America because of our uniquely adventurous spirit of innovation. Thanks to our drive to improve our lives, Americans harnessed electricity, invented the telephone, mass produced cars and planes, pioneered open-heart surgery and eradicated polio.
History shows that most big innovations, no matter how beneficial, generate public concerns about safety and well-being. Indeed, as Adam Thierer notes in his powerful response to Sen. Hawley, radio and television were both accused of addicting users. Yet society adapts to such technologies quite quickly, maintaining the often-enormous benefits and addressing legitimate concerns, altogether forgetting those that are overblown.
Sen. Hawley’s pessimistically myopic view that social media is entirely harmful ignores human ingenuity and encourages a mindset hostile to adventure and innovation. That mindset would have been an anathema to one of his heroes, President Teddy Roosevelt. (Hawley wrote a book on Roosevelt.) Roosevelt knew that powerful tools can be used for good or bad; he once wrote that “A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” Similarly, the usefulness of social media depends on the character of the user. And Americans, with our adventurous, adaptive, and innovative character, have discovered many powerful and beneficial uses for social media.
Yes, the rose garden of social media has weeds and thorns, but it would be a grave mistake to plow it under. Instead, we should control the weeds and avoid the thorns while we nurture and appreciate the roses.
Neil Chilson is senior research fellow, technology & innovation, at the Charles Koch Institute. Follow him on Twitter @neil_chilson.
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