Social Media’s Re-engineering Effect, From Myanmar to Germany

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Max Fisher, a reporter based in London who co-writes The Interpreter column and newsletter, discussed the tech he’s using.

You travel all around the world for your Interpreter columns. What is your tech setup while you’re on the road?

Mostly, I try to follow my colleague Sheera Frenkel’s security advice. Two laptops and two phones, one of each just for sensitive stuff, which get fully wiped and reloaded after each trip. Everything goes in my Patagonia Headway, the greatest travel bag in human history.

Lots of countries block or monitor certain sites, so I use VPNs, which route all traffic through an anonymous server in another country. And I tether my laptop to my phone so I can avoid sketchy Wi-Fi.

I also need to keep myself sane. So I keep my Kindle fully loaded and always pack my noise-canceling, wireless headphones, the Wirecutter-recommended Sony H.ear. Even if I’m stuck in some edge-of-the-world hotel, living off of granola bars, I can always recharge by escaping for an hour into a Grateful Dead show or the second act of “Doctor Zhivago.”

In which country did you find the way people use technology the most surprising and why?

I first went to Myanmar in early 2014, when the country was opening up, and there was no such thing as personal technology. Not even brick phones.

When I went back in late 2017, I could hardly believe it was the same country. Everybody had his or her nose in a smartphone, often logged in to Facebook. You’d meet with the same sources at the same roadside cafe, but now they’d drop a stack of iPhones on the table next to the tea.

It was like the purest possible experiment in what the same society looks like with or without modern consumer technology. Most people loved it, but it also helped drive genocidal violence against the Rohingya minority, empower military hard-liners and spin up riots.

People sometimes talk about this showing that Myanmar wasn’t “ready” to come online so rapidly. But it looked to me like the same distorting effect of social media I’d seen in any other country. Maybe the change was just more obvious because it happened so rapidly and Myanmar was already pretty messed up.

You’ve lately been writing a lot about the effects of social media on the world. What have been some of your major takeaways?

We think of any danger as coming from misuse — scammers, hackers, state-sponsored misinformation — but we’re starting to understand the risks that come from these platforms working exactly as designed. Facebook, YouTube and others use algorithms to identify and promote content that will keep us engaged, which turns out to amplify some of our worst impulses.

Even after reporting with Amanda Taub on algorithm-driven violence in Germany and Sri Lanka, I didn’t quite appreciate this until I turned on Facebook push alerts this summer. Right away, virtually every gadget I owned started blowing up with multiple daily alerts urging me to check in on my ex, even if she hadn’t posted anything. I’d stayed away from her page for months specifically to avoid training Facebook to show me her posts. Yet somehow the algorithm had correctly identified this as the thing likeliest to make me click, then followed me across continents to ensure that I did.

It made me think of the old “Terminator” movies, except instead of a killer robot sent to find Sarah Connor, it’s a sophisticated set of programs ruthlessly pursuing our attention. And exploiting our most human frailties to do it.

Facebook’s terrorizing me into mourning a breakup hardly matters. But, for a lot of users, unhealthy-but-irresistible content can come in more consequential forms. Like a viral rumor or a statement of hate we might otherwise know to avoid.

Where do you think this might all lead us?

I spend a lot of my time asking people this. What is the aggregate effect of routing an ever-growing share of human social relations through engagement-maximizing algorithms?

Maybe the effect is broadly negative. Maybe it’s broadly positive. Probably it’s mixed. But it is almost certainly profoundly disruptive in ways that we may spend the rest of our lives trying to understand.

Whether they set out to or not, these companies are conducting the largest social re-engineering experiment in human history, and no one has the slightest clue what the consequences are.

In the meantime, I’ve turned off Facebook push alerts and have reinstated a longstanding practice of avoiding any activity that would train an algorithm in what makes me click. I use sites like YouTube only anonymously and with my browser in incognito mode. (Separately, like my colleague Nellie Bowles, I set my screens to grayscale.)

It’s not that I fear some devastating privacy breach or misuse of my data. Rather, these platforms are incredibly sophisticated at learning our habits and keeping us engaged in ways that are not necessarily healthy for us or our communities. Most days, it’s unhealthy only on the scale of a candy bar or secondhand smoke, but who needs it?

Outside work, is there a gadget or software or some other tech tool that you or your family loves using? Why?

I do a lot of cycling, for which the United Kingdom’s rural quarters are a paradise, so my iPhone is stuffed with various weather and transit apps. Google Maps has mostly replaced the GPS gadgets and old-fashioned bicycle maps.

The only app of those worth recommending, London Air, tracks London’s air quality. I learned about it from a story by my colleague Ceylan Yeginsu.

To give social media some credit, some of my favorite serialized entertainment of any kind is the Twitter feed of Nicole Cliffe, a writer for various publications, which could exist and feel so personal only on a platform like Twitter. My sister and I regularly send each other tweets of hers, like this recent story about her mother’s quest to reclaim stolen marijuana plants. They’re funny and well written, as well as unfailingly kind and warm.

Max Fisher writes The Interpreter, a news column and newsletter that explore the ideas and context behind major world events. Based in London, he uses political science and social science to examine and explain topics from authoritarianism to arms control. @Max_Fisher Facebook

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