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How smartphones and social networks are heating up the world

Buddhist monks demonstrate against the return of Rohingya Muslims in Yangon, Burma. . Photo by Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images. - Credit: Getty Images

Advances in technology have created a new phenomenon – social warming – says leading tech writer CHARLES ARTHUR. And its effects are just as incendiary as those of global warming.

Unless you’re a psychopath, you wouldn’t want the company you created to be cited as a contributory factor in a genocide. Bad news then for Mark Zuckerberg, who found Facebook cited in a UN report on the killings, rape and expulsions of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as having been ‘a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the internet’. The news isn’t much better in India, where fake news is spreading via the messaging service WhatsApp, leading people to believe that child kidnappers are roving the country; the fearful form mobs and attack strangers. In May and June, at least six people died in such attacks, according to Bloomberg; when floods hit Kerala, the fake news makers were at it again, spreading untrue rumours on Facebook and WhatsApp about dam bursts and foreign donations, leading the chief minister there to issue a stern warning against ‘cyber offenders’. (This is more bad news for Zuckerberg: Facebook owns WhatsApp.)

Across the Atlantic, the American journalist Chris Hayes recently called YouTube ‘informationally toxic’, and (in a Twitter thread) showed how the first result he got on a search for ‘history of the Federal Reserve’ turned up a video describing its history as a ‘century of enslavement’ – which, he explained, ‘is, perhaps not surprisingly, conspiratorial quackery’. (I got the same result on a search when not signed in.) But worse was to come: after watching that video, the next suggested link was a John Birch Society lecture about ‘global communism’ and ‘abortionists’. Next up? ‘Trump Tells Everyone Exactly Who Created Illuminati’. Four million views for that one. ‘And this is where you can end up in two or three clicks,’ Hayes went on. ‘And it’s making money for YouTube all along the way. Something’s deeply rotten here.’

Generally, it feels like the world is going a bit mad. People watch YouTube videos insisting the earth is flat and that the moon landings were faked and nod along. Donald Trump tells utter lies in tweets, and millions of Americans gaze at their phones and type their agreement. People on Twitter insist that a no-deal Brexit would be perfect, in the face of all rational evidence about shortages of medicines and staff and economic effects. Russian trolls use Facebook and Twitter anonymously to set Americans and Britons and French and Germans against each other, and even against lifesaving treatments.

Whatever happened to facts? What happened to reality? Did Facebook really intend to connect people with murderous intent? Was YouTube built so that rational thought would go out of the window?

Did Twitter really mean for us to be hassled by people who can’t do a web search to check what they’re saying, or be honest about who they are?

Asking the question provides the answer: no. There’s something much more subtle going on here. What we’re seeing, and living through, is an effect that I call ‘social warming’.

It’s like global warming, being a side effect of a technological advance; it’s also like it in that the effects are mostly unwelcome, and we don’t seem to have any good idea how to control them, and not enough incentive to move away from the causative technology. In particular, just as with global warming, the makers of the technology have no incentive at all to move away; it’s making them rich.

Just like Zuckerberg, and Google, and Twitter, the people who developed the coal-fired steam engine and the petrol engine, had only the best intentions: to make our lives better. George Stephenson and Nikolaus Otto would have been amazed by the breadth of adoption of their machines. The idea they would dangerously alter the climate too might have nonplussed them.

Global warming, of course, is the result of putting more greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and stripping forests, leading to a feedback loop which warms oceans and the atmosphere. That leads to unpredictable effects, mostly not good: more extreme weather events such as this year’s baking hot summer, or last year’s US hurricanes, or subtle sea-level rises. The gases trap more energy from the sun, and that has to go somewhere.

Social warming is what happens when interactions between people who used to be separated and infrequently exposed to each others’ views are mashed together, and given little escape. Social networks plus smartphones fuel it: a 2016 study found that heavy users touch their phones more than 5,000 times a day, and a separate Microsoft one in 2017 suggested that the average daily ‘interactions’ – unlocking the phone – vary from 10 to 200. Compare that to 2009, when smartphones were still novel: there wasn’t much chance of retweeting or reposting something from Facebook or watching a YouTube video from your PC while standing on a train platform.

Social networks plus smartphones adds interaction to society that wasn’t there before, just as extra carbon dioxide means more energy in the atmosphere than before.

That doesn’t mean social networks or smartphones aren’t enormously useful; just like trains and cars, they are. They make things possible which weren’t before. But the downsides are inevitable. As people use these networks more, they tend to come across not only ideas they agree with, or which are broadly accepted, but also ideas which they disagree with – perhaps vehemently.

Outrage drives virality of information: William Brady, a researcher at New York University, published a paper in May 2017 showing that ‘moral emotional’ words in social networking content dramatically increases how far they spread, in what he called ‘moral contagion’. And then it’s easy to retweet, or re-share a Facebook post, or forward a WhatsApp message to a group of people. It’s easy to confirm: just scroll your newsfeed or timeline for phrases like ‘this is revolting’ or ‘Seen this? Disgraceful’.

The social networks and YouTube have supercharged the outrage effect by design, because they need to maximise our time spent on them. Their advertising-funded model is social warming’s original sin, forcing them to design systems which trap the attention so they can show more adverts. That would be fine, but for one problem: in the attention-based world, truth and accuracy are irrelevant. Attention and ads shown are the only measurements that matter.

Myanmar and India are, unfortunately, ideal laboratories to investigate social warming. Both have longstanding social problems, but neither had smartphones in appreciable numbers before 2013. By June 2016, nearly a third of Indians had one. By January 2017, half of Myanmar’s population had a smartphone with a data plan. We know the rest. The simple answer might be to use our phones less. Surprisingly, Apple and Google are thinking of you: the next iPhone software update this month includes a feature called ‘Screen Time’, which will let you scold yourself for how much time you spend on social media. Google’s latest Android software will include a dashboard with the same information, expected in October.

But will that fix it? The social networks don’t know. Facebook and Twitter are belatedly banning divisive users – Russian trolls, Myanmar generals, conspiracy balloon Alex Jones – and YouTube is limply adding Wikipedia links under topics of ‘significant debate’, which somehow feels like a betrayal of Google’s mission statement to ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’.

Maybe they will tackle the perverse incentives that make them platforms for disinformation and divisiveness. And maybe we’ll all stop driving petrol- and diesel-fuelled cars because they warm the planet. It depends how optimistic you feel.

Charles Arthur is a former technology editor at the Guardian. His latest book Cyber Wars: Hacks That Shocked The Business World is published by Kogan Page.

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