Facebook, Twitter and others like them play a hugely important role in the lives of many societies — some of which, such as Myanmar, are fragile and vulnerable to manipulation.
Jack Dorsey, the chief executive and co-founder of Twitter, has just taken time off for an intensive 10-day course of meditation. That doesn’t exactly sound like an obvious way to stir up a storm of controversy — but that’s exactly what he managed to do.
“For my birthday this year, I did a 10-day silent vipassana meditation, this time in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar. We went into silence on the night of my birthday, the 19th. Here’s what I know.”
If this is all he knows about Myanmar, it’s far too little. He is, after all, writing about a country whose Buddhist leaders have recently used a campaign of terror to drive some 800,000 Muslim Rohingya out of their homes and into neighboring Bangladesh. This genocide — for that’s what the United Nations, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other international organizations are calling it — is the culmination of decades of apartheidlike policies implemented against the Rohingya by the military junta that long ruled the country.
None of this is mentioned in Dorsey’s thread about his visit. He waxes lyrical about his meditation experience, and then delivers a few enthusiastic banalities: “The people are filled with joy and the food is amazing.”
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“Filled with joy”? Dorsey is talking about a country that is still being torn apart by the world’s longest-running civil war and struggling to overcome the legacy of decades of brutal dictatorship. The fact that he hasn’t noticed any of this is probably a function of his solipsistic romance with Myanmar’s primal brand of Buddhism, which — like its (rather different) Tibetan version — has powerful appeal for Westerners in search of spiritual authenticity.
(Asked to comment, a source at Twitter who was familiar with Dorsey’s trip told me: “Jack was in Myanmar for the meditation retreat and a personal holiday, which included sightseeing and travel. This was not a business trip and he did not take any business meetings while he was there.”)
If Dorsey had actually tried to question some of the people at the site of his retreat, he might have learned a bit more. From my own trips to Myanmar in recent years, I vividly recall my conversations with Buddhist monks, who play an outsized role in the country’s politics. I remember some who spoke movingly of tolerance and peace, but I also met others who were among the most unapologetically racist people I’ve ever met, filled with lurid conspiracy theories about barely human Muslims allegedly scheming to take over the country. (Buddhists make up 90 percent of the country’s population — while Muslims account for around 4.6 percent.) One of the monks I interviewed met with me in a room whose walls were covered with graphic images of mutilated bodies, allegedly the victims of Muslim terrorists.
Some monks are in league with the military, which uses appeals to Buddhist chauvinism to cement its own claims to power (thus undermining the country’s shaky transition to democracy). I suspect that Dorsey has never heard of Wirathu, the ultranationalist monk whose speeches have prompted anti-Muslim pogroms. When an interviewer asked him last year about allegations that the Myanmar military had raped Rohingya women, the monk sneered: “Impossible. Their bodies are too disgusting.”
There is a long history of Westerners whose infatuation with an idealized Buddhism allows them to overlook its more militant forms. But Dorsey’s obliviousness to the darker side of his spiritual search is particularly relevant for other reasons, as well. Social media platforms — in particular Facebook, which is virtually synonymous with the internet for most people in Myanmar — have been directly implicated in the spread of hate speech. (While Twitter plays much less of a role in Myanmar, it is widely used by human rights activists — though they know that any expression of sympathy for the Rohingya will result in an onslaught of trolls defending the government’s crackdown.)
The social-media companies will manage to tackle these problems effectively only once they understand and accept that their products are not value-free. Facebook, Twitter and others like them play a hugely important role in the lives of many societies — some of which, such as Myanmar, are fragile and vulnerable to manipulation. The power that these titans of Silicon Valley wield is immense — but they will continue to wield it clumsily until they can shed their self-absorption and learn to understand the complexities of the environments in which they work. That, however, may not be the strong suit of people who believe that every problem can be cured with a technological fix.
Even now, few of the Silicon Valley titans seem capable of acknowledging their responsibility for the real-world political impact of their products. Could it be that that’s because they don’t know much about the real world?