What I told a friend in November 2016 in a personal Facebook message:
“I’ve had it with a medium where the good fences that allow for good interaction don’t exist. Everyone is into everyone else’s mind, and in their faces.
“False news, twisted news, cherry picked numbers, quotes out of context in order to inflame people who don’t have time to check the information. Then, there are the reports from four-and-a-half years ago represented as breaking information. Mostly, though, I’m sick of the mass volume of stuff going by too fast to process it, even just the 20 or so percent of it that is valid. I am washing my hands of this whole mess. Of course, real life friends (such as him), yeah!”
Some saw a Facebook meltdown coming – way before there was Facebook, or the term “Internet.”
In the late 1960s, American futurist and social critic Lewis Mumford disagreed with some in his genre who were hopeful that interconnecting by computer would make for a “global village.” Mumford, in his book “The Pentagon of Power – the Myth of the Machine,” warned that if militarism and abject economic inequality continued unchecked, an internet would instead bring us “audio-visual tribalism” and an “electronic Tower of Babel.”
Painfully spot on.
In more recent years, it was apparent that Facebook’s staccato flow of unattributed and unverified information was breaking down good activism, not spurring it on.
A year before the false news anti-Hillary disinformation machine was revealed, I saw some of the best of Facebook-based efforts result in jaw dropping failures of actual follow through that spelled big danger ahead.
After five years of seeing Facebook groups with names like Progressive Kentucky and Take Back Louisville pop up with all sorts of promise that this technology could enable the people to take power, we saw a 30 percent voter turnout statewide in 2015 in the election for governor. Megalomaniacal right wing Republican Matt Bevin, who never led centrist Democrat Jack Conway in any poll and was still about five points down in the final one, was elected and has since been unleashing chaos and divisiveness from the governor’s office.
Don’t worry, that had to be just a fluke; Conway ran a stagnant campaign anyway. The next year, it was the electrifying Bernie Sanders who was gonna break up the nationwide corporate establishment, and there was a pro-Bernie Facebook group in Louisville seemingly for every millennial, and several for Hillary as well. A massive throng for Senator Sanders on the downtown Louisville riverfront hinted that his revolution was upon us. Then, on the day of the most energized Kentucky Presidential Primary ever, we had a 17 percent (you read right!) statewide voter turnout.
Once again, we just assumed that the dispossessed would actually vote, not just “click here” once an hour online through the year, boycott the proper products, tell Credo how to donate its profits and figure all that meant they already had voted.
And the famous false news epidemic as well has been brewing a while. In early 2016, legions of idealistic progressives reposted a video of a new crackdown on the First Amendment “documented” by the unedited footage of federal police arresting and removing people for refusing to stop singing a protest song at some place or other in Washington, D.C.
Just like the anti-government group which made the video wanted them to do, cyber activists, gaping mouthed with indignation, hurriedly passed this proof of our vanishing freedoms on. Urgency in saving free thought precluded taking the time to do any independent checking of this story – and that’s the problem. It turned out, this video was of people at the Lincoln Memorial being tossed out for repeatedly refusing to obey one of the posted rules: no singing or group chanting at this place meant for quiet reflection. That rule had been up since the 1930s, but this is Facebook, so enforcing it was easily representable as a “new” crackdown, leading to the chilling “what next?” mantra.
After the November election, a group using a similar hoodwink warned that a “new law” makes some forms of protest “economic terrorism!” Before you run for the hills and form a guerilla army, know that this is not any law, but just a bill – you remember from your Saturday Morning Schoolhouse Rock, a bill doesn’t become a law until passed by two houses, then signed. In this case, it would be signed by a governor, not a president, because it is a bill in the Washington State Legislature.
One member upset over anti-Trump marches in Seattle the fringes of which were destructive of property introduced it, and it would apply to protests that turn violent and impede commerce. A horrible and needless bill, yes, but it isn’t going to soar through. Yet, before the bill was even scheduled for a committee hearing, Facebook enabled this obscure legislative gesture in a far corner of the country to become a “new law” already bearing down on every American.
The overheated Facebook engine sometimes made me feel scalded by venom from, ostensibly, the left as much as the right.
As that Kentucky primary approached, I posted about my concerns that leftists declaring “never Hillary” could be being manipulated by the right. I suggested an alternate strategy of supporting Hillary as enthusiastically as Bernie should she get the nomination — with an eye of a Senate Democratic majority allowing her to remake the Supreme Court in the model of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, so we could get rid of Money is Speech asap. That would be needed if we were ever to enact a progressive agenda like Bernie’s anyway, I suggested.
I was attacked with vulgarity you’d associate with Trump bigots, but it came from a Bernie Sanders stalwart. When I complained about this publicly, other Sanders supporters told me, essentially, grow up and take it. Yes, we were starting to lose friends through Facebook in 2016 as quickly as we had made them.
I welcome criticism of my views, be assured, but vitriol and denigration are the destroyers of anything progressive, whether in house, or in the steady flow of hate and manipulation I saw from conservative and libertarian Facebookers.
From those quadrants, there is frequent gas lighting, ad hominem responses and other tricks to disguise a weak statement as a potent one. And from the left side, whereas there are some links of value, there are too many that amount to self-righteous scolds that break down unity into sectarianism and identity politics.
We are expected to trust that the writers of all those essays like: “10 Things a Monoculturalist Should Never Say to a Cisgender Who Recently Discovered Their BDSM Partner is a Narcissist” are people with any credentials whatsoever to broach this topic – or that these group identities have really been verified as sound social science and aren’t just today’s fashion.
Qualification is dangerously dismissed in this era when, “Anyone can edit an encyclopedia!”
Nuance on a complex issue, and gradients of feeling also are just not grasped on social media or the blogosphere. Everyone is polarized. Why do I constantly have to explain that while yes, some college students have been effectively “coddled” by a one-sized-fits-all application of trigger warnings and safe spaces, there are others genuinely in need of consideration due to past abuse.
Everyone seems to have rushed to one pole or another on complex matters such as those – calling today’s students “softies,” or critics of the federal mandate for campus safe spaces “heartless.” No one wants to do the intricate work of sorting out wheat from chaff, calmly comparing views so we can realize, say, that the intent can be good, but the process too uniform.
Then, there are the trolls. I’ve seen misogynists who out of nowhere suddenly hijack threads following courageous and deeply thought out accounts by women of having been sexually assaulted, invalidating these bold attempts at personal healing with hostile and indignant “not all men” cries that absurdly distort who is the one who has truly been injured.
Racists similarly have de-railed posts and threads attempting to seriously discuss the difficulties of black communities. When I question whether these people have been to any black neighborhood, can name one black church in their city or know that Africa has had the highest economic growth rate of any continent for the last 10 years, reactions give me the feeling that Facebook is not the place for facts or depth.
I have gone from trying to correct social media nonsense to believing we should cede social media to the muck and work to get public discourse back to being based on emotional intelligence and valid information, wherever a medium for those may be found.
Facebook actually was good for my goal of developing friendships back in 2010 and ’11 when I became a regular user.
Today, too much too suddenly from too many sources where reliability is unknown and hidden agendas can’t be unmasked until long after the zealous readers have been prompted to spread misinformation unwittingly.
All this misdirection and ranting on social media is making me miss the days of the mid-1990s when this new next stage technology the Internet was called a chance for a “global village.”
I was doubtful of that claim in 1996 as I started using the Internet, but I still held out hope, if that hope was made sober by my just then having read Lewis Mumford’s insights from circa 1969 in the previously mentioned “The Pentagon of Power – the Myth of the Machine.”
The idea that the Internet was really going to free us from old archaic, controlling institutions and spread real democracy was so uplifting in what was a very burdensome time in my life. So, I sat back and imagined the “what if” best scenarios this new technology could bring. For the time being, I enjoyed the remarkable creativity offered by our being able to make our own web pages, for any purpose, premeditated or largely on a whim.
No central source or authority. An eclectic array of providers, choices and styles as fragmented and diverse as the world.
I learned of farmers in India better marketing their crops using the internet to improve their families’ standards of living, of businesses large and small cutting costs by taking competitive bids much faster from far more suppliers, and of self-employed journalists such as myself able to get comments from Greens, Socialists and Libertarians in minutes, enabling the end of the Republi-crat corporate political duopoly.
Using pre-internet journalist digging a few years earlier, I had located early 1960s comedy icon Vaughn Meader, whose groundbreaking 1962 “First Family” album parodying John F. Kennedy and his family with his pinpoint voice impression was the fastest selling and most buzzed about phonograph record ever, comedy or musical.
Newspapers and magazines weren’t interested in my doing a story on Meader, at the time living quietly back in his native Maine.
Then came the Internet, and I made my own “Vaughn Meader: JFK’s Myna Bird” site. Person after person out there sent me e-mails overjoyed at the memories the site unleashed—some of us became online pals. I was interviewed live on a Dallas radio station on the evening of a JFK assassination anniversary, and The Atlantic magazine described my site a few years later in a story on iconic anti-hero types.
This was the internet at its best – allowing motivated people, regardless of their levels of professionalism, to bypass an overemphasis on qualification and rise to whatever degree of success their work merited. Yet, there was patience involved in gradually attracting followers and the notice of national media professional enough to verify information independently before passing it on.
The Internet in its early days also united people in interests much more than it divided us ideologically.
My fascination with “2001: A Space Odyssey” grew, developed, and matured as I reveled in elaborate sites created by other fans of Stanley Kubrick’s unique 1968 movie.
Noting that the book version had the computer HAL created on Jan. 12, 1997 in a plant in Urbana, Ill. (a place chosen because writer Arthur C. Clarke had a colleague who had become a professor at the U. of Illinois in that city), legions of followers organized a “Birthday Party for HAL” there on the real 1/12/1997.
I was not able to make the trip, but for months leading up to that day, I along with thousands of others posted comments on the event’s site in a manner later to be called “blogging.”
Some were satirical (I did a Letterman-like “Top 10 HAL’s Dirty Secrets From the Set of 2001”) and many were serious looks at how computer technology could be good and bad as this new millennium approached, inspired by HAL’s dual movie role as holder of knowledge and killer.
Some of us may have had opposite political allegiances yet never known it through communicating on sites like these about deeper-than-partisan issues.
Same for the non-esoteric fun sites, like those of our shared favorite TV sitcoms. You could comment on the mix of cleverness and absurdity of Bewitched, Lost in Space or Mr. Ed, then jump right in and create your own site. Formats and parameters were wide open.
About 10 years later, Facebook came along. I gradually got into it and liked it, but worried that social media was just pre-fabricating what had been our array of choices for making web pages.
Today, I see those concerns borne out in “filters” that pigeonhole us into what can become echo chambers of agreement – all to make Facebook a way to deliver ads with far more pinpoint efficiency than could ever be achieved with even the smartest prior high tech marketing tools.
And regarding who can analyze our group memberships and even our individual statements and choices of emoticons, there are no boundaries and no permission needed; we make it public.
There is more, however, about what Facebook does to and with us that is not a matter of the information we choose to make public.
Facebook has admitted it manipulated selected users in 2012 by changing the number of posts considered “positive” or “negative” to see if the users’ comments showed that their moods were affected.
Washington Post digital reporter Caitlin Dewey wrote in 2014 that this experimentation, while “creepy,” was allowed in the fine print of our Terms of Service, “isn’t necessarily malicious, and it can improve your experience on the site.”
Isn’t necessarily. That’s another way of saying, “might be.”
Now read this portion of that 2014 piece by Dewey on the Facebook experiment:
“…Facebook’s control over the news feed gives it a profound amount of influence over the information you consume, particularly if you use Facebook as your main source of news. Recently, an article in the New Republic theorized that Facebook could swing entire national elections through newsfeed, if it wanted to.”
Brian Arbenz, of Louisville, is – as is obvious – a former Facebook user who is ready and chomping to fight the right during the Trump presidency.