Some months ago, I brashly offered to write a blog piece for an Atlanta audience about fake news during World War I. I had referred very briefly to Great War propaganda in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, and had included a section on this topic in my new WWI program for schools. My interest had deepened with having learned recently that A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) was among the writers the British government had employed during World War I to concoct fake news, and feed it to American newspapers in an effort to draw American sympathies toward the Allies. I certainly included this fascinating bit of trivia in my program, followed by a rhetorical question for the kids and teachers: If propaganda was this sophisticated more than a century ago, what must it be like today?
And now we have an answer that took even the most cynical by surprise, in the form of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal.
I was among the earliest adopters of Facebook, a decade ago, and just a few months before it was opened to the public, in the brief period when its users were students and faculty at colleges and universities. Like many, I fancied the idea of staying in touch with my students after graduation. As Facebook mushroomed, I found myself “friended” by family and friends around the world, some of whom I had not spoken with in years.
But it troubled me that the illusion of intimacy was just that, an illusion. Just because someone “liked” one of my posts didn’t mean I had the first idea what was going on in their lives. I also learned that any opinion I was likely to voice would offend someone, somewhere. I hate confrontation: I’d rather die than debate, and tend to end up shouting at people, or going very quiet. My response would always rather be to hand over books. So I either defriended shouty people, or put them in a group that did not see my more provocative posts. I deliberately created a bubble, in other words, so I could ramble in peace or, at least, provide some comfort to the likeminded. My professional page, meanwhile, grew at a modest pace, fueled by occasional injections of cash as Facebook made it increasingly unlikely that all but a handful of my “fans” would see what I wrote unless I paid for the privilege, which seemed a poor investment, since I could trace none of my professional engagements to my Facebook page. But hey, social media was important, right?
It has always been clear to anyone reasonably well-acquainted with 20th century history that we are all making a terrible mistake: People broadcast their addresses and birthdays to strangers on Facebook. Even those who avoid Facebook have no privacy while browsing, entrust private information to emails (despite the warnings that we should not write anything in an email that we wouldn’t wrote on a wall), and write self-revelatory posts such as this one.
But for several years now, the groupthink, encouraged by Facebook’s then-twenty-something techie creator, has been that privacy is a bygone concept, and “transparency” is its laudable replacement.
Coming from Britain, a country that didn’t even put photos on drivers’ licenses until relatively recently, because of a fear of paperwork that originated in a fear of fascism during World War II, I found this brave new culture all the more disturbing, and yet it has seemed and still seems to me inevitable. There simply was not—is not—a mass rebellion against our giving over the means for an Orwellian dictatorship. And all who dare suggest that the brave new world of tech has sinister implications have found themselves derided as dinosaurs, or worse, in the bullying groupthink world of social media.
Too cowardly to jump into the scrum of current affairs, I have contented myself with talking and writing about the past. When I created a presentation for schools on WWI last year, one of my themes was “what could possibly go wrong?” I talk about Edwardian faith in the goodness of technology, from telephones to machine guns, and how the awful fate of the Titanic, two years before the outbreak of war, was a sign and a prophesy that such misplaced faith could have terrible consequences. I use every means I can to communicate to my audiences the staggering multigenerational effects of those consequences, including the emotional impact of First World War deaths on real people (another theme of Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When), each one the avoidable product of unthinking decisions to make killing easier, and war inevitable.
And, as I said, I talk about propaganda, including fake news, and ask what must it be like today?
Now we know. We know that our worst instincts, our most ill-considered opinions that seem borne out by our own perceptions and prejudices, have been encouraged and molded, to an extent that took by surprise even the most savvy historians (and by that, I don’t mean me). A dystopian future beyond imagination is already here, and only the thinnest lines of decency and rule of law are preventing us from seeing it.
Well, that, and the very human disinclination to acknowledge the unacceptable: A friend who wrote to tell me she misses me on Facebook said that many people seem entirely unfazed by Cambridge Analytica, and I don’t doubt it. Most people aren’t paying attention, or figure, rightly, that the cat is out of the bag.
So far, people are acting as though the Titanic has righted itself, and might well sail on, after all.
Of course, it won’t. Cambridge Analytica has my data and perhaps yours, too. That cannot be changed. But I cannot happily remain complicit in the lie that all is well. My setting aside Facebook won’t make an iota of difference to the world, but it means a great deal to me.
I have stopped posting and “liking” and doing any more than impulsively clicking into Facebook out of habit occasionally, before hastily clicking away. Yes, I have kept my Facebook account open, as I continue to try to disentangle myself: I cannot simply delete the account unless and until I am sure that I won’t lose touch with the people and organizations I value. I am procrastinating about figuring out how to download all those years of posts and photos, my self-curated, self-censored online diary, that hefty reminder that the presented and performed life can prevent one from living. I have asked my friends—those who actually are my friends, and care enough to want to stay in touch in real life—to make sure I at least have their email addresses.
Won’t ditching Facebook affect my professional reach? Maybe, but not that I can see. I will leave the Facebook share button below this post intact, a small hypocrisy to be sure, but I can live with it, as yet another reminder that Mark Zuckerberg’s monster is now interwoven through our lives. Suddenly, we are keenly aware that the past is the present, too, a river that carries us along, no matter how hard we swim for the shore.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com