There is a family friend, a man I’ve known for decades. A highly educated man with total financial security in his recent retirement. A man who always had a good story to tell or an interesting side of a conversation to hold up. Then, a few years ago, he got on Facebook. Reading his timeline became an exercise in watching a man’s descent into madness. Over the summer I was surprised to learn that he had purchased three very expensive AR-15 semiautomatic rifles. When I asked why, he said, “For the race war that’s coming” in a tone that suggested no further explanation would be necessary.
If you are under the age of fifty, the odds are that you have at least one older person in your life who has gone down this road in the last few years. If you are white, I am certain of it. Lamenting our older relatives’ journey down the rabbit hole of right-wing paranoia and vituperation feels, at times, like my generation’s version of having the big talk about putting Nana in a nursing home. “Losing a parent” has dual meanings for us after 2016. We’re dealing with the loss of people who are very much alive—but who have become such chaotic stews of anger, persecution complexes, racism, and half-assed conspiracy theories that they can no longer hold a normal conversation.
Intergenerational tension is hardly new; it dates roughly back to mankind’s mastery of fire. In this case, though, more than a typical generation gap separates us, thanks to a nearly irresistible system designed to draw in old white people and get them hooked on an outrage fix they end up needing every bit as much as their Lipitor.
Though Fox News binging is typically blamed for this phenomenon, viewership data doesn’t support the argument. Fox News tops cable news ratings, but cable news is a small, declining market compared to, say, televised sports, Netflix streaming, or anodyne sitcoms. The number of people sitting saucer-eyed in front of the TV all day watching News Corp render the arts of satire and parody moot is significant in Nielsen terms but quite meager compared to the audience of Monday Night Football.
Spend a full hour reading right-wing Facebook. It is like a funhouse mirror; you’ll feel the what-was-in-those-cookies sense of having entered a fantasy world of grievance and rage.
What has truly fueled the Boomers’ transition from “means well, but sometimes frustrating” to Trumpian insanity is Facebook. There the fix is constant. There all of their worst impulses are collectively reinforced, constantly rewarded, and ceaselessly amplified.
The last generation of Americans who will enjoy anything approaching financial security in old age could spend the Golden Years we’ll never have golfing, going on cruises, driving RVs, or watching The Price is Right. They could choose to be happy, having lived their entire lives in a system from which they extracted every benefit and which they subsequently dismantled at the altar of lower taxes.
Instead, they’re spending their days on a speedball of right-wing propaganda and a platform that gives them an audience of . . . well, everyone. And it turns out that 24-7 access to reinforcement and an unceasing stream of conspiratorial thinking is pushing some of them over the edge.
Spend a full hour reading right-wing Facebook. It is like a funhouse mirror; you’ll feel the what-was-in-those-cookies sense of having entered a fantasy world of grievance and rage—a Lewis Carroll version of The Turner Diaries, a John Birch Society children’s book for sundowning grandpas. It is a barrage of propaganda crafted around the biases of old white people to exploit their deepest racial fears and authoritarian-follower personality traits. Much of it makes Fox News look tame and responsible by comparison. Toy commercials could only dream of reaching kids as effectively as the right-wing noise machine hooks our elders.
Now imagine looking at that for hours per day, every day.
What would be left of your brain after several years of that? Like the president they so blindly love, the brains they once had become a puddle of Cracker Barrel sausage gravy strewn with flotsam and jetsam[*] of the Greatest Hits of the reactionary playbook. These are randomly sampled, irrespective of time, logic, or coherence. Immigrant caravans! Soros! New Black Panthers! Vince Foster! Card Check! Seth Rich! Uranium One! MS-13! Crisis Actors! Anchor babies! Whitewater! Her emails! Cap and Trade! Thugs! Birth Certificate! Every obsession is equally relevant. And the right time to be very, very mad about all of it is right now.
Thus their thought process becomes that of a sentient car window sticker of the Punisher logo with a Blue Lives Matter overlay. It’s not pretty. And it’s going to get worse with time. Boomers have long since taken over Facebook and often feel like its only active users. Younger people have transitioned to Instagram (nearly wordless), Twitter (annoying but succinct), and Snapchat (conveniently ephemeral). What once resembled an online high school reunion now feels now like the 5 p.m. bitch session at the Peoria Applebee’s.
The magic is how it unites otherwise disparate factions of America’s very worst people and provides a single trough that all will love bellying up to. The apotheosis of Zuckerberg’s brainchild is the synthesis of AM radio call-in shows and every local newspaper’s online comment section into a single, feculent holding tank. It’s everything you could ever want, if you are old, white, and incoherently angry for no good goddamn reason at all.
For more than three years the media and public have subjected Facebook to increasing criticism on account of its data use and privacy practices. It’s fun watching god-complex tech bros criticized for the first time in their lives, like Mr. Zuckerberg’s Congressional scolding.
Like the president they so blindly love, the brains they once had become a puddle of Cracker Barrel sausage gravy strewn with flotsam and jetsam of the reactionary playbook.
Privacy concerns are not frivolous. Some of Facebook’s and other social media sites’ practices are horrendous. Yet this framing misses the point. It is a media narrative capitalizing on our desire to blame someone else when we realize just how much information we’ve fed into a mystery box.
In the long term, the damage done by Facebook will have little to do with the way it counted and sold our Likes to all comers. Futurelings will wonder not how Facebook got our data—Surprise! We gave it to them in the name of finding out “Which Game of Thrones Character Are You?” They will wonder how we ignored for so long the way it greased the skids for a large, wealthy, influential demographic of Americans to lurch toward authoritarianism. Right-wing media planted the seed. Then social media told everyone that it’s okay, everyone else is doing it too. You’re not alone. You can say the n-word out loud again. After decades of having to bottle it up in the name of namby-pamby liberalism, you can be proud once again to blame it on The Jews.
It is popular to demand that Facebook better police content, but no amount of vigilance against “fake news” or banned neo-Nazis will ameliorate the function it serves for Boomers as a place to feed off of one another’s bottomless rage. Is it good that Alex Jones was banned for repeatedly advocating violence against specific groups? Of course! Ban all the other Alex Joneses too! But that won’t fix the underlying problem, and it won’t reverse Facebook’s slide from frivolous fun to toxic quicksand.
What once resembled an online high school reunion now feels now like the 5 p.m. bitch session at the Peoria Applebee’s.
Russian bots, false information, and loathsome racist mouthpieces like Richard Spencer are all bad things. But what makes Facebook so bad is, well . . . people. Everyone’s viciously racist aunt and pull-tab uncle and dad and grandma and old friends whose mouthpiece was once limited to the forwarded chain email now have an audience the size of the whole world.
And so the aging members of Facebook’s user base feed off of one another, writhing in their grievances and anger like chinchillas taking a dust bath. Younger users aren’t ditching Facebook because of Alex Jones; they are leaving because listening to all of America’s uncles at once is our literal nightmare. It is unpleasant enough to deal with our own aging relatives. What’s the appeal of a platform that also makes you deal with everyone else’s?
Facebook didn’t invent Boomers’ susceptibility to naked racial fearmongering or their yearning for a bygone America that never was. It did offer them a convenient meeting room where they could gather to share their own delusions and learn new ones. Social media connects the like-minded. Now we see the consequences no one paused to consider—what would happen if we created a single, self-sustaining Galaxy Brain of all of humanity’s worst impulses?
Facebook’s core premise is that networking people is inherently good. It turns out that networking shitty, racist people served only to better organize and strengthen their hatreds. Old relatives who once screamed into the void now know they have like-minded peers listening, Liking, and responding in kind. Rather than concocting their own baseless conspiracy theories, the magic of Facebook unites them around the Greatest Hits—the blacks, the immigrants, the Jews, the liberals, the government—and writes the script for them. Facebook was the medium that allowed the right to homogenize reactionary politics into a single, connected mass of outrage, and the consequences we see today are just the tip of an iceberg.
[*] For the curious, flotsam is material that entered a body of water accidentally whereas jetsam, which shares a root with “jettison,” is material thrown overboard intentionally.