The Surveillance State
And when they spy on us let them discover us loving.
-Alice Walker, "Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart"
this post is dedicated to Salman Rushdie
may he continue to heal well
and write freely
I haven't written about Facebook in a long time. I was skeptical when it first began in 2004 and reluctant to put my face, my photos, my life on a platform for others to approve, mock, congratulate, pity, cheer or emoji, which was Zuckerberg's original intention when he and his cohorts designed the site when they were at Harvard. There was actually a competition: which face is uglier? A schoolboys' game, and a macho one at that.
Like nearly everyone else I know, however, I succumbed to the promise and temptation of instantaneous interconnectivity. Now there is Instagram (owned by Facebook) and What's App (owned by Facebook) and Twitter (not owned by Facebook or Elon Musk, as yet.)
As a professor, small business owner, journalist, and private writing mentor, I understood quickly that it would be a good idea to have an internet footprint. My NYU students always confessed that they had Googled me. Fortunately, I passed muster; my classes were always filled. And it has also been thrilling and life-affirming to communicate with people all over the world. Al Gore was prescient: there is an internet highway, but life has changed politically and geopolitically since he was Vice-President: Arab springs, wars, fires and floods, migrants, famine, domestic terrorism, autocracy on our shores, surveillance. And it is surveillance, or what I hypothesize is surveillance, that I want to talk about here today, though the discussion requires a preamble, or set-up. It will be as honest and transparent as I can write it.
I am a secular Jew, a descendant of the Holocaust, a genocide that wiped out nearly all of my family. I have rarely been to synagogue, do not believe in a God or gods, enjoy biblical stories as literature, the Quaran and the Talmud as ancient wisdom, some of which is relevant today, some of which is not. I have lived abroad, have friends and colleagues of all faiths and nationalities. I steer clear of ghettos—physical, intellectual, cultural. Though I have read deeply about the British mandate in Palestine and the historical necessity of a safe haven for persecuted Jews, including my own family who escaped to three continents, I abhor the idea of a one-party or one-religion state and all fundamentalisms, including American constitutional fundamentalism. I have both Israeli cousins and friends and displaced Palestinian cousins and friends. I love them all. If I could pray for peace, I would pray for peace. But I don't pray. I just do my best as a writer to pay attention and write from the heart.
So, when a dear Palestinian friend, who has American citizenship, and is therefore Palestinian-American, recently returned from a family wedding on the West Bank, and put up a Facebook post about Israel's shut-down of Palestinian human rights organizations, and yet more horrific bombings in Israel and Gaza, I wrote a comment on his post which began with the unedited and unskillful sentence: "The Israelis are fools." I then continued with more context, something akin to: if they only understood that Palestinian human rights organizations are their allies in the struggle for peace. That is a paraphrase from memory because I cannot retrieve my comment: Facebook erased it claiming it did not meet their "community standards." When I looked up those standards, I intuited that calling Israelis fools, instead of foolish, was tagged by their data sleuths as hate speech. When I appealed their decision, I lost the appeal. If I did not accept their final decision, I was informed that they would shut down my account. And though I let it be, I'm still thinking about it, thus this blog post.
The Palestinian-American friend who had just returned from a wedding in Hebron was stalked by the FBI after 9/11, as was his son who was in high school in New York City at the time, as was his wife who is a well-known Israeli-Arab-American university professor. The family eventually hired a lawyer to get the FBI to cease and desist. But it's not over until it's over. And though some surveillance is still undoubtedly necessary—more importantly to stop domestic terrorism than international terrorism these days, I'd say—the fact that I am communicating often with Palestinians and a (Jewish) UK friend who is involved in the peace movement, puts Facebook posts and comments at risk.
So, where is Facebook in this story exactly? By all accounts, the company is not doing well. Am I being paranoid, or are they turning over data to burnish their failing reputation? Just today, this news from Nebraska: A teenager there is facing criminal charges for having an abortion. When local law enforcement officials suspected the teenager and her mother of acquiring abortion pills, they served Facebook with a search warrant for the teen's private Facebook messages. Then, once Facebook handed over the messages, they used the communication between the teen and her mother as proof that an abortion had taken place.
I'll end with this thought: Facebook is not our friend.