We Won’t Be Able To Deprogram Them

In an excellent post, Ed Burmilla describes how Facebook, much more so than Fox News, is melting the brains of elderly white people (boldface mine):

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

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…

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…

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…

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

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

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’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.

I’ll disagree with Burmilla in one respect: the TV and radio are still very important, since it means that they are never exposed to any counter-information. All they hear, in every medium, is this shared grievance.

That said, I really don’t know how to counteract this–one person on Twitter a few weeks ago claimed her cousin blocked various Fox News programs with child blocker thingee, but I’m pretty sure that won’t work on Facebook. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have 15 – 25 years to wait for them to shuffle off this mortal coil.

This kind of anger and grievance can be really addictive, especially for those on the downslope of life. As Burmilla notes, compared to previous generations, they are doing fine, but they have worked themselves up into a lather over foolishness. As an amateur pundit, I’m supposed to propose solutions, but I’m not sure this knot can be cut.

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6 Responses to We Won’t Be Able To Deprogram Them

  1. Min says:

    Senile paranoia is a real phenomenon, but I take exception to the generalization to Baby Boomers as a whole. Maybe the generalization is OK, but remember it was White Baby Boomers who made up most of the members of the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements, collectively called “The Movement” of the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, many of them became more conservative in the 1980s, but it seems unlikely that they would turn against the ideals of their youth and become batshit en masse.

    • Jeff Dutky says:

      They don’t have to “turn against the ideals of their youth” to still be out of touch (in the conservative/reactionary direction) with the political projects of younger generations. Even if my own family of reliably liberal Democratic voters (if not outright Communists) my grandfather had doubts about the science behind the ozone hole, and my father referred to gay marriage as “special rights.” These we both people who hated both Nixon and Reagan, mistrusted Kennedy because he was too far to the right, and enthusiastically campaigned for the ERA, and against nuclear proliferation and the draft. The radical fringe politics of one generation is the bland centrism of another.

      • Min says:

        Being out of touch is not what is being claimed. Going batshit loony is. You don’t cheer on Freedom Riders one day and then cheer on racist voter suppression 40 or 50 years later. With some exceptions, OC, but not a whole generation. Society changes, so generations do, too. But the generation gap is largely a myth. Research in the 60s and 70s showed that the Baby Boomers, while as a group more liberal than the previous generation, individually held very similar political views as their parents. Boomers my be more conservative than they were in their youth, but they are not monolithic. The political and social changes of the last half century have affected all of society, not just the Boomers.

        Yes, I have seen the radical fringe become centrist. You can see that in movies of a few decades ago where the radical right fringe were portrayed as buffoons. They are not, any more. That does not mean that the same people who once saw them as buffoons have changed their minds about them, which is what the claim about Boomers says. We have had three Boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush II, and Trump. Trump’s ideology is L’stat, c’est moi. Clinton moved to the right, Bush II hardly budged, but there is still a gap between them. You can’t identify the sweeping rightward social and political changes since the 1970s with the rightward movement of around half of a single generation.

  2. Jeff Dutky says:

    Of course this knot can be cut, but every procedure I can think of resembles a voter suppression scheme, if not a crime against humanity.

  3. Art says:

    Time to take away daddie’s smart phone and give him a flip-phone that, unless he can work it all through a one-square-inch screen, only makes phone calls. Change him onto a ten-cents-a-minute calling plan and make him go buy phone cards to buy more time. Surround him with good, caring people, books, helping to take care of the young, and hobbies like wood working. Fishing is good.

    Anything so he doesn’t climb up his own ass. That is, IMHO, the key to the problem. it is all about them; their pain; their disappointments. Surrounded by themselves they have to face themselves, and their own humanity and failures or they turn to excuses as to why they didn’t do better.

    Focused on others they see their own failures as merely human. We all fall short. Life isn’t long, or happy, or fair enough. But it is all there is.

    Get them near salt water. The ocean is therapeutic. You can love it and cuss it but it doesn’t go away. The waves are a gentle answer for an angry brow.

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