Fake News, Creeping Authoritarianism, Sherlock Holmes, and Me

Social media has always made me uneasy. There’s something prying and nosy underlying the whole apparatus, something presumptuous and entitled. I was one of those people who avoided getting a cell phone for a long time because the notion that I should be reachable at any time for any reason was anathema to me.

I was among the last of my friends to get on Facebook, then I was a virtual ghost who posted quadrennially during the track and field competition at the Olympics. I never understood the urge to amass as many “friends” as possible or tell everyone what I was having for dinner. That urge to share just doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect it’s the same for many introverts. This new, steroidal form of near mandatory extroversion has quickly, and perhaps irreversibly, eroded the notion that people need personal space and time.

The incursive quality of social media always felt more than personal to me, though. It was clearly political. Feeling peer pressured into staging selfies was the social part of the oppressive equation, but the media part of it always loomed larger in my mind. There’s a reason taking over news outlets is one of the early stages of a coup. There’s a reason journalists’ access to politicians is deliberately made scarce — it weeds out the “troublemakers” by rewarding the co-operative with access.

As the 45th President of the United States of America is demonstrating daily, amassing a large social media following is enough to upset these dynamics of power. What the Internet is doing quite ruthlessly is cutting out all the middlemen and gatekeepers. The sensational vulgarity that is often on display on social media camouflages the magnitude of the shift taking place. It all seems so frivolous. But the change is on the scale of the Industrial Revolution — our entire world is being reshaped. To put things in perspective, the most powerful human beings on the planet might be Twitter’s founders — the only people with the power to cut off @realDonaldTrump’s access to the platform.

It was obvious that for all their founders’ talk of democratization, tools as powerful as Facebook and Twitter, et al. would eventually become cudgels of the powerful, because of the direct access they provide to the masses. Who needs to go on CNN when you can fire off a tweet or Facebook live?

Ironically, traditional mass media laid the table of their own impending demise. Bad actors’ cynical prevarications have been given equal time and weight as sober, measured scientific argument for decades, and, as a result, huge swathes of the voting public can’t tell the difference between a self-evident truth and a trouser-scorching lie. This ignorance forms drought-ravaged grasslands for the smallest spark of propaganda to set alight, and social media shares are the high winds that cause the fire to rage and spread.

The news has always been “fake” to some degree (state violence is nearly always defended, for example), but the explosion in the number of counterfeiters who’ve gotten in on the scam and the total disregard for journalistic ethics on their parts has caused the bottom to fall out. The lack of a filter is good because all the voices pushing back dilute the effectiveness of government disinformation, and it’s bad because anyone anywhere can say anything, and social media can send it around the world a million times before the truth or lie of it is revealed. This is what Donald Trump understands. Make no mistake: he is the leader of the wealthiest, most powerful nation ever to grace the face of the earth because he’s a Twitter troll not in spite of it.

Well before the post-satire Trump regime, I’d been anxious about social media’s power and how neatly the platforms would dovetail into the mass surveillance apparatuses authoritarian regimes like to erect. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, these thoughts plagued me, but I was so unsettled by them that I wrote a whole book underpinned by those anxieties.

One afternoon, as I was doing a free-writing exercise, I wrote a short piece about a young woman with the flu who had been sequestered in her apartment. The sequestration was government-ordered and required her to report in electronically. Everything in this world was electronic because everything, everyone had to be tracked. Paper was the refuge of the suspicious.

I love Sherlock Holmes, and I frequently think of the original stories. The story that crossed my mind that day is one I often revisit: The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. For the unfamiliar, Holmes tangles with the “king of all the blackmailers” (the ilk of criminal he loathes the most) and infiltrates his household by wooing one of the maids, carrying things so far as to become engaged to her. When the case is resolved, the maid, Mary Elisabeth Sutherland, quite conveniently falls into the arms of another suitor. I’d never liked that part of the ending and often wondered what would have happened if Mary had learned of Holmes’s deception. The disparate thoughts merged in my mind, and the sequestered woman took on the guise of Mary Elisabeth Sutherland.

The thought of Sherlock Holmes making his way through a future where privacy and secrecy had been nearly eliminated fascinated me, and my novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Paper Journal was born.

The mounting chaos I could see emerging from social media (even before Trump’s elevation), led me to believe a quieting force would emerge, and that at the heart of it would be a stripping away of anonymity, of privacy. The “well if you don’t have anything to hide…” argument would become even more weaponized. The oversharing would become mandatory, but it would be cloaked in concern. There wouldn’t be any heavy-handed Gestapo-like tactics. There would be a velvet touch to everything, and the sheer convenience of it all would have everyone going along with it willingly.

This was the world my Sherlock Holmes was navigating: one in which a powerful social networking platform called The Archive has been fully integrated with government and personal records. Each citizen has a Personal Archive File that began while they were still in the womb, would terminate at death, and was accessible to anyone.

Everyone’s personal information — medical, financial, employment, everything — is on The Archive for everyone else to peruse. After all, where there are no secrets, there can be no lies. Surely, that would make everyone behave better. And of course, everyone would have to be sociable — for their health. The Archive and its inescapable invasiveness was for their own good.

It was the urge to avoid fully engaging on social media that led me to use a pseudonym, Harrison Kitteridge. I wanted to maintain a healthy distance between my quiet writer’s life and the madding crowd. The thing that’s changed is me wanting to add my voice, with my real identity attached, to the dissent against rising fascism.

I want to be on the record.

I want to be hopeful about where social media goes, but I think Donald Trump’s presidency has virtually set an outcome like The Archive in stone. As the world lurches from Twitter-instigated crisis to Twitter-instigated crisis, we’ve all become desperate for some sense of stability, some hope that a steady hand will right the ship.

We are like children trapped in a home with a gaslighting, profoundly emotionally abusive parent. An overcorrection in the other direction is inevitable, and we will cling to the order when it is offered and ignore its oppressive grasp because it is better than the chaos. We so long for someone possessing even the barest modicum of decency to take the reins that many seem ready to allow the villains of history back into the fold. (The ongoing rehabilitation of George W. Bush and the architects of the disastrous Iraq War is rather telling.)

As cries for Facebook to sort out what is and isn’t “fake news” rise on the back of accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, the groundwork is being laid to even further cement the juggernauts of social media as the control centres that disseminate society’s information. Those arguing that Facebook’s power was so immense that it was used to sway an election are in the same breath arguing that power be consolidated. I’m not sure things are going to work out the way they hope.

The Internet is being tamed, because the disorder it spins off has seeped into the highest levels of international relations, and it is revealing just how fragile the norms holding the world together are. The already unsettling changes and anxieties brought on by the instability of rapid technological change have been focused through the prism of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. The worst of society is on display there every day, and we can’t even be sure if the users fighting it out in the replies are real people or bots.

As bots become more sophisticated, they will merge even more seamlessly with social media and infiltrate other parts of our lives. Customer service jobs will be pushed into obsolescence, and “brain work” we thought was immune to displacement will be next.

My Sherlock Holmes is trying to climb this sheer rock face when we meet him because, as people who stumble across his keen deductive skills quite rightly ask: “What possible use was Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, in a world with Personal Archive Files?” His cleverness is impressive to observe but superfluous in this brave new world.

Sherlock is already struggling to find cases when The Archive is linked up to beta test new crime-solving software called S.C.A.R.L.E.T. Its impressive clearance rate threatens to scoop up the scraps he’s been chasing down. That Sherlock Holmes thinks like a human being and not a machine is what saves him. The robots may simulate human creativity, but they can never fully replace it. That gives me some measure of comfort.

I’m still deeply conflicted about social media. I appreciate its power, but I also fear it. I find solace in knowing that the machines cannot love (at least not yet!). Our messy emotions are what cause so many of our problems, but they are also what elevate us. My Sherlock Holmes is a solitary figure, much like the one of canon, but he wants to love and be loved, and the relationships he forms are really what undergird the story, as our relationships are what truly undergird civilization.

(This article was originally published under my pen name Harrison Kitteridge on October 2, 2017. It has been edited for clarity.)

*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: books2read.com/u/mBOYNv | Rep: Deirdre Mullane