Something happened three years ago of major consequence; something that terrified me, but that almost no one else in a position to truly understand it could see. In retrospect, I wish I’d chased it down and documented it so that it could be talked about and understood. To my eternal sadness and remorse, we are seeing its consequences play out in the terrible abuse — neglect, assault, and rape — occurring in immigration detention facilities today.
In early 2017, I was working with a new computer — having relinquished my old work computer. I started to notice ads for jobs with US Customs and Border Protection. At first I sort of tuned them out, but they began to follow me around everywhere I went. Even though I had worked in web marketing and was familiar with ad re-targeting, it took me a while to figure out why I was being targeted for recruitment ads.
And then I remembered how much time I’d been spending on Breitbart. It was on Breitbart that I’d been tracking the evolving far-right narratives and, more importantly, how well they were testing with readers in the comments during this spaghetti-against-the-wall phase of its uncomfortable and uncharted convergence with mainline Republican dogma.
The Breitbart comments threads were a goldmine of qualitative insights into how narratives were developing, but they were also one of the ugliest and most radically inhumane corners of the public internet.
It was the time I spent HERE that singled me out for recruitment into a paramilitary force that would control the fates of potentially tens of millions of people.
I remember shutting down when I pieced together its significance, crumpling under a sense of profound helplessness. Now, what I wish I’d done, but which may be too late to do, is create the steps for reproduction that would allow a public conversation to take place about what it meant for our democracy. In the years that have passed, this technology has become ever more sophisticated — not just at targeting messages to those most receptive to it, but at concealing messages from potential interlopers. We may never again have such a clear view into the mechanics of the technologies that work every day to divide us and to extract from our fears and anxieties new and ever more novel forms of power and control.
I am sorry I didn’t speak up.