Ejo #124 – My Diary: Quarantine (Part 1)

On the last day of our trip to Japan, our HR department got in touch and instructed us to self-quarantine for 14 days after arrival in Dubai. To be honest, at the time it felt like a wee bit of an over-reaction, but you will never catch me complaining about a freebie fortnight off work. I now know that the UAE government was being proactive and taking necessary precautionary measures. I started writing this diary, before the world went into lockdown. Self-isolating at home was an anomaly, and not the current norm.  We were the only ones I knew that were quarantining, and I thought it might be a little bit of novelty for you all to read about our experience. Now almost everyone is stuck at home, and you all have your own stories to tell. Here’s mine, anyway.

DAY ONE
Coming back from Tokyo was weird. We were in business class for the long-haul flight (frequent flyer miles, yo!), and the entire upper deck of the A380 was virtually empty. There were just five passengers and almost double that number of crew. Which was a relief because I’d been a little worried about flying home in a jam-packed sardine can. Don’t even get me started on the number of times I’ve contracted a flu or a cold or a sniffle or a cough after flying. Some bitches just do not know how to cover their goddamn mouths when they sneeze. It felt like the five of us were seated far enough apart from one another to not have to worry about cross-infection. However, in retrospect, getting drunk at the bar and hugging some rando stranger may not have been the smartest choice in the world. Live and learn.

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Tumbleweeds

We landed in Dubai at 6am and were in bed an hour later. We got up at around midday, and easily oozed into full-sloth mode. We ordered chicken wings for lunch and spent the rest of the day watching Netflix, systematically destroying a 1.8 litre bottle of sake and popping the M&Ms we’d nicked from the aeroplane. We are not intending on continuing this way, but it feels right for the first day back. Zero effort; just ease on into it. No-one’s handing out awards for pandemic over-achievers. Actually, maybe they are. But we are definitely not in the running.

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Kampai!!!

DAY TWO
Oh my god, I had such a good night’s sleep. I actually woke up feeling rested, which is so unusual for me. I’m normally either fatigued from shift work, or burning the candle at both ends while travelling. So I felt great. I figured I should use my new-found energy to unpack my suitcase, as well as all the records and all the booze we bought in Japan. So many records; so much booze!! Actually, it feels a bit weird to be drinking, when technically I should be working. But I’m not actually sick, and I’m not actually skiving off work (though it does feel a little bit like I am). I almost feel guilty indulging in a tipple (or two), but you can bet that’s not going to stop me.

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Ugh, I hate unpacking.

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Adding to the collection.

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Delightful, limited edition Japanese liqueurs (as well as some sake and the fixin’s for our signature cocktail – the Aviation).

Today, I also finally got around to watering all our babies ( I would make a terrible mother). Our poor houseplants have been without water for 17 days and are looking a little… shall we say, dehydrated. The highlight of today, for me, was a small (but glorious) bounty of four little red cherry tomatoes. Look how beautiful they are!!!  These are especially important to me because they are my Mum’s heirloom tomatoes. I am grateful, beyond belief, that I now have her seeds to plant again next season.

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Baby tommies!!!!  I’m in love!!!

DAY THREE
Today, we left the house. It felt weird, like we were committing some nefarious crime. Or venturing into a zombie apocalypse. But we weighed up the risks, and decided that it would be better for us to go out and do one big shop (that will hopefully last us the remainder of our quarantine) rather than continue to eat takeaway food and get home delivery. Also, we were out of wine. So…

Seems that most of Dubai is pretty relaxed about COVID-19, I guess because there haven’t been that many cases here, so everyone is just carrying on as normal. The supermarket didn’t have my preferred brand of toilet paper (tragedy!), but it was still fully stocked. No panic buying here. Not yet anyway.

DAY FOUR
Today I woke up with a mild feeling of dread that I haven’t been able to shake. I’m seriously enjoying not working (hello early retirement?!), but there’s a lot of heaviness hanging in the air and I guess it’s taking a mental toll. I also woke up with a horrible rash on the back of my hands from the incessant handwashing. FML.

Today was the first day that we decided to get off our butts and be productive members of the household. Working together as a team (me measuring and marking, David drilling) we hung two large artworks on the wall, and two macramé potplants from the ceiling. I’ve gotta say, so far, being house-bound kinda rules. Shit = getting done!

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Measure twice, drill once (argue fifteen times).

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Plant more coconuts.  Excellent advice.

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About time this beauty took his rightful place on the wall.

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Ivy loves her new, sun-drenched perch.

I also managed to find the time to give my ficus elastica (his name is Peter, say hello everyone) a shower. He absolutely loved it. And continuing on with the plant care, I made one last ditch effort to save Lillian (my peace lily – get it?) from the brink of death. I repotted and trimmed her down to the bone. I think it’s going to be touch and go there for a while, so… thoughts and prayers please.

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Splish splash.

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Lillian doesn’t look so good.

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Short back and sides.

PS We’ve started playing records.  Today’s soundtrack was brought to you by…..

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The Stooges

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Progressive krautrock band, Can

DAY FIVE
Today started off with a pretty nasty hangover and, after a short spurt of activity (sweeping and mopping the balcony), mutated into yet another lazy day. Lots of lounging around and drinking coffee (and Berocca).  I started reading a new book, chilled out on the balcony, played Tetris on my Nintendo Game Boy (31 years old and going strong!) and listened to more records.

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A little bit of light reading, entertainment (and hair o’ the dog).

David is a bit bored, but I’m absolutely loving it. I could one hundred percent (no problem whatsoever) get used to this. No appointments, no responsibilities, no parties, no dinner dates, nowhere to be in the morning, no work concerns. I’m at home with my best buddy, surrounded by a beautiful lush forest of houseplants, listening to awesome music with the doors flung open, enjoying the beautiful weather before Dubai turns into a fiery summer inferno. This is my idea of bliss, people. I feel like I’ve been preparing for isolation for the last 11 years of my life and I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

We were intending to cook dinner tonight, but just couldn’t overcome the inertia of the day so we ordered Indian takeaway from across the street. Tomorrow we’ll be better. Promise.

PS Today’s soundtrack was brought to you by…..

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Kishi Bashi

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John Grant

DAY SIX
Today we got busy. The house got cleaned, but good. We stripped the beds, dusted every surface, vacuumed, tidied, swept, sorted, mopped, scrubbed, made the beds and then proudly patted ourselves on the back (and rewarded ourselves with a glass of rosé). Of course we always clean up after ourselves, but I’ve got no qualms admitting that we usually get someone in about twice a month to do the real dirty work for us. This time, we did our own dirty work and while I found the result very rewarding, let’s just say I’mma be tipping my cleaner a helluva lot more from now on.

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A hard earned thirst deserves a nicely chilled rosé.

Hey, so we cooked today. We threw together a very delicious chili con carne, garnished with crushed blue corn chips, diced avocado, coriander and sour cream. No reason to starve, just because the apocalypse is nigh. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, we’re binge-watching Ozark on Netflix. You’re welcome.

PS Today’s soundtrack was brought to you by…..

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The Fall

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Spiritualized

DAY SEVEN
Once again, I woke up feeling kind of flat. I was a bit short with David this morning, and when he asked me why, I snapped, “Because my Mum is dead”. To be honest, I hadn’t consciously realised it was weighing on me until it burst out. But you know what? It’s OK. It makes sense. It’s been almost a year since my Mum unexpectedly died, and it’s only natural that the imminent anniversary of that day will have some kind of negative impact on my state of mind. Particularly now, stuck at home with not much else to do except ponder these things.

Even though I had all sorts of plans for getting shit done around the house today, I tried to be gentle with myself for not having the motivation or energy to get much shit done around the house at all. I gave myself permission to just watch some TV, stare out the window (a lot), sit outside in the fresh air, listen to music and just chill. What else is there to do anyway?

PS Today’s soundtrack was brought you by…..

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Tricky

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Lil Louis & The World

DAY EIGHT
We got up early today to go for a walk before the crowds hit the park. It was really serene and peaceful and so good for my state of mind to be out of the house, and also to exercise. I have to say though, the number of folks who have no idea about personal space – fuck me guys, are you even aware that there’s a viral contagion sweeping the globe right now? A little bit of space, please.

The rest of the day was, I hate to say it, a bit of a bust. I had such good intentions to do stuff. But alas, not a whole lotta stuff got done (there’s a theme emerging here I think). So, let me tell you about this coffee table I had big plans for. It’s been sitting on our balcony for a while. Backstory: I started sanding it in late 2016 with the intention of staining and reviving it and making it a beautiful centerpiece for our living room. Did I mention it’s been sitting on our balcony for three years? Anyway, I went out there today, armed with some 100-grit sandpaper, a brush and a can of cherrywood stain only to discover that the table was beyond salvation. Bummer.

Even though not much happened, today wasn’t a total bust. We did have a nap between 2pm and 3pm. Thank you, I will take a bow. Look, you’ve gotta take the wins with the losses. Also, guess what, I made sauerkraut!! Yes, I did. I’ve made kimchi before, but this is my first shot at sauerkraut and I’m very excited for it to work out. Keep your fingers crossed for me. We’ll find out in ten days. Oh, and we had nachos for dinner. Yes, I am going to be very fat when this is all over. I reluctantly accept that.

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Yum!  And good for you.

PS Today’s soundtrack was brought to you by…..

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Björk

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(Early) Foo Fighters

DAY NINE
We intended to go for another walk today but when we woke up it was raining pretty heavily and thunder was clapping pretty loudly, so we just stayed in bed a bit longer. Good story, right? Sorry guys, but this is what it’s come to. This is quarantine life. Headline: NOT MUCH GOING ON. The highlight of my day was finally getting around to making some hot sauce using the dried chillies from my Mum’s garden that I’ve been holding onto for a year. Not sure if you know this about me but I am a hot sauce afficionado. A hot sauce connoisseur, if you will. AKA Hot Sauce Freak. I fucking love my hot sauce.

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A few of my favourite things.

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My Mum’s dried chillies.  Potent.

The last time I saw my Mum she slipped some of her homemade hot sauce into my suitcase, which I discovered when we got to Dubai. It was amazing, one of the best goddamn sauces I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve tasted a lot). And I’d been meaning to ask her for the recipe. I was literally leading up to it, days before she died. Look, in the ultimate scheme of things, the loss of a recipe doesn’t really scratch the surface of everything else that I lost when my Mum passed away. But it’s something that just hasn’t stopped bugging me. My sisters and I went through every single one of Mum’s handwritten recipes last year, but sadly we never found her hot sauce potion. Today, I just bit the bullet and searched the internet for the simplest, easiest recipe made with dried chillies, and I am so excited to tell you that the result tastes pretty fucking good. I’m going to give it a few weeks to really infuse with all the flavours but I’m very hopeful that the result will be something that at least approximates my Mum’s sauce. That would make me so very happy. That would make today a very good day, indeed.

PS Today’s soundtrack was brought to you by…..

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Blondie

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M83

TO BE CONTINUED…

Ejo #123 – Anniversary

One year ago today I was snuggled up in a very cosy bed, in a small hotel in the Sololaki neighbourhood of Tbilisi, Georgia, sleeping off a horrendous hangover after a night of cavorting. We had a 5pm flight back to Dubai that afternoon, and plans for a very lazy morning. I did hear my phone buzz a couple of times during the night, but definitely wasn’t in any hurry to check my messages. At around 8.30am I got up for a quick dash to the toilet and casually glanced at my phone as I lay back down in bed. There were a couple of messages from my sisters, but more alarmingly my youngest sister Pieta had tried to call me. I called her right back and asked her, “What’s going on, is everything OK?” trying to ignore the mounting, irritating sense of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I can’t remember exactly how she started the sentence – something about Mum being prepared for emergency surgery. But the world stopped when I heard the words, “She didn’t make it”.

Sometimes, the brain knows and doesn’t know, at the same time. My brain heard what my sister said, but definitely didn’t want to compute what it meant. In a two second period, my brain tried to convince me that the surgery had been called off, for some reason. That my Mum didn’t make it to the operating theatre because… she’d been moved to another ward, the hospital had been evacuated, the doctors had rescheduled the surgery. Anything.  Any other translation.  On another level my brain grasped that my Mum was gone. And so, my adrenal glands shot adrenaline into my circulatory system; causing my pupils to dilate and my muscles to tighten to the point of shaking. Causing my heart to race and my breathing to became shallow. I sat up in bed, ramrod straight. I could suddenly see everything in the room in the sharpest of detail, all the colours brighter. I could actually hear a conversation outside our window, even though I couldn’t understand the words. I heard a motorcycle starting up. “What do you mean?” I asked Pieta. I can’t remember her response. In a state of fight or flight, I desperately reached for words. “Is Mum dead?” I needed to hear the word no. I can’t remember the response, but it wasn’t no. The response, whatever it was, was not one which my reptilian brain recognised. I asked Pieta again… “Is Mum dead?” There was a pause, and this time the answer was yes.  Our Mum had died.

I think this is the point at which I went into shock. I cannot remember the rest of the conversation. David reckons I said the word fuck, several times.  That seems about right.  I cannot remember saying goodbye to my sister. I know I didn’t cry, not right away. Not yet. I remember just being confused. My brain simply refusing to comprehend. I remember turning to David and saying, “I don’t understand” over and over again. I remember looking into his eyes and not even really recognising him. I remember curling into a ball in bed and holding onto my husband for dear life. And I remember wailing. I remember actually willing my body to go back to sleep, wishing for the blissful oblivion of sleep. And my body complying, shutting down.  Thank god.  I drifted in and out for a couple more hours. Wailing every time I gained consciousness, every time I woke up to the nightmare of remembering. And finally, the tears did come. Sobs that racked my whole body. And, “I don’t understand” on a loop. Over, and over again.

I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

We had to check-out of the guesthouse at midday, so I do remember having to get up and shower. Like a robot would shower. Knowing how to shampoo, when to rinse, programmed to scrub the right spots for the right amount of time (maybe a little longer than the right amount of time), eyes glazed. I remember having to pack, somehow I packed. I remember checking out, my eyes red and swollen from crying. Smiling when the lady asked if we’d enjoyed our stay. Knowing that she must have heard the cries of despair emanating from our room all morning. Not caring.

We left our bags at reception and wandered the grey, bleak streets of the city. For hours. I wasn’t hungry but I drank Georgian wine. A lot of it. I wanted to blot out the pain, but of course this was pain that couldn’t be blotted. David was wonderful, of course. He arranged time off work and booked us on the first available flights back to Melbourne. I remember being at Tbilisi airport, crying uncontrollably and not caring about all the people looking at me, with discomfort. I don’t remember the flight back to Dubai. I do know that I cried so much, my eyes swelled shut. I didn’t care.

This is grief. This is what the death of a loved one looks like. I bet if I asked my sisters for their account of the same day, it would be similarly full of details and blurs. I hate that it’s been a whole year since this day happened. I hate that the magnitude of it slips away, day by day.  I no longer cry myself to sleep (much), but I still feel the bewilderment and dissonance of the finality of my Mum’s death. I still don’t understand. A small part of me is used to not seeing my family for a year at a time, and that part of my mind is going to get a real fucking shock when it realises that this is it. There is no next time. She’s not there anymore. The house is sold. There are other people living in it. Walls have been knocked down. The world has continued to turn, without my Mum. An entire part of my life is gone. Forever. The world still turns.

This morning I sniffed a bottle of my Mum’s favourite perfume. Her signature scent, Lulu. It smells like her, but… not really. My Mum’s pink sweater still does smell like her, but, after a year, that scent is fading. As though everything about her is retreating further away. Is grief misplaced love? Love with nowhere to go? Maybe. It sometimes feels like that. A dead person is just a memory, a concept. Loving a real person is expansive, it’s infinite. Loving a dead person is an exercise in futility. I don’t believe that my Mum can still hear me or see me.  I don’t believe that she’s still around. I wish that I did. I’m sure that would bring me some comfort. What I do believe is that I hold all the love she ever gave me, I hold it all in my heart. And I hold it very, very close. It’s all I have left of her.  And that’s something that will never fade.

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My beautiful Mum.  I love you so much. I miss you more than anything.

 

Ejo #122 – Fuck You, Facebook

Facebook.  You’ve heard of it, right?  It’s the social networking site that, since 2005, has become so widespread and popular, we can’t even imagine life without it.  Considering it’s been on the market for fifteen years, Facebook’s interface certainly hasn’t improved in line with its explosive popularity – mostly because it hasn’t needed to.  Facebook’s appeal lies not in the way it looks, or performs, but rather, in how it makes you feel.  It is systematically designed to be addictive, to administer micro-doses of feel-good neurotransmitters every time someone likes or comments on something that you’ve posted.  Human beings are complex creatures, but our brain reward centres operate very simply.  When the brain gets a drop of dopamine, it enjoys it very much and wants more.  Facebook knows this and its programmers have learned to manipulate the interface, in order to take advantage of that.  Why?  The longer we spend on the site, the more advertising we are exposed to, the more money goes rolling into Facebook’s coffers.  It really is as simple as that.  But that’s just the beginning.  

We all know about FB’s sketchy privacy practices.  On a global scale we seem to enjoy Facebook enough to ignore the fact that so much of our personal data is shared with big corporations.  Perhaps we feel it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of staying connected to so many other people, so easily.  Or maybe we just aren’t aware of exactly how much we are giving away.  Did you know that Facebook allowed huge companies like Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada complete access to your private messages?  Not just the ability to read them, but also to write and delete them!!!!  WTAF?!  The first you heard about your data being used in such a shitty way was probably when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.  Suddenly there was an outrage.  For a while.  And then it all died down and it was back to business as usual in Menlo Park.  Facebook continues to act behind closed doors and to avoid anything more than a mere semblance of transparency.  And that’s before we even start talking about the fake news. 

In 2016 FB discovered millions of false pages that may have contributed to Trump’s shock win at the election.  Seemingly genuine pages that were peddling outright lies.  “Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump.”  “Someone was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton.”  “Bill Clinton raped a 13 year old girl.”  None of these stories are true but they spread like wildfire because FB’s algorithm favours stories with high engagement.  And nothing engages people more than sensationalist bullshit.  The most commonly shared news content on Facebook today is from Fox News and other right leaning outlets, such as Breitbart.  Not exactly paragons of journalistic truth.  But it actually benefits FB to spread misinformation and lies.  They are not invested in the truth, and they keep trying to wash their hands of any responsibility when it comes to the veracity of content posted on their site.

Despite that, occasionally they are compelled into increased accountability.  Only as recently as last year, FB pledged to eliminate white nationalist/supremacist pages from their site.  They didn’t particularly want to, as doing so goes against their “freedom of speech” ethos, but public and government pressure forced their hand.  But, because they are an unregulated beast, several nationalist, alt-right, white supremacy groups still hold court on Facebook, untouched.  Only when specific complaints about a particular page become public does Facebook bother to take any action.  Otherwise these hate-spouting organisations are allowed to operate unchecked.  In addition, these extremist groups are permitted to magnify their exposure on FB through means that are in violation of FB’s own rules, i.e. inauthentic coordinated behavior (using multiple pages to promote the same content in order to increase readership).  If I did that, I would be banned. 

In its purported claims to be seen as unbiased and non-partisan, FB has been forced to partner with a number of third-party fact-checking organisations.  Last year they came under fire for taking on a partnership with a company that is a subsidiary of the right-wing, white-nationalist publication Daily Caller.  Not exactly unbiased.  These fact-checkers have a huge influence on which news articles are seen (and not seen) by Facebook users, and considering that more than half of Americans now use social media as their primary news source, it means that these “fact-checkers” wield a huge amount of power.  So why would FB give a far-right group the job of checking facts on its site?  The answer seems to be that they want to suck up to the Republicans, and in particular they want to suck up to Trump.  When Democrats, like Elizabeth Warren, campaign on a promise of breaking up and regulating Facebook, it’s easy to see why the behemoth social media platform would favour the incumbent president and party.  So much so that they are prepared to bend democracy to their will in order to insure Trump stays in power.  They have $556 billion dollars riding on it.  

Following the 2016 election, FB started openly pandering to the Trump administration, crumbling under the president’s online whining about how he was being unfairly treated on the site.  But the slide from left to right had started much earlier.  Months before the election, FB actually discovered evidence that Russians were acting to influence the result (in Trump’s favour).  They kept that information to themselves, and did nothing to prevent Russia’s continued interference.  And Facebook continues to staunchly defend their policy of allowing proven false information to be included in political ads, with Zuckerberg defending that stance, “The ability to speak freely has been central in the fight for democracy world-wide”.  Nice soundbite Mark, but allowing absolute bullshit “news” articles to circulate on Facebook under the guise of fact, is actually harmful to democracy.  I cannot stress enough how dangerous this is to the very fabric of our society.

Zuckerberg justifies the lack of editorial oversight, “We think our users can make up their own minds”.  But then he pays researchers to see if he can make up their minds for them.  In 2012, FB conducted an ethically dodgy study in which they manipulated their user’s feeds to see what effect that would have on their moods – without ever asking their explicit permission to do so.  Some people’s feeds showed them happy, positive words, photos and news stories for a week, and at the end of that time FB’s researchers would assess whether that person was posting noticeably more positive things themselves (they usually were).  But you know what else Facebook did?  Some users’ feeds were showered with content that was sad, or angry or negative in order to gauge if that also had the same knock-on effect.  And it did, resulting in those users generally posting downbeat status updates.  And that’s fucked up.  They didn’t ask any of the users their permission to take part in the study.  They didn’t ask anyone if they were interested in having their moods manhandled, in such a creepy way.  They just went ahead and did it.  To 689,003 people.  Were you one of them?  You will never know. 

It’s FB’s ability to manipulate and control its users that makes them so powerful.  It’s the almost total lack of oversight that makes them scary.  They’ve already demonstrated that they can (and will) control their user’s emotions and moods through deceptive means.  Their privacy terms and conditions allow for it, so it’s not illegal.  But try telling me it’s not wrong. 

When I joined FB thirteen years ago, I did so because I thought it was a cool way to connect with my friends.  By 2016, I had started becoming fairly disillusioned with the platform, but still felt that, being an expat, it was the best way to keep in touch with my loved ones back home.  I stayed, despite FB’s insane growth and metamorphosis into something other than it was pretending to be.  I can no longer ignore what it has become, and because of that, I can no longer continue to use it.  It is my view that Facebook has become nothing less than a deadly weapon.  I honestly don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that it has transformed from an ivy league rich kid’s club into an insidious monster of mind-control on a mass scale.  Am I impervious to the tactics employed?  Are you?  How do we know?  Maybe we are smart enough to stay neutral and unaffected.  But what about the other 2.4 billion monthly users?  That’s almost a third of the earth’s population, and you can bet that a huge chunk of them are easy targets, particularly in third world countries where Facebook isn’t just an online application, but the internet itself. 

And it’s not just FB manipulating its own users.  Other times it’s third party actors.  Governments.  Usually with nefarious intentions.  For instance, in 2018 it was discovered that a coordinated social media attack designed to incite violence and hatred against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority group had been perpetrated by that country’s own military.  The United Nations found that the five year campaign of false propaganda saw the Myanmar government use Facebook as a tool for genocide and ethnic cleansing.  And because of Facebook’s manifesto that “free speech” is the cornerstone of democracy, they felt justified in allowing that to happen.  That is not OK.  Really, it’s not OK.  It’s fucking awful and I can no longer allow myself to passively be part of it.  I am a little nervous about completely deleting my account, but I’m still going to do it, and I know I’ll find a way to live without it.  In fact, a Stanford study found that: “The downsides are real. The negative effects of Facebook are large enough to be of real concerns. Four weeks without Facebook improves subjective well-being.”

I think I’m going to be just fine.

 

Some more reading…
The New York Times – As Facebook Raised a Privacy Wall, It Carved an Opening for Tech Giants
The GuardianWhite Nationalists are Openly Operating on Facebook. The Company Won’t Act
Popular InformationFacebook Allows Prominent Right-Wing Website to Break the Rules
Popular InformationThe Republican Political Operatives Who Call the Shots at Facebook
The New York TimesA Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military
SalonA “Gold Standard” Study Finds Deleting Facebook is Great for Your Mental Health