Songs for the Struggling Artist


Maybe It’s Something. Maybe It’s Nothing. Or, Much Ado About a Black Square

Last Saturday, women began to message one another about a social media blackout “tomorrow.” The message included a little black square to use as a profile picture. This was the message:

“Tomorrow, female blackout from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Its a movement to show what the world might be like without women. Your profile photo should just be a black square so that men wonder where the women are. Pass it only to women … It’s for a project against domestic abuse. It is no joke. Share it.”

 

I was instantly suspicious. First, because of the timing. In the middle of a profound protest movement developing among women, at the apex of women’s rage, suddenly we are being asked to go dark on social media all day? To disappear? Just stop the outpouring of rage and movement building so men will “wonder where the women are”?

 

Huh?

 

My first red flag was: No one EVER notices an absence on Facebook. How many times have you seen someone pop up with a status that says something like, “I’m back! It’s been a crazy year! What did I miss? Did you miss me?” Um…nope. Hadn’t noticed that you were gone, to be honest. Not because I don’t care about you, Mr. Example Person, but because the algorithms that Facebook uses mean that I don’t see all KINDS of people all the time, whether they are there or not. So – strategically, this plan seemed dumb and self defeating.

Next: It wasn’t connected to any particular idea – not A Day Without a Woman or A Day Without Immigrants. It was not connected to any organization nor to any movement.

And that’s not even getting into the problematic use of the word “female” here.

I began to investigate because something about it smelled super fishy. From the vague “project” to the phrasing of the message, to the fact that it was unsponsored, to the strange air of secrecy around it, something just didn’t seem right.

 

I copied the message and googled it. Turns out, this exact same wording has been used multiple times before in the last few years. I couldn’t find any debunking or source of it – but its strange repetition was enough to confirm for me that I would not be joining the black out, no matter who told me to.

 

I decided to post my decision and my research because someone had asked me what I thought about it and I figured others were also likely in a quandary. My quick post about this was shared about as widely as one of my most popular blogs. I was not expecting that. And having suddenly been put into a position of authority on this topic by virtue of a couple of google searches, I felt obliged to think about it even further. I saw a lot of comments about it on my post that others shared and those of others as well.

 

One thing that stuck out to me was the notion that the message was received from a trusted source. This meant, I came to realize, that they got it from a friend they trusted. And those friends got it from friends THEY trusted. It came in our messages, not on our walls. The messages are where the real friends are, where there are no advertisements, even. (Yet.)

 

It occurred to me that this notion of receiving something from a trusted source is something that someone who wanted to spread mis-information on social media might exploit. People spread that pizzagate nonsense because they got it from a trusted source. That is, their friend. Everyone assumes the person before them vetted the thing. I have been guilty of it as well. I don’t have time to be vetting everything I see on the internet! But I do TRY to vet everything I POST on the internet. That’s why, even though I received the invite from my most trusted source, I still investigated it. Have I done this every time? No, I haven’t. But this experience with the black square will make me a lot more vigilant.

 

But – if it’s something as easy as changing a profile photo and taking a little break from posting things, what’s the harm? We could all use a little social media fast, couldn’t we?

 

That’s the other comment I saw going through. Something along the lines of: “What the big deal? So what if it’s politically motivated? Or another Russian manipulation of Facebook? It’s just a profile pic. I won’t go silent, as suggested, now that I’ve seen people upset about that idea. But just posting a black square won’t do any harm!”

And maybe it was all totally harmless. Probably it’s just a harmless little meme in support of “domestic abuse.” Probably. Or it could just be some random meme that cycles through occasionally. Forbes says it was spam, basically. Big deal. What harm is done?

 

Now – I don’t know. I’m just a struggling artist. I’m not a cyber terrorism expert. But I do have an imagination and pay attention to just enough tech news to know that few of us are as savvy about the way we’re technologically vulnerable as we should be. I can imagine a scenario wherein bad actors* try out a “harmless” support meme that targets large groups of women at a time. Given that the Resistance is something like 85% female, someone figuring out how to throw women into silence or disarray could be an important goal.

 

I heard a lot of women say that their “trusted source” had been a prominent, active women’s advocate. That is, I suspect, the top line of the Resistance, the especially active, the organizers, the leaders. It is not a stretch to imagine that bad actors* from several angles would be interested in manipulating large groups of women on Facebook – the place where large groups of women center their social movements. It also makes sense to me that those same bad actors* would know who to target at the top of the pile to make the thing travel as quickly as it did. I mean, have you ever tried to get thousands of people to do something? Millions of people? Or even just, like, dozens? I am chilled by the fact that in the space of a day – someone could orchestrate an event for the NEXT DAY. That is extraordinary.

 

I don’t want to be an alarmist on this point, it probably is harmless. It’s probably just spam, as Forbes reported. But I do think we have to learn to be a little warier.

What’s amazing about the message is how it exploits two major triggers for women. It speaks to our desire to help other women and to be finally appreciated, or even just acknowledged, by men.

 

It reminds me of a workshop I took in self defense. We had to learn how to say “No” really loudly. We role-played so we could practice saying no in real life scenarios. The man in the role of the attacker was so skilled, though. He knew how to manipulate each person so well that even when we knew we were supposed to say “No” it was still incredibly challenging. With me, I remember he tried to get me to help with his kids who were in trouble outside. Oh, I wanted to help. But I eventually found the strength to say No and then later learned how to say No while kicking him in the balls and poking him in eyes. (He had a protective suit on, don’t worry.)

 

Anyway, I’m not writing this to shame anyone for posting a black square or going dark. Your intentions were sweet and good. You wanted to help. You were like me hearing that there were kids in trouble out in the car! And I’m not even saying you SHOULD have said “No!” to this and punched it in the balls or poked it in the eyes. I’m just suddenly keenly aware that to really look out for each other, sometimes we need to investigate for each other. We need to have each others backs by being willing to be skeptical sometimes, by being willing to change our minds. One of the things that I watched happen over the course of this black square day was a kind of digging in of heels. I saw women fiercely defend a thing they’d only heard of hours before. It was as if, in having made the choice, they took any skepticism about it as a personal affront. There were some serious rifts happening between women and communities over something as seemingly minor as a profile pic. (I mean, wouldn’t this be exactly what you wanted if you were trying to disrupt a democracy via Facebook?)

 

This particular post may not have been nefarious. Maybe it wasn’t an attempt to distract furious American women and cause dissension among them. Maybe that photo they sent to everyone wasn’t encoded with some sort of virus or malware. Maybe it wasn’t practice for future nefarious plans. Maybe it was just nothing. No big deal.

 

But. The thing is. If it WAS an attempt at cyber manipulation (and we know this is a real thing that happens on Facebook in particular,) it was targeting women specifically. And, I fear that by talking about this to you, by making you aware of this possibility, I may have made myself a future target. So I’m gonna need you all to watch my back and if you see me heading outside with some guy I’m supposed to say no to, I’m gonna need you to shout “No!” really loudly and kick him in the balls. You know, in a digital sense. Thanks in advance.

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*Note: I’m using “bad actors” in the sense that the tech industry uses the term, that is, people with bad intentions. Of course, if you’re like me, you just picture bad actors, like, saying lines in a wooden fashion and being totally awkward in their bodies on stage – but in tech. That’s not what it is though. It’s bad guys. Evil doers. Tech villains.

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