At first I imagined that government surveillance and monitoring of chat rooms and blogs, Twitter and Facebook, were small, insignificant, and in my case, irrelevant; after all, who am I? In the world of heaviness I am nobody.
Certainly I am not a terrorist by anyone's definition. I consider myself an American patriot, which, admittedly, is a contradiction; because I also am an internationalist. It's evident to me that nations must recede in power because we all breathe the same air, drink the same water, and so on. But I must live in the real world like everyone else, so I accede to the idea that my nation—meaning the people who live here--must be preserved in a world of competing, often aggressive nations which would do us harm if we did not maintain the most-fearsome military that the world has ever known. My internationalism must wait for a more reasonable world.
I used to say that I was an “activist.” But I have not activated for a long time, and now I see that I always was more of a resister. Organizing others has never been my thing, probably because I am partly anti-social. I agree with Sartre that “most men are cowards and traitors,” and just don't trust most sons-of-bitches. I wish they would get organized, but I am not the one to organize them. I am a mere foot-soldier in a long, slow revolution of ideas and practices in a reluctant and counter-revolutionary world. I go to demonstrations and sit in on some meetings. I study the issues. I spent most of my time “in the antiwar movement.” That's the extent of it.
My biggest concern these days is not war but the environment. I never succeeded in deterring war for even one day, although I demonstrated against the Vietnam War and every, single one afterward. I petitioned, wrote letters, shouted myself hoarse, and even did some performance art. Sometimes I sacrificed jobs and livelihood to travel to other cities for demonstrations. But the separate wars went their way to a resolution that the government wanted, or else they continued; and still do.
I didn't think that the government cared one bit about the things I might write in a chat room or blog. I've known for years that we are free to say anything we want short of advocating violent overthrow of the government, and that the only way one could lose this freedom of speech would be to have too many listen and advertise you.
“You can say anything you want as long as you don't say anything.” (Bob Dylan; “Julius and Ethel”)
Imagine my surprise when I learned how easy it is to get bounced from an Internet chat room.
Beginning in the mid-nineties, I haunted an AOL chat room named From the Left. I liked it. The conversation was free-wheeling and extensive. Of course it was also haunted by hardcore right wing extremists and others who act like anything to the left of Ronald Reagan must have been invented by the Devil. But that is our wild America.
Sometimes I thought I made some pretty good comments and posed some challenging arguments. Others must have agreed, because I was mostly liked and respected in From the Left (and fiercely hated by right wing extremists.)
Then in 2009, an “AOL error” crashed my only laptop in New Orleans, crashed it so badly that Windows could not be re-installed. Disgusted with AOL—and using it only for the chat room anyway(because the “news” is shallow and stupid), I dumped the popular browser and didn't re-install it until 2014, when loneliness and isolation in Las Vegas drove me back into the only social circle acceptable to a defiant loner like myself.
Things had gone from bad to worse.
From the Left now exists only as an empty room on AOL. I don't know what happened. Probably the right wing assault had grown so fierce that reasonable people like myself said to hell with it and went elsewhere. Since I still was in touch through e-mail with some of the original participants, I found that they had migrated to the Democrat room. I went there.
And yes, there they were, some of them, still holding out against a daily barrage of insults and abuse. And so was the herd or right wing screamers and whiners, still lusting for combat and the blood of liberals and other devils. But there was something different.
Now it was possible to get “booted.” Someone, somehow, would make a couple of keystrokes, and suddenly, the room was gone, AOL was unusable, and there was no way back in short of shutting down the computer and unplugging from cable for a few moments. And within a minute or five minutes or even 20 minutes it would happen again. And again.
Sometimes my typed remarks would not post. My text would become invisible. This was always a precursor to being booted.
I wish I had saved some of the comments that someone would not let me post, but I am not that vain. Still, they weren't bad. Sometimes they were right on. Sometimes they went to the essence of an argument and showed it in a different perspective. Sometimes they said nice things about Fidel Castro. Sometimes they revealed little-known historical details about the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua; sometimes they showed a right wing politician for the phony he was. Sometimes they devastated popular notions of history.
But many of them never saw the light of day.
Once, just as an experiment, I kept posting the same remark after going through the tedious process of getting back into the room. No deal. Booted. The remark? “Fidel stopped smoking cigars years ago to set an example for public health.” Another was, “Fidel Castro has made public health his personal mission.”
I could see someone at another computer laughing at me. I could almost hear it.
Talk about real-time surveillance. Yet, I did not understand how it was possible. That is how little I knew about the technical abilities of computers and hacking. How was it possible that they could have so many agents watching our text in real-time, that someone would waste his time with an insignificant other like me?
Last week I was booted out of the Democrat chat room of America Online about 20 times in five days. That was it. I dumped AOL and all its cohorts from my computer, thankful that at least an “error” had not crashed this one.
Then I started my little research game. I Googled “Homeland Security chat room monitors,” and what a revelation it was.
Some of the other chatters blamed AOL. I think there is enough to blame it for besides that. It is the most-intrusive browser; its “news” is shallow, entertainment-oriented crap; its Terms of Service is ridiculous, insane, and badly administered; its format is overdone and complicated. It is too big and wealthy. It's only in it for the money.
But it is Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, and who-knows-what-all other intelligence agencies monitoring chat rooms (and all social media) for content and “suspicious activity.” That's my opinion, and I'm keeping it.
The operative terms that give these intelligence agencies license are, “situational awareness,” “threat detection,” “threat prevention,” “context disruption,” and “terror prevention.” There are others.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has topic-detection software. Whatever topics are on the list can only be guessed. Cuba? Fidel? Nicaragua? Sandinista? CIA? FBI? Congress? The President? Iraq? Afghanistan? Al Qaeda for sure. Immigration? Taliban? Jihad? Crimea? Health care?
From The Congressional Research Service (CRS) comes the official excuse:
“The Internet is used by international insurgents, jihadists, and terrorist organizations as a tool for radicalization and recruitment, a method of propaganda distribution, a means of communication, and ground for training. Although there are no known reported incidents of cyber attacks on critical infrastructure as acts of terror, this could potentially become a tactic in the future.” (My italics)
The Register reports that CIA fired four employees and some contractors, rescinding their security clearances, and suspended others in an internal hacking case. Some received reprimands (serious) and others were issued “warnings.” (Not too serious.)They had hacked CIA itself, setting up a private chat room in order to exchange “inappropriate” e-mails and messages. When its own ox is gored, watch out.
“Propaganda distribution” is an interesting term. The entomology of “propaganda” is equally so. In Russian, it means “information.” But since all such information is considered false or misleading, it has a pejorative connotation in the West, equivalent to lies.
Therefore, if someone on the Internet imparts information that CIA disagrees with, it is a lie and a means to recruit jihadists. So our intelligence services claim the right to turn them off and punish anybody who exchanges views with the distributor of “propaganda.” This is our free press, our social media, and our “intelligence” apparatus. They will decide what is “appropriate” for us to read, see, debate, argue with, or accept. The contradiction howls for resolution.
As I write this, Neil Young is singing “Helpless.” “Helpless, helpless, helpless...”
I'm not a hacker or a computer whiz. My math skills are low, and one must be a physics major to understand the sophisticated algorithms which are the engines of our “information age.” I cannot fight government-trained hackers with intrusion software. I am surrounded and overwhelmed, out-classed and beaten. My only choice is to leave the chat room and AOL altogether. Who needs the stress?
There goes my social life. Another illusion evaporated.