Tracy Des Combes/New Statesman
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She says Facebook brainwashed her husband – he disagrees

One couple reveal how online politics can damage offline relationships. 

When Tracy Des Combes heard the news that Cambridge Analytica harvested data from 50 million Facebook users in order to target them with political ads, everything made sense. Over the last few years (Tracy says) her husband has transformed from a “Conservative in the Reagan model” to a far-right Donald Trump supporter.

“Politics was not a big deal in our marriage, it wasn’t that big of a deal until the last two years,” Tracy says. She and her husband met 48 years ago, both aged 11, and have been married for over three decades. Last week, Tracy went viral (42,000 likes, 11,000 retweets) for a tweet that read:

“This is hard to write... My husband of 33 years, a Veteran, was changed from a Conservative into an extreme alt-right crazy. Who is to blame? FUCKING FACEBOOK! Constant Clickbait. I feel like I’m married to a stranger.”

She ended the tweet: “Class Action against Facebook? I’m in.”

It’s a compelling and straight-forward narrative, one that promises to show the real lives behind the data. As an older white man who is Conservative, Christian and a veteran, Tracy’s husband Brandon was arguably prime for targeting – but there is no way of knowing if he was actually one of those targeted with Cambridge Analytica’s pro-Trump ads. It is possible he was instead targeted by fake news websites run by teenagers trying to make quick cash or Russians trying to meddle in elections. It is possible he wasn’t targeted at all.

Regardless, Tracy believes “shocking” fake news stories (she gives the made-up example of “Eight Muslim Men Raped A Three-Year-Old Girl and Threw Her Off A Bridge”) changed her husband.

“He started posting these stories that were just crazy, they were crazy,” she tells me, giving another example of a news story claiming Barack Obama is not an American citizen. “If you look at the source or you look at any other information, they were just false.” She believes stories about crimes by immigrants and Muslims appealed to the “hero” in men like Brandon.

“I don’t think he’s stupid in any way, he’s very smart, and he’s very kind and compassionate,” she says of her husband (whom she still loves, she reiterates multiple times), “but these stories, they develop something in these men. It made them believe things that were just patently false, and it changed their personalities dramatically.”

On Facebook, Brandon “Likes” the fake news websites Conservative 101 and American News, as well as the website Tell Me Now, which once ran an article headlined “Pope Benedict XVI Forbids Catholics From Voting for Hillary!”

 “I can show him absolute positive proof that something is wrong and he will still believe it,” Tracy says.

“I think he has been selectively targeted and led to believe this stuff and I think it was a brilliant plan by whoever did it, because it worked.”

Brandon, however, disagrees.

***

“To buy into the narrative that I was brainwashed by Facebook,” Brandon laughs, “I don’t think so, but you know I’m a proud person.”

Brandon, 57, thinks Facebook “made [him] more aware of certain things” that in turn changed his politics over the last few years, though he explains he’s “been a Conservative all along”.

“Most of it has to do with the Democratic Party and the illegal things they do,” he says, branding Hillary and Bill Clinton “the most corrupt people”. He explains his belief that the FBI are complicit in covering up crimes by the Democratic Party, many of whom he says will go to jail.

When Brandon was younger, he voted for Bill Clinton. He says he is not a “rabid” Trump supporter, and when we talk says he would be “extremely disappointed” if the president passed Congress’ $1.3 trillion spending bill, which he since has.

“I see articles on Facebook but I do other research other than just [looking on] Facebook and taking everything as true,” he explains.

A meme shared by Brandon

In September 2017, Facebook announced it had identified 470 Russian-run pages designed to spread discord, but a comprehensive list of the fake accounts has not yet been released. In October 2017, Bloomberg reported that Secure America Now used Facebook to target swing-voters with anti-Hillary and anti-Islam messages. An ex-Cambridge Analytica employee recently told The Guardian about one of the firm’s most effective ads. It was native advertising on the website Politico designed to look like an article. It was headlined “10 inconvenient truths about the Clinton Foundation”.

This advert was targeted towards people in swing states, which means Brandon probably did not see it. Despite the volume of Facebook targeting during the 2016 United States election, it is possible Brandon was never targeted at all. Yet Tracy's belief that he was reveals a lot about the current state of the world.

Before Cambridge Analytica dominated the news, many feared that social media helped spread post-truth fake news. Before that, people feared that online echo chambers made our politics more extreme. Even without any underhand action by shady social media manipulators, the Des Combes’ story demonstrates how social media has divided us. Brandon denies being far-right, as Tracy claimed in her initial tweet, but refers to his wife as “far-left”. In the Brexit and Trump era of politics, we come to see our opposition as extremists.

Yet although Brandon doesn’t believe he was targeted on Facebook in a way that changed his politics, he does believe that others could be.

“To give you an example, I was Google searching chicken coops, because we have some chickens, and within 48 hours I’ve got Facebook advertising for chicken coops,” he says. He believes this type of targeted advertising could work similarly for political stories, even if it didn’t in his case.

Recently-leaked Cambridge Analytica documents reveal that the company used paid-for ads on Google to push pro-Trump and anti-Clinton search results in a technique called “persuasion search advertising”.  A search for “Trump Iraq War”, for example, would bring up a top result that read: “Hillary Voted for the Iraq War – Donald Trump opposed it”.

***

When Tracy went viral, some argued her story was too convenient. Are Cambridge Analytica, Facebook targeting, fake news, and echo chambers just easy excuses for family members we find disagreeable? In the 2016 documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad, filmmaker Jen Senko claims the media transformed her father from a Democrat into a Republican. Is it too convenient? Doesn’t the ability to be “brainwashed” rely on a willingness to believe?

“I don’t understand where this came from because I’ve been with this man for 33 years and he wasn’t like this before,” Tracy says in response to these critics. “I really want you to understand that I love my husband very much. He is an incredible guy. I truly believe that this happened to him because of targeted clickbait.”

Brandon and Tracy

The real story here, then, is perhaps of marriages divided in the Trump era. Tracy says the response to her viral tweet has been “outrageous”, with many women messaging her to say they have left or are leaving their husbands due to a newfound political divide. “It's the exact same at my house. My husband fell for all the misinformation out there. We dont talk about anything anymore. I truly feel your pain,” reads one public reply to her tweet.

Tracy says she and Brandon have had “a million horrific fights” about politics over the last few years, and now they try to avoid the topic completely. 

“It’s just tragic,” she says. “We just can't talk about politics.” Instead, the couple now talk to like-minded others online.

Brandon has Facebook and doesn’t use Twitter. Tracy uses Twitter, and has “quit” Facebook.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99