The Grapes of Wrath, But With Twitter.
I recently re-read John Steinbeck’s classic story about labor, liberalism, and human greed — The Grapes of Wrath. In TGoW, the Joad family has been uprooted from their home in Oklahoma due to the ‘dust bowl’, a serious drought that affected millions of farmers in the 1930’s and caused thousands of refugees from Oklahoma to flee Westward. On their journey to California, the Joads are faced with immense prejudice, received coldly by judgemental business owners and exploitative land operators who refer to them with the insulting slur ‘Okies’. Quickly, a type of ‘fake news’ begins to spread about the Okies, rumors that they are dirty lazy criminals, out to steal jobs and drive down wages, that they set fires and steal and kill and spread disease. The Joads eventually make it to California, a few family members lost along the way, but find that their mistreatment only worsens. The hundreds of thousands of refugees must fight for extortionately low wages and soon succumb to homelessness and squalor.
The parallels to our current political climate and the debate around immigration and refugee resettlement are obvious. The Californians thought the Okies to be nothing more than lazy, thieving no-gooders that signaled a coming destruction of their way of life, and those in power played dirty tricks to serve that bias and smear the image of the refugees for their own political and financial gain, exploiting the Okies at every turn and cooking up unfounded rumors that the townsfolk gladly obliged in spreading, enthusiastically participating in the vitriolic rhetoric that so hurt the slowly-starving-to-death families from Oklahoma.
Time and time again I caught myself wondering — what if they had Twitter? What if those unfounded rumors could spread throughout the country in one night? What if they could get misleading or edited images in front of thousands of eyeballs with the click of a button? What if they could band together in forums and echo chambers, and what if the Okies could do the same? It’s easy to imagine how much things would have escalated had there been a constantly evolving digital record that anybody could contribute to, one that algorithmically shaped itself to show people what they already wanted to see, and that existed in everybody’s pocket, accessible by any person at any moment.
An optimistic take would be that it could have aided the Okies in their plight. More lines of communication would have helped the people see the truth of the matter and it could have helped Californians empathize with and humanize those refugees. Perhaps the refugees could have had their own voices heard and a way to share news about the exploitative business owners that caused this chaos. Perhaps the Okies could have shown Californians that they were families just like them who had fallen on hard times due to no fault of their own, that they were victims of the same exploitation and greed that afflicted Californian workers themselves.
I’m not so sure. A more pessimistic take would be to imagine someone enthusiastically sharing a single image of a refugee buying candy for his child with welfare benefits and inciting a riot. I could think about how the California police set fire to the refugee camp, and imagine them spreading the images of that travesty with captions of “Ungrateful Riotous Okies Burn Down Government Camp.” I could think of fake news and the way in which social media feeds our current pathologies and prejudices now, how it more often than not serves to confirm our biases rather than challenge them.
In reality, I don’t see either the full ‘pessimistic’ or the full ‘optimistic’ take. I see what we have now — a battle of the two competing truths alongside each other, except not really alongside each other, because the platforms have cleverly agreed to only show each side what they already want to see and as such the Okies and Californians would live in the same bifurcated world we inhabit now, where facts have alternatives, where images distort reality and where the oft-spoke about ability for social media to serve as an open playing field in which we bear the fruits of a richer and deeper understanding is instead a dry, dusted wasteland where nothing of any nourishment can grow. Maybe we should flee.