Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Essays

Real and Fake Accounts

The old human flaws in their shiny, new guise.

David Bosworth

Illustration by Abbey Lossing.

That we often are not the masters of our own machines, and can even become their witless lackeys, is a cautionary claim as old as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah and as urgent as the latest bogus newsfeed on Dr. Fauci’s evil ways. (Instead of saving lives, he’s been busy, don’t you know, torturing puppies, rendering impotent our patriotic men, and implanting surveillance chips in our brains: accusations all conveyed via apps relentlessly surveilled by Facebook, Apple, Google, and their like.) As a species gifted with inventive minds and opposable thumbs, we are ever about the business of generating new tools and techniques that will, we are certain, better our lives. Time after time, though, those new methods and machines also prove to change our public spaces and private selves in radical ways we fail to foresee and come to regret.

The pace of such progress, with its hidden discontents, increased exponentially in the twentieth century. Take radio as an example. Although the nation’s first local newscast occurred in 1920, two years later there were already more than five hundred licensed broadcasters in America. In 1926, the first national radio network was created, allowing millions of citizens coast to coast to hear a single program simultaneously: a mighty megaphone inevitably co-opted throughout the West by the era’s chief propagandists, first its admen and then its politicians. On February 1, 1933, two days after he was appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler addressed the entire German nation via radio; some forty days later, a week after he was sworn into office, Franklin Roosevelt gave his first fireside chat. In Britain, Churchill; in Italy, Mussolini—oratory had gone electronic, and was quickly exploited by statesmen and demagogues alike.

Despite that well-documented history and a plethora of excellent research on the disruptive impact of new communications technologies, American leaders, in journalism as well as government, were shocked to discover that the most effective exploiter of our new social media in the political sphere was yet another narcissistic hatemonger. Just twelve years after Facebook was launched as a site originally restricted to Harvard students, it had more than a billion active users, and was being manipulated by both campaign officials and hostile foreign powers to spread lies, sow dissension, and promote the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump: a strategy whose success has arguably done more damage to our democracy than the physical attack on Pearl Harbor or the Twin Towers.

The political dangers of these largely unregulated sites and devices are now widely acknowledged and debated, if to little practical effect so far. Two very different recent novels, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This—both written and set during the Trump presidency—are also centered on the impact of social media on our lives, but as novelists are wont to do, Oyler and Lockwood focus instead on the personal consequences of our nation’s addictive submission to its latest round of miraculous machinery. Written by women who came of age during the social media phase of the digital revolution, these novels explore the social and psychological costs of a life increasingly lived online.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).