The Night the World Changed

Kennedy Campaigns In Detroit
Robert F. Kennedy campaigns in Detroit in May 1968.

Fifty years ago tonight, the world changed.

Or at least I want to think it did.

A gunman – some now think, two – shot Bobby Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. He died the next day. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary. It is now widely surmised, with the special intensity of a counterfactual myth that can neither be proved nor disproved, that Kennedy would have gone on to win the presidency, sparing America and the world from years of bloody conflict in Vietnam and from the Nixon presidency with its polarization, corruption and eventual disgrace. I often wonder how different the world would now be had Kennedy lived.

At least that’s what my heart keeps telling me.

The facts seem to say something else. They suggest that Kennedy had a slim chance to capture the Democratic nomination. His anti-war rival Gene McCarthy wasn’t inclined to get out of his way, and the Johnson-Humphrey administration had a firm grip on delegates for the 33 states that didn’t hold primaries. LBJ hated RFK and wasn’t likely to release those delegates to that “damn pipsqueak.”  Even a Kennedy aide assessed years later that the campaign was losing altitude and that Kennedy was considering accepting the vice president slot if it was offered.

But Kennedy alone, it seemed, could draw working-class white, black and Latino voters into an umbrella coalition. He was an “activist champion of the country’s disinherited,” argues Chris Matthews of MSNBC.

I’ve posted one of my favorite photos of Kennedy that supports that point. It was taken on the campaign trail in Detroit in May 1968. McCarthy or Humphrey wouldn’t have drawn half the crowd. Nixon wouldn’t have tried.

Bobby certainly excited a 17-year-old in Asheville. It is sad that after 50 years Kennedy is still the only politician that I ever enthusiastically supported. I haven’t decided if I’m more to blame or our politics.

I stayed up late that night to listen to the returns from California. I watched Bobby tell the crowd in the hotel lobby that he was on to Chicago. I turned off the TV and went to bed, buoyed by the prospects.

I awoke the next morning. I turned on the transistor by the bedside, as was my habit. They were playing this clip over and over. I later learned it was Andrew West, a reporter for the Mutual Broadcasting System, who had witnessed the assassination.

“Senator Kennedy has been … Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has … Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! … I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer [Johnson]! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”

I cried, and the world changed.

Or at least I think it did.

Whether  it did or not, we ought to remember.

Bye, Bye Facebook

I spent an hour the other day reading Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment of the Russian troll farm that spread disinformation during the 2016 election. It is stunning. You must hand it to the Russians: They know Americans better than we know ourselves. They exploited our tribal politics, our utter lack of discernment when judging the validity of information, our freedoms and our rank stupidity. A sizeable number of people actually believed, for instance, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a suburban D.C. pizza joint. One fool from Salisbury even showed up with a weapon to free the kids. Think about that.

Mostly, the Russians exploited our rights to free speech and our social-media networks, primarily Twitter and Facebook. They are mentioned dozens of times in the indictment. Russian trolls created fake identities and groups to spread disinformation. Dozens were employed 24 hours a day to comment on tweets and Facebook posts. They posted more than 80 million false comments on Facebook. They then relied on our willingness to believe almost anything that reinforces our biases. Millions of Americans became unwitting Russian stooges by spreading these lies on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. In that way, a preposterous story about a child sex ring in a pizza parlor goes viral and, in so doing, achieves a level of truthfulness.

And, yet, Facebook and Twitter have done nothing meaningful in response. Facebook officials have said it’s not their job to judge the truthfulness of what appears in your news feed, but they’ve given you the opportunity to do so. What could possibly go wrong by allowing users to rank the value of the “news” they receive in their feeds?

Facebook has also altered the algorithm behind its news feed so content created by a user’s Facebook friends is more prominent than posts from businesses, mainstream media outlets and other major pages. So instead of news from legitimate sources you’ll see the link from your buddy to a fake source created by the Russians. The echo chamber remains.

I assume this all about money. It usually is. To create traffic and support advertising rates, Facebook’s business model relies on virality over truth. To make serious changes, such as deleting obviously fake accounts or tracking the origins of news posts, would probably cost users and result in lower ad revenue.

Without serious reform, Facebook and Twitter remain threats to our democracy because every national election will now be subject to foreign manipulation. Once candidates get the hang of it, even school board races won’t be safe.

Facebook and Twitter, I know, will have to be forced to make the needed reforms. I also know that the president and the politicians who control Congress won’t do it. They benefit from Russia’s ongoing attack on our democracy and Facebook’s smugness and lack of transparency.

It will be up to us.

Twitter was easy. I rarely use it. I cancelled my account today.

Facebook will be more difficult. I use it frequently to keep up with friends and family, communicate with constituents here in Swansboro and post random thoughts about this, that or the other. I plan to start a web or blog site and gradually direct my Facebook friends there. In a couple of months, I’ll take down the Facebook site. I’ll lose followers, but so be it. I’ll only post town business on Facebook until then.

If enough of us take this action, Facebook will be forced to change its business model or go bankrupt. I hold no hope that will happen, however. As someone who spent a lifetime as a journalist trying to discern the truth as best I could, this all irks the hell out me. If all this action does is make me feel better about myself and remain true to my profession, I guess that’s good enough