I read this passage in a biography of Mao Zedong (yes, I am making my way through all the major historical figures) and started having nightmares about Facebook. This is from the early 1940s, when Mao was consolidating his base for war against the Nationalists. According to Mao: The Untold Story, the Party chairman interrogated vast swaths of his young recruits in order to instill in them feelings of submission and control, and to foster an atmosphere of deep mistrust, as friends informed on each other.
“One supreme accomplishment of the terror campaign was to squeeze out every drop of information about any link whatever with the Nationalists. Mao introduced a ‘Social Relationship’ form: ‘Tell everyone to write down every single social relationship of any kind [my emphasis].’ At the end of the campaign, the regime compiled a dossier on every Party member. The result was that Mao knew every channel the Nationalists might use to infiltrate in the forthcoming showdown. Indeed, during the civil war, while the Nationalists were penetrated like sieves, they had virtually zero success infiltrating the Communists. Mao had forged a machine that was virtually watertight.”
That blew my mind a little. Facebook could do for free what took Mao huge expense and organized brutality. It’s a Stasi/KGB/mukhabarat/CIA dream come true.
As this blog’s sidebars should prove, I love social media. But at its worst, can it be a voluntary Panopticon? Maybe the point is irrelevant in a mostly functioning democracy (actually, I don’t think it is), but certainly this historical perspective on state surveillance is relevant to all the arguments boosting social media in, ahem, more controlled atmospheres.
One thing’s for sure: no more pictures of any substance on Facebook for me.