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Sign of Something


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There is something weird about this election: the almost total absence of campaign signs and bumper stickers, at least in Arcata, where I live. On my ballot are important races for the presidency, U.S. Senate, Congress, state assembly and city council. There are 17 state propositions that affect important issues such as school funding, the death penalty and marijuana.

But the only signs I've seen, and few at that, are for city council candidates. Now why is that? In past election years, a forest of signs covered lawns throughout town. And that seems to still be the case in some other parts of the county, state and country.  A friend sent me a snap of her mom's neighborhood in Texas, where signs seem to fight for space on one lawn. I have a few theories why that's not so here.

Pay to say: At the North Country Fair, I asked the folks at the Hillary booth for a bumper sticker and they charged me for it. Early on in the campaigns, you expect candidates and their proxies to want — and need — to raise money. But in the last lap they should push the promos out and stick signs everywhere it is legal to put them. I offer valuable bumper space on car and I have to pay for that?

Or maybe people, like me, found that if you fess up to supporting one candidate, you find yourself hounded by emails asking for money from your candidate, the political party she's a part of and just about every darn candidate in a contested race across the state and country. This also is true for environmental and human rights organizations I support. Once you give anyone money, they won't leave you alone. It almost seems as if they function first to raise money and second to disseminate information. It gets so bad that you want to file a restraining order against them.

Fear of the pay back: Maybe it isn't the spam people fear, but the spit. There are still people I see out in the community who think I'm backing Jill Stein. I don't have the guts to tell them that Hillary had me back in 1992 when she said she don't bake no goddamn cookies. I don't like confrontation. There is so much animosity going around that I think people are afraid to put their political preference on their car or lawn. They might take the slap back comments on Facebook and Twitter, but it is harder to get egg off your wall or scratch marks off your car.

Internet shaming: It is one thing to get one neighbor annoyed; it's another to anger a thousand e-neighbors. The Internet connects us to the world but it can also make us victims of massive shaming campaigns. How easy is it for someone to snap a photo of your lawn and post it on Facebook to be reposted and reposted? Suddenly, your Twitter feed is flooded with posts so angry that you can't believe people can say such stuff in 140 characters. Who isn't afraid of that?

The forever effect: I think people finally realize that what goes on the web stays on the web. I just received an email from a news source from a long time ago. He was going through his garage and found an article I wrote about him back in 1994. He scanned it and sent it to me. Not much of my old stuff is up there and I didn't save a lot of it. Now, if the Times-Standard posts a photo of you or your kid at some community event, it is up there forever. Every comment someone makes to the press is a permanent quote that can be found by anyone, anywhere, forever.

Journalism hasn't really grappled with this always-and-everywhere effect on our willingness to talk.

Hack Attacks: If there is one issue that could stop a Hillary presidency, it is her emails. I've been thinking that Hillary Clinton has been subject to a dangerous double-standard. The Bush Administration destroyed some 22 million emails in violation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, for instance, and few people even remember. Poke through anyone's emails and you are going to find stuff that sounds bad when broadcast to a wide audience.

This is the first election where we are seeing the power of Wikileaks and Wikileaks-like hacks. Maybe so many of us are keeping publicly silent because we fear becoming a target of tech trolls. The world used to be so quaint. We worried about burglars breaking into our homes and taking our TVs or computers. Now we worry about people breaking into our computers and taking stuff way more valuable.

Everyone has cameras in their hands at all times. And everyone can post anything anywhere. Post something on your lawn and the sign can be seen by someone across the town, or across the world. I heard an interview that National Public Radio did with information sociologist Zeynep Tufekci about Wikileaks and the dangers of a society that uploads first and thinks about ramifications second.

"We really need to figure out when to hold back," Tufekci said. "In the past, news was driven by scarcity. There wasn't enough news. And you sent around journalists. And you said, let's find out what's going on. Right now, there is too much information. In the 21st century, censorship doesn't work by withholding information. Censorship now works by flooding with information, by causing distraction, by causing confusion, by creating doubts and just this question mark and shadow so that you really can't figure out what's going on. And to me, this is almost like the opposite of whistleblowing. This is whistle-drowning in confusion and distraction."

Censorship also works when people fear speaking up because they don't want to be pointed at by a mob of crazy people. So in the craziest election this country has ever seen, and with more than a dozen races and propositions on the ballot, we end up with near silence on our lawns.

I find that scary.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State. You can find her at her polling place Nov. 8, where she will cast her vote in person.


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