I tried to tell Mom what a meme was only once, after she read a magazine article about the “Hillary for Prison” meme that came to life at the Republican National Convention in the form of shirts and hats and poster boards throughout the audience. Her questions about memes were endless: Are they videos or are they pictures? Who makes them? How do they make them? Where do you find them? Why are they called memes? What do they actually do?
I put her on speaker phone so I could scroll through Twitter and find examples, and then the automated voice interrupted us: you have one minute left. Our weekly calls last approximately 19 minutes each, including the ringing and the part where the same voice tells me I’m receiving a call from a correctional facility, and that I can press 1 to accept or press 2 to permanently block this number. By the time all of that is taken care of, we have about 17 minutes to talk. At the end of the conversation, Mom said she forgot why we were even talking about it. What did memes have to do with anything anyway?
“The election, Mom,” I said. “’Hillary for prison,’ remember?” And then the phone clicked and the call ended.
This is Mom’s ninth year in prison. She was arrested in May 2008, one month and one day before Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. At the time, only six percent of Americans used the internet to “engage politically” on a daily basis—a seemingly impossible number compared to the level of political discussion (mostly arguments in the comments sections) I saw on my own Facebook feed leading up to the 2016 election. When Mom was arrested, I was still on MySpace, I thought Facebook was only for college students, and I had no idea what Twitter was yet. We had a TiVo and a desktop computer on dial-up and a VHS player in our house. Mom and I shared a cell phone—a pink Motorola Razr with a built in camera and limited storage for photos.
Last year, Mom told me there were times when she couldn’t understand what she was watching on the news, because everyone always talked about technology when they talked about the election. There were screenshots from Trump’s Twitter account and clips from Facebook livestreams.
“And what the fuck are hashtags? Those used to be called pound signs!”
She’s never seen an iPhone in real life, and each time horrific footage of police brutality emerges on the news, she’s shocked—not only by the content, but that anyone can pull out a camera and start recording so quickly.
“They’re not pulling out a camera,” I say. “It’s just a button on their phone. It’s just how people do things now.” I’m always being reminded how disconnected our worlds are, but the distance grew even more during last year’s election, especially when “post truth” and “echo chamber” and “fake news” started popping up everywhere.
I send Mom subscriptions to print magazines so we can talk about articles we both read in The New Yorker or The Atlantic, but she says things like, “This place has made me so stupid. Sometimes it feels like I’m reading another language.” But the truth is that the way people communicate has changed so much in the years since she went to prison. She is shocked that I don’t have cable, that I never watch news on TV but still somehow know what’s going on all because of the internet. I try to explain that Facebook and Twitter are like 24-hour news channels.
A couple of months after the election, she called me and asked why people were blaming Facebook for Trump’s victory. Our fake news conversations have been sort of like our meme conversation: 17 minutes is never enough time. How do you explain clickbait to someone who hasn’t touched a computer in almost a decade? I put her on speaker phone again to read her some headlines from a list of the biggest fake news articles on Facebook in 2016:
“FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide”
“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”
“Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide”
“People just make up stories,” I said. “Sometimes people just see the headline and share the article without even reading it.”
“But how do they get anyone to believe them?” she asked. I told her the article about the pledge of allegiance had over two million shares, comments, and reactions on Facebook. It was published on a website whose URL resembled ABCnews, but the link had two extra letters at the end so people would never notice that it wasn’t legit. She couldn’t believe that anyone could just start a news website and claim to be associated with ABC. She said maybe she wouldn’t be so “stupid” if she could read things like that list, if she could see what fake news actually is and how other people react to it. But she can’t even imagine what the internet looks like anymore.
Although Mom has access to print media, even that can be alienating for her, because so much of our mainstream content has been influenced by social networks. There are hashtags and emojis on the covers of the fashion magazines she reads—things that writers and editors assume their audience recognizes, but people who are incarcerated, especially over long periods of time, are completely isolated from that part of our culture. Simply put, because she is in prison, my mom doesn’t have the “right” to the knowledge and understanding of that kind of information. Since Trump began attacking media outlets and barring reporters from the White House, we’ve seen new conversations about the importance of the right to free speech and free press, but none have centered—or even mentioned—the importance of circulating that knowledge or press to the people it most impacts.
Recently, a friend posted on Facebook asking people to list the ways their lives were personally affected by Trump. All I could think about was my mom: She is a woman. She suffers from mental illness. She has a disability. She is a survivor of abuse. She relies on medication for her physical and emotional well being. She has Asperger’s Syndrome. She is incarcerated. Trump’s campaign, his policies, his values have mocked and shamed so many parts of my mom’s identity since he announced his candidacy. In his rallies and speeches, he attacked marginalized people and communities time and time again, and his fans celebrated his hateful rhetoric in online spaces, and often, in biased blog posts and articles that could easily be circulated as fact.
After Mom gave up on trying to understand fake news, I kept going back to one of those article titles: “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.” So much of the fake news that emerged during the election centered on a narrative of Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy, “crooked,” a criminal. Countless articles accused her of murder and other crimes, and Trump’s campaign thrived on that theme. He even went so far as to claim he would appoint a special prosecutor to “look into her situation” if he won the election—an empty promise he later abandoned after he won, saying he didn’t want to “hurt” the Clintons. But the harm had already been done: “lock her up!” became Trump’s most popular rallying cry because the criminalization of women was something his supporters could not only identify with, but something they seemed to crave.
The people who are most harmed by this rhetoric are those who arguably have the least agency over their own narratives: women who are actually in prison. When women are incarcerated, especially for violent offenses, their identities don’t matter anymore. They are known as murderers or thieves or criminals or felons, and they’re reduced to being identified only by the details of their crimes. Incarcerated women are also harmed by their lack of access to information and education about these issues, especially at a time when so much of our nation’s political rhetoric has been shaped by the internet.
In 2009, after the details of my mom’s trial were published online, I had my first encounter with the comments section. People who claimed to know my family had posted anonymous comments on a local news website about how they were happy she was going to prison. I think of those cruel comments each time I see a “Hillary for Prison” shirt or hear Trump supporters chanting, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” In the months since the election finally ended and Hillary Clinton backed out of the public eye, I’ve come to realize that the “her” in “lock her up” is not so specific anymore: it’s a call to continue the criminalization of women everywhere. It’s a call to lock her up, whoever she is.
The day after the inauguration, Mom and the other women in her unit sat in front of the TV mesmerized by the footage of the women’s marches from around the world. The march, as flawed as it was, provided an opportunity to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. When I marched, I marched for every mother and daughter and sister behind bars in America’s prison system, and when it comes to fake news, it’s my obligation to fight for the truth for my mom because she hasn’t been afforded that right for herself. For families of incarcerated people, there is a unique responsibility to defend and humanize our loved ones, and for me, that means pushing back against the narratives that harm women who have had involvement with the criminal justice system.
When we talk, Mom calls me from a payphone, one more thing that has nearly ceased to exist on the outside, along with dial up and Motorolla and VHS tapes. For you and me, the news—real or fake—is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on our smart phones, tablets, and computers. But for my mom and the thousands and thousands of women in prison, the truth may only be accessible for 17 minutes a week. Our ability to use social media is not only a privilege but a form of freedom—a word that means everything to incarcerated people.
Fake news succeeds because it disempowers readers by expecting them to believe everything they see, to react to headlines and share articles without ever having read them. The criminal justice system succeeds because it disempowers the people it incarcerates by stripping them of their humanity, reducing them to their crimes. Families of incarcerated people have suffered from the collateral damage of incarceration alongside their loved ones, and we’ve been hurt by the stigma, shame, and emotional labor that come with the responsibility to defend the people we love. We’ve been fighting for empathetic and humane portrayals of our loved ones since before fake news became a trending topic, and it’s time we stop fighting alone.
With so many resources available at our fingertips, at a time when anyone can claim to be a reporter for ABC or any other media outlet, families of incarcerated people need support from those who are willing to work to silence the voices that gain power through criminalization. It may be a long and complicated fight, but it’s one that starts with language: be conscious of how you describe and refer to our loved ones. Be conscious of how the articles you share use sensational words and identifiers to manipulate readers. For women like my mom, who are called inmates and felons and convicts, who are shackled and searched on a daily basis, there is freedom in knowing that people on the outside are fighting to reclaim their narratives.