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Inside Beat

Thanks for turning my hijabi grandma into Trump's biggest supporter, Zuckerberg

While Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists that the app's users have control over their data and privacy, several studies have suggested otherwise.  – Photo by Wikimedia

The best memories I have of my beloved grandmother are of her cooking. I remember she always had her sleeves rolled to her elbows, flour streaked across her round face and a hijab hastily thrown on, in case one of her many guests unexpectedly walked in.

Tata always cooked delicious food that filled the bellies of her guests, children and grandchildren, while my grandfather sparked conversation with women clutching canes and men in long trench coats, heartily drinking tea. My grandma was never a stay-at-home mom, and her love for cooking became a hobby after she retired.

Echoes of Arabic mixed with Circassian slipped beneath the door of the room my siblings and I locked ourselves in as we made fun of the guests and stuffed our faces with Tata’s cooking.

At our Circassian mosque in Wayne, New Jersey, my grandparents were popular. They read the Quran and prayed alongside their besties, while my sisters and I tried on different hijabs and skirts to cover ourselves properly for prayer, or peered down from the balcony to look at the men’s section in search for Jedo. Tata always donated food or volunteered to teach classes, dedicating her time to a community that meant everything to her. 

It’s hard to imagine this lifestyle now, and not just due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic making it impossible for old folks to gather safely. As my siblings and I began the trek from adolescence into adulthood (for context, my younger siblings are only 14 and 15 years old), it wasn’t just the sound of our laughs that changed, but the frequency in which they occurred. 

In 2010, my parents made the decision to move to the United Arab Emirates due to the recession, begrudgingly dragging the four of us along with them and leaving my heartbroken Tata behind. Looking retrospectively, I now see how much of my grandma’s identity was rooted in relationships between those she loved the most: her community, her children and her grandchildren. 

The solution to a grandma’s aching heart? Facebook. 

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but I really wish I could go back in time and beg them to gift Tata a blender instead of a laptop. My older sister, who was only 11 years old at the time, sat down with my mom and Tata, set up an account on that formidable blue-and-white screen and showed her how to navigate the site. 

For a time, my family was fairly indebted to Facebook for connecting us when we were so far apart. Now, Tata was able to stay up-to-date on our latest activities and could comment how we were her “beautiful Angles." Younger me thanked good ol’ Zuck for this.

Growing up, I was always told Mark Zuckerberg was a god of innovation, and I believed it. He became just as much of a hero-like caricature in my head as the mighty Zeus or Poseidon.

And how humble he was! While sporting hoodies and jeans, Zuckerberg quietly accumulated his wealth through selling our data and destroying our democracy as we know it. 

But how could I have known he was the bad guy when in school our teachers encouraged us to be him, when all of the friends I made, new and old, stayed connected with me because of him? 

Ramadan was always the best time of the year for our family. We would go to parks, watch movies and nap (yes, I know, most Muslims say you’re supposed to be thinking of God and praying while fasting) during the day and spent the night eating Tata’s food and enough sweets to make my teeth hurt.

But those delicious iftaars and solemn suhoors slowly became less delicious. Tata’s cooking progressively got worse. No matter what she made, there was always something about the food that just seemed … off.

Nobody said it out loud, but we all knew that something was missing. 

Then, there were more concerning signs. Sometime in 2011 or 2012, my family came to the States for the summer to visit Tata.

I remember seeing her sit every night at what used to be the receptionist’s desk at the hair salon she operated decades ago with her blue Dell laptop, a dull contrast against the dazzling red and gold of the grand desk with dust from the '80s hidden in its crevices.

She would be eating hamburgers and chugging diet sodas as she scrolled up and down and down and up again, humming a sexist Rod Stewart song. Talk about the "American Dream."

Tata started arguing with my uncle, accusing him of spying on her. She would constantly be changing passwords on her laptop and phone. To this day, Tata does this and it has decimated the chances of them ever having a healthy relationship. Her disturbing accusations have only increased in fervor over the years and it’s truly terrifying to see her believe that one of her sons is using technology to surveil her every move. 

Fewer people started showing up to Tata’s house, until they stopped coming altogether. Why would they? My grandparents are now moody and unsociable. They eat Popeyes and Burger King instead of cooking meals. The door of their house, which used to be like the revolving door of a hotel, is now just any old door that opens and shuts with obligated visits from family members.

To anyone who knew the energy of the house before, this reality is heartbreaking and the loss is incalculable –– how can you measure the amount of teabags that will never be drank and the stories of Jordan and Syria that will never form from the clicks of their dentures? 

While all of this has been detrimental to the social structure of my family, it wasn’t until Tata started telling me about how great President Donald J. Trump is that I realized the extent of how Facebook disrupted my grandma’s reality. 

Tata has never really cared for politics. As a Circassian-Jordanian immigrant, all she really cared for was her community and family, and when she became an American citizen, she always voted blue. But between the misinformation Facebook campaigns and Tata’s lack of media literacy, she became one of Trump’s biggest fans. 

No matter how many times my grandma’s children and grandchildren begged her to see reason, she refused to. Tata would still rant about how great Trump is for giving us a stimulus check and how he’s "protecting us from greedy immigrants" (I know. The irony isn't lost on me).

Together, all of these events — my grandma's disinterest in her hobbies, her distrust in her family members, her susceptibility to believing false news — paints the picture of a woman who is seriously disillusioned and experiencing a reality that the rest of her family isn't experiencing. It's one thing to have differing political views, but it's a totally other thing to live in a different reality.

Countless studies have linked the disillusionment folks have experienced when turning to social media. Take this article, that studies how disillusionment led to Brexit, and social media's critical role in this.

One of the few studies Facebook has released to the public reveals that newsfeeds — which are dictated by algorithms beyond the public's control and knowledge — can dictate a user's emotions. That's right: Your feed can directly affect how you feel.

As author Shoshana Zuboff proved in "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism," social media is designed to harvest data and sell it to the highest bidder. This means Zuckerberg doesn't care about Tata's stance on Trump, but rather how much money Tata can make him by staying on Facebook longer and by giving up more of her data through likes and comments.

Additionally, misinformation played huge role in the 2016 election that got Trump in office, and research is still being done to study the extent of misinformation in the 2020 election cycle. Misinformation in 2020 was higher than ever, according to The New York Times, and people like Tata have suffered the consequences of it.

Is this a well-researched piece commenting on the ways that Trump’s messaging appeals to older Muslims or how Zuckerberg is destroying democracy? Not at all. This is simply a granddaughter’s observation of the ways Facebook forever changed her family’s dynamic.

I wish I had the answers as to why this happened to Tata. I’ve been contemplating this for years. But while it’s not solely Zuckerberg’s fault for Tata’s newly adopted conservative values — old age and being an incredibly marginalized group may have some role to play in her bitterness — Facebook’s addictive design and insidious secret algorithms might just be a major contributing factor. 

Somehow, Tata’s Facebook addiction went from rotten haliva and bitter tabooleh to supporting anti-immigration policies and xenophobia. 

Media is constantly shaping our minds, and with our increasing shift to the digitized world due to our inability to see one another in person, it's affecting us even more. Being mindful of this simple fact is the first step before we can start having a serious conversation on how to protect ourselves and the most vulnerable people against the consequences of social media’s increasing permeation. 

I'll never forget the golden days of my youth spent greedily enjoying my grandmother's cooking and hiding from the guests I never thought I would come to miss. I'd swap all of the connections I made from social media for one bite of the past.

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