For a good portion of last night, thousands of people believed Donald Trump’s longtime speech writer didn’t exist. The conspiracy theory flashed up in the wake of Melania Trump’s plagiarism scandal, when a little-known ghostwriter named Meredith McIver stepped forward to accept responsibility for the plagiarized portions of the speech. McIver was best known for ghost-writing a number of Trump’s books, but had only a bare-bones Facebook page, and the only Twitter account in her name was a clear dummy, with few tweets and a phony headshot. Trump had made up a spokesperson before, so skepticism was high, and publications across the board jumped on the speculation.
By the next morning, it was clear there was nothing to the rumors. A New York Times report this morning detailed McIver’s background, describing a 65-year-old ex-ballerina who found her way into Trump’s inner circle. It’s not so rare for a person that age to leave little trace on the internet, but under the circumstances, it made her very existence seem far-fetched. When reporters and other observers took to the internet to find proof of McIver’s existence, it wasn’t there — and after so many twists, the absence of evidence seemed to speak for itself. If she wasn’t on Facebook, how could she be real?
If she wasn't on Facebook, how could she be real?
In part, that disbelief can be explained by the casual speed of the search. Twitter moves fast, and encourages the kind of light and fast research often described as Reddit detective work. Each new finding was passed along in discrete, retweetable chunks: her sparsely populated Facebook page, the changing Twitter photo, the seeming absence of any deeper documents. No single data point was convincing, but after five or six passed through your timeline, it was easy to be convinced. Many of the subsequents articles were simply conglomerations of embedded tweets, as has become common practice for some news sites.
Donald Trump himself is also a major confounding factor, since his campaign had already this week made a number of statements to the press that were quickly found to be false. But there’s something else at work, and it has more serious implications for the way we live online.
Most of us move through the web leaving a trail of personal information. It comes from old accounts and services, leaking an address here and a job title there — what experts call data exhaust. Under the right circumstances, it can be every bit as harmful as engine fumes, providing the raw materials for doxxing and harassment campaigns. It’s also very useful for journalists, putting a person’s whole life just a few searches away.
Not everyone leaves that trail. You can choose not to, staying off services Facebook, using fake handles and protecting information like your home address. Taken to its fullest extent, it requires living much of your life offline, but otherwise it’s not such a difficult thing. Some people already live this way, keeping clear of an abusive husband or a coordinated harassment campaign.
A profoundly implausible way to live
If you haven’t lived that way, it can be hard to imagine, and last night’s waves of disbelief show we’re still not very good at imagining it. Behind the conspiracy theories, there was the assumption that in 2016, staying off the internet — off Facebook, off LinkedIn, off any service that creates an easily Googleable version of your life — is a profoundly implausible way to live.
That assumption is a very real threat to privacy, as real as any individual effort made by Google or Facebook. By now, the terms of our bargain with web companies is clear: we provide our data and cede some measure of privacy in exchange for free services and a new kind of life online. As an individual, that’s a deal I’m happy to take — but it becomes far more sinister if I no longer have a reasonable chance to say no. We need to maintain a space for people who refuse to take that deal, and understand that a person’s identity is more than the sum of their online detritus.
It doesn’t help that the conversation itself was happening on Twitter, between people who have spent their careers on these platforms and depend on them to survive. Increasingly, the terms of the conversation are set by people who live entirely online. Faced with the prospect of someone who had turned down that bargain, we simply couldn’t believe our eyes.