April 1, and while skies clear and the sun shines brighter for spring, the local political scene grows murkier by the day as the Dade County Facebook-Election Stealing scandal continues to unfurl.
As layer after layer of the tangled conspiracy comes to light, some local government officials are expected to face criminal charges and even jail time for their roles in attempting to influence Dade’s May 22 primary election. Some candidates fear the perversion of the democratic process by subliminal Facebook images has robbed them of their shot at victory; and it seems inevitable at this point that even victors will face accusations that they stole, rather than won, their seats in county government.
How did it all begin? Some details remain elusive, but here is what has emerged so far:
On March 17, Dade's local online newspaper, The Plaid Dammit, reported that Fort Payne (Ala.)-based data firm Cambridge Alabamica had acquired Facebook users' personal information to build software that could target potential swing voters.
"We exploited Facebook to harvest people's profiles and built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons,” confessed whistleblower I.T. Hacker. “The plan was to use their hatreds and fears to make the all-important Republican primary end the way the clients wanted it to end.”
That's right. Facebook users intending nothing more political than work avoidance logged on to have their inner demons targeted by images like this:
The notorious "Fluffy Butt" meme was reportedly one of Alabamica's most powerful psychological tools, even more effective than "My Kid Playing Soccer" in subtly subverting voter behavior.
"I was planning to vote for Scottie Pittman for District 2 Commissioner," said Sand Mountain resident Davis Newhome. "I've known him all my life. We were best friends since first grade. He married my sister. Then I saw Fluffy Butt, and it was all over."
Newhome had suspected nothing. "I was just scrolling down through my feed, looking at pictures of my cousin's new baby and some selfies of my neighbor Dan eating seafood that looked to me like long shiny boogers. Why do people pay big bucks to eat food that looks like snot? And why would anybody who looks like Dan take so many selfies anyhow?"
Those are questions that every Facebook viewer has asked since the dawn of time.
"Why does Hatshepsut keep changing her profile pic? She looks like s--t in every one of them," was one of the great philosophical questions inscribed on the Rosetta Stone that helped linguists crack the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
But these are rhetorical questions, and as May 22 approaches at breakneck speed The Dammit must focus its investigative powers on questions possible to answer, if there is any hope at all of keeping Dade safe for democracy.
(Photo: The Rosetta Stone contained other great philosophical questions, such as the plaintive inquiry by Cleopatra: "Does this dress make my asp look big?"
So back to our story. Distasteful as Newhome found the posts by his neighbor Dan,their effect on him was nothing next to the life-changing shockwaves that engulfed him when he saw the mind-altering meme. "It was as if Fluffy Butt made my inner demons sit up and say, 'Yo, Newhome, Scottie's the Antichrist,' " reported the hapless voter. "I know he's my brother-in-law, but I'd rather vote for Hitler."
Now, says Newhome, he fears some other slyly engineered psychological image will attempt to influence his choice of the remaining District 2 candidates. "I'm almost afraid to open Facebook anymore," he said. "But if I didn't, I'd have to do my work, put up my laundry, bathe or interact in person with my loved ones."
He shook his head grimly. "I'm in hell," he said.
Other Dade voters have reported similar sinister effects from a meme referred to by analysts as "What I Had for Lunch."
"The way the coleslaw slops over into the beans makes me simply ache to vote for Lamar Lowery," said Wilde Wood, a north Dade voter. "I can't keep away from the polls. The board of elections employees say I have to wait until early voting starts, though, and they've had me removed twice by sheriff's deputies." She burst into tears. "But I can't help myself."
Other people exposed to the BBQ meme suffer no worse reaction than to observe: "Those beans are out of a can." But the fact that some voters are indifferent to memes that affect others profoundly is par for the course in the election-subverting biz, says I.T. Hacker. "Different schemin's for different inner demons, that's what we say," said Hacker. "It can be confusing, though. What happens when one image makes one person's inner demon do one thing and another's the opposite? And that happens quite often."
For instance, Republicans shown the notorious "It Wasn't a Fart" meme reported their inner demons made them want to go out and find a tax to protest. Democrats said it made theirs fear Donald Trump would start a nuclear war. And several unaffiliated voters' inner demons simply advised them to slip off quietly and have a quick look at their underwear.
Why do the memes work? "Sometimes it's a case of demon see, demon do," said Hacker. "Our inner demons have a deep, irresistible compulsion to copy the actions they see on the computer, tablet or cell phone screen, however insane they might seem.
Demons get sick of living inside boring old us. They want their world to be more like the fascinating world of cyberspace. How else do you explain people eating kale on toast or wrapping raw bacon around meticulously excavated zucchini, just because they saw some insidious video on Facebook?"
Why indeed? The Dammit must note in fairness here that the kale might not be half bad with enough lemon juice and parmesan. But why would a fluffy-butted dog make anyone vote against the incumbent? The Dammit asked Hacker, who replied: "I told you. It's subliminal. They don't call things 'subliminal' if they can be explained. Now, don't you have a Methodist Men's luncheon or something to cover? I got stuff to do."
In any case, the more important question is who to blame. Dade County Clerk Tawn Downson was the first to be arrested, on the grounds, as Sheriff Cray Ross explained, "He's the one in the county government that knows stuff." Downson is suspected of supplying lists of voters likely to be swayed, along with mugshots of their inner demons, to Cambridge Alabamica. He remains in the Dade County jail without bail while the conspiracy is investigated.
Besides the misdemeanor charge of Knowing Stuff, Downson has also been charged with the more serious offense of Colludin', which begs the question: Who was Downson colludin' with?
Neither Sheriff Ross nor The Plaid Dammit can answer that at this time, though both, along with state and federal law enforcement agencies, continue to probe into the tangled web of deception. The memes' messages seem in the main anti-incumbent, leading investigators to suspect individual challengers, but the virulent anti-sales-tax reactions of many Dade residents to an Isn't My Grandchild Precious meme have cast suspicion on TSPLOST protestors.
And Cambridge Alabamica being the same group accused of helping "wet" DeKalb County, Ala., activists to pass a recent Sunday alcohol sales ordinance, Dade institutions and individuals eager to loosen blue laws here have come under the shadow of doubt as well.
A Fort Payne official is also behind bars in the scandal, though that has not made headlines--in Alabama, voters are used to that sort of thing--but another group expected to yield up its share of heads on poles is Facebook itself, for sharing users' profiles with paying clients like Alabamica. FB users have expressed a bitter sense of betrayal.
Take the case of Alicia Sleeveheart, whose last post was: "Back from France early--not having the operation after all! After leaving John for Marilyn, decided to stay a woman after meeting Armand--here's a pic of him naked."
"I'm a very private person," Ms. Sleeveheart told The Plaid Dammit. "When I post on Facebook, I have a reasonable expectation of it going no further. I don't want the whole world knowing my business."
Indeed. As Dade County's prime news source, however, The Plaid Dammit wants everybody to know everything, and will continue pushing toward that goal vis-a-vis this scandal as its ever-vigilant inquiries bear fruit.
Until that devoutly wished-for culmination comes to pass, The Dammit leaves you with this thought:
Happy April Fool's Day!