10/13/13 Disturbing News as EBT Cards Fail to Work

While watching Ole Miss lose in the most admirable way to Texas A&M, nearly neutralizing the athletic prowess of Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny “Football” Manziel, only to lose by a field goal in the final four seconds of the game, I was met with disturbing news. EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards had stopped working across several states, leading many to Tweet about riots and disturbances. It seems that hundreds of EBT beneficiaries believed the failure of EBT cards to work was caused by the government shutdown stalemate in Washington. I saw some Facebook posts about “things getting real bad.” I even saw one from a lady I know personally, an employee of a local dollar store, asking for prayers because of the ugly turn of events she seemed to be witnessing in her own store. The Tweets I read were very disturbing, they were very alarmist, and many of them were very racist and bigoted from every spectrum of racism and bigotry, from which no ethnicity of people are immune.

The racism displayed in the initial Tweets I saw were those directed by African-Americans towards whites. Many of them seemed to think the EBT cards of white people were still working while their own EBT cards were not. I suspected then that they were seeing working ATM/Debit cards, not working EBT cards, but I can’t be certain; I can only speculate. What I don’t have to speculate is that many people were using social media to report riots, or near-riots, or reporting the reports of riots that had been reported by others. I also don’t have to speculate that trolls were Tweeting things that were read and believed by others, which were then re-Tweeted as eye-witness accounts.

The next wave of racism in social media posts were from those directed by whites towards African-Americans. It was all nasty business, and little of it legitimate, as those trollish posts were re-posted, edited, embellished, and further re-posted as personal recollections. While some of them may well have been actual eyewitness accounts, it is hard to tell the legitimate ones from those of the trolls or the fear-mongers.

In this age of instant communications, searching the internet for the truth was no help. Google turned up thousands of hits, many with dates from last year, and many with dates from yesterday, which turned out to be posts made yesterday which referenced the posts from last year. One can easily get confused, and I am not saying that I am not confused and offering clarity…I can only offer the observations of one who was vicariously attending a football game at the time, not personally witnessing any near-riots at the local dollar store, nor any riot prevention lock-downs at the local Wal-Mart.

I am not prone to conspiracy theories, but those who are were quickly at work reporting as fact what seems to have been part of a novel published early last year, which has as its plot government control by electronic fiscal manipulation. A short-story version of that novel was published on the internet last November by author Matt Bracken. I read the story when I saw a link to it a few months ago. It was compelling, plausible and interesting reading, like a well-crafted Tom Clancy or Dan Brown novel. Just like them, it was also fiction. As plausible as the scenarios presented by Bracken are, they are still fiction. To have someone who does not know the difference between fact and fiction, and make a report from the fiction, through which others were duped into thinking the postings from the fiction were actual accounts of real events, is an inexcusably poor platform on which to base one’s actions.

However poor this may be, Tweets were re-Tweeted, then re-re-Tweeted, some with embellishments. The embellishments were picked up by the original Tweeters, then again re-tweeted. The entire thing fed on itself.

As I Googled some more, passing by as many posts in the blogosphere as I could, hunting for what seemed to be a legitimate news source, which was no guarantee of the truth, only the hopeful promise that something posted there had at least been initially vetted by someone in a position of authority (but after looking at some of the typos and grammar, I decided that no editor had looked at any of these, either), I was able to glean that a Xerox Corporation subsidiary has a government contract for the administration of EBT transactions in several states. Apparently, through one or more of the following things, the system went down for several hours: a failed test of back-up procedures, a program upgrade, and/or a power outage and failure of UPS systems. You can also perhaps throw in the general incompetence of the IT personnel at the company for good measure. All are plausible, and any of them likely, as they are all part of the occasional problems one encounters with computer systems and their operation. This is apparently not the first time the system has gone off-line and failed to work. It is unlikely it will be the last. It is every bit as similar as when I am informed by a clerk that my debit card is not working because the system is off-line, or a sign posted on an ATM machine that says, “Out of Order.” We have all seen this. We have not all, however, been EBT card users who saw this during a government shutdown, which seemed to be the source of the greatest part of the controversy. A contributing factor could have been that when EBT cardholders went to the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP benefits website, they were greeted with the notice that the site was off-line due to the government shutdown. It is not a far leap to assume that one’s EBT card is also not working because of the government shutdown.

The conspiracy-theorists were not content with any plausible reported explanation. They immediately began to post about about government created false-flag operations, about how this was the administration’s way of showing the Republicans on Capitol Hill that they better not mess around anymore with this government shut-down thing, because riots were as close as an errant, or intentional, mouse click. While I admit of my share of cynicism, even I am not that cynical . . . or paranoid.

That trolls, or the misguided, or people actually so ill-prepared that they would Tweet about starvation, hunger, and the denial to them of food for their families is reprehensible. The idea that anyone is so ill-prepared in America that they have not so much as a six pack of Ramen noodles (which costs about a dollar) in their cupboard is completely foreign to me. That someone would Tweet about starvation and hungry children because food was not immediately available for purchase right this instant is also reprehensible. That someone would Tweet about hungry men being readily willing to kill for food is beyond reprehensible in this case. Of course, hungry men will kill for food, but a food delay of a few hours, or even a day, is a bit quick to start entertaining such an idea, don’t you think?

I’m sure there are those who will advise me that because I am not poor, I do not understand that people are hungry and in immediate peril. I would reply that, no, I don’t understand. I will reiterate that a six pack of Ramen noodles costs about a dollar. While Ramen noodles are no way to live one’s nutritional life, they will sure keep you from starving, at least for a day or two. A couple of five pound bags of corn meal wouldn’t hurt either, or cost very much. Maybe a pack or two of powered milk, or a couple of cans of evaporated milk. If one has an empty belly, these will go a long way to seeing that a belly is filled until something better comes along. If nothing else comes along, we would all have some very fond memories of Ramen noodles, corn meal, and powered milk.

I did discover some horrible websites. Some of them were so racist as to be unmentionable here, and their very existence proves that racism, prejudice, and bigotry know no bounds and have no limitations.

I was born into a culture of segregation and racism. It was an ugly one, but things are better now, though a long way from perfect. As I have said on this blog before, if I denied the existence of these tendencies, or that they exist in me, no one would believe me. That racism still exists in Mississippi is undeniable, and Mississippians, white and black, don’t deny it. We strive to govern our behavior so that our shortcomings don’t rule us, so that we don’t abandon ourselves to things we know are not right. Nearly all of us strive to treat each other as we would like to be treated. Not everyone has that as their goal, but most of us do, and we try to avoid those that don’t. We mostly gave up, long ago, on the idea that one can educate them. A hard heart can’t be educated if its owner does not recognize its hardness to begin with. There is no room in a hardened heart for anything other than what has been hammered into place by its owner; no one else can make a dent in it.

Is Mississippi the only place that racism exists? I kind of doubt it, since it is extremely unlikely that the bad websites I saw, or the bad Tweets I read, all originated from Mississippi. They seem to come from all over the country, many of them from places not even affected by the EBT snafu but anxious to exploit it, and some of them seemed to come from out of nowhere.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, all those bad tweets and websites do originate in one place . . . from one bad heart that is intent on causing as much trouble as possible. But we are not that lucky. There are plenty of bad hearts out there, empty of everything but suspicion, envy, paranoia, and covetousness.

How I wish that were not true.

Update: 10/14/13 – The only reporting than mentioned anything similar to a riot is in the following link, from the Jackson, Mississippi, CLARION LEDGER:

http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20131013/NEWS/131013001/Walmart-customers-riot-when-unable-use-EBT-cards  This was picked up by the Clarion Ledger from AP and USA Today sources. The rest of the “news” comes from speculations from the blogosphere, and seems to be based primarily on the Tweets of irresponsible persons.

2nd Update: 10/14/13 – This link

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/3078549/posts quotes a news story from TV Station KSLA in Shreveport, which indicates that there were disturbances at Wal-Marts in Mansfield and Springhill, Louisiana, where EBT cards were not showing available balances or limits. Apparently the news traveled so fast that the Wal-Marts were overwhelmed with customers on a no-limit shopping binge. Though still a disturbance, this is exactly the opposite of what was reported in other places. Instead of EBT cards not working, we have reported instances of them working without any limitations, and the alleged attempts of many to obtain merchandise through fraudulent means.

3rd Update: 10/14/13 – The capability of instantaneously reporting erroneous information by social media, its ability to incite disturbances, the ability of sensational social media posts to overwhelm any cool voice of reason, and the size of any mob these can generate are all dangerous precedents. Much information is being reported on this incident, even now, and most of it seems a rehash of things already reported, very little of which has been vetted in any manner. The blogosphere is a place of extremes and fringes. It is difficult to find blogs of current events that represent calmness and reason. The extreme sites are everywhere.

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