Andrew Marantz’s “Antisocial” Shines a Spotlight on the Darkest Corners of the Internet
Written by Olivia Cerza on October 15, 2019
For several years, New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz has been embedded in two worlds: The world of social-media entrepreneurs, and the world of the people he calls the gate-crashers.
In “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” Marantz weaves these two worlds together to create a sweeping, unsettling portrait of today’s America — both online and in real life.
Check out our interview with the author, who shares his findings while observing the inner workings of the online world, as well as what we can expect ahead of the 2020 election.
What piqued your interest in this online world?
I didn’t want to just go out masochistically and spend three years with the worst people I could find. I have a perfectly nice family that I would rather be spending time with. I also didn’t want to just go and diagnose where all the bad people are because I think it’s pretty easy for us to see where the bad people are. What I was after was something a little bit more detailed and textured and descriptive. It’s not a 400 page screed saying that the internet is bad and here’s why. Instead, it’s a descriptive narrative of people that are sometimes frankly, darkly comedic and pathetic, sometimes mediocre, sometimes really demonic and successful at what they do. Basically, I was seeing that, leading up to the 2016 election and before that, the internet was destroying our society in many ways. And I wanted to go to the source and talk to people who were doing that for a living, professionally pumping out toxic memes and misinformation and bigotry, and see if I could just watch them do it and sit over their shoulder as they did. And surprisingly, a lot of them said yes. So I didn’t want to just diagnose that they were bad. I knew that they were bad going in. I felt that there was more to the story than just accurately saying, “these are bad people.” I wanted to see how they were doing it and and frankly, I just think we can’t inoculate ourselves against this stuff unless we understand it at a narrative level. I didn’t want to excuse it, but I did want to understand it in order to make sure we can combat it.
The internet seems like an eight sided sword. For all of the event pages and family reunions that it has facilitated, it also makes it very easy for hateful folks to also find like-minded people. In “Antisocial,” you mention a litany of hate groups that thrive on the internet. Is there a commonality between those groups that seems sound?
Extremism of all kinds, as you point out, the internet disproportionately amplifies that stuff. I definitely am not blind to all the good that the internet has caused, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. So it’s not like these platforms can’t go in multiple directions. But when you have a really shocking view that should cause spikes of emotions and outrage in any right thinking normal person, that thought is well equipped to become successful on the internet. I talked a lot with Richard Dawkins, who invented the concept of the meme, he’s an evolutionary biologist. He said what a lot of us have said, that at first these things aren’t really that threatening. But now we know that memes can have enormous effects on who gets elected president who goes to war with whom, whether we can solve climate change or not. These are all interconnected things. The more that the internet eats up of our society, media, entertainment, our everything, the more we can’t look away as this stuff is happening. One thing extremists have in common is that they are playing with our emotional architecture like a fiddle. They know which buttons to push. Whether we respond with hate clicks or like clicks or neutral clicks, it’s all engagement. And and these platforms run on the fuel of engagement. So they have figured out how to hijack their way into our attention whether we like it or not.
Before reading your work, I’d never heard the term “techno-utopians” before. What does it all mean? Who are these folks and what went wrong with their vision that people were able to exploit?
Essentially the term describes people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs, or reddit founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. I spent time especially with the Reddit guys. I really tried to deconstruct their vision of the website. Again, not just to criticize it, I think it’s become very fashionable to criticize it, but to really understand the effects it has on the world we live in now. So when they started these companies in the early 2000s, they thought they were being disruptive in the best sense, they thought they were going to move fast and break things. It wasn’t pure greed. I mean, greed was definitely part of it. But there was a certain amount of idealism to it, that they would move the arc of history. They thought it would just naturally turn in the right direction. What we discount a lot of times, both in techno entrepreneurship but also just in our daily lives, is that we’re going to keep marching, inevitably toward progress and union. But the arc of history goes where people want it to go and it’s made up of thousands of individual human decisions. It’s not that people are inherently good or inherently evil, it’s the way we bend it. By giving power to everyone to anonymously push whatever propaganda or ideology or facts or disinformation they want to, they set the conditions for the breakdown of our culture without realizing it. And they were so utopian in their vision and faith that these things would just work themselves out in the marketplace of ideas, that they didn’t set up any safeguards to keep it from going haywire.
I love the idea that these billionaires started off with somewhat wholesome intentions. The thing that happened is that they made a bunch of money and now the whole landscape has been changed, depending on your point of view, for better for worse.
Absolutely, I think both for better and for worse, and they’re so still deeply embedded in our ideology that even as challenged as it is, and even as laughable as some of their ideology and idealism now seem, they’re still kind of stuck there. Techno-Utopians still think that on the whole, we might have hit a few bumps in the road, like a few fascists in office or a few nuclear wars, but on the whole, what we’re doing is good. I don’t really see the evidence for that. We’ve looked away from the bad for so long, because it’s scary, and it’s hard to talk about. While I totally get why people are scared to think about it, I try to also see how it can be darkly funny at times. Some of this stuff is just so absurd and so weird and vivid. I went to the White House briefing room with the guy who wrote for a propaganda site that was saying things like “Hillary Clinton has gum disease and she’ll be dead in two months.” Trump gave that guy press credentials and suddenly I’m on a mega bus with him to DC, watching him as he goes into the White House Press Corps.
We are very close yet infinitesimally far away from the 2020 election. We’re learning more and more about outside online influence towards our federal elections. How do you think this is going to play out in 2020?
We absolutely have to keep an eye on these things. A couple of really obvious loopholes have been closed, but most of the loopholes have not been. I see no reason to think that we won’t just see a repeat of what we saw in 2016. I should hasten to add that a lot of this stuff is shadowy disinformation campaigns that happen under cloak Putin’s government or things that might be really hard for us to get a handle on. I think that stuff is important, and I’m glad that journalists are talking about it, but the stuff I was following is in plain view. I would call someone and say, can I sit in your living room and watch how you get a hashtag trending and end up on Hannity tonight? I would sit and watch them do it again and again. This is stuff I saw with my own eyes. What they did wasn’t against the law, it wasn’t even against the rules of Twitter or Facebook, they were just able to do it because there’s essentially a power vacuum here that they’re exploiting.So I would urge people to, yes, pay attention to the stuff that foreign actors are doing, but also pay attention to the stuff that your fellow Americans are doing, because they’re not even hiding their hand.
Are there any trends that we lay people should be keeping an eye on and and making sure that we don’t fall prey to?
Absolutely. I think it’s very easy to throw up your hands thinking that the internet is such garbage. But if you log off, it doesn’t prevent the rest of the world from being influenced by what’s happening online. It doesn’t prevent the next president from being elected on the basis of what happens online or our climate policy stalling out because people are radicalized on that point. You can’t just look away from this stuff. I didn’t want to spend three years wading through these swamps, but I did it because the first step for all well meaning, right thinking people is to really look square in the face at what’s happening. My epigraph for the book is James Baldwin explaining how not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. We have to face this stuff. And a lot of what what facing it means is not just getting angry and playing into the rage bait that the trolls want, but actually understanding what they’re doing at a deeper level and understanding who they are and what they want so that you can actually figure out a way to combat it. Some of this stuff is actually as scary as it seems. Other parts of it are kind of just pathetic and weird. But unless you seriously put in the time, you can’t really be sure which is which. So I think understanding is the first step. After you understand that, you behave differently. As a citizen of the internet, I’ve had multiple friends say that once they actually looked at this stuff, they didn’t behave the same way, they didn’t click on the same things, and they didn’t have the same reactions. It just changes who you are. It’s kind of like how once you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen, you don’t order the same way again, and it changes your behavior once you know what’s going on.
Listen to the full interview below:
Andrew Marantz will be in Chicago discussing “Anitsocial” November 6th, 2019.
More info about the author and his book tour can be found on his website.
Interview edited for length and clarity by Olivia Cerza