Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation
By Andrew Marantz
During the postWorld War II era, anti-democratic extremist movements faded into political irrelevance in the Western democracies. Nazis became a subject for comedies and historical movies, communists ceased to inspire either fear or hope, and while some violent groups emerged on the fringes, they were no electoral threat. The mass media effectively quarantined extremists on both the right and the left. As long as broadcasters and the major newspapers and magazines regulated who could speak to the general public, a liberal government could maintain near-absolute free-speech rights without much to worry about. The practical reality was that extremists could reach only a limited audience, and that through their own outlets. They also had an incentive to moderate their views to gain entre into mainstream channels.
In the United States, both the conservative media and the Republican Party helped keep a lid on right-wing extremism from the end of the McCarthy era in the 1950s to the early 2000s. Through his magazine National Review, the editor, columnist, and TV host William F. Buckley set limits on respectable conservatism, consigning kooks, anti-Semites, and outright racists to the outer darkness. The Republican leadership observed the same political norms, while the liberal press and the Democratic Party denied a platform to the fringe left.
Those old norms and boundary-setting practices have now broken down on the right. No single source accounts for the surge in right-wing extremism in the United States or Europe. Rising numbers of immigrants and other minorities have triggered a panic among many native-born whites about lost dominance. Some men have reacted angrily against womens equality, while shrinking industrial employment and widening income inequality have hit less-educated workers particularly hard.
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As these pressures have increased, the internet and social media have opened up new channels for previously marginalized forms of expression. Opening up new channels was exactly the hope of the internets championsat least, it was a hope when they envisioned only benign effects. The rise of right-wing extremism together with online media now suggests the two are connected, but it is an open question as to whether the change in media is a primary cause of the political shift or just a historical coincidence.
The relationship between right-wing extremism and online media is at the heart of Antisocial, Andrew Marantzs new book about what he calls the hijacking of the American conversation. A reporter for The New Yorker, Marantz began delving into two worlds in 2014 and 2015. He followed the online world of neofascists, attended events they organized, and interviewed those who were willing to talk with him. Meanwhile, he also reported on the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley whose companies were simultaneously undermining professional journalism and providing a platform for the circulation of conspiracy theories, disinformation, hate speech, and nihilism. The online extremists, Marantz argues, have brought about a shift in Americans moral vocabulary, a term he borrows from the philosopher Richard Rorty. To change how we talk is to change who we are, Marantz writes, summing up the thesis of his book.
Antisocial weaves back and forth between the netherworld of the right and the dreamworld of the techno-utopians in the years leading up to and immediately following the 2016 U.S. election. The strongest chapters profile the demi-celebrities of the alt-right. As a Jewish reporter from a liberal magazine, Marantz is not an obvious candidate to gain the confidence of neofascists. But he has an impressive talent for drawing them out, and his portraits attend to the complexities of their life stories and the nuances of their opinions. Marantz leaves no doubt, however, about his own view of the alt-right and the responsibilities of journalists: The plain fact was the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars. If a newspapers house style didnt allow its reporters to say so, at least by implication, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.
As Marantz describes them, the white nationalists, masculinists, and other elements of the alt-right were metamedia insurgents interested chiefly in catalyzing conflict. They took for granted that the old institutions ought to be burned to the ground, and they used the tools at their disposalnew media, especially social mediato light as many matches as possible. As they expanded their online presence, they tailored their memes to the medium. On Facebook, they posted countersignal memes to shock normies out of their complacency. On Twitter, they trolled mainstream journalists, hoping to capture wider attention. On sites such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, they felt free to be more overtly vile and started calling themselves fashy or fash-ist, sometimes baiting normies by claiming that Hitler did nothing wrong.
In the old world of mass media, extremists had an incentive to temper their views to gain access to the mainstream, but now the incentives have been reversed.
The online alt-right, together with the presidential candidate they decided to champion, Donald Trump, played a key role in making white nationalist ideas part of the national conversation. Until 2016, the two major parties and national media reflected a broad consensusat least in rhetoric, if not in actual policythat America was a nation where immigrants were welcome and people of all races and religions were equal. When Republicans played the race card, they did so obliquely in deference to the consensus. Under George W. Bush, the Republican establishment was still pushing immigration reform, while the party was increasingly in opposition to legislation and succeeded in blocking it.
But a few on the far right called for Republicans to go further. They assailed the Narrative, their term for the dominant liberal ideas about racial and gender equality. Marantz highlights the role of Steve Sailer, an opinion writer who had been arguing since the early 2000s that Republicans should openly cast themselves as a white-identity party, enact pro-white policies, and take aggressive action against immigration, including the repeal of birthright citizenship. Others on the right called this the Sailer strategy. Social media gave Sailer and like-minded hereticsmany of whom Buckley had banished to the fringes of the movement years earliernew ways of disseminating their views that were more powerful than what was appearing in a print magazine like National Review.
Much of Marantzs story describes how more traditional right-wingers moved further right and brought others along with them. In 2012, a group that had previously supported the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul started a blog called The Right Stuff, describing themselves as post-libertarian before adopting the term alt-right. As a result of the rising numbers of immigrants, they argued, libertarianism wouldnt be enough to stop the replacement of whites; stronger measures were necessary. The Right Stuffs arch, antic, floridly offensive tone, Marantz writes, attracted a growing cohort of disaffected young men who often referred to the blog as a key part of a libertarian-to-far-right pipeline, a path by which normies could advance, through a series of epiphanies, toward full radicalization.
Some of these right-wingers went all the way to out-and-proud fascism. Richard Spencer, who coined the term alternative right in 2008, advocated the creation of a white ethnostate on the North American continent, to be achieved through peaceful ethnic cleansing. At an alt-right conference just after Trumps election, Spencer declared, Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory. This last phrase, the literal translation of Sieg heil, led some members of the audience to rise with Nazi salutes. When the leaders of a movement call for peaceful ethnic cleansing, it ought not to be surprising that one of their followers decides to do it the old-fashioned way. In October 2018, just before killing 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the murderer posted a cartoon on a right-wing social media site with the caption The libertarian-to-far-right pipeline is a real thing.
Before he became Trumps campaign strategist, Steve Bannon, publisher of the web tabloid Breitbart News, said of his own site, Were the platform for the alt-right. Later, though, the association became toxic, and Bannon and others who were anxious about the company they were keeping then relabeled their position as civic nationalism rather than ethnonationalism. In the United States, however, civic nationalism has long been associated with the liberal, pluralist view that embraces ethnic diversity and immigration and insists that American citizenship and identity demand only adherence to the nations civic principles. Bannon and others in his circle were trying to appropriate the term for a movement that sought to reverse immigration and citizenship policies that have treated nonwhites as equals.
The normalization of white nationalism on the right and the growth of online media helped prepare the way for Trumps election. With his disregard for the truth and incendiary use of social media both as a candidate and as president, Trump has been the pivotal and emblematic figure in this political transformation. Repeatedly over the previous decades, as far back as 1987, he failed to get any traction when he floated the idea of running for president. The mainstream news media did not take him seriously, and his views and even his party affiliation werent clear. In 1999, he mentioned Oprah Winfrey as a possible running mate when he suggested he might run for president the next year.
In 2011, Trump again tried to stir up support for a presidential campaign, but as Marantz points out, he initially had nothing to command peoples attentionno news hook, no controversy, no meme with momentum. Then he turned to two far-right figures, Joseph Farah and Jerome Corsi from World Net Daily, a right-wing online site that had played a central role in promoting the lie that Obama came from Kenya and his Hawaiian birth certificate was a forgery. Seizing on the myth about Obamas birth, Trump generated the political attention he had always craved, though once again he decided against a presidential run. But Marantz is right that the episode had an obvious lesson: the more incendiary your message, and the more loudly and forcefully you repeated it, the more attention you could get.
Marantzs view of the online media revolves around this central point: Messages that pack a high emotional punch go viral, while low-arousal messages do not. The viral power of emotionally arousing messages is clearly part of the explanation for why extremism has flourished online at a historical moment when native-born whites, particularly men, have felt they are losing control. In the old world of mass media, extremists had an incentive to temper their views to gain access to the mainstream, but now the incentives have been reversed. High-voltage lies flourish in the environment created by social media. Not only are there no editorial gatekeepers; the platforms algorithms have amplified messages that generate user engagement, which high-arousal racist lies unquestionably do.
Whats missing from Marantzs account, however, is the critical role of Fox, Breitbart, and other major right-wing media organizations that have developed over the past quarter-century. The new mass media of the right and social media work in tandem. Social media were supposed to create wider public participation, and for better or worse thats what we have on the right: a system of participatory propaganda (as some analysts have begun to call it), involving both media with large audiences and legions of lesser influencers.
When the major social media companies began in the early 2000s, their founders did not see themselves as having any responsibility for the content on their sites. The culture of the tech industry has long had an affinity for libertarian ideas that provide a ready justification for a hands-off policy. An absolutist view of free speech has also been economically advantageous for the companies because it relieves them of any obligation to hire the employees that would be needed to monitor all the content users post.
But since 2016, the revelations about the complicity of the tech industry in spreading disinformation have forced the platforms to make adjustments. Reddit serves as Marantzs chief case study in the techno-utopians retreat from free-speech absolutism. Founded in 2005, the company hosts forums (subreddits) for virtually unlimited and unrestrained posting of opinions, images, and other content. According to one of its founders, Steve Huffman, the site was built around the principle of No editors. The people are the editors. In its early days, it sold T-shirts with the slogan Freedom from the press.
When Marantz visited its offices in San Francisco in October 2017, Reddit had a million subreddits and was the fourth-highest-traffic site in the United States after Google, Facebook, and YouTube. Huffman, now the ceo, had become alarmed about the presence of neofascist activists on the site. Just a few weeks earlier, white supremacists had marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After some deliberation, Reddit slightly modified its existing policy against encouraging or inciting violence, adding language enjoining participants not to glorify or call for physical harm against an individual or a group of people or the abuse of animals. Marantz was invited to observe a group of Reddit employees as they sat around a table eating snacks and making decisions about which subreddits to ban109 of them that day, such as r/KillAllJews and r/KilltheJews as well as r/SexWithDogs. But the scene Marantz describes only raises more questions: How were those subreddits accepted in the first place? What others with equally noxious content survived because they had less explicit names? Is it even possible for a company with a million forums to exercise responsible control?
Social media companies have created new and powerful means of political communication without the traditions of editorial responsibility that in liberal democracies have helped make the media into partners of democracy. The companies have now taken some steps to limit the damage they have been doing. Facebook has taken down billions of fake accounts and recently adopted measures against coordinated inauthentic behavior to counteract disinformation campaigns by both domestic sources and foreign governments. But it has also declined to block lies in political advertising.
The techno-utopians promised disruption, and they have delivered it. What they havent delivered is the ability to prevent that disruption from undermining liberal democratic institutions. The online media havent produced the right-wing surge all by themselves, and Marantzs book doesnt persuade me that the online right-wing extremists have changed who Americans are by changing how we talk. But the changes in media and politics have shown us something about what the United States can become. Fascism is a real and present danger in America. Everything we do now politically has to take that into account.
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