Life is tough right now for Americans, and social media and politics are no small part of that difficulty. The COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 presidential election would have been frustrating even without the avalanche of misinformation surrounding both of them. If you’re as exhausted by fake news and misleading social media posts as I am, read on.
I was recently assigned a book for class, and I finished it in one day; I can’t tell you the last time I did that. Andrew Marantz, a staff writer for The New Yorker, published Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation in 2019. Its relevance has only grown since its release. The book explores the rise of the alt-right and misinformation in the age of the internet. Marantz spent a lot of time with vocal members of the alt-right as research, bringing an unrivaled credibility to his analysis.
Using the abundance of information he accumulated over years of reporting, Marantz explains the rise of extremism, pinning significant blame on Silicon Valley entrepreneurs for dismissing the gatekeepers of information. He argues that tech industry leaders like Mark Zuckerberg did not innovate responsibly and that they failed to consider potential harms that their new platforms could cause while painting a utopian picture of social media as a tool to change society for the better. Marantz also criticizes the reluctance of Silicon Valley to claim responsibility, as well as their libertarian-esque insistence on protecting all speech as free speech.
Marantz then explains how social media’s algorithms have actually encouraged users to share absurd claims; many of the extremists he met were more concerned with how their content was being received than what they had actually said. In pursuit of attention and clicks, internet trolls pushed the boundaries of free speech as far as they could.
According to Marantz, we must rethink how we apply freedom of speech. Marantz explains that it is possible to regulate speech without infringing on civil liberties.
“The Constitution guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech,” he wrote. “It does not guarantee anyone’s right to threaten strangers in the public square, or to shout obscenities on TV, or to use a social media platform to agitate for the physical removal of your fellow citizens, or to promote racist ideas without being made to feel like a racist.”
Marantz views a narrower interpretation of freedom of speech as necessary, and he argues that this change will not be spontaneous. Throughout the book, he refers to the “arc of history” and refutes the idea that this arc will bend without pressure from citizens.
Overall, I found Antisocial to be a very compelling and thorough account of how Silicon Valley executives, online conspiracy theorists and the first amendment intersect. I found the author’s style very effective, with a healthy balance of opinionated commentary and high-quality reporting. Marantz did not attempt to label his subjects as fools, but rather let them speak for themselves; good journalists know that it’s better to show than tell.
Imagery and descriptive details constructed vivid scenes and an engaging narrative, and one description actually made me laugh out loud: “An aspiring pop star, who looked like a member of One Direction crossed with an apricot pug, performed his one viral hit, an Auto-Tune-heavy whine-rap anthem called ‘Trumpified.’”
This book is an incredible collection of sources — it would be hard for anyone to rival his cast of characters, from now has-been Milo Yiannopoulos to rising InfoWars star Laura Loomer. I have immense respect for the bravery of Marantz; I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to enter hostile spaces and interview neo-Nazis, like Richard Spencer, as a Jewish reporter.
Interestingly, in a TED Talk, Marantz expressed surprise and a little disappointment that few of the professional anti-Semites he spoke with could even tell he was Jewish. He’s a millennial from Brooklyn, and a case study for a stereotype right-wingers recently coined as an insult: soy boy. Milo Yiannopoulos, whom Marantz dined with, defines these people in the book as “geeky, bespectacled New York journalists who drink soy milk.”
Marantz offers a very strong but fair characterization of what’s wrong with “white pride,” framed in a way that most Americans could understand. He is able to take issues many see as black and white, identify nuances and communicate them effectively. I intend to keep this passage on hand for future debates I may find myself in:
“The bigoted propagandists of the alt-right are wrong about almost everything, but they are correct about this much: the United States of America was founded by white men, for white men. The problem with the bigots is not that they acknowledge this aspect of the country’s history; the problem is that they cling to it, doing their utmost to revive the horrors of the past, instead of taking up the more difficult task of piecing together the future.”
I have relatively few criticisms of Antisocial. Although Marantz actually refutes the notion that journalists should not take sides, his somewhat cautious reverence for the long-gone glory days of the American press certainly reveals his personal affection for journalism and bias as a member of establishment media.
If I were to offer feedback to Marantz, I would suggest a deeper analysis of the role everyday Americans play in the rise of online extremism and disinformation. There are many who began accepting these fringe ideas but are still pretty normal; they don’t believe in a white ethnostate, but promote conspiracy theories against George Soros and others online. Marantz does not discuss these agents in their own right but simply as clicks and retweets. Consider the question: “Are gullible people on Facebook merely victims?” I would argue they deserve at least some blame. After all, these Americans are using their own free speech to spread disinformation, even if unintentionally.
The book raises many questions about 2020. Is QAnon just another platform in the model of other extremist forums? What would Marantz say about all of the conspiracy theorists and alt-right candidates on ballots this year? What about all of the people who vehemently rejected that America was founded by and for white men or denied the existence of racism in any form?
If you’re looking for a gift for a friend outraged by the state of American politics, or for your grandma who won’t stop sharing conspiracy theories on Facebook, then look no further than Marantz’s Antisocial. This book provides valuable insight on the rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories while also being highly entertaining. Learning and fun — who would have thought?