Book Review: Antisocial – Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, Andrew Marantz

He might be biased but he has a point.

Marantz’s expose from a left-wing perch reads like a gossip feature, but there are some super important things in here.

The internet had a marvelous 20 year run.

It started with everyone getting online in the mid 90s (via AOL discs in cereal boxes, no less). I began listing “surfing the web” as one of my hobbies in the early 2000s because it was active exploration. There was no overarching framework yet, just several million individual websites that you bumped into serendipitously. Content was not being pushed to you: you had to go find it.

This started to change mid 2000s with the three new trends: social media; barrier-free content creation; search engine architecture. Anyone could create content, post it on these new platforms, and have it pushed immediately to everyone online. Aimless web browsing was traded for content that was delivered instantly and verified to be worthy via upvotes and likes.

This system started to get hijacked in the mid 2010s. Addiction, mood disorders, and radicalization start becoming the byproducts of these marvelous system that organized the internet. The 2016 election brought it to a boiling point with extreme political polarization making most of online life a cesspool. What went wrong?

That’s the focus of Anti-Social, a book by New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz, where he uses the rise of the alt-right to discuss what technology is doing to us.

The White Supremacy rally at Charlottesville, VA in 2017 made possible in part because of social media.

[OVERVIEW]

The book chronicles Marantz’s investigation through two different worlds: the newly minted conservative group known as the alt-right; the technocrat CEOs and programmers that built the social media platforms that made it possible.

As told through vignettes, Marantz rubs elbows with a wide variety of people from the nefarious Richard Spencer (an American Neo-Nazi) and multiple online conservative personalities (Mike Cernovich, Gavin Mcinnes, Cassandra Fiarbanks, etc) to the elite of silicon valley including Emerson Spartz (viral media entrepreneur) and Steve Huffman (CEO of Reddit).

The book is an interplay between these two groups. Using the 2016 elections as a backdrop, Marantz investigates how these uncredentialed and unknown conservative voices raised to such popularity by taking advantage of the social media algorithms that silicon valley built on purpose to expand their influence and wealth.

Mike Cernovich, an “alt-light” leader, is a central figure in the book. He rose to fame during the 2016 election by leveraging social media’s emotional levers.

[ANALYSIS]

Even though the implications are heavy, the books reads lightly because it’s presented from Marantz’s POV. The first-person perspective gives an intimate touch to these other-worldly figures in media and tech. This is also the book’s biggest weakness: whenever Marantz shared insight from his elite, liberal, urban viewpoint, I cringed because this is the kind of thing that makes the whole project easy to dismiss.

However, there’s just too much good stuff in here to allow the project to be ignored. While the purpose was to explain the rise of far-right radicalism, this book did much more than that for me. It put into place a lot of things I was seeing online.

Anti-social media icons.

Outrage Is the Currency.

What started as a platform for sharing party photos is now a perpetual emotional antagonizer. Poking and prodding your amygdala, social media wants to turn the dials up on anger and disgust as this leads to longer engagement with the platform. This reshuffling of values has led to some major consequences.

From the standpoint of sheer entrepreneurial competition, what matters is not whether a piece of online content is true or false, responsible or reckless, prosocial or antisocial. All that matters is how many activating emotions it can provoke.

Andrew Marantz, Anti-Social

How do they test to see if something is “outrageous” enough? A simple experiment: A/B testing.

People writing these headlines have the dastardly difficult job of being able to probe the consciousness of millions. To be more successful, content creators distribute multiple different headlines and test them simultaneously. From early engagement numbers, they can then switch the headline to the most successful variant. Thus, they can perfect what’s known as “clickbait” headline writing and get us sucked into their platforms.

Twitter Isn’t Real Life.

Since we no longer have mainstream gatekeepers, what becomes the central conversations in America are what people A/B test successfully. Online “journalists” have mastered this the best. It becomes clearer what this means when Mike Cernovich tests #hashtags to try and boost his conspiratorial coverage.

“#Hillarysmigrants seems to be a popular one,” Cernovich said. It was settled. He clarified the spelling: one word no apostrophe…He searched the hashtag ever few seconds, yielding about a dozen new tweets each time. “It’s hard to tell yet whether this is a killer hashtag or just an OK one”….”Doesn’t look like they are going to let this one trend, for whatever reason.”

Andrew Marantz, Anti-Social

Essentially, Cernovich discusses possible hashtags with a close group of influencers, A/B tests them to find the best one, and then floods the platform with it. Some of them fizzle out (like #hillarysmigrants), but other ones become quite successful and enter the national conversation (like #hillaryshacker).

None of this matters.

What makes this even more bizarre is the high profile of journalists on a platform like twitter. As Marantz explains:

Twitter seemed like a godsend. Finally: a gold standard of Thing-ness. No longer would journalists have to rely on their personal judgement. Instead, Twitter’s algorithm could tell them objectively, drawing on a sample size of millions, what was a trend and what was not.

Andrew Marantz, Anti-Social

The problem with this, which Marantz reflects on in the next paragraph, is that Twitter is NOT an objective accounting of reality but rather a snapshot of engagement which really means emotional manipulation. Trends online are only reflections of successful outrage machinery and not really the true interests of its users.

The end result of this is that the fake, online world begins to influence the real world institutions we count on. #hillaryshacker became popular enough that fringe websites covered it (wikileaks, The Red State), then it was Fox News, and then New York Magainze and Vice.

And the impetus for the silly hashtag? A random post on Reddit by an anonymous user stating they helped Clinton delete her emails.

Remember: it’s about the outrage, not the truth.

Who Are These People?

A thesis nestled within is that you have the Alt-Right, openly racists and openly wanting an ethnostate, followed by an adjacent group of people called the Alt-Light. Members in the Alt-Light believe the same extremist views but instead use what’s called a dog whistle to get their point across. Instead of shouting from the roof top “White is Right,” these are the people who always say “Barack HUSSEIN Obama,” and then get defensive when you ask about the emphasis on the middle name.

Originally, I thought the “dog whistle” claim was too broad of a stroke. Was this another instance of progressive left pushing for cancel culture and silencing speech? No, not always. I need to admit that in my defense of free speech, I have at times been hoodwinked by unfaithful interlocutors. It is absolutely terrifying the small separation between alt-right and accepted right wing influencers.

Take for instance the bizarre rise of Jordan Petereson. A self-help psychologist with a conservative bend, he rose to fame due to his vociferous disgust about a Canadian speech law about trans rights.

“I’m not using the words that other people require me to use. Especially if they’re made up by radical left-wing ideologues.”

Jordan Peterson

This anti-PC, anti-progressive platform does well on social media. He became almost an overnight sensation. This led to a popular podcast and book (12 Rules for Life) which culminated in a one-year trek over the global speaking to packed auditoriums.

Alt-right, Alt-light, conservative, and right of center get blurred in this online atmosphere.

Given the difficult year I experienced, I listened to much of Peterson’s material and found it uplifting. His self-help stuff is innocuous and the way he frames certain topics cuts right to the bone of the problem. When he did his ranting and raving over “the neo-marxist post-modern academics,” I would mostly tune out.

I had just finished reading this book and all the names of these people were readily on my consciousness when I saw that Peterson’s daughter released a podcast with Lauren Southern. Wait, What? The same Lauren Southern who believes in a white ethnostate?

#AltRightMeans I don’t have to be ashamed of my heritage.

Lauren Southern, Twitter

Then with a little digging, I saw that Peterson supported her little grift of going to a clinic and convincing a physician to write a prescription that she was a man. She was very supportive of Peterson’s fight against the “radical left” so there is a little back and forth appreciation. Then, I saw Southern was on Dave Rubin, another one of these people that toes the line between conservatism and extremism.

“Even the Richard Spencers of the world. They are misrepresented. Richard Spencer is not a white supremacist, he is a white nationalist.

Lauren Southern, Dave Rubin Report

What does Rubin do as she tries to make out Richard Spencer to be just misunderstood? He lobs soft-ball questions about the excesses of the left and how White Supremacy is a non-issue as he allows someone right in front of him to further white ethno-state propaganda. It’s unreal!

This makes it all very difficulty to figure out what is happening online. As someone with a diverse media diet, I tend to look at a lot of different sources. This in principle sounds good (open minded! engaging with all sides!). However, if what I’m engaging with is junk (like #hillaryshacker), then I’m not doing my self a service.

[CONCLUSION]

A person on the left should be able to talk about the extremism on the right without being accused of political hackery. What Marantz uncovers here is important for us to know and understand.

My Rating: star-1star-1star-1star-1

Other People’s Takes:

  • AIWA! NO!: “By telling the story of the people who hijacked the American conversation, Antisocial will help you understand the world they have created, in which we all now live.”
  • P. Colman: “Marantz brings a good deal of wry humour to his story but in the end the book is a depressing picture of rancid extremism becoming normal, of distortion of the truth becoming acceptable and unsurprising, of a vicious buffoon with no moral centre ruling the globe’s most powerful nation with the assistance of those amoral right-wingers.
  • It’s Lit: “Andrew Marantz really gave me a lot of conflicting feelings. Who is right? How can we adequately starve the trolls? Does the end justify the memes (haha, a pun you will get later)?

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