Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Techno-Utopians: Free speech for everyone!
Crazy Uncles: Let me tell you about the JQ!
Antisocial is an expansion of a series of articles Andrew Marantz wrote for the New Yorker covering the rise of social media as a news source and the right-wing extremists who used it to shift the Overton window. Marantz attempts to discuss some of the history, science, and psychology related to the way we process our news, and how that feeds into the social media experience. This, in turn, is used to show how the extremists have been able to successfully leverage social media to change the social landscape.
As I write this review, there are protests occurring across the USA in response to police violence against minorities. The police, in turn, have become violent in response to the protests, with footage of rampant assaults, documented lies, and targeting of anyone (particular the media) filming them in action. In response to this, some of the people mentioned in the book have organised their extremists to try and make the protesters look bad, with looting, provocation, and violence.
So this was a timely read. Much of the content wasn’t necessarily new to me, as I’ve read around this subject for a while now, but there were still plenty of insights to be had. This was much more in-the-trenches than other books and articles on the right-wing extremists (alt-lite, alt-right, etc), as such you see much more of the central figures. When you see videos from McInnes or Cernovich or the like, they are performing for their audience/followers, you get a much better idea of who they are when the camera is off. This makes some of the players seem reasonably relatable if still “deplorable”, like Cernovich, while others you see them as even worse than first thought, like Spencer.
There was something I noticed about everyone covered in this book. They reminded me of 14-year-olds. The guys were engaged in what amounted to oafish attention-seeking with all the intellectual sophistication of hammers. The women were doing the less macho version of attention-seeking. Yet these were predominantly people in their 30s. The behaviour they should have grown out of, particularly the trolling/bullying, had become amplified by their uniformed and racist politics.
I think the worst part of this isn’t that these people have managed to infiltrate the mainstream with their lazy politics and anti-intellectualism,* but that the social media platforms were quite happy to make money promoting them. The social media giants are presented in the book as naive and heavily pro-free speech, but I think that is too kind. To use an example, Facebook would censor any depiction of female nudity without prompting, but wouldn’t censor blatant bigotry (racism, sexism, etc) even with piles of complaints. As long as threats were veiled enough, they were fine as well. And the outrage would drive engagement and traffic, which made Facebook money, so they didn’t address the ten-tonne elephant in the room.
As I finished Antisocial, I listened to an interesting podcast called It Could Happen Here. The series is from 2019 and looks at how (primarily right-wing) extremists could set off a second civil war in the USA. Many of the points raised in the book were also mentioned in the podcast, so I recommend giving it a listen. And as I mentioned above, it’s rather timely given the protests happening at the time I’m writing this.
Worth reading if you want to know more about why you can’t have a civil conversation anymore.
* A point I should make here is that I’ve noticed some of these people have some very good points. They are anti-establishment for good reason, the establishment is for the rich and powerful, not them. Of course, they take this insight in the wrong direction. One quote really stuck out from Cernovich when he criticised the warmongering that the various politicians push for and establishment media debate, both safe in the comfort of knowing them and their families won’t be the ones dying in combat. But again, they take that insight in the wrong direction, with political positions that are essentially pro-conflict and war.