Down the Alt-Right Rabbit Hole

Social Media Hearing

Alex Jones attends a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing where Jack Dorsey, left, Twitter CEO, and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, were testifying on the influence of foreign operations on social media, 2018. (AP / CQ Roll Call / Tom Williams)

Amid a surge in white supremacist violence and far-right ideology, a troubling reality has become clear: Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, once heralded for their ability to bring the world closer together, have been central to spreading hateful and divisive ideas. The architecture and recommendation algorithms of mainstream sites like Reddit and YouTube seem primed to shepherd young people down a pipeline that leads to edgy sites that work the thin line between cruel irony and committed sadism, like 4chan and Gab, or to communities of dedicated fascists huddled around 8chan and an archipelago of racist and sexist blogs. While the extent of these sites’ influence and the direction of causality are up for debate, this pipeline is directly related to a wider cultural turn that has inspired a spate of domestic terrorist attacks and elevated dog-whistling nationalists to positions of institutional power.

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BOOKS IN REVIEW

In his new book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz grapples with this issue via a collection of in-depth profiles that juxtapose the legitimized worlds of the new media moguls with the various tiers of what is often called the alt-right.

Marantz spends more time exploring how trolls and right-wing organizers navigate digital spaces than he does on how those spaces are designed. (Reddit is the only major platform to get a detailed treatment or provide extensive comment on the record.) But he does spend plenty of time unpacking the uncritical and underdeveloped free speech ideology at the heart of Silicon Valley’s once-pervasive techno-utopianism. His central contention: The digital media titans, or “new gatekeepers,” have failed to understand the profound social responsibility that comes with their disruption of traditional media.

In chronicling how right-wing “gate-crashers” have exploited the new information pipeline, Marantz takes an old-school approach to a phenomenon that exists largely behind closed doors and through anonymous message boards and encrypted communication. His reporting includes trips to the face-to-face gatherings that draw his subjects together or at least to the surface: a meetup for fans of Mike Cernovich, an anti-feminist Twitter troll and prominent Pizzagate conspiracy theorist; a Night for Freedom, where Chelsea Manning rubs shoulders with Jack Posobiec, another anti-feminist Twitter troll and Pizzagate pusher; and a tech conference called F.ounders, which attracts start-up representatives with job titles like “iOS Ninja” and “Hacker-in-Residence.”

The world could certainly do with less cocktail-party coverage of right-wing organizing, but Marantz delivers a convincing mission statement by opening his book with a 50-page walk-around of the DeploraBall, the “alt-light” MAGA party at the National Press Club the night before Trump’s inauguration. Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes repeats a testosterone-fueled story about punching an anti-fascist protester in the mouth; billionaire tech venture capitalist Peter Thiel makes a brief appearance before returning to the shadows; a quiet, skinny white kid in a MAGA hat seems unsure of why he’s there; outside, notorious white supremacist Richard Spencer—banned from the event—lurks on the margins, hoping to lure partygoers who prefer “a real dissident movement.” The account reads as a moment of chaotic convergence as trolls, shock jocks, confused young people, and true fascist ideologues come into awkward alignment just as the toxic mix of ideas they represent are laundered by the mainstream press and begin to take hold of real policy.

Algorithm-aided radicalization is often likened to falling down a rabbit hole, and that is exactly how Marantz structures his book. Antisocial is a descent, with chapters built around tour guides who inhabit increasingly dark parts of an ideological matrix. A middling viral media founder from La Porte, Indiana, walks Marantz through the corrosive incentives of the attention economy, musing about the Internet’s potential for mass social engineering. A cohort of social Darwinian microcelebrities adopts extreme views in order to stand out and build audiences on YouTube and Twitter, feeding into a rising tide of right-wing ideology that eventually finds them alongside AP reporters in the White House press room. And a cabal of once-marginal neo-Nazis seizes the moment to push its ideas into the mainstream.

Antisocial is an engrossing work of literary journalism, but Marantz’s persistent focus on the words and deeds of individuals often obscures underlying power structures and, as a result, potential avenues for structural intervention. While it ends on a vague glimmer of hope—a wishy-washy, ill-defined call for us to live up to America’s ideals and create “a new moral, social, and political vocabulary”—this is not an optimistic book. Antisocial ventures into dark places, including a transcript of a video recording by far-right journalist Faith Goldy that inadvertently captured the killing of protester Heather Heyer at a Unite the Right counterprotest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Goldy’s politics weren’t substantively changed by the experience; in fact, the next year, she ran for mayor of Toronto on a white nationalist platform and came in third.

The market for writing about the alt-right has at times felt oversaturated. Despite its faults, Antisocial is a genuine first of its kind: ambitious, attuned to the novel features of social media, and written with enough detail and perspective to survey the finer aspects of a multifaceted movement. David Neiwert’s Alt-America and Vegas Tenold’s Everything You Love Will Burn come to mind as serious works of reported nonfiction on the rising influence of the radical right, but both ultimately chart the phenomenon from the perspective of older racist groups rather than digital-native ones. And while Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies was (very) briefly considered an authoritative text on the far-right cultural turn in certain sectors of the Internet, it proved a shaky rush job with little staying power, incomplete argumentation, and questionable originality.

Antisocial thus stands alone in print so far, but it nonetheless epitomizes a glossy style of writing on the contemporary far right that we often see in magazine profiles and reported essays—including those by Marantz in TheNew Yorker, a number of which have been refashioned into chapters in this book. Ever since Hillary Clinton made Spencer’s “alt-right” moniker a well-known phrase, certain writers have tried to capture the phenomenon of online radicalization by examining the choices and circumstances of those involved, first by profiling the self-described leadership and later by dissecting the chain reactions that draw rank-and-file racists deeper into the fold. Marantz is a master of this beat, and he excels at unwinding the subtle ironies, personal tics, and moments of vulnerability that reveal his subjects. The Right Stuff founder Mike Enoch’s extreme politics intermingle with a genuinely tragic inability to articulate the broken relationship with his father; far-right heckler Laura Loomer casts an icy glare at a group of Proud Boys who confuse her with Lauren Southern, a further-right Internet personality whom they find “way hotter”; at one point, a tense but sincere moment of compassion almost causes Marantz to cry in front of Cernovich.

Marantz is acutely aware that this style of reporting risks providing an insufficiently critical platform to extremists while taking the words of bad-faith actors at face value. He acknowledges the failures in the media’s earlier coverage of the movement and treats his subjects with a self-consciously critical detachment. While this attention to human detail makes for an engrossing read with a chain of challenging character studies, Marantz struggles whenever he comes up for air and tries to make sense of it all. He wrestles out loud with the very meaning and purpose of the work he’s engaged in, and at times you get the sense that he still hasn’t made up his mind.

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The book’s guiding philosophy is succinctly captured in a brief encounter with Thiel. Never one to shy away from flexing his cultural credentials, Marantz mentions that he has read Thiel’s book Zero to One and tries to initiate a conversation about “the contrarian question” that Thiel apparently asks in job interviews, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Marantz’s answer to the question is as close as we get to a thesis: that the correlation between how good something is and how popular it will be is “unreliable at best.” In line with this, he argues that a blind preference for quantified popularity rather than qualitative considerations of what is good has made digital communication channels too vulnerable to tribal and self-reinforcing groupthink and that the psychological force of emotional contagion allows ungoverned bomb throwers to turn social norms upside down by hacking popularity. Unfortunately, this focus on the spread of ideas frequently overlooks material forces and the historical context of the ideologies animating the social Internet.

Evoking the late philosopher Richard Rorty, Marantz writes that “the way a society talks to itself—through books, through popular films, through schools and universities, through mass media—determines that society’s beliefs, its politics, its very culture.” Linking heightened division to the decline in a shared vocabulary, Marantz’s critique of digital platforms and explanation of why they foster far-right radicals is essentially that, unlike New Yorker editors, the new gatekeepers are unwilling or unable to enforce the social norms and good taste needed for everyone to get along. This nostalgia for a unity imposed from above is a strangely autocratic position to pit against a rising tide of fascism.

Digital communication technologies have certainly cultivated a media ecology that tends toward division and reductive abstraction, but Marantz’s gatekeepers-versus-gate-crashers framing often leads to a narrow focus on individual decisions and the underdeveloped free speech philosophies of start-up bros rather than more structural considerations of power and history. For example, although Marantz correctly identifies an algorithmic preference for sensationalist, viral, emotionally charged media as a political editorial choice rather than a value-neutral one, he doesn’t directly connect this with a fundamental critique of the ownership structure of private media platforms—which are helmed by a wealthy elite and oriented toward capital accumulation, largely without regard for whatever other social outcomes that might produce. As a result, Marantz occasionally mistakes mass social manipulation for excessive collective participation in shaping the content of information pipelines, his criticism dipping into a troubling implication that online communications technologies are too democratic—which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Notably for a book about the spread of racism, it also fails to convincingly demonstrate the interplay of racist ideas and real-world power—or to situate the new right within the long tradition of white supremacist ideas and movements in the United States. Pro-white American racism wasn’t born anew on Stormfront in 1996; it has informed, upheld, and in turn been reinforced by institutions that have relatively benefited white people while violently subjugating minorities, dictating actions of the state, and upholding the power of capital by dividing the working class for centuries. The prevalence of racist ideas isn’t just an outcome of some abstract rhetorical contest but a result of the fact that they are deeply woven into the fabric of real institutions and power structures—with self-interested beneficiaries—that are reproduced daily by committed fascists and good liberals alike. This history is crucial for contextualizing the Internet’s present-day role in publicly activating a particular current of white supremacy, but Marantz provides almost none of it.

As a result, Antisocial never grapples with the fact that far-right ideas do in fact have beneficiaries or at least material reasons for having persisted so long—which must be confronted in order to build a more communal and egalitarian society or to make headway in a broader fight against racial injustice. As a way of explaining the motivations of the alt-right heckling class, Marantz instead latches onto two “laws of social media mechanics” relayed at one point by Cernovich: “Conflict is attention” and “Attention is influence.” Without extending these to the motivations of capital, we are left with a surface-level understanding that actors are primarily driven by ideas and the desire to spread them—and that the problem with the attention economy is that it bolsters ideas that are particularly disruptive to Marantz’s beloved liberal norms. This immaterial theory of racism seems little more than that it is, vaguely, something that people of culture and influence should reject and that some people have adopted it because they are bad and want attention.

Antisocial does not present itself as a platform for action; in fact, it consciously eschews direct prescription throughout. But its central critique—that social media is simply too open and too vulnerable to bad actors—suggests little in the way of a solution beyond thinking good, liberal thoughts; personally rejecting racist, divisive, or conflict-oriented ideas; and praying for a class of benevolent architects who will direct society to think the same. Marantz essentially said as much in a TED Talk promoting his book, which concluded with a series of limp suggestions for fellow “citizens of the Internet,” like “making decency cool again” and being a “smart skeptic” instead of a dumb one. Hampered by a narrow fixation on individual morality, his biggest proposal for structural change—optimize for outcomes that don’t “actively [harm] the world” rather than maximum engagement above all else—may as well be a polite letter to Exxon’s board of directors asking them to end fossil fuel extraction.

At the same time, Marantz’s apparent lack of faith in collective power forestalls more creative solutions for a truly democratic and human-centered communications infrastructure. Maybe the problem isn’t that information platforms are mismanaged or too trusting of crowd wisdom but that they are profoundly lacking in democratic social accountability and that capitalism’s inhuman, growth-oriented model of decision-making is to blame. It’s not that the new gatekeepers are misguided or bad, but that they are acting within a system that prioritizes extractive accumulation above collective human interests. A stronger critical analysis would more fundamentally question ownership and decision-making structures rather than just particular outcomes that they produce, and a more meaningful long-term solution would wrestle with the need to claw power over digital platforms from the private sector.

Antisocial is an engaging, relentlessly detailed, and observant study of the characters and personal motivations at play in the far right’s online information pipeline. It will likely be of interest to anyone who follows the movement closely but less so to those seeking a thorough analysis. Marantz’s lack of attention to material forces ultimately leaves the reader with a limited analytical toolbox and an unconvincing theory of ideological change.