Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation

VIKING, 2019
400PP.; $28.00

What happened when New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz investigated some of the most sinister inhabitants of the internet underworld and, alas, our real world? What didn’t happen was Marantz becoming corrupted or addled by the ugliness he encountered (appalled, yes). What did happen is Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, a fine chronicle of a despicable, frightening, and sometimes dangerous phenomenon. Since World War II, Marantz writes,

the lunatic fringe in the United States had always included a few hundred freaks with swastika tattoos; now there was an increasingly organized white-supremacist movement in America, one that had several points of contiguity with both Congress and the White House.

The book’s subject is the alt-right and the alt-light, reactionary movements at odds with establishment conservatives (alt denotes alternative). The terms triggered an exasperating appellation quandary for Marantz (and will probably do so for you too), who writes that after the 2016 election “The alt-right was characterized by lurid racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and a tendency to spew disinformation; the alt-light claimed to reject overt racism and anti-Semitism, but seemed fine with the rest.” Publicly, he notes, “the leaders of the two factions were at pains to highlight their differences…. In private, the lines were often blurrier.” Indeed. If nothing else, Antisocial makes clear that the “differences” claimed by the two factions are merely bait to gull the gullible. (Marantz points out that he won’t discuss blatant neo-Nazis. But I’ll be damned if I can discern any differences between them and the alt riffraff, other than that the Nazis sometimes like to dress up as storm troopers and the alt-ers, at least the men, prefer white polo shirts for camouflage.)

In describing the goals for his book, Marantz says, “What I can offer is the story of how a few disruptive entrepreneurs, motivated by naïveté and reckless techno-utopianism, built powerful new systems full of unforeseen vulnerabilities, and how a motley cadre of edgelords, motivated by bigotry and bad faith and nihilism [I would add obsessive self-hyping] exploited those vulnerabilities to hijack the American conversation.” Antisocial contains a lot of text that first appeared in the New Yorker, as well as new reporting. As a result, the book is something less than tightly structured. Nevertheless, it offers absorbing profiles of a number of far-right personalities—most of whom I’d never heard of—and while the author wisely doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyze these men and women, he offers enough information about their backgrounds, behavior, and thought processes (I use the term loosely) to allow the reader to get a decent sense of how a certain noxious category of Americans is trying to undermine our democracy in the nightmarish reign of Donald Trump.

I’m not going to name the individuals scrutinized in this book, because any media attention is like an amphetamine high for them. So I’ll confine myself to addressing some of the more general issues that Antisocial explores. As “the Hijacking of the American Conversation” in the subtitle indicates, Marantz is keenly attentive to communication controversies, how they’re initiated, fostered, and perverted. He says at least twice, “To change how we talk is to change who we are.” The author believes, apropos of the alt VIPs at a 2016 election night celebratory ball, that “together they had a decisive impact on the 2016 [presidential] campaign, and on public opinion more broadly. It was hard to imagine Trump winning without them.” Why? Because “in the twenty-first century, they didn’t need traditional jobs. Instead they could mobilize and monetize a following on social media.” (Social media! The planet’s current bête noire.)

In particular, Marantz finds the alt-ers’ agitprop-dissemination skills deeply perturbing. “Some on the left still found it comforting to assume that every Trump supporter was a shiftless rube under a demagogue’s spell. The reality I’d seen so far was more unnerving in its complexity. The leaders of the “deplorable” movement [a name proudly sported by Trumpeters, who pinched it from its coiner, Hillary Clinton] were deeply wrong on many fundamental questions,” Marantz concludes, “but they weren’t guileless or stupid…They were deft propagandists.” I’m not so sure. Based on the author’s own reporting—he was on the front lines, I wasn’t—those “leaders” strike me as pathetic losers. They epitomize a new kind of punditry: lowbrow bigots who wield highbrow affectations but are incapable of understanding or appreciating highbrow depth and complexity. They believe the 1999 film The Matrix is important, for heaven’s sake, and one of the alt-ers tells Marantz: “Look, I read postmodernist theory in college… If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” Then smiling, the alt-er says, “I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”

They live in an echo chamber, so the nonsensical “intellectual” game-playing isn’t a game for them. I will concede that the alt scoundrels seem quite adept at clickbaiting (persuading people to click on Twitter posts, Reddit forums, other web sites, etc.)—Antisocial is a textbook for how to succeed at it—but I can’t help thinking that the clickbaiters clique is mostly preaching to the already converted. The segregation of like-minded folks on sites like Reddit and Facebook is better, I suspect, at strengthening ideological fellow-feeling than in recruiting new members. Marantz asserts that “some types of people seem to be particularly susceptible to extremist online propaganda.” I’m of the opinion that the people who cherish right-wing social media are mostly committed to their dogmas before they find their way to 8chan, et al.

Enough about disinformation theories. Let’s talk about violence. How pernicious can the alt-ers and their ilk be? Marantz discusses, with the appropriate cold anger, the egregious August 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a counter protestor was run over and killed by a white supremacist. The event is an appalling reminder that while far-right-wingers often just obliquely pontificate about the violence they essentially revere (Marantz quotes someone he profiles: “conflict is attention; attention is influence”), they are also, sometimes, capable of shedding blood. Incidentally, last fall (after the book went to press) the New York Times reported an FBI statistic that “Personal attacks motivated by bias or prejudice reached a sixteen-year high in 2018.”

Further, while many of the alt-ers in Antisocial would, I think, indulge in low-level thuggery if the opportunity presented itself—some of them do in the book—I don’t believe they would kill for their beliefs. I’ll go further: I’m not convinced that extremist memes and rabble-rousers provoke homicidal deeds. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived most of my life in New York City, but I’m of the opinion that murderous impulses burst forth for reasons that have nothing to do with ideologies or sinister soapbox slime merchants. For one thing, I’m a believer in the copycat syndrome. (For compelling analyses of the psyches of far-right-wingers, I still like two books that are decades old: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem.)

For the same reasons, I can’t blame Trump’s rhetoric for the escalating violence inflicted on minorities in this country. However, it‘s impossible to avoid acknowledging that Trump has energized the part of his base that wallows in savage mayhem. But don’t despair. The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 2018, and in November Democrats won gubernatorial races in two red states—Kentucky and Louisiana—and took control of purple Virginia’s state legislature. Now, no one who knows me would call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m predicting that Trump will be an ex-president by 2021. And he and his most benighted doppelgängers and idolaters will then slither back into the Gehenna they emerged from.