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The internet has often been compared to a digital town square, which is a rather quaint description for a place that many believe has become a breeding ground for racism, misogyny and intolerance.
In his new book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” the writer Andrew Marantz looks at how the evolution of the internet has affected the way we consume media, the way we interact with one another and our politics.
He follows the contrarians who have become addicted to the rush of asking forbidden questions on social media, the “alienated young men” whose misogynistic views were validated on digital message boards like 8chan and the alt-right hordes who claim diversity is “code for white genocide.”
I talked to Mr. Marantz, who is a staff writer at The New Yorker, about his new book. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In your book you write about the bad actors who are using the internet to spread racism and all the rest. Given your reporting, do you think conversations about race are helpful to have on social media these days?
My book is called “Antisocial” not entirely because it is a book against social media. I mean antisocial as in the opposite of prosocial. But that said, even though I think it’s important to pay attention to the dark side of the internet, I don’t think we should fall into the assumption that that’s all there is, or even the majority of what there is on the internet. If we’re talking about race, a lot of the hallmarks of our new racial discourse were born online. Black Lives Matter was a hashtag. But at the same time, there are deep mechanics at work that make it hard for those conversations to succeed.
We casually make the analogy between the internet and the public square, or the internet and a town hall, but it’s not really like that. It’s not an open space where everything is flat and democratic and everybody can speak their mind and look each other in the eye and get an equal voice and an equal time. The social internet is run by personalized algorithms, and the algorithms are run on emotional engagement. Negative emotions like fear and disgust and rage are the easiest emotions to incite. This isn’t an accident. People talk about the internet like the public square: It was nice for a few decades and then it turned not nice. It’s not a cycle of history. This is a product of the way these things were designed.
You also write about something that a lot of journalists have had to reckon with recently, which is when to call someone a racist and how standards, whether they be from an editor or a stylebook, can prohibit journalists from calling things as they see them in our current climate. Can you talk about that?
It’s really tough, and in the book I try not to be glib in my criticism of journalists who are trying to do a good job. There are plenty of people in my book who call themselves journalists who are not trying to do a good job, and I’m pretty unsparing of my criticism of them. The kind of performance artists and histrionic trolls, people like Mike Cernovich, Lucian Wintrich and Mike Enoch, who runs the podcast “The Daily Shoah,” I’m unstinting of my criticism of those people and I don’t consider them to be real journalists.
For people who are real journalists, there is an essential tension. People think these are easy problems to solve and journalists are too myopic to do the right thing. But the thorny issue here is the dilemma between being evenhanded and objective on the one hand and trying to tell the truth on the other. The job of journalism is to do both. But you can’t always do the both sides thing when people are arguing for a white ethno-state or that there are children trapped in the basement of Comet Ping Pong.
Race remains one of those sensitive issues many people try to avoid. The characters in your book saw that as an opportunity to get more people to buy into their racist views, and to a large degree they succeeded. Why?
The shallow answer has to do with the etiquette of the way we’ve talked about race in this country. There was “The Cosby Show’ in the 1980s and “Family Matters” in the 1990s. It was all supposed to be race-blind and race neutral: “I don’t see color.” A lot of people were raised thinking that was the only way these things could be tackled with good will and I think that was done with good intentions, but it was a wrong turn because then you have these areas of polite society where people with good will don’t want to go. That power vacuum is filled by people who are not of good will.
The deeper answer, I would say, is that we have never had a truth and reconciliation commission in this country and so we’ve never actually dealt with any of our truly deep issues when it comes to race, or for that matter gender and all the rest of it.
Lastly, do you think the internet is facilitating the current polarization that we’re seeing online?
At the very least, we’re finally starting to see the people who founded some of these social media companies acknowledging that they have a role to play as gatekeepers, something they were dead set on ignoring and were actively denying for a long time. At least there’s that.