The internet is a strange place. I don’t pretend to know or understand more than 5% of what goes on. I prefer to live in the world of books.
“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.”Marantz 60
So, a book about online extremists and techno-utopians isn’t really up my alley. But, I know many of my students are experts at technology and the Internet. So, I wanted to find a book that dealt with how technology affects our world. The title Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by New Yorker writer, Andrew Marantz caught my eye.
In Anti-Social, Marantz takes on how changes in the Internet, politics, and technology have changed how Americans talk to each other — for the worse.
“What I can offer is the story of how a few disruptive entrepreneurs, motivated by naiveté 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, exploited those vulnerabilities to hijack the American conversation.”Marantz 6
When I formed the curated list for the nonfiction book club for sophomore English, I tried to pull books that made an argument on as many current issues as I could. I hadn’t read many of them since they were brand new to the market, but I committed to reading the students’ choices with them. Readers and writers of the young adult variety ought to have a chance to read and write about their own world and things that are happening at the present moment. The rhetorical unit I teach is an effective platform for that.
I think the students and I were under the impression that the book was more about how social media, in general, affects us.
“In the Facebook era, the browsing experiences felt so passive, so close to nontraditional, that the standard metaphor was no longer consumption but viral infection.”Marantz 78
The book turned out to be way more political and broad than we expected. Marantz is anti-President Trump and has clear value-judgments about media personalities like Mike Cernovich, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Gavin McInnes, Laura Loomer, and Andrew Breitbart.
“Each of them espoused opinions that were so politically retrograde, so morally repugnant, or so self-evidently deceitful that no reputable news organization would ever hire them. And yet, in the twenty-first century, they didn’t need traditional jobs. Instead, they could mobilize and monetize a following on social media.”Marantz 18
Don’t get me wrong, I despise these guys, too. I stand against them because I can’t be neutral about their white supremacy, misogyny, their anti-Seminitism, and neo-Nazism.
“Neutrality has never been a universal good, even in the simplest of times. In unusual times — say, when the press has been drafted, without its consent or comprehension, into a dirty culture war — neutrality might always be possible. Some questions arent’ really questions at all.”Marantz 43
Their content never fails to horrify and disgust me. But, I’ve made it a habit to let my students decide for themselves. I trust them because they are smart and willing to learn.
In true journalist fashion, Marantz is equally critical of “gatekeepers” likes founders of Reddit, Steven Huffman, Alexis Ohanian, and Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg.
“Like all disrupters, they believed in unfiltered speech, the more of it the better. They didn’t give much thought to what might go wrong.”Marantz 210
I got the impression that while Marantz despises the work of content creators like Ben Shapiro or McInnes, he doesn’t care for big-tech giants like Zuckerberg, controlling the American conversation either. As a print journalist, Marantz seems to operate from the journalism world of old.
“Traditional media gatekeeping was inarguably a deeply flawed system. But what if it turned out to be, like democracy, the worst system except for all the others?”Marantz 50
I, too, respect a lot about how we used to create journalism. I respect reporters like Ida B. Wells, Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Kronkite, Tom Brokaw, Christiane Amanpour, and Richard Engle. These guys uncover[ed] injustices and took a stand without pandering to the ratings.
“The task of journalism — or a task of a certain kind of journalism — is to look squarely and honestly at the world while also projecting a calm air of decency and dispassion.”Marantz 58
Still, I think we could harness the power of technology, traditional journalistic ethics, and media to do good. I believe it means configuring how to mitigate using the Internet for evil and teaching people how to use it for good.
Unfortunately, as Marantz reveals in this book, the journalistic integrity of old washed away as the Internet and social media swept in.
“Some norms — such as welcoming the stranger, or respecting the dignity of women, or resisting the urge to punch random pedestrians in the face — really are worth preserving.”Marantz 26
Marantz discusses how creators like Huffman, Ohanian, and Zuckerberg never intended to create an avenue for alt-right content creators to colonize the American conversation and dialogue. But that is precisely what happened. These sites made way for these creators and even sites with more nefarious intent, like 4Chan.
“In the open marketplace of ideas, what was to stop a lie from outcompeting a fact?”Marantz 58
Marantz tracks how this phenomenon started and plays out in the real world by immersing himself in the daily lives of the alt-right players. They distort how Americans consume information about their country and the world. Like Wells, Amanpour, and Engle, Marantz gets into the trenches to report what is going on.
“the work of a journalist was to go out in the world, even into its most uncomfortable and morally squalid corners, and try to disinter a few shards of truth.”Marantz 62
Honestly, for me, the world of alt-right content creators and online extremists is a confusing one. I don’t fully understand it, even as Marantz tries to explain it to me.
Part of the problem is that Marantz works under the assumption that his audiences speak the same language as him. As a middle-class public servant, much of his diction is lost on me. Even with my academic background, the prose got a little too “ivory tower” for me.
“[Noam] Chomsky warned that if the symbiosis between government power and corporate journalism, if left unchecked, could allow media gatekeepers to mislead a credulous public in any number of ways. This was true. And yet, Herman and Chomsky couldn’t have known that they were writing at the beginning of the end of an era — that just two decades hence, The Fourth Estate would no longer command widespread attention and respect, and reasonable observers would no longer be able to use the phrase “good sense and stability” to describe American discourse, at least not with a straight face.”Marantz 50
You get the gist, but what if you didn’t study Chomsky in school? What if you didn’t obsessively watch “Gilmore Girls” and research obscure references in that show (which may or may not be how I learned who Noam Chomsky was!)?
I think this book would be much more successful if Marantz came at it with a bit more generalized tone so that readers who haven’t been immersed in this world can better understand it. My students struggled with me to figure out what was really going on. I’m not saying that it needs to be “dumbed down”; my students are intelligent and understand way more than people give them credit for.
But, more accessible prose might help readers better understand and react to the problems Marantz wants them to be aware of. There is a helpful list of people Marantz writes about as well as a glossary in the back. But, sometimes I wonder . . . if you need these lists in your book, did you do a good enough job explaining things in the book itself?
Still, I do feel more aware of how our nation became as divided as it has. I felt motivated to teach students how to write solid arguments that don’t rely on fearmongering and gaslighting. I put up a poster of AdFontes’ Media Bias Chart in my classroom to help students and me consume more reliable information.
“A quote on the front page of the Washington Post is more likely to be accurate than a quote on Page Six of the New York Post, or a quote in your ex-pastor’s Facebook post. A fact in the Harper’s Index is more likely to be true than a fact on OMGFacts. Moreover, some journalism aims to transcend mere trustworthiness, taking on the rarified status of art. Traditional journalists noticed these distinctions, but the data showed that many consumers did not. Social networks weren’t helping: on the contrary, their designers downplayed such distinctions, in the interest of content neutrality.”Marantz 88
Students and I practice and practice supporting claims with evidence and data along with warrants about how that data supports our beliefs.
I feel these are some tenants that are ethical and essential for healing the discord in the United States. I believe my students can help us get back to democratic values in discussing current issues and politics. They are gifted writers with fresh voices. They understand — better than most adults I know — how to have intelligent and fair conversations with each other. I believe in their ability to use the Internet and social media for good instead of evil.
Marantz is perhaps too jaded to agree with me on this. He genuinely worries throughout the book that if this dialogue keeps going the way it is, the United States will fall.
“If I had faith in the predestined arc of history — if I’d trusted the gleaming vehicle of technology would naturally self-correct, like a driverless car, even the rest of us asleep at the wheel — then I might have been more content to watch as the car rushed forth, crashing through every gate in its path. But what I believed was both more liberating and more terrifying: technology, like the arc of history, can carry us in any direction.”Marantz 82-3
He’s not wrong. He’s absolutely right: if we let social media platforms aid and abet the power of the Alex Joneses of the world, then we will begin to talk in equally outlandish ways.
Still, I feel hopeful.
Then again, I have the privilege of working with the next generation every day. I think if my generation can teach the upcoming generations about these topics, we will be okay. I believe in my students and their voices. I believe in their goodness. Call me naive. Call me optimistic. But, then again . . . spend 180 days with my students and let me know if they change your mind.
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Trigger Warnings: ableism; abuse (verbal); body shaming, fat shaming; bullying (cyberbullying, doxxing, online abuse); manipulation; misogyny; racism (antisemitism, white supremacy, white nationalism); sexism