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Alt-Right extremism

The real people behind alt-right extremism online

In his new book, Antisocial, journalist Andrew Marantz asks how the views of supremacists, neo-fascists, and internet trolls went mainstream

We’re living in dystopian times, where racist and sexist comments are not necessarily cancellable crimes, but rather actions that can get you voted into government. Take Boris Johnson’s track record, or most of what Donald Trump says on Twitter as examples. Earlier this month, Andrew Sabisky was forced to resign as a government aide over unearthed comments about black people having low IQs, and after saying that working class people should be forced to use contraception. Last week, a UK report on the far right – dubbed the State of Hate 2020 report – found that the Conservative party has suspended more than 20 people for Islamophobia online. These kinds of views have traditionally been associated with far-right extremists or the alt-right, so why are they now being heard in the mainstream? Why are the people who espouse them getting hired in politics? 

These are the kinds of questions that New Yorker journalist Andrew Marantz sets out to answer in his new book, Antisocial, which traces how fringe or neofascist opinions move from dark pockets of the internet all the way to, say, the White House, and how the truth became fake news – the State of Hate report also found that YouTube’s algorithm actually recommends users neo-Nazi videos. Over the course of three years, Marantz spent time with “online shock artists”, both at their computers and at rallies, to meet the humans behind online trolls.

Below, we talked to Marantz about what he learned meeting alt-right extremists, and discuss how social media companies are just as to blame as individuals for the spread of hate online.

What first inspired you to write Antisocial?

Andrew Marantz: Around 2014 I was pretty concerned about what the internet was doing to us – as a society, but also as individuals. It felt like there was a certain amount that you could get at through polemics, data, and social science, but I just didn’t feel like I was understanding it at a human, narrative, qualitative level. So I wanted to do the New Yorker-y thing, which is to meet these online troll characters and observe them up close. Of course, there was the question of: when is it ethical to pay attention or ‘give oxygen’ to something? I don’t think those questions are easily resolvable, but I do think that, around that time, things like Gamergate started to make it clear that you can’t just look away whenever it’s uncomfortable, or whenever there are concerns about amplification. Sometimes you have to actually dig deeper and understand what’s happening to stop it. When the troll you’re talking about is, hypothetically, the president or the prime minister, you actually have to look at the conditions that brought it into being, and some of those conditions are as old as human nature – racism, fear, paranoia – and were not invented with the internet, but there are very specific ways in which the architecture of social media is exacerbating the problem. 

What are some of those ways? 

Andrew Marantz: Part of what’s new about the internet is scale, scope, and speed. There has always been a partisan press, sensationalism, and yellow journalism, but the internet is operating on a completely different scale. It’s chopping up and decontextualising everything. We no longer have this idea that there are human beings with editorial judgment having any say over what we see. The idea is that it’s replaced by this invisible hand of pure neutrality called an algorithm. It sounds nice in theory, but in practice it’s all a question of what the algorithm is optimising for, and in the case of the systems to which we have ceded control over our brains, such as Facebook, algorithms are optimised for maximum emotional engagement and addictiveness. Certain emotions are easier to generate and are incentivised from a business point of view, and from a human-desire-for-fame-and-attention point of view.

So the title of the book is not only gesturing at the fact that there are bad people out there with antisocial tendencies, but that we were sold a bill of goods for the first decade or so of the existence of social media, where we were told that all the outcomes would be pro-social, and that it would be about togetherness, transparency, and freedom. Some of that has happened – Harvey Weinstein is going to jail and that would not have happened if not for a hashtag going viral – but it’s a double-sided coin and for every pro-social emotion sparked by the viral internet, there are negative social emotions being incentivised, and that has massive consequences.

Who were some of the first people or groups that you met? 

Andrew Marantz: In the middle of the 2016 election campaign, I met someone called Mike Cernovich, who I wrote about in a New Yorker piece called “Trolls for Trump”. Mike has been an amazingly efficient expert at reverse engineering news cycles. I called him up and basically said: “Can I sit in your living room and look over your shoulder as you hack the basic mechanisms of social media day in and day out in order to destroy democracy?” I didn’t really know what he did when I arrived – it’s not like he calls himself a journalist or a filmmaker. And I mean, he’s not some 14-year-old in a basement somewhere, he’s like a 40-year-old guy with a wife and a kid. He’s actually a lawyer.

Anyway, what I watched him do was open a laptop and say: “Today, the meme that we want to inject into the world is that Hillary Clinton has a disease that she’s not telling anyone about and it makes her unfit to be president. You can tell because... oh, I know, here’s a picture of her having a seizure.” In fact, it’s a picture of her blinking. He knew that his higher-order critiques of Clinton – his concerns about the international influence of the Clinton Foundation, or whatever – that stuff was not going to generate the kind of emotional engagement that would be rewarded by online algorithms, but curiosity, disgust, or outrage would. 

He gathered a few of his core fans in a livestreaming app called Periscope, and got them all in the same virtual room. They suggested different hashtags that they could use to pump these memes out there. Then they would all jump onto Twitter and get it trending because that’s where all the journalists are. So then suddenly it’s on the Drudge Report, or it’s on Fox News, then CNN feels that they have to cover it, and then it’s in the newspaper. It pretty much got to the point where I would go back to my hotel, pick up the paper, see a story in there and think, “oh, that story is here because of what I watched this guy do at his dining table yesterday”. The ability for him to do that is actually a byproduct of the freedom and democracy that social media companies like to talk about.

“Alt-light claims to be into civic nationalism, whereas the alt-right is more just overt white nationalism” – Andrew Marantz

Did you ever have a hard time getting access to the people in the book?

Andrew Marantz: I mean I was investigating the alt-right for many years and there were times where they were calling me “the embed” in this way that was a little hostile. It started with this woman Jane Ruby, who was a founder of a group called ‘MAGA Meetups’ in Washington DC. I also remember a time at a dinner when Gavin McInnes – the founder of the Proud Boys and former “godfather of hipsterdom” (he co-founded VICE) turned godfather of American street racism, I guess – said: “Why do we keep letting this guy hang around with us? Isn’t he supposed to be the enemy?” It wasn’t really clear if he meant the enemy because of the press, or because I’m Jewish, or the political enemy; it could have been all of the above. I just stayed quiet. In my head, I was thinking, “the guy has a point, I’m not pretending to be allied with these people”, and at the same time, I was writing pretty harsh things about them. I think it was Mike Cernovich who said: “Leave him alone – he doesn’t put us on a pedestal but he’s fair, and he doesn’t make stuff up.”

Wow, they care about that? Were there ever times when you felt a bit uncomfortable or scared? 

Andrew Marantz: Yeah, when I went further into it. I started with the more colourful broadcaster types who call themselves “alt-lite” because they don’t go all the way into alt-right territory. Alt-lite claims to be into civic nationalism, whereas the alt-right is more just overt white nationalism. Specifically, after Charlottesville happened, I decided I have to spend some time with the actual Nazis, and that got a little dicey in terms of me being Jewish. I had some calls that were pretty menacing – threats. There was one guy who I was talking to for a long time whose job is to be a professional anti-Semite for a living, who couldn’t tell that I was Jewish, even though he knew my name and he could Google me. He eventually said he couldn’t tell because I have red hair. I was like, “come on man, your entire job is to get at us – do better!” He wanted to meet me at a German beer hall, which he thought was very funny. That guy’s name was Mike Enoch – that’s actually his pseudonym – and he had a podcast, which he hilariously called The Daily Shoah – Shoah meaning Holocaust. 

To what extent did the alt-right make Trump president? Does a Trump presidency perpetuate the views of the alt-right? 

Andrew Marantz: It definitely works both ways. I think we’re all a little bit allergic by now – as we should be – to, “here’s the one thing that gave us Trump! If it weren’t for political correctness, or if it weren’t for James Comey, or if it weren’t for MSNBC…”, or, “things would be different if 30,000 votes in Pennsylvania had gone the other way…” You can pick any number of things and say all that, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we suddenly see a lurching toward autocratic right-wing demagoguery throughout the world in the same moment at which we have given over our attention and information to algorithms. It’s what people call the attention economy. Mike Cernovich has two laws of internet mechanics: one is “conflict is attention”, and the second is “attention is influence”. Trump just embodies that.

In the UK, during the last election, 88 per cent of Conservative adverts contained misinformation. So fake news is a very mainstream problem. In the run-up to the 2020 US election, do you think anything will be different this time around in terms of misinformation? 

Andrew Marantz: Everyone is responding to the same incentives – anonymous trolls, Trump, and Boris – that you can gain a lot by lying in spectacular fashion. All you really lose is that Piers Morgan chases you into a refrigerator or whatever, but you just have to just sort of live with that, and if you are OK with being the butt of a bit of mockery – which Trump and Boris are – and you have a weird persona where you’re essentially unshameable, then you just keep doing the thing that you’re being rewarded for. 

This election I think it’ll be different, but not necessarily better. There are some obvious things that I think people have wised up to, like donations to an American campaign in Rubles for example. Tech companies make a lot of noise and say that they’re fixing the fake news problem. But I think the problem is much deeper, and more core to their business models than they want to admit. I think of our informational crisis as being similar to the climate crisis in terms of scope, and in terms of existential threat, honestly, and it’s sort of like, “we planted a few trees here and there to offset the carbon emissions of our jetliner”, but you’re not fixing the actual problem. The problem is the way that these algorithms incentivise emotional engagement above everything else. Until that gets fixed, yes, the ship is still sinking.

Is there any hope? 

Andrew Marantz: Shifts do happen. There was no incentive for the tobacco industry to give up any of its power, but it happened through a combination of government regulation, societal awareness, and changing of cultural norms. That can happen here too. Social media companies, either by government regulation being imposed upon them, by the leadership of these companies taking on more responsibility, or by a collective mass movement, need to say: “We’re not going to allow these companies to control our brains anymore”. I don’t know that it will happen in time to avoid another generation of disastrous politics which might literally bake the planet, but if we can get out of that, people might get tired enough of this to actually change it. All it would take is maybe 100 people in Silicon Valley actually deciding to change things, so people have to put pressure on them to do it.

Antisocial is out now