Troll Call

Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation BY Andrew Marantz. New York: Viking. 400 pages. $28.

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

Whatever injuries Silicon Valley has done to the journalism industry over the past decade, it has also bequeathed to us a fine new cottage industry: the “bad-guys-on-the-internet beat,” as Andrew Marantz puts it in his new book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation. The terrifying rise of the extreme right wing, squealing from its perch on our strange new megaplatforms, has created a market opportunity for journalists who can walk the confused and nervous through the dangers and insufficiencies of our media ecosystem. As techies and bankers hollow out local news outlets, legacy publications staff up on tech reporters and columnists eagerly explaining new cyberthreats to the informational battlefield. Whenever God (Facebook) closes a door (kneecaps an industry), it opens a window, and outside that window are millions of people googling “what is an incel?”

I poke affectionate fun here. I’m glad this beat exists: Critical and oppositional reporting on Silicon Valley and the cultures it foments is certainly preferable to the blindly boosterish coverage that characterized tech journalism in the 1990s and 2000s. But I am left uncomfortable sometimes by my sense that the success of the “bad-guys-on-the-internet beat” depends on its ability to flatter or indulge a particular worldview often maintained by the baby boomers and aging Gen Xers who are its main audience: that the internet represents the free exchange of information and the end of establishment-media gatekeepers, that this is in some sense fundamentally dangerous, and that right-wing reaction is a natural consequence. Writing in this vein, aimed at people looking for confirmation of their priors as much as for analysis and information, can shift very easily from necessary and crusading to simplistic and fearmongering; at worst it can reflect a kind of media revanchism, a muddled nostalgia for an earlier era of gatekeeping, when a small handful of elite-aligned television stations, newspapers, and magazines mediated what Marantz’s title describes as the “American conversation.” For some audiences, you can never go wrong suggesting that the world used to work pretty well, and something recently broke it.

This is a long way round to explaining why Antisocial left me wanting. As its subtitle suggests, the book is the story of “a few disruptive entrepreneurs [who] built powerful new systems full of unforeseen vulnerabilities” and the “motley cadre of edgelords [who] exploited those vulnerabilities to hijack the American conversation.” To translate, it’s about how the internet’s promise of democratic exchange has been taken over by reactionary zealots. It’s an appealing primer for people who haven’t closely followed the emergence online of a disturbingly influential Far Right reaction, and if nothing else readers will come away knowing the names and strategies of some of the best-known trolls of the past three or four years. But I’m not sure they’ll have a better sense of what’s gone wrong, or how to put it right again.

The book opens at the DeploraBall, an independent Trump inauguration party “put on by and for the internet trolls and ultranationalists who had, as they liked to put it, ‘memed Donald Trump into the White House.’” As a reporter, Marantz is one of the best on this beat, and here he delivers a well-observed, crowd-pleasing scene report and fine introduction to the “metamedia insurgents” who flit in and out of the book. There’s Gavin McInnes, the Vice magazine founder turned racist comedy personality and leader of the right-wing anti-masturbation men’s group the Proud Boys, shouting “bravest men in front!” as he walks to the DC Press Club for the gala; there’s Richard Spencer, the unabashed anti-Semite and white nationalist widely covered for his fashionable haircut, awkwardly trying to compliment a Jewish lawyer for his blonde gentile wife; there’s Laura Loomer, the “strident Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist” probably best known now for handcuffing herself to the Twitter headquarters in New York City, being mistaken by a horny Proud Boy for Lauren Southern, another bottle-blonde social-media racist.

And then poor Kurt Cobain comes into it. Marantz meets a dorky twenty-three-year-old Proud Boy named Zach and, musing on why Zach might have fallen in with this crowd, reflects on his own brief flirtation with suburban rebelliousness as a teenage Nirvana fan. “All things being equal, it’s cooler to be a rebel than an establishment shill,” Marantz writes, explaining that the same allure of transgression that led him to style his hair like Kurt Cobain likely led Zach to embrace McInnes’s studied chauvinism. “I never saw a Kurt Cobain poster that said ‘Some Norms Might Actually Be Worth Preserving.’” Marantz may see some of himself in Zach, but since his days of rocking Nevermind, he assures us, he’s gone through a kind of conversion: “When I found myself working in the inner sanctum of contemporary journalism, I started to let go of my knee-jerk contrarianism,” he writes. “I admitted to myself that institutions can also have significant upsides.” The establishment sure sucks, until you’re a part of it.

It would be easy to make fun of the fogy-ish pose Marantz adopts here, pandering to an audience that still has fond feelings toward American media and political institutions. (Kids these days think Kurt Cobain is cool, but you know what’s really cool? Preserving democratic norms.) He might accuse me, not entirely unfairly, of what he calls “twerp bashing.” And I do feel a mild cool-kid distaste for the teacher’s-pet vibe of lines like “when the CIA says that an allegation of election interference is worth investigating, and a dissembling dirty trickster says that it’s not, I’m afraid I have to trust the CIA.” But the problem is not really that Marantz is playing to an older, establishment-oriented audience. It’s that he’s adopted that audience’s most dubious presuppositions: that the allure of right-wing politics lies naturally in their transgressive thrill, or that the media establishment of the late twentieth century was flawed but preferable to the very different and “incomparably worse” media environment in which we now live.

Those premises are arguably true—but you have to argue for them. Is the reason twenty-three-year-old white men vote for Trump really the same reason fourteen-year-olds love Nirvana? That seems awfully simple. Is the contemporary media ecosystem really vastly or “incomparably” different from that of 2009, 1999, or even 1989? You could read a lot of media criticism from the 1980s and replace “television” with “the internet” without losing a word of insight. I could be convinced one way or the other, but I need to be convinced: These are live issues, about which an enormous amount has been written. Marantz skates by, assured that his audience agrees with the tragic story of the assassination of noble gatekeepers by the coward internet.

The result is a book filled with fine, conscientious, careful reporting in service of only the flimsiest of organizing political or philosophical principles. The penultimate section, “The American Berserk,” covers two stories of radicalization: Mike Enoch, a sickly child in a New Jersey suburb who grew up to host the premier white-nationalist podcast on the internet, and Samantha, the pseudonymous unassuming liberal bartender who became a leading white nationalist before breaking free and escaping the movement. On a narrative level, both are gripping, tragic, and often enraging. But when called to grapple with the “American Berserk,” the best Marantz can muster is a limp David Brooksism: “It’s tempting, but far too facile, to imagine that the way to end racism is to identify the racists, to shame them on Twitter, to punch them in the streets. That may, in some cases, be clarifying; it may produce a temporary victory, or a moment of catharsis; but it doesn’t address the roots of the affliction. What we need, and urgently, is a new moral vocabulary.”

In fairness, I don’t myself have a clear, actionable answer to the problems people like Enoch and Samantha pose. But I increasingly suspect that psychological portraiture of the radicalized and alienated may not be particularly useful for developing one. The story of Enoch is titillating, but there’s no a-ha moment. His podcast is awful, but knowing who Mike Enoch is and where he came from reveals no particular lever on which we might apply pressure. He sounds like an asshole who enjoys being an asshole, doing asshole things with his asshole friends. How does a new moral vocabulary address that?

My point isn’t that people like this are awful but inevitable, that we should ignore or avoid them, that they’re not a big deal. My point is that the people themselves aren’t really the issue. Profile writing can be useful to the extent that it reveals something larger about the world in which the subject lives; but what Marantz’s profiles often reveal is how unimportant his subjects are as individual humans or characters. None of them are sophisticated or insightful political thinkers or strategists; most of them have already, in the space between 2016 and now, faded back into an obscurity of one kind or another. McInnes quit the Proud Boys; Loomer was banned from Twitter; Lucian Wintrich, a twenty-eight-year-old troll whose brief tenure as a White House correspondent is detailed in a section called “The Swamp,” was fired, and has been mostly silent since. What you really learn reading ten thousand words about Mike Cernovich, right-wing blogger and author of animal-themed self-help books, whose home Marantz visits in the section “Too Big to Ignore,” is that Mike Cernovich’s life is not important, that he has nothing to say, no insight to offer, is not really even a subject so much as a symptom—a by-product of a particular media economy whose personality, or psychological damage, was immediately rewarded by an attention marketplace designed to elevate extremity of opinion and intensity of emotion.

I found myself frustrated at how infrequently money appears in the book. How do these extremists make a living? Where is the cash coming from? How many are leeching off of platforms that turn a blind eye to right-wing radicals? How many have benefactors like Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund billionaire who spent the better part of 2017 paying the bills of beleaguered right-wing activist Milo Yiannopoulos? Mercer, who’s had a finger in nearly every reactionary pie over the past decade, is mentioned in passing. Peter Thiel, the Facebook board member and vocal Trump supporter, is given only marginally more coverage—including a significant and revealing scene in which Marantz sees the billionaire at DeploraBall and approaches him. Thiel is a singular figure, an enormously wealthy tech investor with well-documented ties to the Far Right “neo-reactionary” movement who rarely gives interviews. This is Marantz’s moment: He attempts to engage Thiel on the question of whether or not there’s “a correlation between how good something is and how popular it will be.” He seems to want to make a point about how the Facebook algorithm doles out its rewards. Thiel is silent; Marantz turns to the stage to watch the flag-hugging Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke. When he turns back, Thiel is gone, along with any chance at following his money.

Where might the book have gone if it had shadowed Thiel a little further? While reading through Antisocial, I thought frequently of Joseph Bernstein’s BuzzFeed report on a cache of emails between Yiannopoulos and his benefactors, extremist activists, and mainstream journalists; and Hannah Gais’s investigation, published on the now-defunct website Splinter, into leaked emails demonstrating links between Far Right organizations and “mainstream” conservative institutions and media outlets like the Daily Caller. Where Marantz focuses on the attention-seeking bluster of individual personalities, acting within a predetermined framework of fading institutions and cool-kid transgressors, Bernstein and Gais methodically document the close ties between wealthy donors, right-wing extremists, mainstream conservatism, and popular media outlets. These pieces are valuable because they reveal the wealthy, organized structures of reaction lurking behind the myths of social platforms as free marketplaces of ideas. It’s hard to maintain the fiction that there is an opposition between gatekeeping institutions and gate-crashing extremists when you read the emails between them.

Max Read is an editor at New York magazine.