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Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation Hardcover – October 8, 2019
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From the Publisher
“Antisocial is . . . Marantz’s searching attempt to understand people he describes as truly deplorable without letting his moral compass get wrecked. . . . [Antisocial] is trenchant and intelligent; wry but not glib; humane but never indulgent."
—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
“Imagine a world bereft of gates and uncrossable lines, with no discernable rules. That’s the Hadean landscape that has been painted expertly, in dark hues, by Andrew Marantz in his book Antisocial.”
—Kara Swisher, The New York Times Book Review
“By turns amusing and alarming. . . . Like an old Hunter S. Thompson report from the campaign trail, Antisocial is an entertaining read about a distressing subject.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Antisocial is an engrossing work of literary journalism. . . . A genuine first of its kind: ambitious, attuned to the novel features of social media, and written with enough detail and perspective to survey the subtle grain of a multifaceted movement. . . . Marantz is a master of this beat, and he excels at unwinding the subtle ironies, personal tics, and moments of vulnerability that reveal his subjects. . . . Antisocial is an engaging, relentlessly detailed, and observant study of the characters and personal motivations at play in the far right’s information pipeline.”
“With force and elegance, New Yorker staff writer Marantz clearly documents social media’s empowerment of bigotry, propaganda, and right-wing extremism. Deeply reported.”
—The National Book Review
“Antisocial by Andrew Marantz is so humane and lucid and absorbing and good!! Everything in it is a nightmare and I couldn’t put it down.”
—Jia Tolentino, via Twitter
“A searching study of the right-wing gate-crashers who have overwhelmed social media in the Trump era. . . . Marantz’s travels into the camps of those right-wingers prove [Richard] Rorty correct, and the author clearly documents their use of social media to advance right-wing causes. . . . Invaluable political reportage in a time of crisis."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Marantz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, makes a timely and excellent debut. . . . Marantz doesn’t shy away from asking pointed questions or noting his subjects’ inconsistencies. This insightful and well-crafted book is a must-read account of how quickly the ideas of what’s acceptable public discourse can shift.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[A] breathtaking, page-turning foray into the clash between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and online extremists. . . . Marantz’s narrative is like going along for the ride in a foreign landscape, bouncing into the unknown on a bumpy road. . . . Marantz has a keen eye for character. . . . His intentions are serious, and ultimately Antisocial is an insightful look at two powerful forces shaping American society. . . . Whether you use social media or not, Antisocial is an important look at groups that are molding the nation.”
—Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction
“Anyone who wants to know how Silicon Valley's dream turned into democracy's nightmare should read Antisocial, Andrew Marantz's fascinating firsthand exploration of the trolls and nihilists who have hijacked the internet. This book puts contemporary politics in an alarming new light.”
—Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money
“A riveting exploration of the causes and consequences of our current societal nervous breakdown. Antisocial is absolutely essential reading to understand this moment, and it will stick in your brain long after you’ve devoured it.”
—Chris Hayes, author of A Colony in a Nation and host of All In with Chris Hayes
“We live in an era when current events are driven as much by scrolls of binary code as they are by matters in the physical world. With Antisocial, Andrew Marantz has crafted a map of this digital landscape, charted how it came to be, and pointed to its implications for all of us. This is an important book whose relevance will only grow over time.”
—Jelani Cobb, Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University and author of The Substance of Hope
“Antisocial is a close-up portrait of the new species of online shock artists who have taken over the American conversation. It is the most detailed and concrete account of how our politics have been changed by social media. This book is essential reading.”
—Jaron Lanier, interdisciplinary scientist at Microsoft Research and author of You Are Not a Gadget
“Marantz has produced an essential work of reporting—one that illuminates not only how our information landscape emerged, but also how it has become so corrupted and dangerous. If you want to comprehend the world in which we live, Antisocial is a book you must read.”
—David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
“Nowhere is the propagation of racist ideas more apparent today than on the social media platforms Silicon Valley created—but failed to govern. In Antisocial, Andrew Marantz crafted a complex, unsettling portrait of how blind techno-utopianism can lead to disaster. This is necessary reading if we intend to keep the next generation of social networks from becoming yet another American source of oppression.”
—Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist
“This is a book about how the unthinkable becomes thinkable: how, in the Age of Trump, the alt-right, and outright fascists, have come to claim a central place in American discourse. This book scared the hell out of me, but every American could benefit from reading it. Andrew Marantz has written a chilling, deeply sourced, rivetingly told account of how a few fringe figures saw the potential of the internet as a vehicle for mass disinformation, and became prophets of the new fascism. Antisocial is political reporting at its finest.”
—Suketu Mehta, author of This Land Is Our Land
About the Author
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Marantz mainly alternates between reporting on interviews and events on the one hand and offering his personal insights and reflections on the other, also adding some context about the movement's pseudo-intellectual roots. In the process, Anti-Social intermittently teaches many less-than-social-media-savvy readers a bit about the techniques that can gain one an audience, some influence and a platform, as long as what you write is outrageous enough.
But though Anti-Social addresses social media in general, its real importance lies partly in illuminating how alt-right figures manipulate their posts, tweets, videos and online presence to spread rumors, lies and, in many instances, hate. Along the way, we learn how the rise of the internet has fueled the prominence of alt-right figures far more concerned with clicks than any cohesive political perspective. Yes, they are typically racist or sexist. But above all, many seem concerned with compensating for inadequacies and insecurities through attracting attention. Profiles of particular personalities paint some pretty dismaying portraits.
I came away finding these characters both frightening and pathetic. Marantz's exploration of them brought to mind a research consultancy I carried out several years ago, involving why people join extremist, terrorist movements abroad. The internet plays a role. So can alienation, insecurity and a resulting desire to be part of a community, particularly a supposedly exclusive in-group with its own shared, supposedly superior perspective. For the alt-right, that perspective seems to play out through its terminology, memes and jokes.
As Marant points out, there’s not yet any great explanation for why some folks go down this rabbit hole and others don’t. A reader could reasonably conclude that many are not mentally healthy.
There are some other elements that seem to characterize these characters. A desire to stand out, to be important. The appeal of their special vocabulary and way of being that lets them look down on the very people whom they may feel excluded from and inferior to. A frat-like juvenility that infects many followers, not least a group of young men whom the book depicts spontaneously and repeatedly Nazi-saluting a neo-Nazi leader at one gathering.
Back to their being both frightening and pathetic. Frightening in that I can see this cancer spreading, the window opening wider, as more and more deplorable (so to speak) words and conduct become more acceptable. Pathetic in that what drives so many of these folks is ego, alienation or insecurity, making me wonder whether the alt-right appeal will be a sort of passing fad, fading in the same way that far-left radicalism largely came and went. Sadly, though, we’ve learned to much, too painfully, about underestimating appeals to the worst in human nature.
In any event, that Marantz could gain these trolls' trust and confidence and present his observations in such a cogent, engrossing and flowing manner is a tribute to his skill as a journalist. That the reader will come away understanding both the inadequacies of the alt-right and the threat it poses to democracy is a testament to why this is such an important book.
Andrew Marantz (and his team of contributors) did his profession and this nation a service in performing the research and reporting contained in this book. He got to know several individuals who self-identify as fascist or white nationalists and who have taken to the Internet, exploiting the ranking algorithms of many social media platforms, to promote their agendas and ideologies. He sat in interview after interview with these people, listening to their points of view and reporting on them pretty objectively, essentially shining the light on this part of our American culture. And he did this, I repeat, as OBJECTIVELY as anyone with a soul could do even though most of the claims made by his interview subjects are demonstrably false, irrational, thoroughly debunked, and morally repugnant "theories". Most of what he reports on was blatant racism, anti-Semitism, nihilism, conspiracies, the intentional spread of misinformation, and pseudo-intellectuallism. He deserves more than 5 stars for the dignity and forbearance he had to possess just to sit through these moments and report them as a journalist and not someone disgusted by ignorance and bigotry. I don't know how he did it. I can barely imagine the patience this man must have. He even included the story of a young, misguided woman who was brainwashed (by her own loneliness and by a boyfriend) into joining a white nationalism group and then who brought herself to leave this cult-like community. He humanized her story: the story of a person doing Nazi salutes and normalizing the terrorism that is white supremacy. And he thanked her in his Acknowledgements. He thanked her! Let that sink in for a moment. Give Andrew (and his wife) a medal, for Godsake.
On a stylistic note, the chapters felt to me like they were written at different stages along his journey. I say this because it seemed to me like the first parts were full of words your "average" American reader probably would need to look up in a dictionary. I'm by no means above this average so I had to look up several words and even made a list. (Examples: a "cuspidate chin", "panjandrum", "bromides"). And to be honest, I'm kinda excited to have this list now, lol. But I did notice that the first part of the book seemed to have a much higher density of this kind of vocabulary whereas the middle and final parts had reached what I felt to be a much more natural balance. I wonder if that was intentional? My background as a reader is a bias here, of course. I read very little by way of philosophy and political science; I came to this book from the mathematics, data science perspective and that's what I normally read when I open a random book. So people who are regularly engaged with this subject matter may find my point here to be a nitpick.
Another positive aspect of the book was how little Andrew focused on the presidency. This is an issue that transcends any particular office or election. It's a cultural issue and he effectively manages to make that point again and again. The reason I make this point about it not exactly being about Trump or 2016 is that there are trolls out there slicker than Trump. There are trolls more clever than him, more polished than him, more pseudo-intellectual than him that would appeal to a broader swathe of people looking for some way to channel their personal angst. That polished, slick, pseudo-intellectual... THAT guy is the real concern, not Trump. There is a hint of this toward the end, especially with the Samantha girl who joins than leaves the white supremacy group - a hint that we're all susceptible of being manipulated in some fashion. But it's up to us to understand ourselves and our vocabulary enough. To bend the arc in a meaningful way. We can do it. I'm an inveterate optimist. (I know what "inveterate" means, now.) That's my takeaway.
There were so many parts that I wish I could've just heard what was going on in his mind during a situation. You don't know how many times I said, while reading the book, "I bet he wanted to just punch that guy" or "I bet he just wanted to go home to his family after hearing that." (Like I said, his wife deserves a medal, too.)
Thank you, Andrew. By the way, I saw your interview on The Young Turks and pre-ordered the book that very day!
Someone had to write this book and Marantz does a brilliant job. He conveys a generosity of understanding for how people end up believing what they believe and doing what they do, matched with an unflinching and often wry take on the same people's gaping blindspots and the sociopolitical implication of their actions.
Top international reviews
A few reviewers have mentioned the author's bias. The bias, as far as I can tell, is a presupposition that fascism and its (often loosely) related ideologies (including racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, sexism etc) are bad. A presupposition that I, frankly, find rather inoffensive.
All in all a great book for understanding what is happening around us on the ever-changing internet.