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Journalists Hate You. Review of Andrew Marantz's Antisocial.

CULTURE

Journalists Hate You.

Review of Andrew Marantz’s Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.

America is in the midst of a democratic revolution. Anti-establishment conservatives have used the internet to break the mainstream media’s control of the national conversation. In doing so, they were able to win over a critical mass of ordinary Americans, dealing a deathblow to traditional gatekeeping. This is the revolution that made a Trump presidency possible.

Marantz’s argument is grounded in his contempt for the intellectual and moral capacities of ordinary Americans.

The gatekeepers want their power back, so it’s no surprise they present conservative social media influencers as racists and misogynists. What is shocking, however, is how brazenly they cast ordinary Americans as vicious and stupid. To these journalists, Trump voters are either morally or rationally defective—probably both. “If the Trump era has taught us anything,” Noah Berlatsky wrote on Friday for NBC, “it’s that large numbers of white people in the United States are motivated at least in part by racism in the voting booth.” Berlatsky finds it “reasonable to conclude that voters were willing to swallow the falsehoods because they liked what they heard: overt racist appeals.”

Senior CNN Reporter Oliver Darcy says citizens resist his reporting because they “just won’t digest facts.” They, therefore, need guidance from gatekeepers; for Darcy, it’s a tragedy that “technology companies have … given everybody the same ability to broadcast their views, unfiltered really, to millions and millions of people.” New York Times columnist Kevin Roose also thinks we must shut the revolution down, lamenting how “YouTube, Reddit and Facebook have allowed fringe thinkers to bypass traditional gatekeepers and reach millions of people directly.”

A significant new book by Andrew Marantz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has reinvigorated the gatekeepers’ efforts to censor the internet. Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation is an account of our ongoing democratic revolution, a historical moment that brings into relief two realizations for Marantz: (1) conservative influencers are now able to out-compete legacy media outlets, and (2) it was this that led to the election of Donald J. Trump. “[T]hey helped propel their man to the presidency,” he writes.

For Marantz, these two realizations justify all-out censorship of the internet. But his extremism comes as little surprise when you recognize that, from start to finish, Marantz’s argument is grounded in his contempt for the intellectual and moral capacities of ordinary Americans.

THE INTELLECTUALLY BANKRUPT PREMISE OF INTELLECTUAL BANKRUPTCY / Ezra Klein, Kara Swisher, Brian Stelter

Ezra Klein, Kara Swisher, Brian Stelter.

THE INTELLECTUALLY BANKRUPT PREMISE OF INTELLECTUAL BANKRUPTCY

Marantz has achieved prominence with deplatforming advocates. Ezra Klein, Kara Swisher, and Brian Stelter have hosted him on their podcasts in celebration of Antisocial. Kevin Roose, one of Marantz’s oldest friends, calls it “extremely good.”

The popularity of anti-establishment conservatism proves to Marantz that Americans are unable to digest facts. This content is only popular, Marantz explains, because these social media influencers learned how to manipulate people’s emotions.

He’s not wrong. In preparation for the book, Marantz spent several years embedded with both conservative influencers and Silicon Valley’s “techno-utopians”—the creators of social media. Antisocial is a beautifully written and engaging personal account of his involvement with these two communities leading up to and during the Trump presidency.

For Marantz, these past five years can be explained by a fundamental illiteracy amidst the electorate.  “Well-meaning people unable to distinguish simple truth from viral misinformation; a pop-culture punchline ascending to the presidency.” The popularity of anti-establishment conservatism proves to Marantz that Americans are unable to digest facts. This content is only popular, Marantz explains, because these social media influencers learned how to manipulate people’s emotions. Their content doesn’t outperform the mainstream media’s because it offers some degree of legitimate factual or moral correction, but because it weaponizes “activating emotion.” It gets clicks by generating fear and outrage, not by appealing to reason. When Americans choose anti-establishment conservative content over the New Yorker, they’re choosing “viral misinformation” over “simple truth.”

“Some were more anti-Semitic than others,” Marantz writes. Among the anti-establishment conservative influencers, “Some were more openly racist than others. Some emphasized misogyny, whereas others were more passionate about Islamophobia … 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.”

As for the American public that was beguiled by them? Clearly, they are too stupid to discern the truth for themselves. Either that, or they too are racist misogynists—i.e. morally defective.

MARANTZ VS. TECHNO-UTOPIANS / Emerson Spartz

Emerson Spartz.

MARANTZ VS. TECHNO-UTOPIANS

At one point in the book, Marantz recalls an encounter with a friend who saw little problem with politically compromising clickbait: “Look, we happen to live in a free country. People can click on terrible links if that’s how they want to spend their time.”

“Any media system that could lead to such absurd outcomes was surely flawed. If this was how millions of Americans were getting the information that would shape their voting behavior, then something had gone terribly wrong.”

“I made counterarguments,” Marantz writes. “Those terrible links influence what people think, how people behave, who people vote for.” He means, of course, that we can’t trust citizens to choose their own sources of information. So it’s not enough for Marantz to lay the blame for Trumpism on an intellectual deficit; he also blames the “techno-utopians” who fed their terrible information consumption habits.

Techno-utopians allowed racists and misogynists to access racist and misogynist content. They failed to protect good people from racist and misogynist speech. They allowed those incapable of discerning the difference between the true and the fake or the good and the bad to access content that harmed them. After all, it’s the job of media gatekeepers to make those distinctions for the public—that’s the way mass media has functioned for over a century. And through their feats of engineering, the techno-utopians made a colossal mistake by getting rid of our gatekeepers.

According to Marantz, a techno-utopian believes that the American people are wise and moral enough to make those distinctions for themselves. They can thus be trusted with an open internet. They have faith that truth and virtue will eventually win out in the open marketplace of ideas. They think that “getting rid of informational gatekeepers” is a victory for democracy. Recall that Reddit’s motto was once “freedom from the press.” Techno-Utopians want to use technology to “democratize [and] give the power to the people.” They might even believe that “the freedom to share opinions online was akin to a human right.” Note the implicit assumption here: that the popularity of some political content is some indication of its moral or intellectual value.

Marantz’s book is a frontal attack on all these beliefs. He recounts for us his crusade through Silicon Valley, shaking off charges of luddism as he preached his gospel of the unapologetic viciousness and stupidity of the average internet-using voter.

Marantz met Peter Thiel at DeploraBall, where he offered an answer to Thiel’s famed contrarian question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Marantz answers that it’s wrong to think that “there’s an innate, reliable correlation between how good something is and how popular it will be.” His rejection of this thesis pulls the ground out from under techno-utopianism. It’s the key to his book-length defense of “traditional media gatekeeping,” which he sees as, “like democracy, the worst system except for all the others.”

It’s only because Marantz is so disdainful of his fellow citizens’ choices, of course, that he can deny as sharply as he does any correlation between what’s good and what’s popular. It’s that contempt that makes it easy for Marantz to dismiss Emerson Spartz, the techie most devoted to the thesis, “if it gets shared, it’s quality.” Marantz presents Spartz as the most obnoxious of the Silicon Valley crew, but anti-establishment conservatives will find sympathy with Spartz’s view that Marantz’s proposal to censor the internet amounts to “paternalistically deciding what’s bad for people.” To Marantz, however, Spartz is just another one of the “brash young disrupters with… a naïve faith in techno-utopianism.”

History has proven that faith wrong. “The bigots and propagandists were winning,” Marantz writes. Anti-establishment conservative content outperforms content from “reputable news organizations” like “Politico, CNN Politics, and The New York Times.”

To Marantz, that’s not a revolution—that’s an absurdity.

“Any media system that could lead to such absurd outcomes was surely flawed. If this was how millions of Americans were getting the information that would shape their voting behavior, then something had gone terribly wrong.”

THE NEW RIGHT’S FAITH IN AMERICANS / President Donald J. Trump

President Donald J. Trump.

THE NEW RIGHT’S FAITH IN AMERICANS

Marantz’s natural enemies are anti-establishment conservatives and techno-utopians. They share a faith in both the good sense of ordinary Americans and in free speech. Marantz takes aim at these shared core beliefs, detailing the supposed destruction they’ve caused: the death of media gatekeeping and, of course, President Trump.

It’s the new right’s faith in the simple moral and cognitive virtue of the American people that motivates our contempt for the mainstream media.

But his book isn’t all catastrophizing; he relays how journalists like him have succeeded in showing Silicon Valley that those responsible for “the hijacking of the American conversation” are vicious, and that those who listen to them are vicious, stupid—or both. And taking instruction from these journalists, the techno-utopians have reluctantly come to recognize that they must be gatekeepers. How else to preserve the clear “moral distance” between decent Americans and Deplorables?

Antisocial has given deplatformers a boost heading into 2020. With a firm hold of Silicon Valley’s ear, they whisper, ‘Marantz has proven that we cannot leave history for the people to decide – lest 2016 happen again.’

Recalling his experience at a party the night after Trump’s inauguration, Marantz writes, “The last thing anyone wanted to talk about was the intrinsic goodness of the American people.”

Maybe they just didn’t want to talk about that with him.

It’s central to Trump’s “populism” to reject this contemptuous view of ordinary Americans. It’s the new right’s faith in the simple moral and cognitive virtue of the American people that motivates our contempt for the mainstream media.

Written By

Daniel Addison is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College/CUNY. Follow him on Twitter at @derocrates.

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