Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, by Andrew Marantz, Picador, 320 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1509882496
The following, quoted by The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz in his new book, Anti-Social, are the sage and, shockingly, earnest words of one Milo Yiannopolous:
Social media are often blamed for a coarsening of discourse on the internet – for the depressing and seemingly exponential rise in libellous, abusive and unpleasant behaviour between human beings unencumbered by worries about consequences. In fact, the problem has been around a lot longer than that. And social media is only turbocharging a fundamental structural problem with people and the internet: the mediating layer, we might say, of a screen and keyboard encourages us to write unspeakable things to other human beings that we would never dream of saying in person.
we ban drunks from driving because they’re a danger to others. Isn’t it time we did the same to trolls?
Yes, that Milo Yiannopolous. That he would be capable of anything close to either sagacity or earnestness will come as a surprise to many: until quite recently, he was one of the online world’s best-known entrepreneurs of outrage, an “alt-right” impresario who revelled in the very malignancies he diagnoses above.
The article in question, entitled “The Internet is Turning us all into Sociopaths”, was written by Yiannopolous in September 2012: prelapsarian times, if you will. This arch-piggybacker and troll was yet to indulge his seemingly bottomless opportunism: the “Gamergate” controversy, for which he would first achieve notoriety and the Byzantine details of which I’ll spare you, hadn’t yet erupted; Barack Obama, a paragon of liberal decorum, was about to win re-election as president of the United States; Donald Trump was still viewed as a relatively harmless, Twitter-confined kook. The “normies” ‑ a pejorative term denoting those who are not part of an online subculture or conversant in its lingua franca ‑ were very much in control.
Both Yiannopolous’s about-face and Trump’s unlikely ascendancy to the office of president ‑ aided in large measure by his adoption of increasingly conservative and authoritarian attitudes ‑ betray a cynicism of epic proportions: Milo became a free speech absolutist of cartoonish tenor (albeit before eventually falling on his own sword), while Trump, a serial adulterer and accused rapist, has since been canonised by Evangelical America as a figure of literal messianic import. The willingness with which a Trump or a Yiannopolous ‑ or their legion acolytes ‑ degrade and debase apparently venerable political norms whose durability we once seldom doubted has left many dazed and confused. The most common response, which seems eminently reasonable, is recourse to facts: political and social normalcy will inevitably follow from the re-establishment of a shared epistemological framework; if we could all just sober up and abstain from the noxious diet of disinformation, courtesy of the Russians, on which we’ve been heartily gorging for the past four years, the arc of history will once again bend toward justice ‑ at snailish speed, granted.
This is comforting but also wholly inadequate.
Since both the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, a consensus liberalism, whose avatars range from Obama and Blair on the centre-left to Cameron and Major on the centre-right, has consistently resorted to the judiciary and its apparent “higher truths” in the face of existential threats to its hegemony. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election, Supreme Court pushback on Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament in the UK, and the recent impeachment of Trump in the House of Representatives were all at one point or another heralded as marking the reassertion, finally, of legal principle and institutional propriety. Yet neither Mueller, nor Lady Hale, nor Nancy Pelosi were remotely successful in combating the sinister aberrations for which they and the whole arsenal of liberal democracy were called up to tackle in the first place. Trump, who later dismissed the proceedings against him as “all bullshit”, was easily acquitted despite the fact that, in some Habermasian idyll, the case would be a no-brainer: facts, marshalled in support of a coherent argument, ought to prevail over the laughable bloviations of his counsels.
What Alan Dershowitz, Jay Sekulow, Ken Starr, Robert Ray, Pat Cipollone and Pam Bondi presented by way of Trump’s defence was tantamount to a form of highfalutin “shitposting”. This refers to a trolling tactic whereby one floods a forum or “thread” with nonsense and redundancy ‑ the more execrable and outrageous the better. The shitposter is the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s notion of the bullshitter on steroids. Unlike liars, the bullshitter (like the shitposter), has no truck with the truth: “his eye is not on the facts at all […] except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says”, Frankfurt writes in his famous essay “On Bullshit”. Trump’s defence had no interest in discerning legal culpability, but rather in shaping a narrative; after all, impeachment is itself more a political than a legal process. Thus was Rep Adam Schiff’s lawyerly eloquence utterly impotent against the strategic bluster of his opponents.
Following his acquittal, Trump posted a meme suggesting that his presidency might last forever.
Setting aside the well-documented scourge of brazen partisanship, under what circumstances might hard facts prove so toothless against a barrage of barely relevant innuendos? In what context might a citizenry seem largely indifferent to a well-wrought, logical argument? A recent spate of books has sought to pose such questions, many of which focus on the dangerous mismatch between liberal democracy’s vaunted ideals and its more grim actuality. From the left, Pankaj Mishra and William Davies have written incisive intellectual histories of liberalism and its discontents in the tradition of earlier works by the likes of John Gray and the late Tony Judt. Both argue that what today gets dismissed as “populism” is in fact a legitimate affective revolt ‑ hence Mishra’s Age of Anger (2017) and Davies’s Nervous States (2018) ‑ against a technocracy-oriented politics that a disenfranchised electorate rightly judges to be cold, distant and unresponsive to its needs. The antidote to this supposed atavism isn’t compulsory subscriptions to The Economist or the Financial Times, for liberalism’s conflation of the flourishing autonomous individual with a two-dimensional homo economicus is in large measure to blame. As Davies puts it: “for someone who has had no pay rise for forty years, or has a job that is lower status than his father’s was, this narrative has a credibility that no quantity of facts and figures can acquire. For this person, appeals to statistical objectivity – with the emphasis on averages and aggregation that this implies – can add insult to injury.” “We can respond by hurling more facts at these disturbances”, or, as he attempts to do, “by diagnosing their underlying drivers”.
From the right, Patrick Deneen largely agrees, although his prescriptions in Why Liberalism Failed (2018) differ significantly. A conservative and a Catholic, Deneen canvasses the need to reconstruct a social fabric whose former linchpins were the church and local enterprise. In this regard, he is patently reactionary. His summary of liberal democracy’s deliquescence is nonetheless as elegant as any:
The “Noble Lie” of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those who benefit from it, while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the new servant class that liberalism has produced […] liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system.
For Deneen, as for Mishra and Davies, the old appears “to be dying and new cannot be born”. These, the words of the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, produce what he called “morbid symptoms”. The phenomenon of trolling and its attendant tactics ‑ gratuitous provocation; an absolute rejection of reason-based discourse; contempt for social norms and anything resembling basic decency ‑ are a manifestation of this. Trolling is affective revolt writ large; its sole purpose, no matter the means, is to elicit a response. It seeks to make a mockery of liberal democratic deliberation: to show it to be mere pabulum. By definition a fringe figure, the troll disconcerts because they weaponise that which irrigates all else in a liberal society: freedom of expression and rational discussion. They make just enough noise to disturb its smooth functioning. As Davies writes, trolls are the arch-weaponisers, for they see a tool like social media “not in terms of its intended function” ‑ to connect people and thus foster healthy conversation and debate, as per Facebook and Twitter’s Panglosses ‑ but in terms of its full range of possible impacts. No wonder “freedom of speech” has become the rallying call of the troll.
Whitney Phillips, a professor of media studies at Syracuse University, has written what is perhaps the most in-depth appraisal of online trolling and its wider relevance, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (2015). Phillips presents a history of this strange subculture, rhetorical elements of which have migrated from the darkest corners of the online world to the political mainstream. While she is highly circumspect about whether it is accurate or wise to call President Trump himself a troll ‑ the term retains, she claims, ludic connotations that are incompatible with the awesome power he actually wields ‑ his own habits, especially on Twitter, are evocative of trolling’s hallmarks: the sadistic, ad hominem mocking of opponents, usually women and people of colour; the way he gleefully shreds norms of civility and politeness; his use of calculated ambiguity as an alibi when insinuating something especially heinous or controversial.
Nevertheless, trolling is for Phillips not “just being an ass on the internet”. “Troll behaviors,” she writes, “which are widely condemned as being bad, obscene, and widely transgressive […] allows one to reconstruct what the dominant culture regards as good, appropriate, and normal.” This dominant culture is liberalism, and hence trolls position themselves in absolute contradistinction to everything it is thought to idealise: consensus and compromise, robust debate but healthy disagreement.
For trolls, politics is insuperably Manichaean. It is governed by enmity. The notion that this could be otherwise is a saccharine fiction that should be derided. In this regard they share something of the worldview of Nazi jurist and political philosopher Carl Schmitt, for whom politics (or what he called “the Political”) is rooted in a foundational friend-enemy distinction that liberal democracy, try as it might, can never circumvent, still less overcome. Trolls are a carnivalesque symptom of Schmitt’s most troubling intuitions and warnings. And given their elective affinities, they’d very much welcome the comparison.
The fact that they revel in their own corrosiveness is one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with the phenomenon of trolls and trolling. Andrew Marantz begins Antisocial (2020) with an account of the “DeploraBall”: a lavish post-election rendezvous of the alt-right underworld that “memed Donald Trump into the White House”, and whose name is an aptly ironic appropriation of Hilary Clinton’s now infamously imprudent slight. Those in attendance, the VIPs of the so-called “deplorables”, had decided to henceforth strategically embrace their anathematisation; they would be deplorable and proud of it. This was a darkly savvy hack: if one had already made a brand of depravity, one became somewhat immune to censure. Attendees at the DeploraBall included: Mike Cernovich, an anti-feminist grifter who catalysed the spread of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy on Twitter and whose memes, dispiritingly, are still regularly given oxygen by President Trump; Richard Spencer, alt-right theoretician-in-chief now better known for having been punched in the face by an anti-fascist protester; Gavin McInness, co-founder of Vice magazine and arch-hipster turned racist shock jock; and Roger Stone, the Republican Party’s long-standing guttersnipe and recently convicted felon.
Perhaps the most intriguing attendee Marantz encounters at the DeploraBall, however, is Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and founder of PayPal. Unlike his Silicon Valley compatriots, Thiel is sympathetic both to conservatism as a political philosophy and to the current occupant of the White House; he went as far as donating over a million dollars to Trump’s campaign in 2016. Despite this contrarianism, it is to Thiel’s brand of libertarian politics, and not Mark Zuckerburg’s milquetoast liberalism, that social media and the internet has been most hospitable. For all their apparent political differences, liberals like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, as Marantz points out, spent years stridently trumpeting a non-interventionist, broadly libertarian approach to their own powerful progeny; “Twitter is the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” Dick Costolo, its former CEO, once proclaimed. The fabled “marketplace of ideas” and its invisible hand, the logic went, should be left alone, because more speech is better speech; the cream, after all, rises to the top. What could go wrong?
Nothing, apparently, because Facebook and Twitter are merely the latest iterations of inexorable Progress, much as the printing press ‑ which, as Marantz notes, was far from an unalloyed good at the time of its inception ‑ had been before them. Marantz calls this “techno-utopianism”: the belief that platforms like Facebook, by connecting millions of people, will inevitably facilitate democracy, its stability and expansion. Latent in this ideology is a combination of naivety, hubris and irresponsibility on the part of Silicon Valley’s “disruptors” that would be laughable if it wasn’t so pernicious. In his recent book Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (2019), the philosopher Justin EH Smith summarises social media and the internet’s vicissitudes thus:
Only a short decade or so ago, it could still plausibly be hoped that this new forum might serve as the “public sphere” in Jürgen Habermas’s sense, the locus in which deliberative democracy happens, and the best decisions are made through collective deliberation. Now it appears a far darker place, where the normal and predictable response to reasonable statements is, if it is coming from strangers, sheer abuse, and often concerted and massive campaigns of abuse […] moreover, the ignorant, paranoid, and hateful spirit of unmoderated comments sections has managed to spill out into political reality, congealed in the very person of the President of the United States.
For Marantz, it seems less conscious malefaction and more techno-utopianism’s intoxications that have led us to where we are now: from the supposedly halcyon days of Obama to the night of Trump. Zuckerberg probably believed ‑ and still believes ‑ his own fantasies: that “the gleaming vehicle of technology would naturally self-correct, like a driverless car, even with the rest of us asleep at the wheel”. Yet never was any evidence forthcoming in support of this cheery prognosis. As Marantz points out, “technology, like the arc of history, can carry us in any direction”. There is no comforting teleology.
Irrespective of where Dorsey and Zuckerberg’s brainchildren have carried us, they have cashed in. As Marantz points out, the fallout from the series of political cataclysms that social media platforms helped foment across the globe has done little to disabuse their founders of their own righteous mission; Zuckerberg “remains an unreconstructed techno-utopian”. He continues to appeal to lofty ideals of freedom and democracy, while perversely parroting the very trolls that plague his platform when brandishing the free speech canard. Beyond this recalcitrance lurks nothing other than greed. Marantz notes that “if the events of the past few years have not been enough to puncture his [Zuckerberg’s] faith, it’s hard to imagine what would”. Apart from some mild tweaking of its algorithms, Facebook has done little to confront the cesspool over which it now presides. Is this simply because the prevailing dispensation is so profitable? As Richard Seymour, author of The Twittering Machine (2019), writes: “this is an information ecology that selects, not for accuracy, but for somatic impact: whatever will keep us hooked, however emotionally dark or violent it might be.” Thiel, the libertarian, is perhaps less of an outlier in Silicon Valley than he might imagine.
While Marantz’s highly informative book manages to avoid this, Seymour in particular, like Davies and Mishra before him, has stressed how blaming technology and social media for all our political ills can easily slide into moral panic or a facile Luddism:
To focus only on technology leaves unexamined the crisis of political representation that might lead so many of us to find empowerment in berating our representatives […] Social media platforms did not create our crisis. They have stumbled on a way to profit from accelerating it, while magnifying some of our worst tendencies. The toxicity is not just in our tweets, but in ourselves.
We ignore political passions at our peril: politics devoid of emotion is a technocratic fantasy. Yet supporters of Bernie Sanders, whose grassroots campaign is seeking to address some of the “underlying drivers” of which Davies wrote, are now routinely accused of being Trumpian in their emotional fervour by the Democratic party establishment; they are a band of malcontents, “extremists” and trolls – “Bernie bros” ‑ and Sanders an angry populist, albeit of the left. This is an example of something Whitney Phillips forewarned us about: that “troll” as an epithet would become a “behavioural catchall” for anything one doesn’t like. Rather than seeking to expurgate from politics its affective elements, we should seek to harness passions to the kind of salutary politics Sanders is advocating. By all means deal with the trolls and Machiavellians, but those on whom they prey have much to be angry about.
Luke Warde is a doctoral candidate in French at the University of Cambridge, working on the politics of humour and the rhetoric of provocation in modern French literary culture. He is also books editor at the Dublin-based magazine Totally Dublin. His criticism has appeared there, as well as in The Irish Times and The Stinging Fly.