It doesn’t matter that you’re Batman. There are things in the real world, outside of your luxurious mansion, of your privileged city, that you do not know. Motivations that escape you. Enemies that don’t behave like those others you have persecuted and subdued. Your butler knows you best, because you served as a soldier in Burma in British colonial times. So the character played by Michael Caine in ‘The Dark Knight’ shares that information with Bruce Wayne with the intention that he knows something more about a villain like Joker: “Some men don’t look for something that is logical, like money. I don’t know. You can buy them. You can’t intimidate them or reason or negotiate with them. Some men just want to watch the world burn. ”
In his book ‘Antisocial. The extreme right and ‘freedom of expression’ on the internet ‘, published in Spain by Captain Swing, Andrew Marantz cites at various times that idea expressed with Caine’s perfect diction. Of course, that kind of destructive nihilism with large doses of sarcasm is not what characterizes all the ultra-rightists or reactionaries who have successfully infiltrated the public debate in the United States, and Marantz knows it.RELATED
Some are convinced ideologues or fanatics who do not compromise with anything in defense of their racist ideas. But there are many, who are incredibly popular on social networks, who only want to move the boat to see what happens in the hope that the coin will fall on their side.
They did it with the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 elections. They are living proof that this instrument known as the internet that was supposed to open a period of hope for humanity – “in the 21st century, information is power. It is not It is possible to hide the truth, said Barack Obama “- it can also be used for the opposite, to spread disinformation in the service of sinister ideas. “Information wants to be free, but the same goes for disinformation,” Marantz writes.
It is not a new phenomenon. The author of the book recalls that the printing press was essential to give a voice to scammers, terrorists or bigots or to broaden the echo of Luther’s anti-Semitism. The gifts humanity receives have many faces.
Marantz is a reporter for The New Yorker magazine, so he has plenty of time to write his articles. He decided to get in touch with some of the new digital preachers of the American extreme right at a time when they had the understanding or support of the White House, when it seemed that they were rowing in the favorable direction of the current. That included characters that were somewhat harmless at short distances, but whose influence on social networks with its hundreds of thousands of followers cannot be denied, and others more dangerous, such as some of the followers of Proud Boys, the group that had a leading role in the assault on the Capitol.
They are all part of the story. There are some who are charmingly eccentric. “I started the Indiana Tea Party,” explains a woman to the journalist. “Before that, I was a dominatrix with a basement dungeon and the guys paid me to spank their ass. Life is a roller coaster, don’t you think?” Like the guy in the bison hat who appeared in so many photos of the assault on Congress and later complained that they didn’t serve him organic food in jail.
Others are not so funny, like the Proud Boys, always ready to beat up those who stand up to them. Or those who hate feminists, although in reality they have targeted all women: “There is no reason to hit a woman. If you want to hurt her, destroy her soul.”
The book directly connects this new extreme right that until a decade ago was quite irrelevant in the US with the explosion of social networks that was going to allow the “democratization” of public communication. Those who read Evgeny Morozov’s first book will already know that the new technologies provided tools to popular movements in Third World dictatorships that did not come for free. Not that they had their drawbacks, but that they could also be used by repressive forces against dissidents. It was a matter of time before Western countries tried some of their own medicine.
Marantz also immerses himself in the world of the “techno-utopians” (the original title of the book is ‘Antisocial. Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians and the Hijacking of the American Conversation’), where curiously it does not have as many facilities to examine closely those companies. It may not come as a surprise because corporations like Facebook, Twitter or Google are very careful not to allow journalists to snoop behind their doors. But you can access some of the new entrepreneurs willing to be the next Facebook with the same lack of responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And above all enter Reddit – now better known outside the US thanks to the GameStop stock show–A place where you do get valuable insight into what would or wouldn’t work for social media companies if they decided to clean up the most toxic corners of their empire.
Those “new guardians” determined to supplant the rusty mass media in the public debate believed that they could not fail with their absolute belief in the freedom of expression of their users, in the manner of ‘the market is always right’ – and with a millionaire audience of young people wanting to discover their new references, which obviously were not going to be those of their parents. For everything else, their algorithms would suffice.
What happened in recent years, to which must be added the impact of the ultra assault on the Capitol, has left that utopianism to the drag. Everything indicates that Mark Zuckerberg’s priority is to protect his income and profits, although those responsible for Reddit do begin to believe that they should do something about it, and it better be fast. Marantz tells how they begin to get their hands on the machine to do what they had always ruled out. Browse the countless number of forums on your platform to remove violent and racist posts. No algorithms. By hand and through decisions debated with greater or lesser criteria and all of them pregnant with an inevitable subjectivity.
It’s what makes Marantz write that “now the days of ‘anything goes’ were coming to an end.” Among other things, because if the platforms do not do something effective, the governments will come to the conclusion that they have their solution to end the party.
The journalist is witness to the “purge” and discussions full of doubts about where to put the limit. “You don’t want to be so in love with surveillance that you become the Stasi, but you don’t want to fear control to the point of becoming a breeding ground for Nazis,” says one of Reddit’s executives. Sounds good. The problem is how to do it and that same person admits that it is “incredibly difficult”.
The measures, not always coherent or free from controversy, to put an end to hate messages and to some of the extremists who have made the networks their battlefield may actually work. Marantz cites a study that claims Reddit’s 2015 decisions to cut down on extremist content were successful to some extent. The most toxic content removed with the closure of several subforums did not move elsewhere on the platform. In this game of ‘whack-a-mole’, the one with the mallet in hand has the advantage.
That doesn’t make Marantz jump to encouraging conclusions at the end of the book. Some notorious extremists have lost their Facebook and Twitter accounts. They have disappeared from the networks or have seen their influence on the networks reduced, but their message is still there. Or worse: a certain extremist message – racist, xenophobic, anti-feminist or anti-scientific – circulates easily through the mainstream media, such as Fox News. What many years ago was unthinkable outside of fringe circles is now available to everyone.
Hence, Marantz is pessimistic. Social progress is not an irreversible trend. Those who appeal to social resentment are not necessarily on the losing side of history. “The arc of history may bend in that direction (in favor of justice), but the arc of history does not bend inexorably or automatically. It does not bend itself. We bend it.”
And that he wrote the book before the assault on the Capitol.