by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 20 2020
thinking before you speak is not repression
We live in a strange world today. Democracy seems meaningless and governments have no control over tech and communications behemoths like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. It is odd to think that not so long ago the founders of these enterprises were seen as almost saintly gurus bringing nothing but good to the world. Google used the phrase “Don’t be evil” in its corporate code of conduct. On 16 May 2013, Margaret Hodge MP, the chair of the UK Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, told Matt Brittin, head of Google UK, “I think that you do evil”. According to Shona Zuboff, in her monumental work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google and later Facebook, in much the same way that mass-production and managerial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism.
Much of the evil that is done relates to hate speech and fascism. Andrew Marantz is a staff writer at the New Yorker. He has been writing for the magazine since 2011 and has also contributed to Harper’s, New York, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and many other publications. His new book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation deals with the time he spent embedded with a variety of people along the spectrum of right-wing politics from ‘respectable’ republicans, through lite-right, alt-right, cuckservatives, paleoconservatives, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, white-supremacist thugs and “white nationalists—not the old skinhead type but the more polished, just-asking-the-question variety.” Marantz brings a good deal of wry humour to his story but in the end the book is a depressing picture of rancid extremism becoming normal, of distortion of the truth becoming acceptable and unsurprising, of a vicious buffoon with no moral centre ruling the globe’s most powerful nation with the assistance of those amoral right-wingers.
Marantz declares: “I knew what it was like to experience much of life through the mediating effects of a screen. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine how anything—a dead gorilla, a gas chamber, a presidential election, a moral principle—could start to seem like just another thing on the internet.”
The interesting thing about the book is the way Marantz interweaves his encounters with right-wingers using the internet to further their aims and the technocrats who use the internet to further their fortunes. “What I can offer is the story of how a few disruptive entrepreneurs, motivated by naïveté and reckless technoutopianism, built powerful new systems full of unforeseen vulnerabilities, and how a motley cadre of edgelords, motivated by bigotry and bad faith and nihilism, exploited those vulnerabilities to hijack the American conversation.”
One person he encountered in both worlds. Peter Thiel is a billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He is a co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies and Founders Fund. Thiel was Facebook’s first outside investor when he acquired a 10.2% stake for $500,000 in August 2004. He sold the majority of his shares in Facebook for over $1 billion in 2012, but is still on the board of directors. Thiel mixes with fascists and also supports Trump. “Why would a capitalist grandee, the cofounder of PayPal and one of the most revered investors in the country, risk tarnishing his reputation by mixing publicly with pariahs?”
After the 2016 election, Marantz was in the lobby of the Trump Hotel in Washington He sees “tatted-up Proud Boys” (middle-class young men in Fred Perry shirts who go looking for trouble at left-wing rallies), “notorious 4chan shitlords who seemed flummoxed by the mechanics of face-to-face conversation”.
A term used in the book is Overton window. This means the range of socially acceptable opinion, which can shift over time. Social media has extended the opportunities to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable. “Some norms—such as welcoming the stranger, or respecting the dignity of women, or resisting the urge to punch random pedestrians in the face—really are worth preserving.”
Some critics have a problem with the problem Marantz has with freedom of speech. J Oliver Conroy feels Marantz is too nostalgic for the days of old media, when journalists were relied upon to be the gatekeepers but failed in that mission in relation to Vietnam and Iraq. “What if our media gatekeepers – overwhelmingly white, coastal, secular, educated at a handful of elite universities and only 7% Republican – suffer from profound myopias and bias?” Marantz has doubts about unfettered freedom of speech. “When it comes to core matters of principle, though, it’s not always possible to be both evenhanded and honest. The plain fact was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars. If a newspaper’s house style didn’t allow its reporters to say so, at least by implication, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.” When it comes to racism and misogyny: “To treat these as legitimate topics of debate is to be not neutral but complicit.”
The people Marantz encounters would never have got employment in the old media but social media enables them to spread their poison. They “espoused opinions that were so politically retrograde, so morally repugnant, or so self-evidently deceitful that no reputable news organization would ever hire them. And yet, in the twenty-first century, they didn’t need traditional jobs. Instead, they could mobilize and monetize a following on social media.”
Marantz quotes the philosopher Richard Rorty who warned back in 1994 of the gains which could be lost. I quoted Rorty myself in these pages in 2017. Rorty wrote in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” It is not elitist to want to retain the gains that were made; it is not PC to mourn the loss of civility that Trump and the worst excesses of social media embody.
Marantz concludes: “The Constitution guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech; it does not guarantee anyone’s right to threaten strangers in the public square, or to shout obscenities on TV, or to use a social media platform to agitate for the physical removal of your fellow citizens, or to promote racist ideas without being made to feel like a racist.”