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10 June 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 6:12am

How the alt-right shifted the Overton window

Andrew Marantz’s Antisocial: How Online Extremists Broke America is a refreshingly insightful account of how the alt-right used technology to shape today’s politics.

By Sarah Manavis

If there’s one thing political commentators love to talk about, it’s the “strange times that we’re living in” – though they rarely explain how these times came to be so weird. Since 8 November 2016, nearly every discussion on Trump’s rise to power has been riddled with vagueness: that it was impossible to have predicted; that the terrible tech companies and “trolls online” helped to spread the “fake news” that got us here. Explanations tend to consist of little more than gestures towards the internet or the Rust Belt and a shrug.

Andrew Marantz’s Antisocial: How Online Extremists Broke America is refreshingly free of such regurgitated theories. It tells the story of how right-wing figures on the internet deconstructed Western politics and media. It pinpoints the ­collision ­between ideology and technology that was approaching long before 2016 – and ­discusses the gatekeepers who were too late to stop it. But what makes Antisocial a truly valuable attempt at explaining this complex story is that Marantz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, spent years in the presence of some of the most high-profile figures of the alt-right and tech communities, and was committed to understanding their worlds.

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The book’s central question is whether the Overton window – described as “a metaphor… for how cultural vocabularies fluctuate over time” – has shifted. At the centre of the window are mainstream ideas, socially acceptable political lines and the policies that are, as Marantz says, “taken for granted”. At the outer edges of the window sit radical lines of debate that are starting to permeate small sections of society. And outside the window? The things that are ­socially unspeakable.

The long-term goal of right-wing ­radicals online, says Marantz, “was to shift the Overton window, or to smash it and rebuild it in their image… [to] stretch the Overton window so radically as to drag the notion of a Trump presidency into the realm of the imaginable”.

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What Antisocial shows is that while Trump was a major part of this strategy, he was also merely a vehicle through which to do something far more radical: make ­extremist views part of the American norm.

Antisocial examines this idea through a variety of different channels: alt-right icons, “click farm” media companies, social media platforms, Silicon Valley, the traditional press, and the way they all interact with one another. Marantz speaks to tech leaders, the founders of Reddit, clickbait generators, and alt-right celebrities including Mike ­Cernovich, Gavin McInnes, Laura Loomer, Lauren Southern, Mike Enoch, Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.

Marantz shows that, like any broad church ideology, the online right has its own ­internal divisions: alt-right versus “alt-light”; white nationalists versus civic nationalists; and anti-Semites versus those still claiming they don’t hate Jews.

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While making these distinctions, ­Marantz ensures that all sides are shown for what they are. For example, his glossary definition of alt-light reads: “The alt-right was characterised by lurid racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and a tendency to spew disinformation; the alt-light claimed to reject overt racism and anti-Semitism, but seemed fine with the rest.”

Antisocial reveals how digital media ­assisted the alt-right’s meteoric rise. Marantz interviews Emerson Spartz, a tech entrepreneur who in 1999, when he was just 12 years old, founded MuggleNet, the world’s largest Harry Potter fan site; he has gone on to found 30 different websites.

When Marantz presses Spartz about how viral clickbait journalism isn’t necessarily good for covering important stories such as climate change or the war in Syria, and ­allows misinformation to be spread with ease, Spartz’s response is: “I’m interested in impact… the ultimate barometer of ­quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”

With this as a basis – an internet built to reward clickability over accuracy – alt-right figures were able to shift the Overton window quickly in their favour. They did this initially by building large audiences through misogynistic, racist and ethno-nationalist blogs that tapped into readers’ emotions using fake or debunked studies to prove points about white, male supremacy.

During the 2010s, commentators such as the anti-feminist Mike Cernovich were able rapidly to turn themselves into personalities through their blogs, gaining six-figure audiences on Twitter and impressive site traffic. By 2015 they were able to ­harness their enormous influence to encourage people to vote for Trump in the Republican ­primary and then, in 2016, in the ­presidential election.

The alt-right developed the ability to persuade a large audience to believe unverified stories and ignore or disbelieve traditional media sources. In 2016 it aggressively raised false concerns over Hillary Clinton’s physical health, including that she had Parkinson’s disease and a “seizure disorder”. Marantz explains how whenever Clinton would appear on television, Cernovich, for example, would tweet saying she wasn’t looking well and would test a variety of hashtags (such as, during a debate about ­immigration, #HillarysHitmen or ­#HillarysMigrants) to see which would start ­trending and reach a wider audience.

Once he determined which worked best, Cernovich would delete his other options and tell his followers to start using the most popular tag. He would then track how many people tweeted each of his fake news hashtags so he could ­understand which were having the best reach, and then use that data to ­inform ­future hashtags.

Antisocial also shows how traditional Washington journalism failed to keep up with this fast-paced, viral content machine. Marantz touches on the pure bafflement of the mainstream media when contributors to conspiracist websites were given White House press passes, and their astonishment at the president publicly berating them while praising these niche propaganda channels for throwing him softballs.

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Despite being written before the coronavirus pandemic, the relevance of this book cannot be overstated. The same creative social-media tactics that drove Trump’s rise are now being used to stoke racism and ­conspiracist thinking in the wake of ­Covid-19. Already there are reported spikes in anti-Chinese hate crime and in the ­popularity of anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic hate speech online.

Before coronavirus, conspiracy theories on 9/11 and the moon landings were concentrated in obscure blogs and grainy YouTube videos. Now, the patently false idea that 5G mobile technology has a connection to Covid-19 has gained mainstream attention: in the UK it was even aired by Eamonn Holmes on This Morning. With the help of hashtags, celebrity social media endorsements and WhatsApp’s forwarding function, coronavirus conspiracy theories are gaining ground fast. In a US election year, alt-right figures and their ­followers have been granted new territory to colonise.

When journalists cover the alt-right, they often try to be as balanced as possible, partly due to fear of harassment, leading to a lack of scepticism towards these insidious characters. Marantz does not fall into this trap. He not only calls out their extreme, often stupid, hypocrisy, but regularly moc­ks them for their tacky materialism, bad jokes and snowflake-esque preciousness.

Humour and irony are among Antisocial’s greatest weapons. Marantz notes, for example, how Mike Enoch, one of the alt-right’s most vehement anti-Semites, was married to a Jewish woman, and that Cernovich, an aggressive white nationalist, was married to a black woman for nearly ten years. One particularly striking piece of irony is when Marantz pulls up an old blog from the British controversialist Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor at the far-right website Breitbart News and one of the alt-right’s most prominent figures, which reads: “We ban drunks from driving because they’re a danger to others… Isn’t it time we did the same to trolls?”

Antisocial is arguably the most ­important work yet written about 2016. It should be required reading for anyone who claims to care about where our political world is heading. 

Antisocial: How Online Extremists Broke America
Andrew Marantz
Picador, 320pp, £20

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This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt