The mainstream media and online trolls are waging an information war and competing for our attention. One way that newsrooms can counter the efforts of online extremists who hijack our conversation is to “really look this stuff in the face,” according to New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz.
“Only by really chronicling and hanging out with people until the mask slips, can you know who’s who and what’s what,” Marantz said.
Marantz did just that. He sat down with Brian Stelter on this week’s Reliable Sources podcast, and discussed the hundreds of hours he spent embedded with various “metamedia insurgents” in his reporting for his new book “Antisocial.”
Marantz cites two factors that led to this troubling information landscape: The death of traditional newspapers and the dependence on social media for news and information.
“So it’s not just about people losing subscriber base and people losing ad revenue. It’s about this notion that you no longer go to one specific source for your information or 10 sources or 20 sources you go to a feed and the feed is algorithmically personalized,” he said.
This “completely topples the hierarchy,” Marantz says. What makes a story “good” or profitable depends on various engagement metrics and, Marantz argues, user “emotion.” That “could be things that tie us together and sort of make our civic glue stronger, or it could be things that really tear us apart.”
He notes that social media leaders in Silicon Valley are reluctant to admit their roles as “gate-keepers,” or act as moderators on their own platforms.
The “gate-crashers” or online extremists, on the other hand, are savvy in manipulating this social media pipeline, Marantz says. He explains, “The reason that I spent so much time with them instead of just considering them fringe and kind of beneath my attention, is that they’re extremely good at it. Whether we like it or not, they are really good at taking noxious stuff that we shouldn’t be paying attention to and making everyone in America pay attention to it.”
Marantz described how online extremists would reverse engineer information from traditional news sources for their purposes. For example, Marantz details his time spent with pro-Trump provocateur Mike Cernovich, describing how the “virality industry” works from the front lines. Cernovich would take to live video streaming app Periscope to brainstorm a catchy hashtag with his followers, all in the name of making a fabricated story go viral, according to Marantz.
“He’d start the video and tell his hardcore fans ‘All right, we need to come up with a good hashtag. We need to get that hashtag to trend if that hashtag trends maybe it’ll get on the Drudge Report. If it gets on the Drudge Report maybe it’ll get on Fox News… Maybe if Fox News sees it, then Brian Stelter will see it,'” Marantz said.
He says, “The way that these people study you guys, the way they study us in the print media, they are trying to back-engineer how they can break into the national conversation.”
Even the term “alt-right” made its way into the national vocabulary, but Marantz clarifies, “It was invented by Richard Spencer, so that alone makes it seem like a dangerous propaganda.” The term works as “good branding for them” in its sounding “more kind of edgy and cool than it is.”
For Marantz, the way to win back the “hijacked” national conversation is to face this dark online underbelly. He tells Stelter, “The only way forward is to really really look this stuff in the face.”