How Internet Trolls And Online Extremists Are 'Hijacking' American Politics | Connecticut Public Radio
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How Internet Trolls And Online Extremists Are 'Hijacking' American Politics

Nov 12, 2019
Originally published on November 13, 2019 12:20 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Andrew Marantz has spent the past three years reporting on the alt-right's use of social media. He's embedded with the people he describes as the trolls and bigots and propagandists who are experts at converting fanatical memes into policy.

Marantz is a staff writer for The New Yorker and started this reporting project during the 2016 presidential campaign. He watched how extremist memes and lies were created and went viral, and he profiled the people creating the means. Marantz has also been reporting on social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, that claim they're dedicated to free speech but have vulnerabilities that have allowed them to become the primary means for spreading disinformation.

His latest articles are about what social media platforms have been doing and have declined to do to prevent purveyors of false news and smears from exploiting social media during the 2020 election. Andrew Marantz is the author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation."

Andrew Marantz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book is about disinformation, propaganda on social media, trolling before and after the election of Trump. Do you think enough has changed to prevent that from happening again as we face the 2020 election?

ANDREW MARANTZ: No, definitely not. There have been a couple of little loopholes that have been closed here and there. But no, I think we're pretty much in for what we were in for last time.

GROSS: I want to get to a good example of what you are covering. You were with Mike Cernovich, who made the whole Hillary-is-sick, Hillary-has-a-neurological-problem meme go viral. So let's start with - who is Mike Cernovich?

MARANTZ: He is a lawyer and a misogynist and a married guy with kids who lives in Southern California. And he also sells nutritional supplements and hair products online. And he also is a mastermind behind a lot of memes that travel through the Internet in very dubious ways. So he is a lot of things. And of course he presents himself as a very serious investigative journalist. I mean, he is a journalist in a sense, but he's not, in my opinion, a very good one.

GROSS: So tell us how he came up with the meme that Hillary is sick, that she has Parkinson's disease.

MARANTZ: Yeah. So...

GROSS: And this was, of course, during the election.

MARANTZ: Right. So when I first reached out to him, I - this was middle of 2016. And when I first reached out to him, he said, yeah, you know, I'm happy to let you just sit in my living room and watch me do this day after day. And so I just sat with him and watched him. He wasn't anonymous. He was totally proud of what he was doing.

And you know, one of the things he was doing, as you say, is he sort of said, OK; I want people to trust Hillary less. And I don't want to use sort of, you know, brow-furrowing concern to do that. I want to use really visceral emotions, like fear and disgust, to do that. So I'm just going to insinuate that she is really, really sick. Even though, of course, I don't have evidence that she has Parkinson's or anything, I'm just going to suggest that.

And so he would, you know, not just sort of sit around and think about it or sort of insinuate it, he would really actively plant it into the bloodstream of the national discourse. So the way he would do it is he would open a - open an iPad. He would do a Periscope livestream; it's an app owned by Twitter where you can do a livestream.

He would get about a thousand of his hardcore fans into the Periscope. And he would say, OK, guys, this is what we're doing today; we're going to make everyone think Hillary's sick. We need a hashtag. And they would all kind of workshop a hashtag - you know, him speaking to the camera, them typing in the comments. They would come up with the hashtag they thought would be the best, then they would all kind of swarm to Twitter together at the same time and try to get that hashtag to trend and put in, you know, images and sort of insinuations and wordings that they thought would be really sticky - get the hashtag trending.

And then, once they got it trending, then every journalist in the world would see it. It would be on the Drudge Report. It would jump from the Drudge Report to Fox News. From Fox News, it would be on CNN, almost to the point where I could open the newspaper the next morning and say, I think this story is being reported on in the newspaper because of what I watched this guy do in his living room yesterday.

So he did that with the sickness rumors. He did it almost every day with whatever he wanted.

GROSS: And what was the, quote, "evidence" he used that Hillary was sick?

MARANTZ: Oh, for that one, it was, like, she blinked in a way that he found weird - in a video. Or you know, she had parts of her public schedule that couldn't be accounted for. And you know, I should say, the Clinton campaign was not very transparent with the press. So there were things that conspiracy-minded people could jump on because she didn't always account for where she was. So they could say - oh, that's when she went to the hospital in secret.

GROSS: And she did collapse. I think she had pneumonia.

MARANTZ: Right, exactly. So that happened before. He was planting these sickness rumors before that happened, and then she had pneumonia. Again, she wasn't very transparent with the press about the fact that she had pneumonia, and then she showed up for this 9/11 memorial and collapsed. And it was caught on video. And people - her campaign people were trying to hide it from the cameras. So it was all kind of this perfect storm of secrecy, on the one hand, and kind of overeager dot-connecting on the other. And when I saw that happen, I said - oh, you know, this might not mean anything in any real sense, but it's going to be very meaningful in a kind of appearance, semiotics sense.

GROSS: And one of your points is, here's a guy at home with a phone or a laptop and followers. And he can really make something that is not true at all go viral and get picked up eventually by the media.

MARANTZ: Yeah. When I was first with him, I kind of thought - wow, I'm getting really lucky today. You know, I'm seeing him move the needle of the public discourse in such discreet ways. You know, it wasn't just Hillary being sick, it was rumors about her email; it was rumors about immigration. It was - you know, every day I was with him, multiple times a day, I would see this. And I thought - man, I must be getting really lucky. And then I was like, you know, he just does this kind of whenever he wants - morning, noon and night.

You know, the way we've built our information ecosystem is such that if you're good at it and you're motivated enough and you're not ashamed of transgressing all kinds of various norms of human behavior, you can kind of just do it whenever you want.

GROSS: Of course I wondered, like, how does he fund himself? Is this something he can monetize, making things go viral? But apparently, part of the how he funded himself was through his divorce 'cause his wife...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: His wife had worked at Facebook and had a lot of shares. He got some of those shares as part of the divorce settlement. And when Facebook went public, that translated to $2.6 million. But I guess he also funded himself through all the things that he sold that had nothing to do with politics, like the vitamin supplements and dieting things and...

MARANTZ: And books - he sold a lot of books on Amazon. And they were self-published, which means he kept a big share of the revenue. This was just one of these many details that came up in the course of reporting, you know, on him and on all the other people, where there were a lot of details that you couldn't really make them up. Or if you did make them up in a novel, they would be too on the nose. You know, the idea that one of the main social media propagandists I was tracking got his money from the Facebook IPO by way of a divorce - you know, which he did not want me to find out, but I went and got the court records - or you know, the fact that Richard Spencer, the kind of king of the Nazi trolls, has his family wealth deriving from cotton fields in Louisiana - these are things that, if you put them in fiction, they would seem a little overdetermined. But you know, it's reality.

GROSS: One of the other things that Mike Cernovich, who we've been talking about, did was he co-hosted the DeploraBall, which was basically the framing device for your book. Why don't you explain what the DeploraBall was and why you made it the framing device?

MARANTZ: Yeah. So there was a campaign event during the 2016 campaign where Hillary Clinton famously - or infamously, depending on your point of view - said about half of Trump's supporters are what I would call a basket of deplorables. You could put them into a basket of deplorables.

And it was one of those interesting political moments where it was, first of all, a very weird, memorable phrase. Like, who puts people in baskets? And it was also just a totem of how easy it is to take something your political enemy is doing rhetorically and just flip it on its head. So the people she was ostensibly describing just immediately said, yep, we're deplorables. We are proud to call ourselves that. We're going to make hats that say adorable deplorable on it. And it just immediately not only lost its power but it became a counter-weapon. You know, this is a thing that happened with the term fake news. That - again and again it was, you know, sort of taking the club out of your enemy's hand and then returning the beating with it.

So kind of the height of this was on inauguration weekend. The people who as - the way they put it is, we memed Trump into the White House. So they like to use meme as a verb, which is, like, a pretty good description of what they do. And so the people who memed Trump into the White House said, we are going to proudly wear this label of deplorable. We're going to have an inauguration ball called the DeploraBall, and we're going to celebrate the fact that, you know, the likes of Hillary thought we were so deplorable and yet we still beat her.

And as for why I used that as a device and why I wanted to be in that room, you know, there was definitely a human part of me that did not want to be in that room. There were a lot of people in that room who were manipulative, people who were trying to troll me or deceive me or get my attention as a mainstream journalist. And that made me uncomfortable.

But I felt that something was happening that was not being adequately described anywhere else - that there was a lot of energy in that room. And people were kind of responding to the energy, either in good or bad ways, but in pretty sort of straightforward ways - you know, putting out a news story the next day saying, wow, there were a lot of people in that room. But I didn't see a lot of kind of deeper, more patient analysis. And so I just thought, well, what if you not only start in that room but then follow those people for, you know, a year or two years - or really go back and reconstruct how they got to that room? I think you'll learn a lot more than just reporting on the immediate effects of it. The immediate effects of it were Trump is the president. But I thought there was a lot more backstory there that could be uncovered.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz, author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "THE LINE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz, author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." He's a staff writer for The New Yorker.

When you decided to follow some of the trolls before and after the presidential election, you had to decide whether, in doing so, you were exposing them and therefore doing a productive thing or whether you were giving them more of a platform by talking about them in The New Yorker and then writing a book about them, letting people know their names. And my impression is, even from reading your book, that a lot of the people who have been putting out the disinformation on American social media, they want attention. I mean, going viral is really important to them, and getting attention seems to be really important to them. And you would be giving it to them.

MARANTZ: Mmm hmm, yeah. I lost a lot of sleep over that. I did not want to be used as a vector for propaganda. I didn't want to be someone else's pawn. And look, I mean, I think it would be naive to ignore the fact that there is some transactional nature to all journalism and especially this kind of journalism that, as you say, is really fundamentally about attention. There are a lot of people in the book who thrive on any kind of attention, whether it's positive or negative. They monetize it. They use it to build their brand up. So I knew that that would be part of it. And a lot of times, when a person or an event or a storyline didn't meet a certain threshold of newsworthiness or instructiveness or any of these other things, I didn't include it. And that's - the majority of things didn't reach that threshold.

But I did feel that it was worth wrestling with that tension and sometimes writing about it anyway - staying around long enough to see people when their masks start to slip and also seeing it in the context of what it means for our larger information ecosystem. And again, a lot of it was because I just felt a lot of people who are not part of these sort of ostensible fringes - by not looking at what the fringes do, they are really preventing themselves from being able to inoculate themselves and the rest of society against these tricks. You know, they make themselves sitting ducks, in a way.

GROSS: One of the people who you write about in your new book is Mike Enoch. He is the founder of the blog The Right Stuff - and that's right as in far-right - and the founder of the podcast "The Daily Shoah," which is obviously a joke on the name "The Daily Show" and the Shoah, the Holocaust. And...

MARANTZ: Yeah, it's hilarious.

GROSS: Yeah. And no surprise, the podcast is very anti-Semitic and white supremacist. So tell us about Mike Enoch and what The Right Stuff is.

MARANTZ: Yeah. So this is another one where I really struggled with whether to pay this any attention or whether to just leave it alone. You know, it's obviously extremely toxic stuff. And you know, I'm Jewish. I didn't particularly want to spend a lot of time looking into, you know, arguably the nation's leading anti-Semitic propagandist. It wasn't fun for me. But there came a time when Mike Enoch got doxxed. So that's - Mike Enoch isn't his real name. And doxxing is when you sort of, as a retribution or punishment, put out people's personal information against their will.

So some online activists found out who he really was, put that information out there, and who he turned out to be was a guy named Mike Peinovich, living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was married to a Jewish woman. He came from Maplewood and Montclair - these very sort of progressive, kind of multicultural suburbs in New Jersey. He had gone to high school with Lauryn Hill and Zach Braff. His father was a professor of "Beowulf." He had an adopted brother who was biracial.

So again, as often happened when I would delve into this stuff, it just - none of it was what I had thought it would be if I was just sort of using my caricature, fill-in-the-blanks imagination. And at that point, I was intrigued. So I actually - I wrote to him, to the propagandist, and I also wrote to another email address called Mike Peinovich, and that one turned out to be his father, Mike Peinovich Sr. And then it - I ended up finding a kind of family saga buried in it.

GROSS: So let's get back to what his blog, "The Right Stuff," and his podcast, "The Daily Shoa," are like and how much influence they actually seem to have.

MARANTZ: Yeah. So as with a lot of fringe things, they are extremely, frankly anti-Semitic, racist. The aesthetic is kind of like drive-time radio, shock jock from the '90s kind of thing. They were big fans of The Jerky Boys and "Opie and Anthony." So it was kind of that aesthetic mixed with just shockingly, horrifyingly racist stuff.

So as for how influential it is, on the one hand, you know, you don't hear a lot of people walking around just openly talking like that, but on the other hand - because all these things are interconnected and because the entire, you know, circulatory system of American media is sort of one big thing now - you do sometimes see memes that they invented permeating across the entire system. So you know, they - for instance, they invented the meme of putting three parentheses around the names of Jewish people. That was then something you saw everywhere. So a lot of...

GROSS: Like, on Twitter, a lot of, like, Jewish journalists have the three parentheses around each side of their name to say, yeah, I'm Jewish, and I'm proud of that. That's fine.

MARANTZ: Yeah, to kind of reclaim it.

GROSS: Yeah, to reclaim it so that you can't be attacked for being Jewish. You're saying, yeah, I am.

MARANTZ: Yeah. And so that was the kind of thing where most people who did that probably had no idea where it originated, and yet if you actually go trace that meme back to its source, what you see is that this wasn't - it obviously wasn't just innocent fun. It also wasn't just a way to make Jews feel upset and afraid, although it was that, too. It was specifically - what they were interested in doing was called naming the Jew. So they're very put off by the fact that Jews can appear to be white, but in their pseudoscientific hierarchy, Jews are not white. And they're very, very concerned with this. You know, Jews are these shape-shifters, these scary creatures to them.

And so the first order of business to them was to point out where all the Jews were so that innocent white people could know and could rise up against them. So a lot of people who were playing around with this meme on Twitter would not have known its true origins, and in a sense, that's how they like it. You know, they want to stay in the shadows.

GROSS: There seems to be this odd mix of wanting to stay in the shadows and wanting to be famous and have a lot of power.

MARANTZ: Yeah, it is...

GROSS: I guess he's maybe more of an in-the-shadows guy (laughter).

MARANTZ: He's sort of the guy behind the guy. I mean, he's, in a way, kind of this Cerno (ph) who puts words in Richard Spencer's mouth. But...

GROSS: Literally? Like, I mean, not literally Cerno, but literally, he put words in Richard Spencer's mouth? They've worked closely together?

MARANTZ: Often, yeah. They became very close allies, and Richard Spencer would often go on "The Daily Shoa." And what Enoch would do - he called them narratives. So he would sort of set the narratives. So Enoch and his co-hosts would sort of say, OK, well, I think a good narrative for this moment would be to do X, Y or Z. So for instance, they were very interested in getting the word cuck-servative (ph) to permeate through the national discourse. Now, that's such a gross word that I almost can't really define it on public radio. But in a way, that's kind of the point, right? Their goal would be to get people like me saying that word in polite company.

The way that starts is by kibitzing on their podcast and saying, OK, how can we do this? And who do we go after on Twitter? What emotions do we create in that person to get them to almost become a host for this mental virus that can then be propagated through the rest of society? So yeah, definitely, people like Richard Spencer, people like Jason Kessler who organized the Charlottesville rally - all these people would kind of gather in these small rooms where it was just the inner circle of the hardcore who were listening, and then from there, it would kind of permeate in multiple directions.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Marantz, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." After a break, we'll talk about what Facebook and Twitter are and aren't doing to prevent false news and smears from being spread through political ads. And our TV critic David Bianculli will preview the new Disney streaming service. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Andrew Marantz, author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." He spent the past three years, starting with the 2016 presidential campaign, embedding with online extremists, profiling them, and watching them create viral memes. He's also written about social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit and what they have and have not done to prevent their platforms from being used to spread lies, smears and hate speech. When we left off, we were talking about Mike Enoch, who Marantz describes as a white supremacist. Enoch founded the blog The Right Stuff and the podcast "The Daily Shoah." The title is a play on "The Daily Show" and the Shoah, a Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

When Mike Enoch was doxxed, the information came out that his wife is Jewish, and I think you confirmed that.

MARANTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you talk to him about that? I mean 'cause he's basically a white supremacist. Is that...

MARANTZ: Mmm hmm, yeah.

GROSS: White nationalist - whatever word he...

MARANTZ: He prefers white nationalist. I think white supremacist is more than fair.

GROSS: There you go. And I assume anti-Semitism is a part of that.

MARANTZ: Definitely, yeah.

GROSS: Yes.

MARANTZ: Yeah. Well - so I talked to him about it at length. And part of it was just that he hadn't been what they call red-pilled yet when he met her. So he hadn't had this conversion experience yet when he met her. When he met her, it didn't matter to him at all that she was Jewish 'cause he grew up in bucolic suburban New Jersey, where half his friends were Jewish. Then, his kind of eyes were opened to the centrality of the Jews in this massive conspiracy.

And then it was essentially like a Greek tragedy for him. Like, he was a really isolated person, and his wife was really the only person who understood him in the world. And in a way, he had found the one thing that could risk driving them apart. And in a sense, it just felt like a random tragedy to him. But as I learned more about his story, it seemed fitting because he was just one of these people - and there are many of them in the book - who was so addicted to contrarianism that they will find a way to be contrary to anything in their lives, even at the deepest levels.

So there are some people who just want to be contrary where they, you know, hear something on the news and they say, I don't know. I'm skeptical of that. Some people take that so far that they will be contrarian even to the point of trying to ruin their own marriages and their own lives. It's tragic in a way.

GROSS: Is he still married?

MARANTZ: No. No, they separated. She claimed that she wasn't really aware of what his podcast was about while it was happening. I...

GROSS: "The Daily Shoah"?

MARANTZ: The Daily - exactly, yeah. Not only is it implausible, but I have some reporting that pretty clearly shows that that's not true. And you know, it just makes you wonder - like, how could a Jewish woman have sat there and stayed married to this guy? And just one of the things I found again and again and again is that people are just weirder than we could possibly imagine. They have more flexibility. They have maybe more kind of emptiness at the core of their political ideology than we think.

It's made me, really, honestly change the way I think about politics. You know, when we talk about people's political convictions and say - some voters like free trade, and others like, you know, protectionism - it - just, like, a lot of people are just way more open to vast, strange conversion on all kinds of things than we ever think possible.

GROSS: So Enoch is anti-Semitic, racist and promotes those thoughts on his blog and podcast. Did he support Donald Trump during the election? Does he support President Trump now? Did he play any role in promoting Trump?

MARANTZ: Yeah. So he and the rest of the alt-right definitely supported Trump during the campaign and saw him as the best they were ever going to get from a plausible presidential candidate. I mean, they saw him as someone who would give voice to their kind of white identity movement in a tacit way but still in a way that sounded very clear to them.

After he became president, he started to alienate them by being erratic and inconsistent - also by being a little too hawkish. A lot of these people came out of anti-war organizing, either from the left or the right or both. So when he started dropping bombs on Syria, a lot of the alt-right stopped being Trump supporters. And then also when he failed to build the wall and failed to enact what they wanted, which was essentially a proto-white nationalist agenda, he lost a lot of their support, too.

But a lot of them - you know, in a way the anti-Semitism, it's not just a kind of purely irrational - I mean, it's obviously irrational, but it doesn't come out of nowhere. A lot of it for them comes out of what they perceive as libertarian or anti-war politics.

GROSS: So if Trump were to run again, do you think he'd have the support of Mike Enoch or other people that you've written about in the book?

MARANTZ: Yeah, it's a really good question. A lot of them have moved on to other people like Tulsi Gabbard. A lot of people in my book are really into Tulsi these days.

GROSS: Really? How come?

MARANTZ: Because - well, for one, she's just the most anti-war candidate. And some of them are almost single-issue voters in that way. But others, they really stand so far outside the political system that they know that they're not going to get most of what they want from any particular candidate. So they're - you know, like all sort of radical politics, it's a question of getting what you can from the mainstream system.

So do you do that by doing it the way they did in 2016 - by saying - you know, Trump might not be a full white nationalist, but he's signaling enough toward white nationalism that he's our guy - or do you do it by, you know, heightening the contradiction and accelerating things - you know, trying to support someone who's so against what you believe that they're going to sort of accelerate the system into chaos from your point of view?

GROSS: So Hillary Clinton said that Tulsi Gabbard has been getting support from Russia.

MARANTZ: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Do you know anything about that? I mention that just 'cause I was surprised to hear that she's getting so much support from extremists on the far right.

MARANTZ: Yeah. So I think there are two plausible ways to read this. One is that Gabbard is outside of the mainstream on foreign policy issues and she is pushing an agenda that she feels strongly about, and her opponents, former and current, are smearing her for it. Another way to look at it is her agenda seems so closely aligned with Putin's and Assad's that maybe that's not a coincidence. Now, I don't know. It's possible that somebody with subpoena power will find out at some point.

But in a way, if you're a Russian state actor, kind of all you might need is just that insinuation and that lack of clarity. We don't know exactly what Putin wants, but it seems, from the reporting I've read, that what Putin mostly wants is for Americans to be confused and distrustful and not be able to believe their own eyes when they see something. So if Americans are looking at a presidential candidate and not knowing whether she's a Russian asset or not, that seems to fulfill a large part of Putin's motives whether she is or she isn't.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." And during the 2016 presidential campaign and then after, he followed and, you know, interviewed and spoke with, spent time with a lot of people on the far right who had figured out how to make things go viral and, in that sense, were having a big contribution to the American conversation about Donald Trump and American politics.

Do you see any echoing of the extremists who you write about in your book on Fox News? Did Fox News pick up on the blog posts and memes that these people put out?

MARANTZ: Yeah, definitely. This is another case where, you know, I don't have subpoena power. I can't order Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham and whoever else to turn over their cell phones to me. But I could ask the "alt-right" people what they thought. And they told me, yeah, when I watch Laura Ingraham, I get the sense that when she's talking about globalist elites and rootless cosmopolitans, she's really talking about the JQ. And when they say the JQ, that's their abbreviation for the Jewish question. So their sense often was, yeah, you know, these people might be saying things like globalists and elites, but they're really talking about the Jews. Or Tucker Carlson might be saying immigrants are dirty, meaning that he's concerned about the literal issue of litter collection on the border, but we know that - what he means when he says immigrants are dirty. To them, they saw those things as dog whistles. Now, the nature of a dog whistle is that I can't definitively prove what was in someone's mind or heart when they said it, but the echoes are very strong.

GROSS: There's a lot of pressure now on social media to prevent smears, hate speech, threats, disinformation, propaganda. And, you know, Facebook is a good example of a company that appears to be trying to deal with it. So what has Facebook done recently to try to cut down on propaganda, disinformation, smears, threats?

MARANTZ: So in one sense, Facebook is doing a lot of stuff. In another sense, they're kind of running away from their responsibility. Often, something really awful will happen on Facebook. Like, they will add fuel to the fire of Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, or in Sri Lanka, they had to just shut down - essentially, shut down the Internet for a few days because people were inciting so much violence. Now, we can't lay all of that at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg. Obviously, violence and ethnic strife and all those things existed before the semiconductor did.

But for a long time, the reason I was so obsessed with this ideology of laissez faire - the reason that techno-utopianism is in the subtitle of my book is that when you just believe to your core that everything will be sorted out by the marketplace of ideas in the long run, you're much more reluctant to do anything in the present to impede people saying anything they want to say. And I think we've reached a point now where we really recognize how irresponsible that is. What worries me about Facebook right now is that they do keep kind of falling back on that rhetoric.

I mean, Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech recently at Georgetown University. It was a 40-minute written speech from a lectern with teleprompters. I mean, for someone who doesn't like being thought of as a politician-like political figure, he really made himself seem sort of analogous to a politician in that setting. And his entire speech was just about freedom of expression. You know, we love freedom of expression. Facebook is here to protect free speech. And it's the kind of airy abstraction that sounds nice. But in practice, what it's being used for is to avoid the responsibility that Facebook has to be a responsible gatekeeper, to be a curator of information. It's essentially being used as a cop-out.

GROSS: Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook will continue to take political ads, and it won't fact-check or reject those ads. He doesn't see it as their job to do that. And then there was a letter from about 250 Facebook employees offering suggestions to improve the policy on political ads without eliminating them altogether. What was said in that letter?

MARANTZ: It was really specific. You know, these are Facebook employees who know how to speak a language that Facebook executives can understand, so they didn't lead with a lot of broad, sweeping political statements. They said, here are six things we can do to improve our policies. And, you know, we can reduce the amount of microtargeting that is used by political advertisers. So, yes, maybe they can put up false information, but maybe we shouldn't give them the tools to be able to target that false information to single moms in Dayton, Ohio, who drink Bulleit Bourbon and go to church on Wednesdays, you know? Again, this is the kind of thing where the executives and Zuckerberg himself really, really seem determined to stay at the level of abstraction and keep the debate focused on, well, do you like free speech or don't you? And this set of anonymous engineers within the company was willing to say, no, no, no. Let's drill down on what we're actually talking about. This isn't about - I mean, first of all, it's not about the First Amendment, right? - because Facebook is not the government. But it's also it's not about...

GROSS: Because the First Amendment is about government intrusion on speech. It's not about...

MARANTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Private enterprise.

MARANTZ: Yeah. The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. Now, there are people who say that Facebook should be governed more like a public utility, and I think that's a worthwhile conversation to have. But as of now, Facebook is not a part of the government, and it's not treated as such. And so rather than retreating to these sort of mottos that could be carved on marble statues, you know, these engineers and sort of activists outside the company are sort of saying, well, let's talk about what we actually mean and how you're actually making money by doing these things, rather than, you know, are you for free speech or are you against it? That doesn't actually describe what's happening.

GROSS: So what's another suggestion that was made in this letter from Facebook employees?

MARANTZ: They mentioned the idea of shutting down political ads altogether but only to kind of dismiss it. They sort of said, well, that's outside the question. And then, of course, Twitter did that, like, two days later.

GROSS: I'm assuming that political ads are an important part of Facebook's revenue stream.

MARANTZ: Well, even that is debatable. I mean, Zuckerberg has made a point of saying, this is such a small part of our revenue stream that, you know, trust me, it's not worth it for the controversy. We're doing this because we believe in it. Now, like a lot of the things he says, it's hard to know how much of that to believe. He says that it's not purely because of revenue. Now, it might be that he is projecting that political ads will become a bigger revenue source over time or that even if it's a small part of his revenue, it's not one that he's willing to give up, or it might be that he knows that these lines are so blurry that if he says, OK, we're banning political ads, well, what does that really mean? I mean, this is the issue that Twitter is facing now when they said they were going to ban political ads. Immediately, it led to a torrent of questions. You know, does that mean issue ads? Does that mean ads from activists who are just trying to point to climate science? You know, it becomes a slippery slope. And the move that these companies have always made is to go for the simplest, clearest, most ideologically consistent answer, which is the minimalist laissez faire answer. If your answer is, we're not going to do anything, that allows you to be consistent and ideologically pure. As soon as you say, we're going to do something, then all the questions arise. OK, are you going to do this? Are you going to do that?

GROSS: Social media platforms have been criticized for their role in the 2016 election in spreading disinformation smears, fake news. So now as we head to the 2020 election, are we in better shape than we were in terms of social media? - because there's more of an awareness from the people who run the platforms and, I think, from the users of the platforms. Some of the people who you've written about have been thrown off Twitter and other social platforms - social media platforms too - Reddit.

MARANTZ: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Yeah. So, like, have we made progress? Are we in better shape in terms of American social media? Russia is still quite a wild card (laughter). But in terms...

MARANTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Of America social media, are we in better shape?

MARANTZ: Yeah. Russia's a wild card. Iran is a wild card. China is a wild card. And a lot of the stuff I focus on in the book is not even shadowy secret state actors but American citizens who are willingly and voluntarily muddying the waters again and again, minute by minute, hour by hour. So, yes, some of the individual people who I write about do have this kind of rise and fall narrative. And one of the things that is kind of slightly hopeful about the story I tell is that some of the bad people do, in a sense, get their comeuppance by just kind of being shunted back to the margins where, I think, they belong. But that doesn't mean that the problem is fixed in any lasting structural sense.

GROSS: Andrew Marantz, thank you so much for talking with us.

MARANTZ: Thank you, Terry. This was really great.

GROSS: Andrew Marantz is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." After a break, our TV critic David Bianculli will preview Disney Plus, the new Disney streaming service. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.