Andrew Marantz, author of ‘Antisocial’: “No one is immune to authoritarian tendencies; the most primal emotions are universal”.
Antisocial is an in-depth journalistic investigation into how social networks have become the breeding ground for the propagation of extremist ideas, with no limitations that can curb their dispersion. The journalist from New Yorker, Andrew Marantzis its author and landed in Spain to participate in the Valladolid Culture Forum.
Before that, he made a break in Madrid and in the capital he attended to 20minutos to explain how we use social networks, how malleable we are when we are on them, and where social networks support the botsThe right-wing parties and their leaders to profit from what is in reality, he says, “one of the biggest businesses in the world”.
Does the far right dominate social networks right now?It is not a simple question. We have many versions of who is winning the information war or the culture war, but we have to keep in mind that all companies’ data is private so we only see what they want us to see. So it’s hard to say who is winning. It is not that the extreme right is winning or not, but that the generation of feelings always has a space (in the networks) so we see much more presence of those who want to generate fear, xenophobia or racism. Everything has a structure and that structure has an effect on people’s psychology.
Is generating fear the main objective of the ultra-right in the networks?This goes in two directions. It is a goal of the far right but also an incentive as such of the platforms. When someone generates these networks they are not sitting at a table thinking as such that they want an autocrat to get into government, they are looking for a good deal without thinking about the consequences.
This is a phenomenon that intensified with Trump’s presence in the White House, but does it come from before?Yes, for sure. Fake news was invented centuries ago. The Internet has not brought these techniques, but it has changed the tools to spread them. It’s a very simple formula: how long it takes you to spread that fake news, how far you go and how many people you can reach. The idea that one person can fool another is not new, but the way it is done is. How the system works is everything.
In the book you talk about “intruders.” Who really are these intruders in social networks?It’s interesting. There is an analogy: when you found a social network you are the guest at a party. These founders, for example, Mark Zuckerberg, assume that people are naturally good, and that’s not entirely true. There are good people and there are people who are not. When we talk about intruders we have to ask ourselves what kind of party we are throwing. That’s where the algorithm plays a role, and in fact we probably see a lot more tweets from incendiary people; that’s not an accident, that’s just the way the system works.
We probably see a lot more tweets from incendiary people; that’s not an accident. That’s how the system works
Does social media intoxication win elections?It can. Not by itself, because it’s always a mix. About every election stories are told that are quite simple. You can say for example that in 2016 America was in a moment of madness and elected a madman as president, but you can also say that that changed in 2020 and that’s why they voted for a let’s say more boring president. It’s never that simple. But yes we can say that social networks are a very important factor because networks change our mentalities even if many times we say they do not. It is very difficult to imagine a world in which what you read on the networks does not directly impact your behavior because people respond to the information they receive.
Have we reached a point where anything goes in the name of freedom of expression?I think so and people take it too far, because if you ask anyone if they are in favor of freedom of speech everybody will tell you yes, of course. That’s a no-brainer. The question is what are you allowing to justify that freedom of speech. Of course everybody has to be able to express themselves as they want but obviously there are limits. You have to go to more concrete questions: who says what, how they say it and under what circumstances.
What part of guilt do we have as a society to accept intoxication in the networks?There is a little bit of everything, of course. This is like when someone sells a drug and tells you that it can create addiction or offers you a product but warns you that it has a lot of sugar. You are free to resort to it. But if you go into a store and you only see that someone will tell you that you are the one buying it but the reality is that you have no choice. It’s a bit like what happens with social networks; in the end the problem is that the focus is on the person (user) and not so much on the system.
Now we have the focus on Russia for obvious reasons. Does Putin use the same ways to disinform as for example Trump used to use?I think there are several differences. Since Trump was elected president many people looked for connections between his way of acting and Putin’s way of acting, and it is true that sometimes you could prove it. But there is no single school of propaganda or disinformation, everything is more decentralized. If part of the goal is to spread confusion the scenario is a win-win for the bots: if you pay attention to them, you give them a space. If you don’t, their message is already installed anyway, even if it’s in the form of propaganda. Generating chaos is always an easier job.
Are young people more prone to radicalization on social networks?It is clear that it is the group that uses the networks the most, and they can be more affected of course, but they are also more resilient. In the end they are also stronger against this type of messages precisely because they are used to what social networks are. People who are older can perhaps be left with just the headline or with content they see for the first time and do not go any further.
Are radicals or intoxicators anti-social people?Not always. There are some who are not able to live easily in society, but I have met people who are often married, have children, go for a run in the morning and on the way back spread chaos on the networks with their computer. Sometimes we don’t meet a teenager who sits alone in front of a screen. Of course, it is always easier to misinform or generate confusion from a social network because you don’t need anyone’s permission.
It’s always easier to misinform or generate confusion from a social network because you don’t need anyone’s permission
Are we in a war for information or a war against disinformation?It’s very nitpicky to say what is disinformation and what is not, and that can be used politically very easily. I agree with some people’s skepticism about the definition of disinformation. That’s why I don’t think it’s as simple as saying we’re going to find out what disinformation is. fake news Or where the disinformation is and we are going to put an end to it. It’s a constantly changing framework, tools change, narratives change. Social network structures are designed to generate anti-social emotions.
So is it a lost war?Well, I think people are receptive, but you can’t just tell them that what they’re reading is disinformation. That’s not helpful. But you can ask them how they feel when they spend 10 hours on social media, and most will tell you they feel bad. That picture is the important one. People are aware that emotional manipulation exists, and that’s why you have to ask if there is an alternative system that avoids that feeling.
We saw what happened with the assault on the Capitol in the US, also what happened in Brazil less time ago. In both cases disinformation and networks played a fundamental role. Is Europe going down the same path?No one is immune to authoritarian tendencies because the most primal emotions are universal, for example if someone says their identity is being attacked.
Can radical right leaders and parties survive without social networks?I think they can, yes, because populism and the far right have already existed before social networks appeared. The key is that they are parties and leaders that are always changing and adapting to circumstances. When someone is an intelligent populist leader, for example, he always seeks to reach people in ways that others had not reached before because resistance is generated and that ideology ultimately tries to save them.
Would Trump have won the election without social networks?It is very difficult to know because there is no single cause, but I do believe that the networks did a lot in Trump’s victory. It is true that many things tipped the balance in that 2016 election, but certainly social media was one of them. Trump tried to become president in 2000 and tried again in 2012. In 2016, on the other hand, the scenario was different for several reasons and there he already had an important megaphone, which was precisely the networks. Everyone knows that manipulating information was one of his strong points.
The greatest danger lies in creating more and more authoritarian societies in which rights are reduced
So what is the greatest danger to us as a society?The greatest danger is in creating more and more authoritarian societies in which rights are reduced. Obviously we are going to live with ideas that we don’t like, that’s logical and that’s normal, and we can’t sell people an image of neutrality, but we have to be a little more sophisticated when it comes to what content we consume on social networks.