Hyperrhiz 22

What Happens in Digital Spaces Does Not Stay in Digital Spaces

John Lawton
Ann Arundel Community College

Citation: Lawton, John. “What Happens in Digital Spaces Does Not Stay in Digital Spaces.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 22, 2020. doi:10.20415/hyp/022.r02

Keywords: alt-right, Overton’s window, #NSFW, disinformation, viral media, radicalization.

Marantz, A. (2019). Antisocial : online extremists, techno-utopians, and the hijacking of the American conversation. New York: Viking.

Paasonen, S., Jarrett, K., & Light, B. (2019). NSFW: Sex, Humor, and Risk in Social Media. Boston: MIT Press.

The rise in social media’s sway over cultural and political outcomes has become increasingly relevant in recent decades, but over the past three months, as the COVID-19 crisis has necessarily forced an unprecedented level of traditional social activity into the digital domain, understanding these phenomena has become nothing short of urgent. Much of the discussion surrounding the rapid migration of social interactions to online platforms can be characterized by dissent between those beguiled by social media's democratizing potential, and those of a decidedly pessimistic persuasion. This literature has found a home both in the academy and in the popular press. Against this polarized backdrop, it is often difficult for neutral, pragmatic works to elicit the attention they merit. A sobering literature is needed, a literature that puts polemics to the side in the interest of developing the requisite insights, vocabulary, and prescriptions to understand and address the most pressing dimensions of now ubiquitous communications technologies.

Two recent titles that move the conversation in this direction are Andrew Marantz’s Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation and Kylie Jarret, Ben Light, and Susanna Paasonen’s #NSFW: Sex, Humor, and Risk in Social Media. Although their tone, methods, and foci differ significantly, both works provide a window into the darker dimensions of digital sociality.

Just as social interaction has come to straddle the increasingly opaque line dividing the digital and the copresent, meaningful inquiries into social media and their sociocultural consequences necessarily have one foot in the world of meticulous scholarship, and the other in narrative-based popular literature. Indeed, the subtle, fluid, and multifaceted nature of the subject demands such eclectic treatment. Marantz, an erudite staff writer for the New Yorker, contends with this ambiguity by tendering a revision of Dr. King’s famed adage regarding history’s progression toward justice: “The arc of history bends the way that human beings bend it.” By this Marantz means simply that social media and their many antecedents have no inherent character or allegiance. They merely provide a new battleground for timeless conflicts, albeit with novel and often unprecedented challenges, affordances, and dangers.

At 400 pages in length, and eliciting enviable accolades from the New York Times, Vogue, and The National Book Review among others, Antisocial furnishes readers with the texture, humanity, and affecting qualities that are often conspicuously absent in its academic counterparts. Readers are enjoined to follow two central threads, between which Marantz oscillates throughout. The first amounts to an embedded ethnography of the alt-right, and the second, a spirited critique of social media with an emphasis on those features which have empowered individuals, organizations, and ideologies that sharply contradict the aspirations of techno-utopianism. The focus on one or the other thread often cuts so deep and occupies so many pages, even chapters, that readers may forget that the other is hanging in the background. However, when they collide, they do so by design, and with all the emotive momentum that has been mounting in preceding pages.

The revelations and insights from which readers will benefit come at the price of vicariously experiencing, in excruciating detail, the company of many unsavory characters: the overt and unapologetic web-based propagandist, Mike Cernovich; egomaniacal alt-right troll / white house press correspondent, Lucian Wintrich; white supremisicist icon, Richard Spencer; self-professed white nationalist, Mike Enoch; opportunist “deplorable,” Gavin McInnes; and their inexplicable acolytes, Cassandra Fairbanks, Laura Loomer, and affiliates. Simply reading Marantz’s limited account of his experiences with these figures induces a sort of moral fatigue, a dire result of coming to terms with the depths of intolerance, resentment, petty prejudice, and tribalism that has resurfaced in recent years. More disquietingly still, are the calculated strategies and organizational initiative that have been successfully employed by proud racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and self-professed “deplorables.”

At this juncture, many readers will perhaps console themselves with the fact that the repugnant fringe movements in question, and their respective figureheads, operate at the margins of society, and have little if any access to, or influence over, major institutions. That would be a mistake. Not only do the qualitative experiences recounted by so many of Marantz’s subjects and interviewees evince the vulnerabilities of otherwise decent people to the poison offered by the alt-right, but in an ironic and telling turn, I, and I expect many readers, ended up being rather more disheartened by the blind credulity and quixotic optimism of leading tech gurus, silicon valley magnates, and ambitious software entrepreneurs. Unsurprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg and his either naively or carefully contrived rebuttals to high-stakes social dilemmas, receive considerable attention, but it is perhaps the less notable players, founders, and designers behind sites such as Reddit, Upworthy, Dose, and MuggleNet, that most effectively and disturbingly demonstrate the crux of the problem. They are not bent on racial superiority, a return to degrading gender roles, nor the pursuit of a pure “ethnostate” like their counterparts on the alt-right, but their naïve, blinkered notions of leading humanity toward pseudo-utopian ends provides the very void, the chink in the armor that the alt-right seeks to exploit. Time and time again Marantz’s subjects invoke the notion of “Overton’s window,” demonstrating that they are not suffering delusions of grandeur (well, most of them), but rather that they understand the vulnerabilities of a frightened, apathetic public, and that they are all too aware of the opportunities to shift the parameters of acceptable discourse that the internet affords. It is this perverse acumen that allows for the susceptibility of an otherwise largely impervious population to vulgar conspiracy theories about the “Jewish agenda” and “population replacement” policies directed at the white majority.

Perhaps the most unsettling demonstration of a widespread vulnerability to what at this point in the book is clearly recognized as a concerted, disciplined, and occasionally well-funded coalition comes in the final stretch. Here, Marantz tells the story of Samantha, an attractive social butterfly, who was so appalled at discovering her then boyfriend’s despicable views on race, ethnicity, and politics that she “could not see through her tears” as she fled the home she shared with him. In an effort to understand what had happened, and how he had taken such a bad turn, she researched every alt-right site that she could find. Rather than feeling justified in putting the nail in the coffin of her relationship with her openly fascist boyfriend, she was taken in by the charisma and carefully crafted specious arguments of those she encountered online. Samantha’s experience, and the calculated efforts behind her journey into the heart of the alt-right provide what is perhaps the most sobering and critical message underpinning the entire book: do not underestimate the appeal, initiative, strategic savviness, and patience of the alt-right. It is easy to dismiss them as a band of pathetic, frustrated white teenagers with too much time on their hands, but to do so is a mistake that we are already paying for.

While Antisocial provides a window into the often-overlooked tactics, logic, and bravado of the alt-right’s online strategic agenda, #NSFW contributes a systematic evaluation of the instruments and concomitant cultural developments that Marantz’s subjects aspired to exploit. Paasonen, Jarrett, and Light’s book focuses primarily on sexual content, or rather the content that has been deemed sexually taboo, but its findings and conclusions admit important sociocultural ramifications, which elucidate many of the disturbing developments detailed in Antisocial.

Despite a primary focus on the hashtag NSFW (Not Safe For Work) itself, readers are treated to incisive critiques of the history, development, outgrowths, and consequences of #NSFW. The key objectives of the book, as enumerated by the authors, signal the many intersections between the dark world of trolls, hate, and provocation surveyed by Marantz, and the evolving digital culture from which #NSFW has emerged. In sum, they set out to 1. track the function of #NSFW and how it sets the parameters for acceptability, 2. explore how it invites particular behaviors and exchanges, and 3. expand the meanings and associations that the hashtag carries. While there is some manifest overlap in content with Antisocial – for example the discussion about #WPWW (White Power World Wide’s) efforts to normalize racist discourse – it is the latent elements of said objectives that are most telling.

The calculated manipulation of Overton’s window parroted by so many on the alt-right engenders a new sense of urgency when viewed from the critical, scholarly perspective employed in #NSFW. It is the ambiguity of hashtags that enables them to convey complex, elusive semiotic messages. For example, the simultaneous serious admonition, titillating invitation, and promise of humor that are typified by posts, memes, and content labeled #NSFW exemplify the strategic approach described by the alt-right to bolster their message and agenda. #NSFW demonstrates how the logic and gradual approach to shifting cultural and political discourse are rooted, not in the batty incantations of frustrated youth, but in the tried, pernicious methods of a formidable and concerted network of saboteurs.

What is disquieting about the strategic approach espoused by those featured in Antisocial, is that it is effective, its practitioners are aware if its potency, and it has produced results. Perhaps most unsettling of all, as evinced by Paasonen, Jarrett, and Light, is the fact that the deliberate, repetitive use and proliferation of messages, frames, and factoids do influence opinions and political discourse. It is this discourse that ultimately determines the policies and norms that govern the lives and experiences of an unprecedentedly diverse population. That is to say that social media, and their manipulators, have inadvertently set up a number of controlled experiments in which the dialogic patterns of web-based sociality have lent support, in a variety of domains (everything from pornographical terminology to the proliferation of contrived political scandals), to the notion that discourses are often set in digital spaces before they go on to impact the narrative in a much broader, consequential sense. Both Antisocial and #NSFW  corroborate the gravity of an oblique threat to democratic multiculturalism, and implore the public to cultivate a better understanding of digital sociality, and to pay attention to what is happening in digital spaces, as what happens in digital spaces most certainly does not stay in digital spaces.