The one book you need to understand alt-right trolls

Antisocial is a deep dive into the extremist views.

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists march through the University of Virginia Campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017.

Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
  • The New Yorker's Adam Marantz spent three years embedded with leading alt-right voices.
  • His book, Antisocial, carries you deep inside the mindset and motivation behind online trolling.
  • To get back on track, Marantz believes we need a "new moral vocabulary."

Barack Obama loved one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s quotes so much he had it woven into an Oval Office rug. You've likely heard it: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The idea itself was borrowed from an 1853 sermon by abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. King's truncation of Parker's sentiment is worth noting, as the sentence was part of a longer text in which the nineteenth century minister expressed doubt in understanding what the moral universe even is. His sentiment was more inquisitive than declarative.

Hoping for justice is part of our biological design, a function more of prayer than certainty. Applying it to reality runs you into problems. For example, what moral lesson can we pull from humans playing a part in causing the devastating brush fires in Australia, which thus far have killed an estimated 500 million animals? How does one even begin to make the case for justice? This question isn't limited to one continent. Not a week passes that doesn't include dozens if not hundreds of cases that will never resolve in a manner bending toward justice.

Andrew Marantz, a New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, asked his own questions about justice in relationship to the growing influence of technology on American political and social discourse. Embedding himself with leading figures in the alt-right over the course of three years, he writes that if King thought justice was a metaphysical construct, the Civil Rights leader would never would have marched across bridges. As Marantz puts it, "The arc of history bends the way people bend it."

Justice isn't objective. It is determined by social mores and national laws. What one finds abhorrent another believes morally justified. Marantz takes a step back: the loose-knit online contingent of folks that comprise the alt-right felt castrated by multiculturalism, betrayed by the notion of a white America. (Their memories are short, as they conveniently overlook how the whites populated this land.)

Upon being handed powerful tools to broadcast their voice, they never stopped to question if it was a good idea. They just hit "post." As Marantz notes in his TED Talk below, one leading figure has nothing more than a phone, a laptop, an iPad, and a belligerent, racist attitude. From those pieces he constructs a six-figure "career" from his living room.

Inside the bizarre world of internet trolls and propagandists | Andrew Marantz

If you think there's a coherent plan behind this overrepresented minority broadcasting on Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, and YouTube, rethink that assumption. Marantz begins his book at the DeploraBall, an unofficial inaugural celebration organized by alt-right conspiracy theorists and internet trolls in 2017. Commenting on the movement from the bird's-eye view, Marantz sums up the motivation behind the political momentum that placed Donald Trump into office.

"They took for granted that the old institutions ought to be burned to the ground, and they used the tools at their disposal—new media, especially social media—to light as many matches as possible. As for what kind of society might emerge from the ashes, they had no coherent vision and showed little interest in developing one. They were not, like William Buckley, standing athwart history, yelling 'Stop'; they were holding liberal democracy in a headlock, yelling 'Stop or I'll shoot!'"

Marantz does his best to sympathize with the characters he writes about, a commendable feat in itself. He approaches reporting in what is now considered an old school style: credibility. He didn't accept gifts (including Uber rides or coffee), allowed his subjects to speak their voices, and asked pointed questions while letting them speak their grievances. Indeed, the strongest parts of the book, and ironically the most frustrating, occur when you're in the living room of one of these aspirational provocateurs as they play with their children.

Frustrating because, as with Twitter fights and trolling in general, you're reminded that all of us share one nation. We have the capability to be so much better than this. Yet debatable policy disagreements are regularly broadcast as existential threats for clickbait to drive ad revenue. The real focus of our collective anger, corporate leaders and the politicians they purchase, own much of the blame for this polarization. It just seems impossible to remember that fact while scrolling on a six-inch screen.

That said, Marantz does not give a free pass to the white nationalist movement. Being Jewish, he recognized the personal danger he placed himself in. Marantz also considers the role of the modern journalist. He might pay for breakfast to avoid conflicts of interest, but that doesn't make supporting leaders of this movement easy. Some ideologies simply do not bend toward justice.

"To treat these as legitimate topics of debate is to be not neutral but complicit. Sometimes, even for a journalist, there is no such thing as not picking a side."

Andrew Marantz (via Twitter)

King's quote is a recurring theme throughout the book; so is the Overton window. Named after Joseph P. Overton, a former senior VP of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, this window is the range of policies a politician can discuss without appearing too extreme or biased. The window shifts as we become inoculated to more extreme ideas. What seemed impossible a decade ago becomes common. You get an open discussion of racist and xenophobic policies that would have once seemed unthinkable.

Don't mistake this window for critical thinking. If, at times, it feels like social media is ruled by emotionally incompetent and intellectually stymied adults who never took the opportunity to mature from grade school, you're not far off. Sometimes all Marantz has to do is stick a microphone in front of their mouths and let them speak. It's maddening, listening to them shrug off thoughtfulness and honest debate. Defaulting to "free speech," which they all do, is to forget (or be ignorant of) the fact that with free speech comes responsibility.

We cannot troll our way out of this mess. As Marantz concludes, we need a "new moral vocabulary" to address the scourge of anti-Semitic, racist, and xenophobic garbage being lightly disguised (or not at all) in our national discourse. I purposely avoided naming the figures in his book because they already receive too much oxygen. One high point is that many have been de-platformed in recent years, cutting off their precious revenue streams.

No book has captured the alt-right as powerfully and honestly as Antisocial. It is a reminder of how badly we need to redefine the Overton window with a new vocabulary. Teaching everyone this language will be one of our greatest challenges in this new decade.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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