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The Trolls Are Everywhere. Now What Are We Supposed to Do?

The irony: Cernovich’s ex-wife was a high-ranking and wealthy Facebook executive who used to support him financially and took him to dinners at the home of the “Lean In” icon Sheryl Sandberg. While she worked, he blogged, and after they divorced in 2011 he used his $2.6 million settlement to fuel his endeavors. That included pushing fake news and bogus memes into the mainstream, and being creepily delighted when they landed.

Marantz pings from here to his own troubled feelings after Donald Trump gains the presidency — and, of course, to the role that Facebook, social media’s Goliath, played in the 2016 election. Only nine days afterward, like an arsonist running away from a burning building, its C.E.O. and founder Mark Zuckerberg was already insisting that the claim that fake news had influenced the election was a “pretty crazy idea.”

At this point, Marantz travels to the DeploraBall during the Trump inauguration, where he meets Lucian Wintrich from The Gateway Pundit (“a font of viral misinformation, half-baked hypotheses and the sort of cloddish race-baiting that was beneath even Breitbart’s standards”). The site has blossomed as Trump spends much of his time labeling mainstream media an “enemy of the people.” I would argue that it’s only a short step from there to Charlottesville, where white supremacists marched and a protester lost her life.

All this is what Marantz calls “American Berserk,” and the damage has been severe on a worldwide scale. Marantz is right to worry. As I have written in my Opinion columns for this newspaper, I have seen firsthand how social media sites amplify villainous voices and weaponize them, too — and it’s not clear they can be controlled. The optimism of social media’s creators has been overshadowed by the cynicism of the vicious propaganda spewed on their platforms.

In a recent column for The Times, titled “Free Speech Is Killing Us,” Marantz sounded the alarm. “Having spent the past few years embedding as a reporter with the trolls and bigots and propagandists who are experts at converting fanatical memes into national policy, I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood,” he wrote. “The question is where this leaves us. Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies or individual citizens — be doing about it?”

Unfortunately, he has no real answers, except that all things eventually fall apart. Perhaps the jig is up, as the big platforms and the regulators who worry about what they have wrought begin to crack down on the system they’ve established. “The ranking algorithms on social media laid out clear incentives: provoke as many activating emotions as possible; lie, spin, dog-whistle; drop red pill after red pill; step up to the line repeatedly, in creative new ways.”

In other words, the dance of discord and enragement and noxiousness, which turns and turns in a widening gyre. The troubled yet worthwhile journey this book takes us on matches the mood of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” — and it’s a journey rife with depressing detail that also depresses Marantz. The question is, will the slouching rough beasts let loose by our wonderful innovations beat us to the finish line?

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