New Yorker journalist explores free speech in the social media era

Andrew Marantz poses between a small discussion with students and his talk at Scripps College’s Balch Hall Feb. 19. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

In the digital age, social media has called into question everything we believe about free speech.

That’s according to Andrew Marantz, a journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine who spoke at Scripps College’s Balch Auditorium Feb. 19. Marantz discussed social media’s role in shaping mainstream politics and creating a place for those on the fringes to build their own platforms. The conversation was part of both the Scripps Presents series and the Scripps Humanities Institute year of programs entitled “Ignorance in the Age of Information.”

“It’s dangerous to talk about this stuff,” Marantz said, when Antonia Hitchens, a journalist who has also written for The New Yorker, asked him about reinterpreting the First Amendment for the online age.

“I don’t want to be taken as saying, ‘Oh, the First Amendment is this old-fashioned thing that we can throw in the garbage,’” Marantz said. “But … I would suspect a lot of people in this room would be very comfortable saying the Second Amendment was written when there were only muskets, and it now needs to be reinterpreted in the light of new technology.

“We don’t say that about the First Amendment,” he continued. “I think that’s really interesting because there’s a lot of new speech technology that is the equivalent of assault weaponry and we need to think about what that means.”

Marantz said the internet’s relative lawlessness intrigues him; he wondered how the dark web and the economics of social media impacted “our sense of ourselves, our sense of our society, our sense of ethics … all of which [are] constitutive of what we mean by politics.”

Hitchens asked Marantz about his 2017 piece, “The Birth of a White Supremacist,” in which he traces the journey of Mike Enoch, a man who grew up in a liberal family but, through the internet, became a leading voice in the alt-right movement.

Marantz said he thinks it is important to profile people who he doesn’t necessarily want to paint in a positive light, in order to understand more deeply how they came to be who they are.

“I think if we can’t figure out what makes [the alt-right] attractive to someone, we can’t inoculate ourselves against it,” he said.

These ideas resonated with Greer Gibney PZ ’20, an event attendee.

“He questioned the idea that is often argued that giving time to exploring the background of people like [white supremacist] Richard Spencer or the Pittsburgh shooter is not worth it,” she said. “He made me think about investigative journalism today, in which digging deep and looking from all angles is deeply important to helping formulate the picture or story in a way that might draw an audience in.”

Marantz displayed his breadth of knowledge about the role of social media in today’s political climate with jokes that had the audience laughing about memes, internet trolls and the ins-and-outs of Reddit. But the conversation ultimately always returned to the importance of using the internet as a source to understand the roots of hate speech, rather than simply turning a blind eye and hoping that it will go away.

“I’ve been going back and reading a lot of James Baldwin for various reasons, and his message again and again and again is, let’s try and figure out what makes these deplorable people deplorable, so we can stop them from being deplorable,” Marantz continued, referring to Hillary Clinton’s controversial use of the word to describe President Donald Trump’s supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“That seems to have gotten a little bit lost along the way, and I really worry about that because it’s as if we get into this dichotomy of either ‘You’re not allowed to call them deplorable,’ or you can only call them deplorable and that can only be the end of the conversation. I just think neither of those lead anywhere.”

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