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

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

I spent the past three years talking to some of the worst
people on the internet. Now, if you’ve been online recently, you may have noticed that there’s
a lot of toxic garbage out there: racist memes, misogynist propaganda,
viral misinformation. So I wanted to know
who was making this stuff. I wanted to understand
how they were spreading it. Ultimately, I wanted to know what kind of impact
it might be having on our society. So in 2016, I started tracing
some of these memes back to their source, back to the people who were making them
or who were making them go viral. I’d approach those people and say, “Hey, I’m a journalist.
Can I come watch you do what you do?” Now, often the response would be, “Why in hell would I want to talk to some low-t soy-boy
Brooklyn globalist Jew cuck who’s in cahoots with the Democrat Party?” (Laughter) To which my response would be,
“Look, man, that’s only 57 percent true.” (Laughter) But often I got the opposite response. “Yeah, sure, come on by.” So that’s how I ended up
in the living room of a social media propagandist
in Southern California. He was a married white guy
in his late 30s. He had a table in front of him
with a mug of coffee, a laptop for tweeting, a phone for texting and an iPad for livestreaming
to Periscope and YouTube. That was it. And yet, with those tools, he was able to propel his fringe,
noxious talking points into the heart of
the American conversation. For example, one of the days I was there, a bomb had just exploded in New York, and the guy accused of planting the bomb
had a Muslim-sounding name. Now, to the propagandist in California,
this seemed like an opportunity, because one of the things he wanted was for the US to cut off
almost all immigration, especially from Muslim-majority countries. So he started livestreaming, getting his followers
worked up into a frenzy about how the open borders agenda
was going to kill us all and asking them to tweet about this, and use specific hashtags, trying to get those hashtags trending. And tweet they did — hundreds and hundreds of tweets, a lot of them featuring
images like this one. So that’s George Soros. He’s a Hungarian billionaire
and philanthropist, and in the minds
of some conspiracists online, George Soros is like
a globalist bogeyman, one of a few elites who is secretly
manipulating all of global affairs. Now, just to pause here:
if this idea sounds familiar to you, that there are a few elites
who control the world and a lot of them happen to be rich Jews, that’s because it is one of the most
anti-Semitic tropes in existence. I should also mention that the guy
in New York who planted that bomb, he was an American citizen. So whatever else was going on there, immigration was not the main issue. And the propagandist in California,
he understood all this. He was a well-read guy.
He was actually a lawyer. He knew the underlying facts, but he also knew that facts
do not drive conversation online. What drives conversation online is emotion. See, the original premise of social media was that it was going
to bring us all together, make the world more open
and tolerant and fair … And it did some of that. But the social media algorithms
have never been built to distinguish between
what’s true or false, what’s good or bad for society,
what’s prosocial and what’s antisocial. That’s just not what those algorithms do. A lot of what they do
is measure engagement: clicks, comments, shares,
retweets, that kind of thing. And if you want your content
to get engagement, it has to spark emotion, specifically, what behavioral scientists
call “high-arousal emotion.” Now, “high arousal” doesn’t only
mean sexual arousal, although it’s the internet,
obviously that works. It means anything, positive or negative,
that gets people’s hearts pumping. So I would sit with these propagandists, not just the guy in California,
but dozens of them, and I would watch as they did this
again and again successfully, not because they were Russian hackers,
not because they were tech prodigies, not because they had
unique political insights — just because they understood
how social media worked, and they were willing
to exploit it to their advantage. Now, at first I was able to tell myself
this was a fringe phenomenon, something that was
relegated to the internet. But there’s really no separation anymore
between the internet and everything else. This is an ad that ran
on multiple TV stations during the 2018 congressional elections, alleging with very little evidence
that one of the candidates was in the pocket of
international manipulator George Soros, who is awkwardly photoshopped here
next to stacks of cash. This is a tweet from
the President of the United States, alleging, again with no evidence, that American politics is being
manipulated by George Soros. This stuff that once seemed so shocking
and marginal and, frankly, just ignorable, it’s now so normalized
that we hardly even notice it. So I spent about
three years in this world. I talked to a lot of people. Some of them seemed to have
no core beliefs at all. They just seemed to be betting,
perfectly rationally, that if they wanted
to make some money online or get some attention online, they should just be
as outrageous as possible. But I talked to other people
who were true ideologues. And to be clear, their ideology
was not traditional conservatism. These were people who wanted
to revoke female suffrage. These were people who wanted
to go back to racial segregation. Some of them wanted to do away
with democracy altogether. Now, obviously these people
were not born believing these things. They didn’t pick them up
in elementary school. A lot of them, before they went
down some internet rabbit hole, they had been libertarian
or they had been socialist or they had been something else entirely. So what was going on? Well, I can’t generalize about every case, but a lot of the people I spoke to, they seem to have a combination
of a high IQ and a low EQ. They seem to take comfort
in anonymous, online spaces rather than connecting in the real world. So often they would retreat
to these message boards or these subreddits, where their worst impulses
would be magnified. They might start out saying
something just as a sick joke, and then they would get so much
positive reinforcement for that joke, so many meaningless
“internet points,” as they called it, that they might start
believing their own joke. I talked a lot with one young woman
who grew up in New Jersey, and then after high school,
she moved to a new place and suddenly she just felt
alienated and cut off and started retreating into her phone. She found some of these
spaces on the internet where people would post
the most shocking, heinous things. And she found this stuff
really off-putting but also kind of engrossing, kind of like she couldn’t
look away from it. She started interacting with people
in these online spaces, and they made her feel smart,
they made her feel validated. She started feeling a sense of community, started wondering if maybe
some of these shocking memes might actually contain a kernel of truth. A few months later, she was in a car
with some of her new internet friends headed to Charlottesville, Virginia, to march with torches
in the name of the white race. She’d gone, in a few months,
from Obama supporter to fully radicalized white supremacist. Now, in her particular case, she actually was able to find her way
out of the cult of white supremacy. But a lot of the people
I spoke to were not. And just to be clear: I was never so convinced
that I had to find common ground with every single person I spoke to that I was willing to say, “You know what, man,
you’re a fascist propagandist, I’m not, whatever, let’s just hug it out,
all our differences will melt away.” No, absolutely not. But I did become convinced that we cannot
just look away from this stuff. We have to try to understand it,
because only by understanding it can we even start to inoculate
ourselves against it. In my three years in this world,
I got a few nasty phone calls, even some threats, but it wasn’t a fraction of what
female journalists get on this beat. And yeah, I am Jewish, although, weirdly, a lot of the Nazis
couldn’t tell I was Jewish, which I frankly just found
kind of disappointing. (Laughter) Seriously, like, your whole job
is being a professional anti-Semite. Nothing about me
is tipping you off at all? Nothing? (Laughter) This is not a secret. My name is Andrew Marantz,
I write for “The New Yorker,” my personality type
is like if a Seinfeld episode was taped at the Park Slope Food Coop. Nothing? (Laughter) Anyway, look — ultimately,
it would be nice if there were, like, a simple formula: smartphone plus alienated kid
equals 12 percent chance of Nazi. It’s obviously not that simple. And in my writing, I’m much more comfortable
being descriptive, not prescriptive. But this is TED, so let’s get practical. I want to share a few suggestions of things that citizens
of the internet like you and I might be able to do to make things
a little bit less toxic. So the first one is to be a smart skeptic. So, I think there are
two kinds of skepticism. And I don’t want to drown you in technical
epistemological information here, but I call them smart and dumb skepticism. So, smart skepticism: thinking for yourself, questioning every claim, demanding evidence — great, that’s real skepticism. Dumb skepticism:
it sounds like skepticism, but it’s actually closer
to knee-jerk contrarianism. Everyone says the earth is round, you say it’s flat. Everyone says racism is bad, you say, “I dunno,
I’m skeptical about that.” I cannot tell you how many young white men
I have spoken to in the last few years who have said, “You know, the media, my teachers,
they’re all trying to indoctrinate me into believing in male privilege
and white privilege, but I don’t know about that,
man, I don’t think so.” Guys — contrarian
white teens of the world — look: if you are being a round earth skeptic
and a male privilege skeptic and a racism is bad skeptic, you’re not being a skeptic,
you’re being a jerk. (Applause) It’s great to be independent-minded,
we all should be independent-minded, but just be smart about it. So this next one is about free speech. You will hear smart, accomplished people
who will say, “Well, I’m pro-free speech,” and they say it in this way
that it’s like they’re settling a debate, when actually, that is the very beginning
of any meaningful conversation. All the interesting stuff
happens after that point. OK, you’re pro-free speech.
What does that mean? Does it mean that David Duke
and Richard Spencer need to have active Twitter accounts? Does it mean that anyone
can harass anyone else online for any reason? You know, I looked through
the entire list of TED speakers this year. I didn’t find a single
round earth skeptic. Is that a violation of free speech norms? Look, we’re all pro-free speech,
it’s wonderful to be pro-free speech, but if that’s all you know
how to say again and again, you’re standing in the way
of a more productive conversation. Making decency cool again, so … Great! (Applause) Yeah. I don’t even need to explain it. So in my research, I would go
to Reddit or YouTube or Facebook, and I would search for “sharia law” or I would search for “the Holocaust,” and you might be able to guess
what the algorithms showed me, right? “Is sharia law sweeping
across the United States?” “Did the Holocaust really happen?” Dumb skepticism. So we’ve ended up in this
bizarre dynamic online, where some people see bigoted propaganda as being edgy or being dangerous and cool, and people see basic truth
and human decency as pearl-clutching or virtue-signaling or just boring. And the social media algorithms,
whether intentionally or not, they have incentivized this, because bigoted propaganda
is great for engagement. Everyone clicks on it,
everyone comments on it, whether they love it or they hate it. So the number one thing
that has to happen here is social networks need
to fix their platforms. (Applause) So if you’re listening to my voice
and you work at a social media company or you invest in one
or, I don’t know, own one, this tip is for you. If you have been optimizing
for maximum emotional engagement and maximum emotional engagement turns out
to be actively harming the world, it’s time to optimize for something else. (Applause) But in addition to putting pressure
on them to do that and waiting for them
and hoping that they’ll do that, there’s some stuff that
the rest of us can do, too. So, we can create some better pathways
or suggest some better pathways for angsty teens to go down. If you see something that you think
is really creative and thoughtful and you want to share that thing,
you can share that thing, even if it’s not flooding you
with high arousal emotion. Now that is a very small step, I realize, but in the aggregate,
this stuff does matter, because these algorithms,
as powerful as they are, they are taking their
behavioral cues from us. So let me leave you with this. You know, a few years ago
it was really fashionable to say that the internet
was a revolutionary tool that was going to bring us all together. It’s now more fashionable to say that the internet is a huge,
irredeemable dumpster fire. Neither caricature is really true. We know the internet
is just too vast and complex to be all good or all bad. And the danger with
these ways of thinking, whether it’s the utopian view
that the internet will inevitably save us or the dystopian view that it
will inevitably destroy us, either way, we’re letting
ourselves off the hook. There is nothing inevitable
about our future. The internet is made of people. People make decisions
at social media companies. People make hashtags trend or not trend. People make societies progress or regress. When we internalize that fact, we can stop waiting
for some inevitable future to arrive and actually get to work now. You know, we’ve all been taught
that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. Maybe. Maybe it will. But that has always been an aspiration. It is not a guarantee. The arc doesn’t bend itself. It’s not bent inevitably
by some mysterious force. The real truth, which is scarier and also more liberating, is that we bend it. Thank you. (Applause)


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    Alek Samson

    Ted norms are not free speech norms. Flat earthers SHOULD have twitter accounts. Harassment (like inciting violence) already is clear -settled matter /question. And YES David Duke should be allowed on ''town square'' I want to hear bad ideas and I want to decide what's bad and if it is bad. Especially when you put him in the same category with someone who might only be criticizing ideology.
    It is true that being white CAN be an advantage in certain situation, specific circumstances, BUT ''White privilege'' is a pernicious ideology.

    ''True or false, good or bad''
    And…You want to decide what's true and good and tell Me what's false and bad. YOU are not for free speech. You sir, are a fascist.

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    barry weber

    Remember he is a comedy writer, people need to chill.. He did a great job telling what a lot of people need to listen. So what if Obama and Trump go golfing together or soros and Ivanka host a charity big deal. We as a nation of adult's are lacking common sense for WHAT???

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    Baidu Chicom

    Disgusting traitor to the US Constitution and the Republic for which it stands.
    This man should spend life in prison.

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    Dirac Sea

    Did he just say (in not so many words) free speech is whats killing us?? Wow, just wow.
    No, you moral and intellectual black hole, its what keeps us safe. Its why its number one of the Bill of Rights. Not bc they thought of it first but bc it is the most important; and someone great once said a free country is a market place of ideas if you dont like someone elses ideas/speech then get away from it (dont ban it) or come up with ideas that counter it.
    Banning isnt a counter to ideas you dont like, its control. Plan and simple.

    So I ask you, when you have banned all the 'evil' speech, the blasphemous speech, and its all perfected and just and fair and no one says anything no one else likes, and stay with me bc this is important, what happens with people like you? Those who rock the boat, who question the status quo, the troublemakers. How will you stop people from thinking these things and doing exactly what you are proposing only in reverse?
    You have to protect your glorious revolution from the next one from the next one, right?

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    Arno Claesen

    i was like "sure this guy is cool" until he was like "not believing in male privilige is the same as being a flat earther"

    he is literally asking for soccial media to change aka censoring people he isnt agreeing with

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    Calisto Hüttich

    Seriously people. Its not very smart to react defensively when somebody is talking about actual nazis and far right conspiracy theorists. He was not talking about conservatives.

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    suzi perret

    Inoculation.. Ya, we can become that way if we let it happen. Stand by reason and sanity. Skepticism is absolutely the ingredient. Remain decent, kind, honest. Call out injustice! Do the right thing for our world. Try to learn from and understand others.

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    Jay See

    I think the reason people are turning away from viewpoints like those given by this speaker is that instead of being honest and saying that George Soros IS influencing politics in America and globally(this is verifiable by anyone doing 5 minutes of independent research) he lies and says it's all 'conspiracy'/'antisemitism' etc. As soon as someone learns for themselves that what you stated is false, you lost them. Try engaging with the arguments instead of just blank denial or using single buzzwords to try to shut down any inconvenient facts. You should still be able to argue for your worldview even though nefarious people might also be supporting it through questionable means.

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    Sigh… the left needs to stop demonizing opinions and pushing their "truths". You are the establishment. One giant echo chamber.

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    John Sinclair

    This is the same a-hole who wrote an NYT OpEd about overturning the 1st amendment and, effectively, The Bill of Rights. He’s the bigot, the traitor, the sexist, the racist, and the fascist.

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    Charles Carter

    THESE COMMENTS SUCK! I didn't even think he was trying to promote censorship and thought he had some good points about internet radicalism

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    Micke Nieminen

    Yeah where is the evidence for this big lie? And he is totally against free speech. So what has David Duke said so bad he has hurt his feelings.

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    Very disappointing the speaker lumps Flatearthers and Holocaust deniers together with anyone who questions "white male privilege." The first two are long-established and clearly-defined with strong scientific and historic evidence. The latter is a modern social issue with a vague definition.

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    Lucas EASTMAN

    I am a white teen. I do not believe white privilege is as concrete as you make it to be. Given how abstract of an argument it is, and how difficult it is to apply the theory of privilege to every individual, calling me a "jerk" for not believing in what has been literally disproved as a definitive fact is hardly solving the problem that seems to be created not only by propagandists, but people who respond to it so negatively they lose track of the truth…like you…

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    Lucas EASTMAN

    Since when did TED Talk become about pushing opinionated philosophies backed up by biased anecdotal stories rather than educating presentations that use actual facts? This is truly disappointing TED. i believe this is the first TED video I've ever disliked. Usually, if I don't agree with what's being said, I just simply move on, but this time, this man has been so downright ignorant, I felt the need to show my dislike for this awful video.

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    Dustin Gliko

    Dude… Until the parent funded generations stop profiting monetarily and educationally from the "Friction" they have been sheltered from, there will be those of us "Surviving America" and rising through the "Friction" with a voice that may not be as mainstream, profitable, and politically correct as you may care for. Grab a helmet bud!

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    The worst trolls have a talent to pick out a few arguments that are not completely kosher. Like Andrew Marantz brings up George Soros as an example. Only look at the list of organizations that are supported by the Open Society. They all gave one thing in common; they can't stand criticism, and that says enough.

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    alex seioo

    He is spot on. I just had a discussion with one of these contrarian professional assholes on youtube. He lied again and again and at the end he admitted lying is fun for him and nothing else matters. Bullying people on the internet is what gives him pleasure and his mind-boggling philosophy: "Bullies are a vital part of society. Without them we have no motivation to better ourselves." 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️ He thinks he improves the society by spreading hateful propaganda and bullying everybody who has slightly different views.

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    Ian Park

    This guy speaks the truth despite working for a propaganda machine and clearly trying to further his own agenda in his own talk. Assuming that "male privilege" is just a societal truth is just proving his own indoctrination by left-wing media instead of right-wing.

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    I dont like this guy, he's fucking stupid
    his view on the topic and overall political correctness is so one sided its almost 2D

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    Donnie Campbell

    TED Published on Oct 1, 2019
    You can't interject your view unless it's accurate otherwise your the
    very people your speaking about and calling George Soros a boogie man somehow a lie and conspiracy. He is a boogie man and soon he will be like GHW Bush. Then we will see if the troll is the problem or you are contributing

    to the lies thereby adding to the lies that perpetuates the problem, your contradicting yourself later with your friends you will be saying just the opposite of what your saying on stage. It happens every day. it's called main stream media.

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    Cool Patience

    I used to pretend to hate Jewish subversion of my people because of internet points but thanks to this talk I now like it.

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    This ted talk is propaganda and Andrew is a troll, if one person with a phone can change the world – imagine what billionaires do…

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    Samuel Gitita

    Wouldn't it be ironic if he called out the trolls and they never appeared in the comment section? Glad it isn't ironic though.

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    Kazy Kamakaze

    This Andrew guy is a moron,all algorithms have a bias built into them from their creators this is why we are currently having so much left wing censorship on social media since a lot of leftists work now at those social media companies and the culture is forced onto everyone there and this shows in the algorithm being built both manual and ML algorithms.
    You can clearly see that this guy is alt left from his comments/opinions on subjects. He distorts the meaning of free speech to suit his shoddy logic. As long as no one is physically harmed like direct calls for violence then leave people be. I honestly believe the best future for the planet would be the Libertarianism route. Stop telling people what to do and leave them to their own devices as long as they don't do any harm to others then why force your ideals onto them?

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    Justice !

    I am Muslim but this guy's speech is great. Why is so many dislikes? And so much hatred? There is logic in his every single word.

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    Trebor Ironwolfe

    Excellent presentation!
    One addition and consideration to Mr. Marantz's take on our own responsibilities for the "good" or "bad" of the internet:
    We are making A.I. One day they may ask us about their purpose.

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    Sgt Boots

    I just fact checked him and the bomber he describes is from Afghanistan. He was naturalized in 2011. This is the reason why the far right refers to guys like this as NPCs, snowflakes, and some other choice names.

    I'm not going to waste my time on this. You beat consperacy theories with facts. There are a lot of ways he could've approached this but this guy sounds like he can only talk to people with the same world view as himself. Just another liberal out of touch elitist. One last thing. Show your work when you've said you've done your research.

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    John Smith

    Is there a true statement in this entire show? He's not worried anout Nazis or white supremacists. He is worried about this:
    "Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is anti Christ that denieth the Father and the Son."
    Internet propogandist.

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    There is no dichotomy with skepticism. Everything about what this guy says is Orwellian double speak. Don’t listen to this tool.

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    Reckless Abandon

    Calling people "jerks", insinuating they are intellectually deficient, because they don't believe in your invented political concept of "privilege", is an anti-social act and borders on a violation of the non-aggression principle – non-violent response 👎👎👎👎 🍑

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    Desert Rain

    I call bullshit! A lot of what this man says is true but we are only fooling ourselves if we do not believe that the algorithms are getting to the point that they can read our thoughts.

    Call me a conspiracist, I don’t care. Do your research and enlighten yourselves.

    1984 and Brave new world? Ha! We are so beyond that!

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    Robert Zinkus

    Andrew Marantz… What are you selling? Ted Talks lack so much intelligence, but certainly foment political ideology. Go figure…

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    Jerry Donohue

    So its a choice between the extreme loony left or white supremacists carrying torches. White hats, black hats.  It must be great to live in such a simplistic world. The difference is he wants to "FIX" what I think, (rigged algorithms. speech codes etc.) but I would never try and control what he thinks. That is HUGE.

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    Dawn IrishBOB

    And before it was social media, it was print and television journalism. Don't get me wrong- I agree that the world in general is very negative, knee-jerk reaction kind of society. The idea that it's dangerous to think for ourselves, just go along 'with the flow.'

    However, I would say that this all started way before social media came along. Social media just spreads it faster and allows more to participate than before. To me, it started when newspapers and television news became more interested in selling ad space -getting more ppl to read/watch so their advertisers would be happy that their ad reached a certain number of potential customers. "If it bleeds, it leads." Because they knew that's what sells.

    And it continues today: "We don't have all the facts…" and yet the news anchors will still hypothesize what they THEY might have happened or what should of happened. When I took my journalism class, I was taught that it should be about "Who, What, Where and When" and the "why" only came last, and a small bit to end the story. Now it's the reverse -the 4 "W's" are smallest part of the story. These days, when I listen to or watch the news, I end up having more unanswered questions than before!

    So again, I'd say it's not entirely the fault of social media, it's the result of the role the news media grooming us not to think for ourselves or have any sort of fair, decent standards.

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    Tan Mirza

    Wait until death brings you the truth. Then will you regret never having used your eyes to see, ears to hear and your heart to reason. The majority of you will never think critically because your Prussian model for education doesn't train you to think but to regurgitate statements given to you. I wonder what you think is talked about what and traditions are upheld and practiced by the CEO'S, Politicians, Royalty and celebrities at the very well known SECRET MEETINGS?

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    I'm a democrat, but I disliked this video within the first minute…

    Will this guy change my mind by the end of the video? Let's find out.

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    Ultimate Dab

    Typical mainstream Democratic Orthodoxy and arrogance. I voted for Bernie, but the modern left is pushing me away so fast I can't even think.
    Stop dehumanizing people based on their politics.

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    Thomas Jones

    I don't know what I was expecting with this, I'm going to leave this here to cement my disappointment and quietly leave.

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    ignorants like to use stickers .. "trolls" .. "conspiracy theorists".. "antisemitists" .. you name it.. When you run out of arguments in discussion, this is what you stick with..

    5th rule of disinformation tacticts:
    Sidetrack opponents with name calling and ridicule. This is also known as the primary attack the messenger ploy, though other methods qualify as variants of that approach. Associate opponents with unpopular titles such as “kooks”, “right-wing”, “liberal”, “left-wing”, “terrorists”, “conspiracy buffs”, “radicals”, “militia”, “racists”, “religious fanatics”, “sexual deviates”, and so forth. This makes others shrink from support out of fear of gaining the same label, and you avoid dealing with issues.

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    Anthony Walz

    sooooo everyone who disagrees with me is a troll right??? and my lack of getting sarcasm doesn't reflect on me but on everyone around me right just wanted to be sure i got that right.

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    Foogle Droogle

    Jews have been kicked out of 109 countries throughout history (so far)…by different races, ethnic groups & religions from all around the world. Are we supposed to believe all these countries (of competently different backgrounds) simply hated Jews for no reason & used them as a scapegoat?

    I suppose Andrew Marantz would like you to think so.

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    Andrew what ever happened in your past I hope you can get through. This is the most bias talks I've ever heard/saw I hope you someday realize how against conversation you sound.

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    Mark Green

    There's a saying I like to use in times like this;

    Don't feed the trolls.

    It's like feeding bears around human establishments, once they know where to get free food that's where they will stay, then if you don't give them any they will attack you.

    Don't fees the trolls!

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    Michael Ex

    This guy is just a Zionist, left wing propagandist. His message isnt as popular as the people he attacks so it requires institutional support and for us to be censored for him to get an audience. And even with all that, hes getting cyber tomatoes thrown at him.

    One day when we take power we will put people like Marantz in prison like they want to do to us.

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    BJ C

    The amount of trolls pissed off in the comments here is #brilliant. It’s just perfect. I’m embarrassed for you all.

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    Yougottab Kidding

    This is probably the most opinionated, least fact based TED Talk, presented as "fact," I have ever watched. Maybe those "Nazis" that invited them in your homes were by most standards just conservative , and in your extremist left world, you, Andrew Marantz, are seeing the world, through your extremist lense.

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