Social media has been in the news a lot lately. There seems to be no shortage of headlines on how Russia used Twitter and Facebook to flood Americans’ feeds with fake news during the 2016 election. While this focus on Russia’s propaganda effort is certainly important, it misses an important point; there was plenty of fake news and radical discourse at home. The “alt-right” (the misogynist, white supremacist movement behind the deadly “Unite the Right” rally) were also hard at work during the election, creating social media networks of racist, xenophobic content that shared a common theme: vote Trump in 2016.
During this time, Dr. Deana Rohlinger and I were interested in one question: how do political ideologies spread online, especially in places not designed for political talk? To answer this, we studied one of the more popular Alt-Right forums, reddit.com’s “The Red Pill.” The forum is described as a place for “men’s empowerment,” but truthfully serves as a place where over 230,000 subscribers discuss how to manipulate women into having sex with them. The Red Pill community shares many qualities with Richard Spencer’s Alt-Right: both hate women and feminism, abhor “liberal” universities, and absolutely adore Trump.
This pro-Trump development is rather recent for The Red Pill. For years, forum users explicitly divorced themselves from mainstream politics, which makes this Trump-fever even more fascinating. To understand this change, Dr. Rohlinger and I looked at how the forum evolved from 2013 to 2016, studying over 1700 comments across eight of the most popular discussions during that time. When we first started looking at these conversations, we expected to find a lot of noise with no clear direction. What we found was a network of misanthropic men who seized the chance for political mobilization. From 2013 to 2015, the forum was a place for men to develop a “personal philosophy” of manhood, with most discussions focusing on having sex with as many women as possible. This all changed during the election, as community leaders drew on this “philosophy of manhood” to argue that Trump was the embodiment of Red Pill ideals. By using their influence in the forum, these elite users were able to successfully push others into political action.
The effects of this transformation were widespread: October 2016’s most popular post was “‘Sexual Assault’ is Why I’m Endorsing Donald Trump for President of the United States,” alt-right celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos made a guest appearance, and the forum “Red Pill Right” was created to marry The Red Pill with “The Donald,” Reddit’s most popular Trump forum. To Red Pill users, Hillary Clinton would supposedly wage a “war on men,” so who better to stop this war than a man who bragged about the size of his genitalia during a political debate? When forum leaders cast Hillary as a dire threat to the Red Pill community, users responded by rallying around her enemy, casting aside years of reticence to participate in the political system.
While untangling Russia’s influence on our election is a critical task, we cannot forget that there are radical enclaves online in our own country. Their influence on discourse and electoral politics are just as important. The case of The Red Pill is just one part of a revolution in how grassroots mobilization occurs over the Internet. With Trump successfully activating previously apolitical online communities, both sides of the political spectrum will have to reconsider how they will spread their message online. Digital mobilization, once decried as “slacktivism,” is becoming just as significant as real-world protests.
Pierce Dignam is a doctoral candidate at FSU’s Department of Sociology. He studies the intersection of social movements, gender, and politics in the digital age.