Our extract this week is from the book Web of Lies by Aoife Gallagher, which looks in detail at the rising threat of far-right extremist thought in Ireland and internationally…
When the Arab Spring erupted in late 2010, the power of the internet and social media was in full force for the world to see. Activists used Facebook and Twitter to spread photos and videos, gathering support and momentum for uprisings and protest movements that were erupting all across the Middle East. In 2013, after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy whom Zimmerman had fatally shot for the crime of walking down the street, Patrisse Cullors tweeted using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and a civil rights movement was born.
In 2015, the #YesEquality campaign played a pivotal role in helping Ireland become the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality by popular vote. Three years later, #TogetherForYes ran an equally successful campaign during the country’s referendum on abortion rights. The ability of the online world to bring people together is truly remarkable. The internet can provide sanctuary and can help people find like-minded others. Have a niche interest you want to explore? The internet has a community for you. In the early days of the internet, it seemed like we had finally discovered the tool that would strengthen democracy and bring us all closer together.
However, just as the discovery of nuclear fission led to the invention of the atomic bomb, it became apparent quite quickly that the online world could also be utilised to bring out the worst in people. Since the early 2000s, online subcultures have exploded in popularity and birthed some of the most toxic movements the world has ever seen. Some within these communities have turned to terrorism, others have joined extremist groups or farright political parties, and countless others have dedicated their time to spreading hate and bigotry online in the name of ‘trolling’.
Others have become detached from reality and can no longer maintain relationships with friends and family members because of their descent down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Although these groups once kept to their own fringe corners of the online world, in recent years their influence has penetrated the mainstream. It’s important to know how these communities evolved and the power they wield – both online and in real life.
In 2017, Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic and YouTuber, was invited to speak at VidCon, an annual conference for online content creators. Sarkeesian was one of four women on a panel discussing a range of issues related to being a woman online, including the proliferation of online harassment targeting women. Sarkeesian was only too familiar with the subject, being the target of a mass online abuse campaign that had begun years earlier, after she produced a series of videos on her YouTube channel looking at gender tropes and stereotypes in video games.
The videos analysed how female characters were often portrayed in games – as damsels in distress, or as sexy, bikini-wearing background characters subjected to violence – and were part of a wider discussion that was taking place about breaking down old stereotypes in the gaming industry. For decades, gaming was a boys’ sport. Games were made for and marketed to boys (even though girls were also playing), hence the popularity of violent first-person shooter games and the emergence of scantily clad female characters with unrealistically large breasts.
As games went mobile and online, more girls and women started to join online communities, and people like Sarkeesian began critiquing these old stereotypes. She wasn’t calling for censorship, or for these games to cease to exist, but to a sector of the gaming community, Sarkeesian’s videos were a sign that women were invading their ‘boys-only club’ in a bid to destroy it. For Sarkeesian, who dared to raise her head above the parapet and speak about creating a more inclusive space for women, this resulted in years of rape and death threats, the leaking of her personal information online (a tactic known as doxxing), and bomb threats sent to events she was meant to speak at. Eventually Sarkeesian had to leave her home for security reasons.
These abuse campaigns garnered widespread attention in 2014, when they took a more coordinated form in a controversy known as Gamergate. Gamergate began when the resentful ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoë Quinn posted a blog online that accused Quinn of sleeping with gaming journalists in order to secure positive reviews of her game Depression Quest. Depression Quest represented a new era of indie video game development. It was a semi-autobiographical game, in which the main character was dealing with depression. The format was extremely basic, and the game wasn’t necessarily fun to play – but it wasn’t meant to be. It received mostly positive reviews for its educational value and for tackling issues around depression in a unique way. Some gamers were not happy about this and felt threatened by the growing influence of women within the industry.
Soon after the game’s release, Quinn started receiving rape and death threats, both online and delivered to her home address, as well as phone calls encouraging her to kill herself. When Quinn’s disgruntled ex-boyfriend suggested in his blog post that Quinn’s success was due to sexual promiscuity (these claims were found to be false), it gave the bitter gamers a conspiracy theory to latch on to: feminists and their allies, known to some as ‘social justice warriors’ (SJWs) were colluding with the media and gaming organisations to push a feminist agenda in gaming, they claimed. ‘Gamergaters’, as they were called, said they were pushing back against this to protect ‘ethics in gaming journalism’.
This pushback took the form of an unprecedented harassment campaign, organised through various websites, including 4chan and Reddit, and spurred on by anti-feminist activists on YouTube and Twitter. Women in gaming (and those who supported them) were besieged by abuse, threats and doxxing for years to follow. The force Gamergate wielded online was unlike anything that had been seen before, and its strength came from a coalescence of various online subcultures. Many of these can be collectively termed the ‘manosphere’, a loose online network of websites, forums, podcasters and YouTubers. It was the manosphere that first popularised the use of the term ‘red-pilling’.
Those who are red-pilled within the manosphere are of the view that women play a dominant role in society and that men are being oppressed. They believe that feminism is a conspiracy to keep men subjugated, and that political correctness, the breakdown of traditional gender roles and SJWs are causing the destruction of the Western world. Feminists and their SJW allies are framed within these movements as perpetually offended ‘snowflakes’ who have been programmed through liberal society to hop onto the latest fashionable trend – be that caring about women’s rights, the rights of refugees or the dangers of a disease. It is important to say that men face many important issues that should not be dismissed.
These include high male suicide rates, a lack of equality in custody disputes and few resources for male victims of domestic violence. It also needs to be said that there are elements within radical feminism that can take criticism of men to an extreme and refuse to acknowledge these issues. Many of the men who frequent the manosphere likely have very real grievances with society, but the answers that are given in these spaces feed an extremely toxic world view that can be particularly potent to those who feel rejected – whether romantically or, more generally, from society. Men are ranked as ‘alphas’ (charismatic, socially dominant men who have loads of sex), ‘betas’ (who are introverted and inept at relationships) or ‘sigmas’ (rare, lone-wolf types with alpha traits). Women are degraded, objectified and stereotyped as irrational and emotional beings who are ‘hardwired to pair with alpha males’ and seen as ‘needing to be dominated.’
A common acronym in the manosphere is AWALT: ‘all women are like that.’ Central to this thinking is a conspiracy theory known as cultural Marxism, which is in itself grounded in anti-Semitism. The theory claims that a small group of Marxist Jewish intellectuals from a school of social theory known as the Frankfurt School fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and set up shop in the US. There they instigated a scheme to subvert Western thinking by promoting sexual liberation, multiculturalism and feminism.3 Since the early 1990s, the theory has become popular among the right, where it has been used to decry anti-racist action, LGBTQ+ rights, feminism and generally anything that could be viewed as being under the umbrella of ‘political correctness’.
In 2011 Anders Breivik, a Norwegian neo-Nazi terrorist, killed 77 people in a bombing and shooting in Oslo and the nearby island of Utøya, motivated by what he thought was a cultural Marxist plot to corrupt European values. Cultural Marxism has since become a mainstay among various online movements, including the manosphere, Gamergate and the alt-right. The manosphere evolved over time – from the men’s rights movements in the late 1970s that refused to acknowledge male privilege and rejected feminism, to the rise of pickup artistry in the early 2000s, popularised by Neil Strauss’s 2005 book The Game, which gamified consent and gave men formulas to pick up women. As Dr Annie Kelly, who wrote her PhD thesis on digital anti-feminism, explained to me: ‘If you look back on those spaces, you’ll be surprised by how mild they seem compared to what we expect of [anti-feminist] spaces now.’
Dr Kelly believes that today’s manosphere, where rage, anger and the propensity to talk about women in the most toxic ways is par for the course, evolved out of ‘a few canny entrepreneurs’ who realised there was an appetite for hard-core misogyny within these spaces. In many ways, she says, ‘pre-social media, they were responding to a function that we now understand, which is that abusive language, anger, punchy, shocking and controversial ideas rise to the top and get you lots of clicks and lots of advertising.’ The evolution of these disparate spaces into the collective manosphere and then into Gamergate, Dr Kelly reasons, was influenced by progressive movements like #BlackLivesMatter.
They realised they could utilise social media and hashtags in the same way in order to get more eyeballs on their content, leading to more advertising and more donations. A few unsuccessful campaigns were attempted, but Gamergate was the one that broke through because they were able to tap into a huge digital community of gamers. As Dr Kelly explained in her PhD thesis, early gaming websites that promoted gaming news and events were often male-centric in nature and leant into a style of ironic misogyny. Gamers had their own history of sexist harassment campaigns, not just against Anita Sarkeesian, but many other women within gaming who called out misogyny or sexism. Women had also been speaking up for years about casual sexual harassment experienced while playing games, especially those where strangers play each other online and converse through voice chats.
This culture, which often encouraged disrespecting women, made certain gamers more susceptible to the rhetoric of the manosphere. Back at VidCon 2017, Anita Sarkeesian walked out on stage to find that the first three rows of the audience were filled with the exact people who had targeted her in the years-long abuse campaigns. Many were popular anti-feminist and men’s rights YouTubers who had been key players in Gamergate and had made hundreds of videos attacking people like Sarkeesian and obsessively degrading her and her work. Their videos would receive tens – and sometimes hundreds – of thousands of views and were pivotal in galvanising the trolls who got a kick out of sending rape and death threats.
They were in the audience to intimidate her and take their harassment into a real-life setting, and of course, they had their cameras out to record her reaction. It didn’t take long. A question was put to the panel on whether they had come up against obstacles in their career that they felt were linked to their gender or identity. Sarkeesian answered by talking about how her life completely changed following the targeted harassment of her. Then, gesturing towards the people in the first few rows, she said: ‘If you Google my name on YouTube, you get shitheads, like this dude, who are making these dumb-assed videos. They just say the same shit over and over again. I hate to give you attention because you’re a garbage human.
These dudes just making endless videos that go after every feminist over and over again is a part of the issue of why we have to have these conversations.’ The ‘garbage human’ she was referring to was a British YouTuber named Carl Benjamin, who posts on YouTube under the name Sargon of Akkad. Benjamin was a hero to Gamergaters and made dozens of videos attacking Sarkeesian. In fact, he had essentially made a career out of it. In one particular video, Benjamin said that he didn’t really think the harassment was affecting her because she didn’t seem to be in ‘extreme emotional distress’. If it was affecting her, he said, surely she would just leave Twitter. ‘You are a charlatan. You’re an imposter … You do not care about gaming.’ He then implied that Sarkeesian must issue the threats against herself, including bomb threats, in order to gain financially. ‘Your threats sound made up, and they sound like they were made up by feminists … who are pushing an agenda that you are profiting from.’ This is all the more ironic when you take into account that Benjamin at that time was bringing in almost $7,000 a month through his Patreon account and around $1.50 per 1,000 views on his YouTube channel (for context, Benjamin’s YouTube channel currently has over 300 million views).
After VidCon, Benjamin appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast where, when retelling what happened during the panel discussion, he accused Sarkeesian of harassing him. ‘I did nothing to her,’ he said with complete sincerity, despite stating in a video the evening before that they were planning to purposefully sit in the front row ‘so she knows we’re there’. His playing the victim after showing up at a discussion about harassment for the sole purpose of intimidating a woman whom he had spent many years harassing is the perfect analogy for the strategy of many in the manosphere, who think they are never to blame and seem incredulous to the idea that their actions bother people. A few minutes later, Benjamin looked directly into the camera and said: ‘I’ve spoken to a lot of people who know you personally, Anita, and they say everyone hates you because you’re a dick.’ Charming. Benjamin has often been credited as the source of people’s red-pilling into anti-feminism and on to further extremist movements.
Sitting in the front row at VidCon beside Benjamin was Irishman Dave Cullen. Cullen had made a decent name for himself online in the early 2010s by critiquing tech products and reviewing games under the online moniker Computing Forever, amassing tens of thousands of subscribers on YouTube. He was so successful that he even wrote a book about how he was able to make a living off YouTube and earned himself a spot hosting a panel discussion at the tech conference Web Summit in 2015. Cullen was a self-declared ‘tech geek’ and a review of his early videos showed that his knowledge in this area certainly warranted his success. Sometimes, Cullen strayed from his tech reviews and offered commentary on social issues that interested him, and mid-way through 2015, there was a clear indication that these thoughts were being influenced by the manosphere. In a May 2015 video, Cullen said that efforts to attract more women to the tech industry were ‘an attempt to make people question their natural inclinations’, comparing this to trying to get men more interested in makeup tutorial videos. Cullen’s main thesis, supported by cherry-picked scientific studies, was that differences between men and women are innate and driven by biology.
He said feminism is ‘trying to fuck with the natural order of things’ by claiming that gender stereotypes are social constructs. ‘Men and women are not designed to compete against each other in the workplace or the public sphere,’ he said. Those who claim that women can do manual labour better than men are promoting ‘populist rhetoric appealing to the “you go girl, bubblegum-brained Facebook generation”’. He called men who support feminists ‘weak ass blue-pilled beta males’ who are ‘really just hoping … they might get laid.’ This video is quite typical of content produced by men’s rights activists and anti-feminists in the manosphere, but one that is not supported by psychologists who research sex and gender. Writing in The Conversation in 2017, Professor of Psychology Alice H. Eagly said that the science is complicated but agreed that ‘neither nature-oriented nor nurture-oriented science can fully account for the underrepresentation of women in tech jobs’.
She agreed that both biology and socially constructed gender stereotypes play a role and warned against ‘acting on the assumption of a gender binary’, instead encouraging people to ‘treat individuals of both sexes as located somewhere on a continuum of masculine and feminine interests and abilities’. In other words, we’re all different, and we’re all different for different reasons. Videos like this became more frequent on Cullen’s channel throughout 2015. He described political correctness as ‘a mind control mechanism that is designed to make people complicit in a lie’. Feminists and SJWs are ‘cultural Marxists’, he said, comparing them to communists and saying that they ‘won’t be happy until we all look the same and sound the same’. He viewed white heterosexual men as the real group being oppressed and blamed high male suicide rates on the ‘feminisation’ of mental health.
In September 2015, he joined the Gamergate YouTube mob attacking Sarkeesian in a video where he called modern feminists like her ‘annoying harpies, trying to control and brainwash women, particularly attractive ones that they’re jealous of’. He reiterated the conspiracy theory floated by Benjamin about her using threats for financial gain, calling her a ‘professional victim’. By 2016, Cullen’s tech reviews were becoming sporadic, and his channel descended into a hodgepodge of videos decrying the mainstream media, social justice campaigns, multiculturalism and the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues to children in schools. He supported Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency and celebrated his win as a sign that ‘a shit tonne of Americans have been red-pilled’. He also started collaborating with other YouTubers in the anti-feminist and men’s rights activist scene. In a December 2016 video, Cullen talked about the change of direction his channel took.
He said he grew ‘tired of the same old routine’ reviewing tech products and became jaded by lazy innovation and the tech industry’s reliance on planned obsolescence – that is, the deliberate manufacture of products that are designed to go out of date in order to keep people buying new products. Around 2013, he said he had a ‘political awakening’ and went from being a ‘radical atheist with a contempt for religion and spirituality’ to seeing ‘the merit in the traditional Judeo-Christian values’. His belief that marriage is the ‘fundamental building block of civilisation’ and his ‘respect for nationalism and traditional gender roles’ made him realise that he had more in common with conservative Christians: ‘We also seem to share common enemies in the globalists who wish to destroy the traditional Christian identity of their nations through multiculturalism and by using feminism to destroy the family unit.’
Around this time, he ‘discover[ed] things like Gamergate and Sargon of Akkad [Carl Benjamin] … and other anti-feminist content creators’ and he began focusing more on politics in his videos. The friendship he sparked with Benjamin and others earned him a seat in the front row at VidCon alongside the main players in the anti-feminist and men’s rights world who were there to intimidate Anita Sarkeesian. Looking back on some of Cullen’s earlier videos, there were signs that he was susceptible to the appeal of the red-pilled world. In a 2013 video, for example, he talked about his experience of depression and called antidepressants ‘another marketing trick by Big Pharma to get people to part with their money and get them hooked on medication that is very, very bad for you’. It is clear in the video that he is passionate about good mental health services and seems frustrated by the pill-pushing approach of pharmaceutical companies.
There were also signs that he was wary of the potential effect the internet could have on the world. In a 2011 video, Cullen discussed whether the internet was contributing to lower critical thinking and shorter concentration spans. ‘If humans become incapable of making insightful and well-informed decisions, will democracy suffer as a result?’ he asked. In a number of other videos uploaded between 2011 and 2013, Cullen talked about social media addiction, the loss of privacy and the warped version of reality that the online world portrays.
In a 2014 video, Cullen spoke positively about the online world creating a ‘global internet culture’ that is beneficial when dealing with problems that ‘we have to face together’ such as environmental issues, terrorism or diseases. He even suggested that ‘countries are an outdated model and we should have one global country’. By 2021, when Cullen was removed from YouTube for violating the platform’s community guidelines, he was promoting white nationalist talking points, anti-globalist conspiracy theories about Agenda 21, Covid-19 conspiracy theories such as the Great Reset and climate change denial. Cullen did not respond to a request to comment on these claims. Gamergate was a watershed moment in the evolution of toxic online subcultures. Its ability to bring together disparate groups and link communities that were not previously linked has had a profound impact on our social and political culture since. In order to fully understand the evolution of the manosphere and what it grew into after Gamergate, it’s important to explore a website that has been critical in producing a very specific kind of toxicity online. It’s time to talk about 4chan.
Web of Lies by Aoife
Gallager is published
by Gill Books and is