Ever since its release in 1999, references from blockbuster film, The Matrix, have become part of popular culture. The movie’s premise and many of its lines have stuck with us for more than 20 years and, particularly in the last decade, been co-opted by groups who would never be aligned with its original ethos.
In recent months, The Matrix co-creator Lilly Wachowski has spoken out, saying the science fiction film is more of a transgender allegory than anything else – revelations that will certainly grate on those who gravitate to the movement inspired by one of the movie’s most memorable lines: “Take the red pill.”
Initially, following the metaphor of how it plays out in the film, taking the red pill (instead of the blue pill) meant choosing to see the truth.
If you take a red pill, your eyes are opened to the truth of the world, and you no longer exist in the prettier, but fake, world you thought you lived in. If you take the red pill, you see the underpinnings of the world’s networks, the push for power from various groups, the nefarious dealings of those in control to keep the masses satiated and at bay.
But as time went on, this became more than just a line from a movie. It gained traction on internet forums, then Reddit, and for years, has stood as a battle-cry for conservative conspiracy theorists and men’s rights activists (MRA) – many of whom believe the “truth” is that white men are under attack.
But what does the phrase really mean? There are too many definitions of red-pilled in Urban Dictionary to cite them all.
There is no one true definition of red-pilling, so red-pilling can be anything. But there is a certain type of person who proudly proclaims to have taken the red pill most often. Men like Cesar Sayoc, the man who sent improvised explosive devices to critics of Donald Trump, and far-right conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones. Men who hate feminism, who are against liberal ideas, men who believe in things like pizzagate, pick-up artists (PUAs), the manosphere (a group of online communities that include MRAs, PUAs, incels and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) among others) and QAnon.
Even those who use the term in more mainstream spaces do so without much clarity. In May, Elon Musk tweeted “Take the red pill” to his 34.5 million followers. It got hundreds of thousands of likes, replies and retweets, including from Ivanka Trump. But why would Musk type this dog whistle, and does he know what it means?
In the film scene, Keanu Reeves’s Neo learns that the matrix (the life he thought he was leading) was “the world pulled over [his] eyes to prevent [him] from seeing the truth”. The truth being that he was a slave, just like everyone else, born into bondage, but kept sated by a silly, untrue fantasyland.
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus tells Neo. “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
The hero takes the red pill, which is meaningful to these groups who feel the world has mistreated them. Gathering in online echo chambers, they feel like heroes for seeing the world for what it is, for being brave enough to handle it and strong enough to show others.
Little do they realise that their red pill of truth often leads them down a path of delusion, the very thing they think they are rallying the rest of the world against.
While red-pilling has had some play in the media, it is often through a sympathetic lens. Many people do not truly understand the process of being indoctrinated into this type of thinking or what it does to those undergoing it.
This phenomenon is not something to be gawked at or ignored. Misogyny, white supremacy and anti-Semitism are on the rise, and so is the violence that goes with them, including shootings, bombings and vehicular violence.
Increasingly, these bursts of violence come after months or years of conditioning these men undergo. They hang out on YouTube or in internet forums and weave a web of conspiracy theory around themselves, in which they are the ultimate victims, and their scapegoats some unlikely victors in the game of life – groups typically marginalised by society: Jewish people, Black people, other people of colour, and, of course, women.
Nick Price, a self-described “nearly professional internet troll”, helps run the Facebook page Hope This Helps, which hands out snarky one-liners to disgruntled people who complain in entitled ways on business websites and social media.
Price has been watching the red-pill community grow since the early 2000s. He says the ideas started on Internet Relay Chat (IRC), an application layer protocol responsible for some of the first chat rooms on the internet. Over the years, those ideas have evolved.
“What was once light-hearted and humorous slowly became sinister over time in a lot of communities,” Price said. “I think they generally start down these paths due to a lack of self-esteem and identity, and they’ll cling on to what they derive from it.”
These groups are actually a collection of servers that connect computers. Starting in the late 1980s, it ran as a basic tree-like communication tool, where each computer was part of the network, but messages were routed only through certain channels, depending on their directive. The content categories range from the Dark Web to Hacktivism and everything in between. Because of the technical nature of using these channels, the people drawn to the original communities tended to have tech knowledge and interests in common.
A lot of these toxic beliefs and behaviours are self-reinforcing until the point that they escalate and start to become normal ad infinitum.
A woman working in tech in Silicon Valley, who asked for anonymity to protect her career and family, says she was part of the original communities. They were built on the perception that their rants were “just the internet”, she explained. But that became a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for members to say whatever they wanted, she added. And then it got worse.
“That combined with a new kind of internet community of people who go to violence as a first resort. It means that threats are more real now. In this second community, [what is said is] not a joke, but that first community adds plausible deniability,” she said. “So now you have two communities, who absolutely can and will do violence. These two feed off each other. But really both want violence.”
Because the first type of community would make violent threats and laugh it off, saying people took the internet too seriously, when the second group came along making violent threats they were able to claim that they were just in jest – until the moment they actually acted on the threats. When a member of the community committed a violent act, the rest would then disavow them, claiming they were an outlier.
Examples of this type of violence after online activities range from making pipe bombs to carrying out mass shootings. Red-pilling is not a game any more, if it ever was.
“A lot of these toxic beliefs and behaviours are self-reinforcing until the point that they escalate and start to become normal ad infinitum, and I think a lot of it is fuelled by the vile echo chambers that pop up everywhere,” Price said.
So, what happens when you accidentally feed into this loop? That is where I come in. I am a professor of journalism, a reporter, an opinion writer and a woman. As a teacher, I can say that very few of my students know what red-pilling means. Many assume it has to do with politics – red being Republican and blue being Democrat. And although the ideologies do start to align if you squint your eyes, deaden your brain, concentrate on the fringe elements of both parties and ignore all nuance, in reality, red and blue pills have nothing to do with US political parties.
As a reporter and liberal opinion writer, I can say that nothing makes you question your purpose more than finding your own work being used by red-pillers to pull people down their rabbit holes. An outlandish word here, a provoking phrase there, and an argument taken out of context are all that is needed to get some people to take a hesitant first step towards conspiracy-theory, white-supremacist, anti-Semitic central.
In my case, they used my name and a piece I wrote in 2014 for TIME to bring the narrative back around to Jewish people running everything, crying racism and being the most privileged of all. The original article, for reference, was about understanding the riots that happened in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and the acquittal of the officer who shot him. I argued that riots were the language of the unheard and that they are necessary for the evolution of society.
Not all of the articles written about my piece on right-wing and far-right websites were fire and brimstone (although many were). Some were worded intelligently, using a subtle touch to take my words just slightly out of context so that by the end of it a reader might just think “Huh, maybe it is Darlena who is the racist one. After all, the writer of this article seems to care about Black people, seems to want economic equality – unless, of course, the people suffering brought it upon themselves. Which, if you look at certain situations in a certain light (i.e. the way they will have been presented in these articles), sometimes they must have, right?”
In Greg Gutfeld’s monologue on Fox Five, for instance, he set up an entire debate scenario where he played both sides.
“You don’t kill a kid because he’s high,” Gutfeld said, imitating the traditionally liberal view of Michael Brown’s murder. “Well, he was also high, and he attacked the cop,” Gutfeld answered himself. He goes on in this manner, brilliantly making conservative talking points sound rational and liberal talking points sound silly until he gets to his conclusion: “Can we agree on one thing?” he asks. “Sure,” he answers himself. “That Darlena Cunha is a big moron?”
And that is the first step. Easy as that. Logical as it seems but illogical as it actually is.
This reckoning, this change, it does not happen all at once. It is a gradual descent, a slow journey.
I got off luckier than most because they gave me, as a person, a mere glancing blow and the piece in question was just an afterthought. They called me a Jewess – even though I am not Jewish – then left me alone. But focusing on my Jewish-sounding name (Cunha can be a variant of Cohen) was priming, conditioning for the reader. It was a subconscious hint to build the web on top of which red-pillers pile their ideas, their motives and their conspiracies.
“Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more,” Morpheus tells Neo. That is what these men believe – that they are bringing the truth – almost, but not quite, devoid of politics.
“It was a Republican state representative who founded the RedPill subreddit,” Price said, referring to Robert Fisher, who also previously ran for office as a Democrat, and referencing the first Reddit RedPill community that sprang up in 2012.
“I still see it used occasionally these days in the older ‘wake up sheeple’ type of context, but it’s definitely been surpassed by MRA types. What’s interesting to me is conservatives adopting the term ‘woke’. Even Donald Trump’s campaign is selling gear that says it. And I think although the origins differ significantly, the right’s adoption of both terms seems very aligned on both sides.”
Price thinks Alex Jones’s use of the phrase in the early 2010s helped boost its popularity. He even marketed an actual red-pill product, which he has claimed – incorrectly, of course – could prevent someone from catching or help in treating coronavirus.
“I’m not sure if it became more of an MRA thing because Alex Jones started shifting that direction and talking about the evils of feminism and that sort of thing, or if it was because MRAs were into conspiracy stuff and adopted it themselves,” Price said.
These groups discuss the evils of women and feminism, and how unfairly they are treated, while sharing conspiracy theories about Jewish people, powerful women or people of colour until their opinions seem like facts.
But the movie reference does not work metaphorically. It does not translate to these chat rooms and websites.
“I’ve almost never seen or heard the term ‘blue-pilled’ used as a contrary term, which I think would be a good litmus test for how related to the movie it still is, especially given that the red-pill crowd is so prone to insulting anyone who disagrees,” Price said.
The red-pillers have a movement with no basis – and this gives it power because a movement with no clear definition is one that can mean anything to any follower. It can be moulded to fit the particulars of each individual so that each person going down these rabbit holes of propaganda can make the messaging speak directly to them.
“These days I feel like engaging with any of them is pointless,” Price said. “You’re talking to a brick wall that delights in ignoring everything you say. They’ve tied so much of their self-worth and identity to beliefs that feminism is ruining their lives, that people of colour are trying to take their rights away, and that Jewish people are running an underground power, that entertaining something contrary could destroy their self-worth, and so it’s kind of a defence mechanism.”
As a woman, I found there are not many frank discussions about red-pilling amid female academics, researchers or even journalists. Most women I asked to speak to about the topic politely declined. They were too busy, they did not have enough expertise, they could not speak on something so broad, and most honestly, they could not handle the stress of an interview on this particular topic right now. Perhaps they were afraid. With the main thrust of the current movement being anti-feminist, they have every right to be.
“Every … woman I know who [stands up to] them gets relentlessly abused for years,” the woman who works in the tech industry in Silicone Valley said. “Anyone quoted in [this piece] that is female is going to get harassed.”
Rational thinking is not at the heart of these attacks. Harder still is to figure out what we can do about them.
When a movement does not have a definition, it does not have rules. When messages in the movement are left in fragment form, followers can hear anything they want. And many of them hear that they should attack other people, particularly people who are not cis-white men. And that is scary.
In addition to harassment, many women are simply tired. Evelyn Torton Beck, a professor of psychology in the department of women’s studies at the University of Maryland, said that while misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism and often homophobia and ableism are usually tied together in these broad-ranged attacks, it is nearly impossible to explain why this happens across the spectrum of marginalisation.
“Rational thinking is not at the heart of these attacks,” Beck said. “Harder still is to figure out what we can do about them.”
When Elliott Rodger killed six people in 2014, he wrote out a misogynistic screed against women and was hailed by the aforementioned men’s communities as a hero. But his manifesto does not read as rational thinking, it reads as a deep emotional hatred of women stemming from his own instability.
Beck was quick to mention the work women and other marginalised populations had put in throughout the decades to move equality along, listing education, research, political activism, changing institutional biases, voting in politicians who had been disenfranchised and more.
“The list of what we tried is so very long and some things were effective, but it feels as if right now the backlash is so strong, I am amazed that you even thought you could reach or help the ‘red-pill’ people,” she said. “From what I have read, they are incalcitrant.”
I doubt anything said here could reach that group. I’m just hoping it will reach the rest of society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.