Some time ago, around 2016, I threw myself into an online “debate” that, in retrospect, I wasn’t prepared for. As a lifelong lefty and feminist, I saw a sudden shift in the way people were interacting with each other online, particularly around feminism and politics. It had turned ugly.
Admittedly, the internet has always been pretty nasty, but it was always separate from “real life”. I am a veteran, survivor, and both perpetrator and victim from the days of IRC. I am old troll from the trenches of alt.ozdebate. I’ve been on Reddit since the beginning and blogging (with comments on) since 1999. I used to read rotten.com and have been doxxed, harassed, trolled for sport pretty much every day since I first heard the soothing tones of a dial up modem in 1994.
I’ve definitely had me some flame wars and sleepless nights in my time. I have also, over these years, moderated and managed large fan communities and advised people who had lives on how to navigate this space, by diving in and making myself a Crash Test Dummy and reporting back, often well before the battle scars had healed.
In other words, I’ve seen things. I’ve done things. I’m writing a book about this.
I ain’t no snowflake.
So, when I stumbled on a heated online debate between trans rights activists and radical feminists online (something I had, honestly, never even given much thought), I initially saw it as any other debate on the left: two sides that mostly loudly agreed with each other, heels dug in, in conflict, but ultimately just an internet flame war, but would be resolved by the grown ups who saw it as a ridiculous internet shitfight. Because of course they see there’s a real and practical conflict. Of course this is a tricky issue. But, we’re all friends in the end, right? I haven’t been that active in the political scene for a while… but… they’ll talk it out, right? We’ll figure it out. It’s what the left do best.
I sat, quiet, observing, for a year. It was interesting. I hadn’t considered the arguments before, but was hopeful for some sort of resolution. But it kept escalating and escalating. It had none of the sport of a good-spirited flame war, but started to resemble actual psychological abuse.
But, it was just crazies on the internet. Right?
Until I saw that a rape shelter in Vancouver had been defunded as a result of a campaign by trans rights activists who had tormented them for months, including nailing a dead rat nailed to their door, encouraged by a member of parliament, for the crime of excluding natal males. I saw death threats, rape threats, and a whole cascade of shit flung in the direction of women for what I thought were reasonable questions about the implications of Bill C-16. It hadn’t reached Australia yet, but I was concerned it might be a blind spot that well-meaning lefties hadn’t considered.
It still is.
It started to look, to me, less like an internet flame war, and more like women were saying no and violent men didn’t like it. And that whilst our lawmakers and representatives clearly had good intentions, like me, they wanted a resolution, they just weren’t aware of what was happening here, and needed to see the glaring loophole created by legislation that came to be known globally as Self-ID.
So, in 2017, I said something. I have a small platform, but hadn’t been on Twitter for a while. Trump’s election had turned Twitter into fuckwit central, and it was nowhere near the Twitter of old, and I was… just busy running my business. Also, when you’re a political scientist and actually know things, it can be stressful seeing bad political takes, much like it must be for a Doctor watching House MD. Entertaining, but… yeah it doesn’t work like that.
But the whole time, even up until 2019 or so, I continued to think “it’s just the internet. It’s just the comments section“. I’d been in business, trying for over a decade to get CEOs to take the internet seriously. I’d seen it all before, lived it, but the grownups know the internet, right? And the journalists who took tweets and turned them into stories were hacks who worked for rags, right?
The grownups know this, right?
Anyway, I was back on Twitter, in good faith, using what social capital I had built over the years, trying to make people aware that this was happening.
I brought it up with lefty friends. The women called me a bigot and blocked me, and the men showed their true colours, telling me that they understood feminism better than I did, that I was a TERF and that TERFs are revolting. I was put on the list of TERFs and instablocked by people I didn’t even know. I tried to explain that this was simply a misunderstanding and not what happened.
Let’s just say, it fell on deaf, smug ears.
I got what was, in retrospect, a pretty generous love bomb from the right wing. And I don’t mean the nice right wing who happen to disagree simply because they’re conservative, or Christian, or see the world differently.
I mean the hardcore MAGAs, the Red Pillers, the Fundamentalist Christians, the US Far Right. Birther nuts. Nazis. Actual Racists. Real Transphobes and anti-LGBT. And I saw a whole bunch of otherwise reasonable people there too, who had no idea what they were caught up in, because of the reasonable faces of the Intellectual Dark Web that greeted everyone as they arrived.
So, after blocking all the aggressive far right nutters, because I was still trying to understand this issue without being doxxed, I turned to some content creators who (seemingly) were asking the same question I was:
What the fuck is going on here?
This is where it takes a turn, because, I am going to say, there were very few people on the left talking about this. In fact, every time I raised it, I found myself blocked, or hounded by seemingly endless insults and threats by Twitter accounts with anime profile pictures (again, weird, but ok what is this thing…oh… botnets).
I saw what went down at Evergreen College. I saw a bunch of reasonable people writing about the problem on College Campuses. In retrospect it is obviously cherry-picked, but at the time, it looked like a crazy trend that I had stumbled on and had better warn people.
But in the back of my mind, it was always “this is just the comments section and crazy people and botnets and Americans”. That’s all this is, right?
The handful of “reasonable” influencers that were saying they were “left” or “liberals” who kept talking about “conversations with the other side” were not the best representatives for the arguments, and didn’t seem to know political theory or the tech side, so, in good faith, I thought I should add to the conversation and correct some things.
But, oh shit. I hate video. Ugh.
I don’t really have time to write, and have been out of Academia for a long time and these guys all seem really smart. And, given how scary some of the extremists are, I had better cross my T’s and dot my I’s before I write anything of substance, lest I be DESTROYED with FACTS and LOGIC by Ben Shapiro.
So I killed two birds with one stone, and started streaming and talking about this stuff on my YouTube channel, which I had been meaning to start anyway, talking about data, ethics, surveillance and some of the problems with Big Tech that I saw coming down the pipe.
Initially, I would talk to anyone I found interesting, that would talk to me, within reason. It was mostly those people who were saying they were left wing or moderate, but confused me because their theory was off. Again, I just assumed that they didn’t know political theory in detail and needed correcting. Most people don’t. I’m used to that.
So I thought I’d enter the conversation and try to set them straight.
What was waiting for me was a big ol’ love bomb from a whole bunch of “reasonable centrist people willing to talk about the thing everyone wouldn’t talk about but giving the slightly wrong answers and leaving out the Tech angle”. Meanwhile, presenting a reasonable front for the crazy and extreme people I was, quite frankly, scared of.
But, they were constantly distancing themselves from the “actual Nazis”, so I gave the benefit of the doubt.
This was where I was naive, and is the fatal mistake the (actual) left are making.
Over the last five years, I have seen person after person go down a similar track, ask “what the fuck is going on, why are these children suddenly in charge” only to find easy answers and a love bomb on the right. Contrasted with an army of adolescent bullies nitpicking language over minor differences whilst leaders ignore it and hope it goes away.
That gateway is a thing. It is a serious thing. I have watched it happen, over and over again: you’re called a TERF, or didn’t put up a black square in support of George Floyd, or express concerns about censorship or some other minor crime – and you are subjected to a bot army, get love bombed by an eager right wing and a bunch of smiling reasonable-sounding YouTubers who tell you that “Wokism” and “Critical Theory” is the biggest existential threat to Western Civilization.
You see an opportunity, there are Patrons and donations and an audience waiting for you to be part of that narrative. So long as you go along with that story and are willing to make Libs of Tik Tok your business model and not actually try to solve the problem.
Then you’re buying a gun and spreading bunk anti-vax conspiracies and screaming about how perfectly reasonable policies are proof that Australia has fallen.
This is the fault of the mainstream left.
And nobody but me and a handful of other broke-ass nobodies are calling this what it is: the result of the mainstream left abandoning our base in favour of a handful of Super Woke kids, corporate HR Departments and celebrities who identify as left wing, but are anything but, are actively sabotaging progressive causes by pushing away every imperfect ally, and large parts of our voting base, into the loving arms of the right.
Anti-mask and anti-vax don’t happen in a vacuum and we all know it.
And, also, I thought that Corporate HR were the oppressors.
At no time was any of this bad faith, about bigotry or about clout for me. It still isn’t. Yeah I am a big brain with an even bigger mouth, but believe me, I’m better off not talking about this, either continuing to just consult, or set up shop as a corporate Diversity and Inclusion consultant.
I don’t believe that most people go into any of this with bad intent – they get sucked in. It is how the internet’s business model and incentives are set up. The ‘culture wars’ provide endless content, and endless drama and spectacle and clicks, and gives people dopamine highs that make it easy to turn yourself into a cam girl for political fetishists.
But for me, I just wanted to help answer the question: “what the hell is going on?”, and figured that if I was confused by this, after 27 years on the internet and a politics degree, then a lot more people were too.
I don’t avoid difficult things. I don’t just rely on data, but I go in, experience it and make myself the crash test dummy for everyone else online. Rather than go around a problem or question, I go through. It’s what I do best and why I am such a respected digital strategist. So, as I always do, I jumped in and waded through, and talked about my experiences.
I was determined to answer the question and resolve this dispute. I explored every avenue, every nook and cranny. I found many dead ends, and loads and loads of crazy and scary. But I was still determined to answer the question.
And it was all fine, until I actually completed my research, and found the answer a year ago and realised nobody wanted to hear it. Which I will write about another time. At length.
I was helping… right?
I discovered I was actually – simply by participating – helping the right destroy the left.
As someone who saw this weirdly un-left authoritarianism called “Wokism” being not just ignored/minimised, but enabled, I felt I needed to warn the normie grown ups (who aren’t addicted to the internet) what was going on, because lots of people were asking questions, but nobody seemed to have the answer.
Five years after being exposed to the “Gender Wars”, I am less naive.
It’s never been about the answer to the question. It’s about creating confusion and creating a narrative that ensures the materialist left is demonised and they can declare war on everything they attach to us: the Humanities, the Arts and… well… anything that stands in the way of corporate America.
It’s not about the issue, it’s about who you’re serving.
If there’s an issue being discussed that has two sides to the debate, there is currently some sinister and well-resources force trying to put you, the user, on a radicalisation track. Again, I will flesh this out another time, but this is all you need to know: it’s not actually about the issue at hand, but about how people talking about the issue are nudged, with every unwitting influencer who talks about these issues inadvertently (and sometimes deliberately) radicalising their audiences.
Marketers will see it if you squint. You’ll see a clever, well-funded and sophisticated marketing campaign, but the goal is to get you to join a side in war.
Gender, Race, Censorship, COVID, masks, vaccinations… you name it. If you talk about it online, you have to understand that – even if you don’t consent – you’re likely Top of Funnel for the Far Right, or a soldier for the powerful to manufacture consent against your enemy.
The left need to address this. I wrote about this some time ago (yes, I was wrong about a few things, and fell for James Lindsay’s takes for a while before I had read his book, but that’s the nature of this research and going through).
The answer is not to demonise or call people Nazis and TERFs or deplorables. That is what the funnel banks on. It is known to nudge people and get them to double down. There is a clear and obvious strategy around it, which I will map out another time.
The first step is to acknowledge the divide, talk it out, and deal with it. And find a way to get along and have zero tolerance for cancellation or anyone who instigates it. And start equipping people with tools that don’t feed (or turn you into) the monster you’re trying to fight.
It’s taken me three full years of full-time research, with no funding other than a handful of Patrons (and then promptly losing a bunch when I started to call out the US far right) to figure out what the hell had happened to both the internet and the left wing of politics.
And it isn’t good news.
First up, no politician in the United States is left-wing. Let’s get that cleared up first. But that’s a whole other 50 essays. Trust me.
It is an inherently conservative/corporate impulse to avoid interpersonal conflict over important social issues. The left used to push through differences and have difficult conversations. Tedious meetings over minor disagreements (and sometimes major ones) is one of the best and most annoying things about us. And it has never been more important to remember this.
The idea that you can just use a (both figurative and literal) block button is fairly new to the left. And funnily enough, coincides with a generation who grew up on US-dominated media and internet.
It really is quite insidious. This middle class, gentrified version of the left that I no longer recognise, has somehow replaced tolerance (and the occasional ugly face-to-face shitfight) with US saccharine politeness and avoidance, where the totalitarian and fundamentalist forces constantly linger in the shadows, waiting to pounce.
The left is uncomfortable and annoying to power. Not this horseshit.
This has dire political consequences.
I’ve worked on the left my whole life, sat in tedious policy meetings, with annoying stakeholders, and angry people threatening to start their own thing and take their money with them.
They generally don’t go. It’s a bluff.
It’s a LARP.
Like the comments section.
Politics is not a consumer brand or Facebook group or fandom. Politics is about values and principles. Anyone who can leave the left for the right, weren’t left for principled reasons and will drift there with time anyway.
Let ’em go.
Because I feel the left’s fight is about to get a whole lot harder, and a lot less sexy for brands. And when that flip comes, so will they.
We need to get back to the base.
I’m deeply concerned to see the far right co-opting class “us vs. elites” populism and radicalising people in reaction to the excesses of the Super Rich Super Wokes, turning everyone’s pain and suffering into a brand, brandishing oppression around like a tote bag made of human skin.
It’s creepy. And gross.
Left Wing leaders need to start facing this problem head on, have that uncomfortable conversation, and stop the exodus of our base to the right. Not around. Through.
If you are familiar with history, this is not just early or fringe fascism, but that cliff where populism begins to make fascism inevitable. We keep teetering on the brink, and we keep hoping that it will fix itself. It will not without a sober and clear conversation about what it means to be oppressed, and get clear on who we are fighting, and who we represent.
If it is policing gig workers who say rude words on Twitter, then fuck off. The left doesn’t weaponise employment against workers. That’s what the other guys do.
For those who have been alienated by the fancy cancellers calling themselves progressive and “Stans of AOC”, please stay. We can figure this out if we put our swords (and phones) down.
Please stick your necks out and stubbornly stay put on the left, and name this problem. Define what it means to be progressive, and not be afraid to inform everyone of the serious risks of alienating/cancelling left-wingers.
You’re handing it all to the far right by letting it continue.
We need to sit these children down, and inform them of the impact of their actions. And we most certainly should never reward it with appointments or preselection. There needs to be some disincentives in the real world that balance out the seductive incentives on the internet to be a fuckwit.
Political leaders do not see that direct pathway to radicalisation and they ignore it. But it is a thing, and we need to get people to pull their heads in and stop handing votes to the real fascists, who have been waiting in the wings for years for the left to purge their own, and then embrace them with a love bomb that is extremely seductive.
We’re better than this.
This US-driven influencer campaign known as “Wokism” (but I prefer to call it the gentrified left) is empty calories packaged as food. The left is nutritious and we are better than that processed junk. But, there needs to be a genuine, difficult conversation about the long term harm… and we need to risk alienating the media and corporate types (who secretly vote conservative anyway), and get back to basics.
The left cares about everyone’s material wellbeing, even fuckwits. And also often forget that we mostly agree. We fall victim to the narcissism of small differences time and time again. It is our greatest strength, but also our biggest flaw. Because when we double down, we double down counter-intuitively, and right now, that means alienating just enough working class voters and women to destroy us for good.
Don’t go around, go through.
By ignoring this problem, you’re ultimately helping the people who want us destroyed. I think that is worth a pause to see if you’re being honest with yourself, and whether you actually want to do that. It certainly gave me pause, and as a result I decided to be more mindful of who I am actually serving. Remember: most people aren’t politically literate. Many claim to be, but the stats don’t lie. We have a responsibility to think through the impact and outcome of our actions and online allegiances.
We simply can’t keep avoiding these serious and uncomfortable and impolite conversations, hoping they’ll go away if we avoid it long enough.
It’s not going away.
The far right are savvy and know we’re on the back foot with this problem, which is why it is working. Let the Super Woke rich kids drift to the right, because they’ll likely end up there anyway when they see where the real money and fame is, and they settle down with a corporate lawyer.
Keep the base. Don’t avoid. Don’t go around. Go through.
The base isn’t fashionable, and has far fewer gift bags and Superchats, but it is the right side of history. Marx said so.