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 an 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 some flame wars and sleepless nights in my time. Mostly, and ironically, from other women. I’ve designed, moderated and managed large fan communities and advised normies 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. I’m hard to break.
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 another epic internet flame war that would be resolved by the sensible normies who had lives. 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? We see each other’s point, right?
I hadn’t been that active in the political scene for a while (it tires me out)… but… they’ll talk it out, right? We’ll figure it out. It’s what the left do best. Eventually. After we’ve screamed it out.
I sat, quiet, observing this insanity, for well over a year. It was interesting. I hadn’t considered the arguments before, but was hopeful for some sort of innovative resolution. I’d mention it in passing and people would look at me like “Yeah, Téa’s talking about some irrelevant niche internet crap again”.
But this kept escalating. It had none of the sport of a good-spirited flame war, and started to resemble actual abuse. Similar in nature to online threats that, in 2010, led me to a helpful conversation with a Police Officer who told me – digital strategist and web designer – to “turn off my computer”.
But, it was just crazies on the internet and one arsehole telling them to turn off their computers. This is an outlier, surely. Right?
Until I saw that a rape shelter in Vancouver defunded because 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 toward women for what I thought were reasonable questions about the implications of Bill C-16. And the delightful Jessica Yaniv, who, whilst clearly not representative of the trans community, presented a potential policy problem that we, in Australia, had the opportunity to proactively address if we paid attention. I was increasingly concerned it might be a blind spot that well-meaning mainstream lefties hadn’t considered.
But with everything that happened there, it looked, to me, less like an internet flame war, and more like women were saying no and being punished for it and cut out of what should be a fair consultation. And whilst our lawmakers and representatives clearly have good intentions, like me, they just weren’t aware of what was happening there, and needed to be alerted to the glaring loophole created by legislation that came to be known as “Self-ID”.
So, in 2017, I said something. I figured I would be okay. Twitter was my people. I built my brand there. I went viral there. I have a small platform and some credibility, so I thought I would use it to bring attention to this potential problem.
I 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 politics grad 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 really doesn’t work like that and it’s probably going to take 10 years minimum to get any of this to the High Court, my guy. Calm down.
The whole time, even up until 2019 or so, I continued to think “it’s just the internet. It’s just the comments section“, “it’s just Twitter’s immature algorithm making false positives and it’ll be alright once it learns“, “C’mon, everyone sees this is astroturfed… right?“.
I’d moved on from Twitter, because I’d moved on, remarried and was happy enough to not be on Twitter. My main business is getting CEOs to take the internet seriously, not be afraid of it, and learn how to work with it. It’s what I do. I’d seen it all before, lived it, but these normies with lives know the internet, right? It’s been a decade. They know the journalists who took tweets and turned them into stories were hacks who worked for rags, right?
The grownups know this, right?
Anyway, after Megan Murphy was banned, I felt a need to add my voice in her defence. So 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. The women called me a bigot and blocked me, and the men showed their true colours, telling me (at length) they understood feminism better than I did, had I heard of Judith Butler (the newly appointed CEO of feminism, because that’s exactly how it all works), that I was a TERF and that TERFs are revolting.
Was I? Well, if you’re treating me like this, and other women like this, which looks like good old familiar misogyny-this-woman-in-tech endures daily, then it looks like I must be a TERF.
I was put on a 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. I tried to contact Twitter. Something that would result in several dead ends over the next few years.
Let’s just say, it all fell on deaf ears. And yeah, I was pissed. But mostly… perplexed by an interesting Internet anomaly. My instincts kicked in and so, I decided to use myself as a Crash Test Dummy and pull out the old toolkit and see where it went.
What I did get, was a pretty massive love bomb from US right wingers. And I don’t mean the nice right wingers, who disagree simply because they’re conservative, or Christian, or see the world differently to me… or for some reason have been lumped in with GamerGate, Reddit, used a cartoon frog once and any corner of the internet that is interesting and fun and has been called right wing by normie nitwits.
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 bunch of otherwise reasonable people there too, who had no idea what they were enabling, because of the supposedly-reasonable faces of the Intellectual Dark Web that greeted everyone as they arrived after being called a TERF and were trying to figure out what a TERF was.
After playing whack-a-mole with the aggressive far right nutters (because I was still trying to understand this without being doxxed or getting threats), 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, at the time it appeared there were very few people on the left openly 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… cool. Terrifying how good they’ve gotten, but also… cool.).
I saw what went down at Evergreen College. I saw a bunch of reasonable people writing about the problem on College Campuses. Having been in student politics, I knew that fringe was always there, but I assumed they were relegated to the playpen with busywork like the old days. In retrospect, that is obviously cherry-picked, but as a first time observer, it looked like something I had stumbled on.
But in the back of my mind, it was always “this is just the comments section and crazy people and botnets and Americans being… that…”.
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 good representatives for the arguments. They didn’t seem to know political theory or anything about the history or makeup of the internet, so, in good faith, I thought I should add to the conversation and correct some things.
But, oh shit. I hate video. Ugh.
Also, I am not 100% sure what this phenomenon is. I had seen it in the fandoms and been monitoring the communities (as you do), but it always just felt like a ‘fan’ thing. As someone pretty familiar with the excesses of the parasocial, this felt… similar. I felt the campfire that was the fandoms had jumped the road and I needed to alert the Mayor.
I don’t really have time to write, and was out of Academia for a long time, so I took it on face value and assumed the PhD people knew what they were talking about. 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, or highly regarded public intellectuals Tim Pool and Dave Rubin.
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 moving away from Human-Centred Design that I saw coming down the pipe.
Initially, I would talk to anyone I found interesting, that would talk to me, within reason. They were saying they were left wing or moderate, but kept confusing me because their theory/reasoning was off. Again, I just assumed that they didn’t know political theory in detail and needed correcting. Most people don’t. That’s normal.
So I thought I’d 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. It was glaringly obvious they had no freakin’ clue what Marxism is, and really didn’t want to hear it. But… Murica. Not my first day.
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 idiots suddenly in charge?” only to find easy (but cherry-picked) answers and a warm embrace. Contrasted with an army of adolescent high school bullies nitpicking language and building Burn Books 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 on Instagram in support of George Floyd (or found the over-the-top corporate flagellations ridiculous: anything to look like they’re doing something about racial injustice without actually doing anything about racial injustice *cough*), or even, like me, expressing concerns about censorship or authoritarianism – and get what feels like a personally tailored AI abuse bot, an army of less subtle bots, get love bombed by an eager right wing looking for more friendly faces to lend credibility to their swastikas, and a bunch of smiling reasonable-sounding YouTubers and essayists who tell you that “Wokism” and “Critical Theory” is the biggest existential threat to Western Civilization.
There’s an opportunity for an audience, there are Patrons and donations and an audience begging you to be part of that narrative. So long as you go along with that story and are willing to make LibsofTikTok your business model and not actually try to solve the problem or answer any questions.
For some, within a few months, 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 where the mainstream left constantly refuse to learn from our own history (and blind spots).
At the time, nobody but me and a handful of other broke-ass nobodies were calling this what it is: the mainstream corporate “left” abandonment of the working class base and historical materialism in favour of a handful of Super Woke Super Online kids, career politicians (and children of former politicians), corporate HR Departments and celebrities who identify as left wing for their brand, but are anything but.
The end result? A union-busting, unfair dismissal enabling, censorious, oppressive, harassing, disclosure-in-the-workplace-forcing ‘ideology’ that doesn’t at all resemble the political left. And, the added benefit of killing every genuine progressive cause they touch, 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 also thought that Corporate HR were the oppressors, not our bloody allies.
At no time was any of my participation in this done in bad faith. It was mostly just really confusing and professionally intriguing and utterly ridiculous. I never considered that it might be high stakes for me, and honestly, there are times I wish I had approached this with more restraint and care. But I thought it was just a silly internet thing and a silly America thing and the normies with lives had it handled and would maybe eventually want my advice about the internet like they always did.
It most certainly wasn’t about ‘bigotry’ or about clout for me. It still isn’t. It was the opposite. This perfect machine, that you were never sure if designed or not, who was human and who was bot, is fascinating. I just needed to crack this, and understand the Internet properly so I could report back on why things were weird and why strategies needed to change.
Granted, I am a boil on the butt with an even bigger mouth, but I definitely miscalculated this. In retrospect, I would have been better off not talking about this, either continuing to just consult, or set up shop as a corporate Diversity and Inclusion consultant and charging $10k a pop to talk over black people and make white people feel better. Or, you know, take all that fat right winger cash whilst every media contact and corporate person froze me out… publicly…
I did none of that. I just want to report back, like I always have, before the battle scars have healed.
I can tell you for certain, that most people don’t go into any of this with bad intent: they get sucked in. They’re mostly good people who have been given a really hard rap. There are several touch points where the left could intervene with a conversation, or resources that face these issues head-on, and we don’t. And every single time we don’t show up with a proper argument, they feel further rejected, gaslit and persecuted and are nudged further and further away from the left, their networks and sometimes even their sanity.
This is how the internet’s business model and incentives, unethical nudges and radicalisation funnels are set up. Unfortunately, they’re also basically the same as every other marketing funnel, and rely on people doing the right and ethical thing.
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.
For me, I just wanted to help answer the question: “what the hell is going on?”, “what am I missing, here?”, and figured that if I was confused by all of this, after 27 years on the internet and a politics degree, then a lot more people were too, and I had to help.
I don’t avoid difficult things. Unlike the data cult that has swept our industry, I don’t take data on face value if I see something anomalous to my quarter-century loving and building this thing called the World Wide Web. I observe. I listen. And, yep, I go in, experience it and make myself the crash test dummy for everyone else online. Rather than go around a problem, I go through. It’s what I do best and why I am good at this shit.
So, as I always do, I jumped in, waded through lake after lake of shit, mud, occasional clear waters and the delicate and unique politics that is TERF Island, and shared my experiences along the way.
I was determined to answer the question and resolve this somehow. I had no idea it would be this huge, or I’d have packed more than one pair of underwear and stashed away some extra traveller’s cheques. But I explored every avenue, every nook and cranny. I found many dead ends, and loads of crazy and scary. It is the Internet, after all. But I was still determined to answer the question.
This Woke shit’s weird, man. But what is it? What are the real world implications? What the fuck is going on here? Is this serious? Is it just online? What the hell…
It was so confusing I spent three years going back to the books, starting with what is known to be true, reverse-engineering what looked to be a perfectly designed Burn Book Drone that could burn down anything it set its sights on…
The biggest part that was missing was a deeper understanding of American history – in particular the history of the culture wars and red scares. After three years of basically working on a PhD’s worth of study for nothing, I was delighted to have found the answer a year ago, only to realise nobody wanted to hear it.
And I was on all the blocklists, so… here we are.
I was helping… right?
I discovered I was actually – simply by participating in what I thought was a fight on the left, between the left – we were helping the US far right destroy us at the ballot box.
As someone who saw this weirdly un-left authoritarianism called “Wokism” being not just ignored/minimised, but enabled, and seeing how this could be easily exploited in our electoral system (most of the deciding seats are won by a handful of preferences from minor parties – most of them far right), I felt I needed to warn the normie politics grown ups (who aren’t addicted to the internet) what was going on, because lots of people were asking questions, but nobody ever seemed to have the answer, and everyone was “leaving the left” without even knowing what the fuck that means.
Five years after first being exposed to the “Gender Wars”, I am less naive.
It’s never actually been about the answer to the question, but about constantly having questions that never get answered. The confusion is the point. Distraction. It’s about stealth authoritarianism, and creating a narrative that ensures that anyone who asks for remotely left wing policy is demonised as “Woke” or “Alt-Right” or “Conspiracy Theorist” and ultimately enables them to declare war on anything they decide to attach to us: the Humanities, the Arts, democracy, social justice, sex education and… well… anything that stands in the way of far right corporate America. Good ol’ Hermann and Chomsky.
Back to basics, and what we know to be true.
It’s not about the issue, it’s about who you’re enabling. Yes. Even your issue. And yours.
If there’s an issue being discussed that has two sides to a debate, there is currently some sinister and well-resourced force trying to put you, the user, on a radicalisation track. We are on lots of those on any given day, being nudged in all directions and A/B tested until we finally crack. It’s not about the issue at hand, but about how people talking about the issue are exploited, with a warm and welcoming influencer who talks about these issues in good faith (and often bad faith) radicalising their audiences, and their audiences radicalising them.
Marketers will see it if you squint. You’ll see a clever, well-funded and sophisticated omnichannel 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 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, especially over important social issues. The left used to push through differences and have difficult conversations. Tedious meetings over minor disagreements (and sometimes major ones, and sometimes even pizza toppings…) 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 that I know. There have been many a meeting where ejecting someone would have made everything way more productive.
Funnily enough, this coincides with a generation who grew up on US-dominated media and internet, banging on about politeness and nono-words and banned books and 24/7 fear of literally everything that is different.
It’s insidious. This middle class-dominated, homogenised, Americanised and gentrified version of the left that I no longer recognise, has somehow replaced tolerance (and the occasional ugly face-to-face shitfight over the thermostat) with US-saccharine-politeness-and-avoidance and UK be-polite-and-fucking-mean-it-or-you’re-vulgar being the constant demand imposed upon us by an Internet and Economy we did not consent to, with the totalitarian and fundamentalist forces constantly lingering in the shadows, waiting to pounce and explode into full-blown fascism.
The left is uncomfortable and annoying to power. And pretty impolite. Not this horseshit.
This has dire political consequences.
I’ve worked, in various capacities, 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. They are not a customer in a functioning political party. Politics is about values and principles. Anyone who can leave the left for the right, weren’t left for principled reasons and will likely 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, they will flip with it and the backlash on us will be fucking severe.
We must 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 Woke Mean Girl caste, turning everyone’s pain and suffering into a personal brand, brandishing oppression and serious issues 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 rightful voter base to the right because you’re asleep or can’t be arsed meeting them where they’re at and feeling a bit of discomfort. Not around. Through.
That’s what we fucking elect you for, so that I don’t have to do your job for you, for free.
If you are familiar with history, this is not just early or fringe fascism, but we are at the edge of that cliff where populism begins to make fascism inevitable. We keep teetering on the brink, and you keep hoping it will fix itself if you just pretend it’s just an internet thing and they’re all bigots anyway.
This will not go away and there needs to be 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. Fuck what your ‘data’ says. I went in. I checked. The data is wrong and I am right and we can fix this, but the will needs to be there.
We need to sit the children down, and inform them of the political impact and consequences of their actions and behaviour. We need to set the tone for how politicians and journalists conduct themselves in this space. And we certainly should never reward that kind of behaviour with appointments or preselection. There needs to be disincentives in the real world that balance out the seductive incentives on the internet to be a fuckwit.
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. Gramsci said so. The data is wrong. I said so.