Donna Zuckerberg didn’t expect to spend two years trawling through the corner of the internet defined as “the manosphere”, unpicking the grim alliance between pick-up artists, men’s rights activists, incels (involuntarily celibate men), the far right and the most ardent Make America Great Again advocates.
“It started as a curiosity,” she says, as we video call from her home in Silicon Valley, which she shares with her husband and two children. “But it took on a life of its own.” A classicist with a PhD from Princeton, Zuckerberg edits the online journal Eidolon, publishing scholarly essays on the Greco-Roman world from academics and students.
In the summer of 2015, she noticed an unprecedented level of traffic towards a piece entitled “Why is stoicism having a cultural moment?” and went down a rabbit hole to determine why. The results stunned her: men – or rather, misogynists – were using an armchair enthusiasm for the classics to justify manifestos of hate against women. The results were spreading online under a pseudo-intellectual guise, twisting ancient world philosophy to buttress a contemporary hatred of feminism. And it wasn’t a one-off.
“So, there are online communities that exist under the umbrella of what we know as the Red Pill, which are men connected by common resentments against women, immigrants, people of colour,” she explains. “What I was surprised to find was the extent to which they are using ancient Greek and Roman figures and texts to prop up an ideal of white masculinity.”
Red Pillers name themselves after a scene in The Matrix, in which Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers Neo (Keanu Reeves) the option of taking the red or blue pill and arriving at either gritty, painful truth (red) or blissful ignorance (blue). Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor and YouTube sermoniser who rails against identity politics and feminism, is revered as one of the high priests of the movement, while incels have gathered much attention this year.
But in the case of stoicism’s sudden revival, Zuckerberg found that an active corner of Reddit was applying Hellenistic philosophy to explain the pain and hardship white western men were suffering in the 21st century. Except these men didn’t consider themselves angry – they considered themselves oppressed.
“The ancient world was deeply misogynistic – it was a time when there was no word for rape, feminism did not exist and women’s actions were determined by male relatives,” says Zuckerberg. But now the classical texts are being “distorted and stripped of context” online to lend gravitas to campaigns of misogyny and white supremacy. Not only is it toxic but, as Zuckerberg calmly outlines in her new book, Not All Dead White Men, it is deeply dangerous.
At 31, Donna is the third of the four Zuckerberg siblings and the only one to shun working in tech: her brother, Mark, is CEO of Facebook, which he co-founded; her older sister, Randi, joined Facebook in 2004 and has since developed her own media career; while her younger sister, Arielle, has worked for Google. The children of a dentist father and psychiatrist mother (who worked most of her career as office manager to her husband’s dental practice), the Zuckerbergs grew up in a village of less than 10,000 people in Westchester County, New York. In a rare family profile interview with New York Magazine in 2012, Donna described their upbringing as “tight-knit” and supportive. Her book, then, may come as a surprise.
“It is without doubt that social media has allowed this to happen,” she says of the toxic moment we’re in. “It has created the opportunity for men with anti-feminist ideas to broadcast their views to more people than ever before – and to spread conspiracy theories, lies and misinformation. Social media has elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of violence and virulence.”
To anyone with a passing interest in internet culture or, indeed, the news, this might seem to be stating the obvious. From the sister of Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the largest social media company of them all, it’s a pretty bold declaration. Is this fighting talk? Zuckerberg lets out a quiet sigh. Undeniably, she looks a lot like her brother – albeit softer, pretty, and with cyberpunkish strands of blue running through her hair. Her husband as well as her siblings have, at one point or another, worked in social media. The subject remains fraught for her.
“Facebook is the biggest of them all, but Red Pill members often sneer at social media, despite it being essential to their modus operandi,” she says. To that end, in the book she writes that her brother is “frequently mocked as ‘Mark Cuckerberg’ or ‘Zuck the Cuck’, epithets based on the term cuck, a particularly significant form of insult within the Red Pill derived from the term cuckold”.
This may be true, but it barely exonerates him or Facebook for the part it has played in allowing angry men – and it is, without question, largely men – to fan the flames of one another’s rage online. That the contemporary global slide to populism has coincided with the exploitation of Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube by ultranationalist trolls, data firms and Russia’s now infamous Internet Research Agency is well established.
Has she ever taken her brother to task? “I can see why you have to ask,” says Zuckerberg with an apologetic smile, “but I’m not going to answer that question.”
In her book, Zuckerberg explains that political and social movements have “long appropriated the history, literature and myth of the ancient world to their advantage. Borrowing the symbols of these cultures, as the Nazi party did in the 1940s, can be a powerful declaration that you are the inheritor of western culture and civilisation”. And the study of classics, of course, remains very much the preserve of elites.
“Classics are wrought with histories and narratives of oppression and exclusion,” says Zuckerberg. “By quoting Marcus Aurelius – as Steve Bannon is known to often do – Red Pillers perpetuate the idea that they, white men, are the intellectual authority under threat from women and people of colour.” While universities make progressive attempts to broaden the canon so students aren’t simply reading one dead white man after another, “the manosphere rebel against this. They see themselves as the guardians of western civilisation and the defenders of its cultural legacy.”
This twist is especially galling for Zuckerberg, an avowed feminist who has dedicated her career to the classics. “Anybody with an interest in the field of social justice should not ignore this trend,” she says. “These men are weaponising ancient Greece and Rome in service of their agenda and reshaping what that history means.”
Her book focuses primarily on the gender politics rather than the racial politics of Red Pill communities, because the former are “generally more coherent in their shared interest to police and dominate women, plus their misogyny is reflected back at them”. It is theorised and celebrated by a history that venerates men for behaving badly towards women.
Zuckerberg digs deep through the most popular and excruciating message boards, blogs and threads – so that, I joke, we don’t have to. She uncovers the community of pick-up artists (PUAs) who use, say, the poems of Ovid to legitimise their most nefarious “techniques” to sleep with women. “PUAs, as one example, use famous seducers from history and reposition them as intellectuals so they can enforce a belief that women’s boundaries are permeable and that consent is a flexible concept,” she says.
Her research, on which she set herself a limit of an hour a day, led her to essays advocating rape, posts offering advice on how to dehumanise, trick and control women, and reflections on the case against female education. “Sure, it was upsetting,” she admits. “I made a rule that if something really got to me, I’d stop right there for the day.”
While there is animosity between some factions of the manosphere – Zuckerberg shows us, for instance, the petty conflicts online between PUAs and the men’s human rights movement – the common denominator, she says, remains “the use of ancient literature to represent an aspirational ideal of a world they wish they inhabited. They idealise a model that erases much of the social progress that has been made in the last 2,000 years.”
To hear Zuckerberg tell it, there is a mainstream misconception about the status and influence of the manosphere – which is often written off as the grotesque digital ball-scratch of an army of men living in their mother’s basements. “The election of Trump has been empowering for the manosphere. They’re even more outspoken about their ideology and these voices are loud online.”
With regard to the White House, how far does she think the manosphere proliferates offline? “It’s an exaggeration to say the Red Pill community are writing national policy,” she says. “But on some level, they seem to believe they’re influencing policy.”
Having a self-declared “pussy-grabbing” president certainly ups the ante, but Zuckerberg won’t be drawn on Trump’s administration. “The irony is, of course, that the people you would hope to most reach, that you think you might convince and present this case to, would be the last to read this book and the problem is we end up making noise in our own echo chambers.” She smiles. “The most I can hope for is for this to be talked about, for the ideas to disseminate and change thinking on campuses.”
• Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age is published by Harvard University Press (£20). To order a copy for £14.99 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian