Elle Reeve’s ‘Black Pill,’ a disturbing look at ‘meme magic’ and the GOP

In 1993, after dial-up but before smartphones, the cartoonist Peter Steiner published a drawing in the New Yorker that would come to define the early years of life online. In the picture, a mutt seated in front of computer explains to a terrier: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

At the time, I was 2 years old and blissfully offline, but the image remained relevant when I first logged on 11 years later. The cartoon, I thought, was just a joke about assuming a fake identity, something I did in silly chatrooms all the time. I said I was 25, or French, or a famous novelist, and I carried a little bit of the glamour of my fictions back into my banal life. Later, I realized that the magic these lies conjured was minor, but it was magic all the same. What was the difference, really, between being treated as a cosmopolitan and becoming one? Maybe the dog impersonating his owner in Steiner’s cartoon eventually forgot he had ever been anything else.

In “Black Pill: How I Witnessed the Darkest Corners of the Internet Come to Life, Poison Society, and Capture American Politics,” the intrepid CNN correspondent Elle Reeve suggests that something similar happened to the motley crew of fascists, white nationalists and chauvinists who staged a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Perhaps the resident racists of the so-called alt-right became what they at first only pretended to be. Sometimes, Reeve’s sources tell her a similar story. Richard Spencer, the most visible face of neo-Nazism in America, claims that the movement “started out as a joke and then it became real.” Not unrelatedly, the alt-right’s political vision started out as a digital fantasy and became a living nightmare: Spencer attributes Donald Trump’s 2016 victory to “meme magic” — that is, to the concerted efforts of white supremacists posting on anonymous forums.

The flotsam of the internet is childish, ridiculous and, consequently, easy to underestimate. But even absurdities can be dangerous. The “black pill” and its associated lexicon and cosmology are some of the internet’s most inane — and most venomous — products. They are jokes, but they are also deadly serious.

The “black pill” derives from the “red pill,” which Reeve characterizes as “the main metaphor of internet politics.” In the 1999 film “The Matrix,” the protagonist takes a red pill and realizes that his apparent reality is nothing but an illusion. He does not live in a bustling city but in a pod, where he is fed through tubes by robot overlords intent on keeping him docile. Online, the “red pill” refers to a nugget of knowledge that exposes the putative world as a deceptive facade. The logic of the trope is conspiratorial. Men who took the red pill in the early aughts complained of the evils of feminism; cranks who swallowed it insisted that they understood the sinister designs of the global elites. The infamous influencer Andrew Tate, recently arrested on sex trafficking charges, warns his followers of the “matrix” of mores enforced by the establishment.

Once “the red pill metaphor took hold,” Reeve writes, “endless variations followed.” The most noxious of these is the “black pill,” “a dark but gleeful nihilism.” Those who succumb to the potent capsule believe that “the system is corrupt, and its collapse is inevitable. There is no hope.” The ideology of the black pill is that of the desperate and the disconsolate, such as mass shooters and “incels,” or involuntary celibates, who believe they are consigned to eternal loneliness by virtue of their intrinsic unlovability.

The devolution from red pill to black pill is an illustration of the strange metastasis of online content, which tends to always grow darker. Reeve’s sources saw it happen over and over. Her most sympathetic interviewee, the programmer Fred Brennan, watched in horror as the imageboard site he’d built degenerated into chaos. When he created 8chan in 2013, he hoped it would prove to be a haven for free speech, a true marketplace of ideas. Instead, Nazis infiltrated the site and normal users fled. The most extreme comments garnered the most attention, until every conversation became a contest of provocations.

“This might seem like bizarre internet ephemera,” Reeve concedes, but 8chan would eventually become the birthplace of the QAnon extremist ideology. How were fringe internet obscenities transubstantiated into a mass movement that stepped off the screen and barged into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021?

“Black Pill” is a book of questions, not answers. For instance, did the alt-right really “meme” Trump’s MAGA movement into existence, as its adherents brag? “There is no more separation between the online world and the real world,” Brennan tells Reeve. But in fact, her reporting reveals that the chasm between an online extremist’s flights of fancy and his comparatively underwhelming life is often yawning. One man who spent “fourteen to twenty hours a day online” developed an online alter ego as “a seasoned jihadist leader”; in truth, he was a powerless 20-something living with his parents in Florida. Even as Spencer was tweeting that “women should never be allowed to make foreign policy,” Reeve writes, his wife “was helping him edit a National Policy Institute editorial.” It is hard not to read these performances as pathetic exercises in fantasy fulfillment, yet alt-right talking points that originated on obscure forums have been memed into the conservative mainstream.

Another question that goes inconclusively answered in “Black Pill” is whether fascists are stupid. It’s astonishing “for smart people to hear that many of the nazis are really smart,” Reeve writes. “Smart people have been told all their lives that being smart is a virtue, and, implicitly, smart people are virtuous.” Unfortunately, “the sick, sad truth is that the world is not being ruined by dumb monsters but by smart people just like us.”

Indeed, the Nazis whom Reeve interviews are often much clearer-eyed about conservatism and its implications than the ideology’s more respectable ambassadors. “I was used to people lying to my face that the Civil War was about states’ rights not slavery, that the confederate flag was about heritage not hate,” Reeve recalls. When she started covering self-proclaimed white supremacists, she was almost refreshed by their candor. One of them happily admits, “All that was about racism, and that is what we liked about it.”

The extremists who feature in “Black Pill” can also be psychologically and politically astute. “They notice that smart people need to feel like they’re logical, principled thinkers, so they create cringe propaganda to make them feel alienated from activists for social justice,” Reeve writes. “Cringe propaganda is video or screenshots of someone who is advocating for equality being provoked into a big emotional outburst.” But while Reeve is emphatic that neo-Nazis are not all idiots, she also (understandably) describes their convoluted belief system as “so stupid.”

Reeve and her subjects sometimes suggest that extremism is a misguided response to a set of legitimate grievances. One Trump supporter she met asked her, “Why is the coronavirus vaccine free, but chemotherapy isn’t?” She concludes, “He was asking a good question and getting a bad answer.” She could be talking about any number of the men she interviews. Why are they so lonely and alienated? Why are their political leaders so deaf to their concerns?

“If you have great amounts of inequality, and you have no change available within the system, the system won’t survive,” says Brennan, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, or “brittle bone disease,” which renders him unable to walk. “When you are disabled, you can feel like everybody sees you as a freak, and you are not wanted anywhere,” he told Reeve. He sought refuge online, and the warped community he found there was a bad answer to the very good question of his ostracization.

Few of the characters in “Black Pill” have faced trials as daunting as Brennan’s, but many are isolated and autistic — or, in the self-mocking lingo of the forums, “autists.” Although Reeve is clear that “autism does not make someone more likely to commit violent crime,” one expert told her that “autistic people can be especially vulnerable to extremist online communities” for three reasons: “It allows them to socialize without social anxiety,” “the rigid worldview makes it easier to understand the way the world works,” and “the forums have archives, so they can go back in time and read to understand how users talked to each other and then mimic those interactions.”

The Nazis Reeve surveyed were often as confused as she was about their motivations. Many of them were adamant that their racism and sexism were rational responses to the evidence, but then admitted in the next breath that they joined “the movement” because they were desperate for friendship, belonging and a sense of power. One woman in a relationship with a neo-Nazi asked a friend if his misogyny was serious: “Was he meming?” Many of them didn’t seem to know if they were meming or not.

Reeve may not have answers, but she does have unbelievable access. She managed to get hold of Spencer’s emails, some of which contained suspicious musings about the possibility of an alt-right alliance with Russia, and she talked a former neo-Nazi into giving her an old cellphone full of damning text messages. At the Charlottesville rally, she leaped into a truck full of white supremacists and kept the cameras rolling. She persisted in covering the most heinous excesses of the far right even when she faced the inevitable onslaught of harassment, much of it sexual.

“Black Pill” is a feat of fearless reporting, and its ambiguities and tensions are not necessarily weaknesses. Instead, they point to essential contradictions at the heart of what was once the alt-right and is now Trump’s Republican Party. Perhaps this movement’s defining feature is its slippery irony, its refusal to clarify how much of its racism and sexism is sincere.

But whether Trump’s online army is willing to mimic fascists as a dark joke or whether its convictions are authentic does not matter. On the internet, nobody knows — or needs to know — if you are a real fascist. All they need to know is that you are fatally committed to the bit.

Black Pill

How I Witnessed the Darkest Corners of the Internet Come to Life, Poison Society, and Capture American Politics

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