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State within a state

In Lebanon, after a year of turmoil that was the worst in a decade, it is Hezbollah — with the backi

A two-square-mile grid of central Beirut offers a clue to Lebanon's troubles. Dominating the city's western quarter, the Sunni Mohammad al-Amin Mosque casts a glow over the concrete expanse of Martyrs' Square. About a mile south, through narrow streets, the Shia al-Hassanein Mosque rises up. Not far from here is the Druze temple, a glass and breeze-block building that looks like a public library, and on Mount Lebanon, the city's snow-capped backdrop, stone crucifixes dot the skyline.

The country's four main faith groups - Sunni, Shia, Druze and Maronite Christian - are imprinted on Beirut's landscape, just as their conflict is imprinted on Lebanon's history.

Over the past year, Lebanon has seen one government collapse while Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, has grown in influence.

Many fear a new civil war as the country suffers its worst political crisis in a decade. The Arab spring that bloomed across the Middle East has yet directly to touch Lebanon, which has issues that are too entrenched and too complex to be resolved through the catharsis of a single revolutionary act.

Lebanon's problems are systemic and chronic, created by a political settlement born of empire. The country began as a French mandate, carved from a chunk of Ottoman Syria. With indepen­dence in 1943, its sectarian character was accommodated within a "confessional" political system that distributed office according to religion. The majority Maronite Christians were given the most important government positions (including the presidency), then the Sunnis, the Druze, and finally the Shias. In a country unable to function without consensus, it has served as a prophylactic against dictatorship for almost seven decades. But it contains grave flaws. Most egregiously, France's imperial cartography left aggrieved Syrians believing that Lebanon was theirs. Syria occupied the country between 1976 and 2005 and, through manipulation and political assassinations, has acted as a bacterial agent of instability there to this day.

Then there are the demographics. In the late 20th century, the politically, socially and economically marginalised Shia community grew in numbers, something that has not been reflected in the political accommodation (the Maronites have repeatedly blocked a new census) and contributed to the 1975-90 civil war. The rise of Hezbollah is in part the product of Lebanon's entrenched discrimination; it is a system riddled with sectarian triggers.

The origins of the latest crisis lie in the events of Valentine's Day 2005, when the then Sunni prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was killed along with 22 others after a huge bomb exploded as his motorcade drove through central Beirut. On that day, Lebanon's diffuse political elite congealed into two loose blocs that have faced off against each other ever since.

Hariri's assassination ignited the Cedar Revolution, which led to the formation of the so-called March 14 alliance (the date in 2005 when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut to demand an end to Syrian occupation). March 14 is led by Rafiq Hariri's son Saad, who succeeded his father as prime minister, and is a coalition mainly of Sunni and Christian parties. The west's preferred partner, it is backed by Saudi Arabia, where Saad Hariri grew up.

Opposing it is the March 8 alliance. Broadly supported by Iran and Syria, the coalition includes Hezbollah and non-militant Shia and Druze parties, and takes its name from 8 March 2005, date of the first counter-demonstrations against the Cedar Revolution. March 14 and March 8 governed together until their coalition government fell in January last year.

The Hariri assassination created something else, too: the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Set up to indict and prosecute Hariri's killers, it has a mixed composition of Lebanese and international judges and an international prosecutor. Predictably, the tribunal divided Lebanon along party (and therefore sectarian) lines. March 14 supports the tribunal; March 8 denounces it as an Israeli-American tool designed to smear Syria and Hezbollah.

Throughout 2010, the country's already toxic political debate was poisoned further by rumours as both sides waited for the indictments to be handed down. Leaks indicated that people in Hezbollah would be named as the killers of Hariri, a charge the party angrily denied. Hasan Nasrallah, who leads Hezbollah, repeatedly attacked the tribunal's integrity and threatened to "cut off the hands" of any "collaborators". In early January last year, indictments were submitted but they remained sealed; fearful of what was coming, Hezbollah demanded that the government end co-operation with the tribunal and reject any findings. Saad Hariri refused, and on 12 January Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the coalition government.

Shortly before the government's collapse, I went to see Fares Soueid, the general secretary of March 14, at his Beirut office to learn more about Rafiq Hariri's murder seven years ago. On the day of the assassination, Soueid was with Hariri in the Lebanese parliament, drinking coffee in the bar outside the debating chamber. Hariri left, and five minutes later Soueid heard the blast. He knew it was a bomb - this is Beirut, after all - but it never crossed his mind that it might be his friend. "For us, Hariri was a superman," he told me. "We thought the guarantees from the United States and the Arab world would keep him safe. He was a 'Muslim with a tie': he wanted to show the world that Islam is not terrorism, and that it can work with the international community." Who killed him? "The Syrians and Iranians, through Hezbollah. The message was simple: 'There is no immunity for any Muslim in the Islamic world who has relations with the west.'"

For Soueid, Hariri's death changed everything. "Before the assassination, the demand [for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon] came from the Christians only," he told me. "After the assassination, the alliance was Maronite, Druze and Sunni. Only the Shias opposed it."

Unstoppable force

Sami Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite families, is another important member of March 14. Both his father, Amine, and his uncle Bachir, who was assassinated in 1982, served as president of Lebanon, a post that he, too, is tipped to hold one day. With Garo, my Armenian driver, I drove through the city's Christian quarter to see him.

On the pavements either side of us walked immaculately dressed women wearing dark blue jeans, pashminas and Ray-Bans. We took a corkscrewing road up Mount Lebanon, the Christian stronghold. As we rose, the landscape of civil war Beirut stretched out beneath us. Tangled steel ruins and bombed tenements shimmered in a silvery film of mist. "We don't want this again," Garo said.

The Gemayel residence is a sprawling brick and stone complex where, as president, Amine Gemayel would receive distinguished guests. Shaven-headed militiamen with low-slung AK-47s leaned against 4x4s strategically placed around the entrance. Once inside, I passed through a series of stone courtyards with coffee tables and benches scattered amid cedar groves and thick shrubbery. Sporting Harvard chic, Gemayel wore beige slacks and a V-neck jumper over a white shirt; tied around his wrist was a dangling crucifix. "Hezbollah accepts that the tribunal cannot now be stopped," Gemayel explained. "The strategy is to claim that a western-sponsored tribunal wants to label Hezbollah the murderers of a Sunni leader because they fight Israel. Their goal is not to lose public opinion in the Arab world. The best way to ensure this is to have the Lebanese government say it is all nonsense."

Many fear that if members of Hezbollah are indicted, there will be violence, maybe even war. "Hezbollah are trying to take hold of the government so they don't have to use violence," he said. "But if they are not successful, they will use force and we will have to protect ourselves." How? I asked. He paused. "By any means that we can."

According to Gemayel, violence back in 2008 between supporters of March 14 and those of the Hezbollah-led March 8 marked the beginning of a shift in power away from the former. "In May 2008 Hezbollah attacked [the Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt in his Chouf Mountains stronghold, and this still haunts him. He believes allying with March 8 will best guarantee the Druze's security. The west and March 14 were not able or willing to protect their allies, even politically." With Jumblatt's party on board, March 8 had sufficient numbers to trigger the government's fall in 2011.

A few days later, I got to speak to Jumblatt. Our conversation was pointed. Why had he joined March 8? "I started with March 14 but it was clear during 2005-2008 that, under American pressure, their policies would lead to sectarian strife and civil war," he told me. "Since Hezbollah's defeat of Israel in 2006 the Americans have been totally focused on attacking them - even at the price of Lebanese stability. I refuse this. Washington cares nothing for Lebanon or its future."

And what of the tribunal? "[It] is being used as political tool by the Americans. Look at the leaks coming out of it that appear on CNN and Fox News, all designed to smear Hezbollah. You must go back to the failure of Israel's war in 2006; they will try anything to discredit Hez­bollah. I was a vocal supporter of the tribunal in the beginning. But if it comes to it, I do not want to see my country dragged into a sectarian war. I choose stability over justice."

For the outnumbered Druze, conflict could be fatal. When I asked Jumblatt to explain his alliance with Hezbollah, his response had the quality of a mantra. "I support the Palestinian cause, which Hezbollah fights for," he said; "and I support Hezbollah in its struggle against Israeli aggression.

“It is true that in the past we exchanged some violent words," he added with understatement. In 2007 he labelled Hezbollah a "state within
a state", and his subsequent volte-face is more likely a reflection of the west's inability to protect its Lebanese allies. March 8, it seems, was now united and politically focused.

On a bright and crisp morning, I convinced Garo to take me into Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut to meet "Mohammad", a Hezbollah supporter. After we'd spent an hour inching through traffic, the southern tenements appeared on the horizon. I had crossed an invisible frontier. Litter and rubble replaced Armani and Max Mara. Around us, pictures of Nasrallah and Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran adorned walls and hung from lamp posts. Veiled women hurried by, ubiquitous but anonymous in thick black hijabs. As we pulled up, a group of Palestinian youths lethargically kicking a football around glanced over at our car. “Hurry up," Garo said.

I found Mohammad among piles of fake Levi jeans and Rolex watches behind a makeshift market stall. He told me that the Israelis had killed Hariri and the international tribunal was a Zionist plot to discredit Hezbollah. "We protect Lebanon and resist Israel's war on the Arabs. Now they want to smear us. But it will not succeed. We resisted the Israelis before and we will resist them again." Hezbollah did not want a civil war, he said: in May 2008 it had responded to deliberate provocations by the government and had taken to arms only as a last resort. Hezbollah, he said, would seek to enter a new government and move the country forward; it did not take its orders from Tehran. It was committed to Lebanon's future.

Day of rage

About a week after my meeting with Mohammad, news emerged that March 8 had nominated the Sunni MP Najib Mikati to succeed Saad Hariri as prime minister, and that he would begin consultations for the formation of a new coalition government immediately.

Despite his well-known closeness to Syria, Mikati is a consensus figure, popular with both March 14 and March 8. In 2005, he served three months as prime minister in a caretaker government and impressed all sides with his talent for compromise. But the sectarian obstacle is insuperable. Some said Mikati was Hezbollah's man; and, viewed in this light, a Sunni prime minister was now beholden to a Shia party.

On the day of his appointment, Sunnis across the country held a "day of rage", blocking roads with burning tyres as they vented their anger at Hariri's perceived overthrow.

As the consultations continued, I managed to speak to Saad Hariri's chief political adviser, the former finance minister and ambassador to the US Mohamad Chatah. The two men had been in close contact throughout the crisis as March 14 planned its next move. I asked him if he thought, as many were saying, that Mikati was obligated to Hezbollah. "Hezbollah brought Mikati into the government," he replied. "They appointed him." This left Mikati in a potentially awkward position. "Hezbollah is a legitimate political party," Chatah said, "and they enjoy considerable support, especially among the Shia population. When the country was under Israeli occupation they resisted bravely, and that is admirable. But you cannot ignore the fact that Hezbollah is a military force that operates independently of the Lebanese government, and that pursues an ideology not shared by the majority. More than this, the fact they are in alliances with countries that have agendas separate to Lebanese interests puts Lebanon in danger."

Chatah had recently been at a gathering of Sunni leaders, including Mikati, that reaffirmed a commitment to the UN tribunal. It now remained to be seen whether he would abide by this. "Hezbollah regard him as their choice. Whether he can go beyond that and control the government is the big question that now faces Lebanon."

Chatah told me that March 14 would refuse to join what it perceived to be a Hezbollah government, and he was true to his word. In early March, Saad Hariri officially declined Mikati's invitation to enter a coalition. Despite losing power, March 14 was politically well placed. Hezbollah was trapped. Attempts to neuter the tribunal had failed and the indictments would soon be made public, which left it with two options: accept the findings, which was inconceivable, given that it was likely it would be indicted, or reject them. But without Hariri in the governing coalition it would seem, even to the Arab world, that Syria and Iran were manoeuvring again. Worse, Hezbollah would be labelled killers of a Sunni prime minister in a largely Sunni Middle East. By this chain of reasoning, all Hariri had to do was wait and then obliterate March 8 at the next general election in 2014.

A country, not a nation

But Hariri appeared hamstrung by his allies. Against the backdrop of the Arab spring, the US was so deeply reviled by those Middle Eastern states not allied with Washington that it had become a liability. After a fairly innocuous meeting with a minor Lebanese official, the US ambassador was given a public dressing down for "interfering" in Lebanese politics. Meanwhile, the influence of Saudi Arabia, long Hariri's main regional backer, had receded and an increasingly assertive Turkey had taken the role of mediator. The region, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last January, "could not cope with Lebanon entering a new atmosphere of uncertainty".

Sitting on a tree-lined avenue in west Beirut, I spoke to Misbah Ahdab, a Sunni and former March 14 MP from a prominent Tripoli family. Over coffee and Marlboro Lights, he told me: "So much of what happens in Lebanon is linked to what happens in Iraq, in Iran, in south Yemen, in Syria and in Palestine . . . This has always been the case. Syria meddles for regional, historical and political reasons, Saudi Arabia for financial, Israel for regional hegemony and its security fears. We are a small state used as an arena for the battles of others. Everyone has an agenda here. This is my country and I love it, but it is not a nation; it is a country.

“Look," he continued, "Hezbollah and March 8 are in the ascendancy. If it's local, Hezbollah controls it. They control the country. The international community might want some change and pressure for some sort of coalition to be formed. The US could come to a deal with Iran that decapitates Hezbollah. But leaving it as is - Hezbollah wins."

His words proved prescient. Consultations continued over the next few months until, on 13 June, five months after the government fell, March 8 at last announced a new cabinet. Led by Mikati, it gave Hezbollah and its allies 17 out of 30 cabinet seats - up from the ten it had held
in the Hariri coalition. This put a group that the US state department considers a terrorist organisation in control of Lebanon. Iran was seemingly on Israel's border.

Then the indictments came down. On 30 June the tribunal issued four arrest warrants to the Lebanese authorities, and on 17 August it published the names of those indicted: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, all, unsurprisingly, members of Hezbollah. Equally unsurprising was Hasan Nasrallah's refusal to hand the men over; publicly, he doubted they would ever be found.

Yet despite Hezbollah's steadfastness, the Arab spring - which had initially turned events in its favour - has proved problematic. Nasrallah's loud rejoicing as pro-US dictators toppled across the region turned to a more voluble and noticeable silence when the revolution hit Syria. Hezbollah has no choice but to stand by its patron Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and if Syria falls then so does its main source of funding and support. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's other big backer, Iran, faces increasing inter­national isolation over its nuclear programme. Perhaps most importantly, a party that derives legitimacy from fighting oppression cannot sustain its image while supporting a regime that murders its own people for the crime of wanting more freedom. The Israeli flags that once burned in Damascus have, for the time being, been replaced with those of Hezbollah.

In Lebanon, the internal politics is proving equally complicated. For several months the new government was divided over the country's mandatory financial contribution to the UN tribunal. Mikati, Jumblatt and the Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, favoured paying the required money to avoid confrontation with the UN. Hezbollah opposed making any payment. In reality, the dispute was over the tribunal's legitimacy - to pay would be an implicit acceptance of its authority; to refuse, an outright rejection. Despite Hezbollah's best efforts, this was a battle it lost at the end of November, when payment was made.

Jumblatt may yet prove a vital player once again. In an October interview on al-Manar, Hezbollah's TV station, he emphasised his ties to the party but expressed pointed dissatisfaction over its unconditional support for Damascus. Lebanon's political weathervane may yet turn again in expectation of the Syrian regime's collapse, and the chance to abandon Syria may prove too much of a temptation to resist. Jumblatt has personal as well as political reasons for welcoming the end of the Assads - Middle East lore has it that Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, had Jumblatt's father killed in 1977. Shortly after succeeding his father as head of the clan (the Jumblatts, like the Hariris and, indeed, the Assads, are dynastic), Jumblatt was summoned to Damascus to meet Assad, Sr in what must have been an already unpalatable appointment. His attempts to assert the Druze cause were met with a broad smile from Assad, who addressed his young interlocutor in a sweet, paternal tone. "Walid," he said, "sitting there like that, you remind me of your dear father."

Towards the end of the year, I contacted Gemayel again to ask him how things now stood. Hezbollah, he agreed, had been weakened by regional events but March 14 had not capitalised on the opportunity. Saad Hariri remained out of the country, shuttling between France and Saudi Arabia and depriving the coalition of its leader. The governing alliance, he felt, remained resilient as long as Hezbollah was strong. "We just don't know if Mikati will abide by Hezbollah's diktat or if he will end up resigning to safeguard his credibility," he said.

Where, I asked, would things go from here? "I don't know," he replied. "But it is very serious. The Middle East is in a transitional phase, and it is a very difficult one. We are witnessing the demise of old ways of government and the establishment of new ones."

David Patrikarakos tweets @dpatrikarako

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

Ernest Duffoo via Flickr / New Statesman
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Spitting out the Red Pill: Former misogynists reveal how they were radicalised online

Subscribers of Reddit's most notoriously sexist subreddit explain what happens when you change your mind.

João describes swallowing the Red Pill as a feeling greater than winning the lottery.

Aged 17 and a self-described “late bloomer virgin”, he was growing apprehensive about going to college when he stumbled across an online community that seemed to hold all the answers. “I believed in it so much,” the now 24-year-old tells me via Skype from his home in Portugal, “It was such a fantastic thing to me… Back then I used to say that I was so happy about finding out about the Red Pill and pick up artists that I would rather be with them than win the lottery.

“I don't know why I believed so deeply because it really makes no sense.”

Though João experienced two happy years with fellow Red Pillers, his opinions have now drastically changed.  During the course of our half hour conversation, he uses one word exactly twenty times: “cult”.

***

The Red Pill is a philosophy, and reddit.com/r/TheRedPill is its home. The nearly 200,000 subscriber strong subreddit describes itself as a place for the “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” In itself, perhaps this doesn’t sound too bad.

In practice, to “swallow the Red Pill” is to accept the uncomfortable truth about reality. The phrase comes from 1999’s hit film The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo must choose between the Red Pill – which would allow him to escape the Matrix but see the real, darker world – and the Blue Pill – continued existence in his comfortable, but ultimately fake, life.

In r/TheRedPill’s instance, the “dark truths” that the subreddit’s subscribers have swallowed are these: feminism is toxic, sexism is fake, men have it harder than women, and everything the media teaches about relationships is a lie. In reality (the argument goes) women don’t want soft-centred men/chocolates; they want to be dominated, controlled, and manipulated. The most extreme Red Pillers even believe that women want to be raped.

“Rejection is not rejection,” reads an extract from the subreddit’s most popular post. “When a woman insults you, belittles you, mocks you, or says something provocative to get a reaction — these are all examples of active tests.” By following the subreddit’s advice, its subscribers are promised a life of successful sexual encounters. If they ignore the Red Pill, they will undoubtedly be rejected, cheated on, and dumped.

“They have theories that are not easy to prove or disprove, they are based on beliefs like all women cheat, they like cheating, and all women are not loyal,” explains João. “There’s this whole conspiracy thing where women are against you, they are this imagined enemy… as well as there's a whole conspiracy that society is against men, that society is anti-male so to speak, that liberals are fucking up society, that feminism is fucking up society.

“I believed everything, everything. And if you didn't believe everything… if you go on Red Pill Reddit and you disagree with someone they either delete your comments or they try to make fun of you and shame you. You can't criticise anything because people will quickly try to diminish you. So I really believed every little thing.”

***

Beliefs such as “all women are evil” and “all women cheat” are what are known as conspiracy stereotypes. Like traditional conspiracy theories, they often rely on cherry-picked evidence. The Red Pill in particular exploits evolutionary psychology to argue that women are wired to want men with a strong “frame”. Much of the subreddit’s misogyny is justified by one of their favourite acronyms, AWALT: “all women are like that”. 

“The movement’s use of evolutionary psychology convinced my rational mind that everything I read was a scientific fact supressed by feminists,” explains Jack, a British 24-year-old former r/TheRedPill subscriber.

“I began to see male victimhood throughout society,” he tells me over Reddit’s messaging service. “It fed the confirmation biases that society was built around men catering to women in return for sex.”

Mike Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester and an expert on the psychology behind conspiracy theories, explains that people who believe in conspiracy stereotypes such as AWALT tend to have what is known as a “Manichean” worldview.

“They feel the world is divided into absolute good and absolute evil, and the people behind the conspiracies are of course the absolute evil ones," he said.

Psychologists have a concept, entitativity, which describes the extent to which a group of people are perceived as a single entity. "If you think that a group is entitative, it’s like a swarm of bees or ants," Wood explained. "They’re not just a collection of individuals, they’re actually that a single organism that moves with singular purpose. I think that’s probably likely to be true for groups like the Red Pill, that look at women and see just a flock of harpies.”

Subscribers' experiences in the real world can reinforce their misogynistic views. Trevor*, a 34-year-old former Red Piller, explains how the subreddit led him to towards more extreme views of women.

“When I was 30, I broke up with a woman who just not a very good person,” he tells me over Skype. “I broke up with her one the phone…20, 30 minutes later she shows up [to my apartment] completely hysterical. I remember I had a large metal tin bowl with potatoes on the counter which I was going to cook for dinner or something, and she grabs it, chucks the potatoes all through the apartment… her shirt catches on a corner of a countertop and then she proceeds to tear the rest of it off like Hulk Hogan.”

When Trevor decided to call the police, it was he that ended up arrested. “I went from being in my home peacefully to being in a jail cell all because I’m a man and she's a woman.

“Now that was a very immoral human being who I was dealing with, certainly not all women are like that but that’s another brainwashing technique of the Red Pill, they say that all women are the same…

“It kind of tricks you so you're agreeing about one thing and the next thing you know you're agreeing about all these other things.”

***

These “tricks” aren’t accidental, according to João in Portugal, who now firmly believes that the Red Pill is akin to a cult.

“If you go to Red Pill and you say something that those guys don't really like then they will just delete your comments or just say that you are a ‘mangina’ or a ‘feminist’ or a ‘cuck’," he told me. "They have this social influence mechanism where they pre-emptively invalidate all criticism by criticising people back… and it is typical of cults to do this.” Other Red Pillers I spoke to also mentioned the threat of harassment. 

João also believes the Red Pill preys on those who are easily manipulated – be they young, nerdy, insecure, virgins, or simply going through a difficult time in life. Most of the ex-Red Pillers I spoke to were teenagers when they became involved in the subreddit, and most say they were exceptionally lonely at the time.

Callum*, a 29-year-old from Western Pennsylvania, has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome and speculates that “a great many” people on the Red Pill are likely on the spectrum. He became involved with the Red Pill at 19. Though he had spent much of his time at school not caring about girls, he became insecure when he started college.

“I worried that I wasn't thin enough, I wasn't tall enough, I wasn't endowed enough,” he tells me over Reddit. “I started getting very bitter about relationships in general. At no point was I ever actually angry or bitter towards women, but I was frustrated with the established societal rules, that men had to put on the show and be the best they could and that women got to pick and choose without trying much themselves, and I wasn't being picked.

“When I turned to the Red Pill subreddit I immediately felt like I figured it out. Like a cult, they give you a few obvious truths (men should be more confident, work towards physical fitness, women aren't divine perfect beings to be worshipped but flawed people, etc.). I definitely think that this enabled me to slide into accepting the more toxic beliefs of the subreddit.

“Any time someone said something outright sexist or alarming, too much for me, others would interject and say that those are just being angry and we should let them vent.”

***

Over the last year, the Red Pill subreddit has become a home for other hateful beliefs. A year ago, the alt-right’s most vocal figurehead, Milo Yiannopoulous, did an AMA (“ask me anything”) on the sub. It is now commonly accepted that the alt-right recruited men from the Red Pill and attempted to radicalise them. In fact, the alt-right has become so conflated with the Red Pill that this month a brand new subreddit – the Red Pill Right – had to be made. “My focus with this new sub is to keep us from diluting the discussion of sexual strategy on our main sub,” wrote its creator.

But how has a place designed for discussions about sex and women become so radically political?

“That is the power of the ideology,” explains Jack, the British Red Piller. “It gives you a lens that brings out the most cynical explanation of social activities…  For a while, it seemed as if a blindfold was lifted and I saw manipulation everywhere.”

Jack became involved with the Red Pill when he was 23, and had been single for a “long” time. “I was numb, lonely and desperate,” he says. “It was a terrible time in my life.”

Though Jack only spent two months on the subreddit, he quickly fell in with anti-feminist and libertarian rhetoric. “An uncomfortable misogynistic streak grew within me,” he says. “At one point [I] thought that Donald Trump was a good candidate for President.”

Like many of the places we frequent online, the Red Pill has become an echo chamber. The psychologist I spoke to, Mike Wood, told me this can lead to people adopting more and more extreme views. "If you’re in some sort of a group that defines itself by its opinions, then people will get more and more polarised over time," he says. "Individuals will try to conform to what the group mandates.” This is true of not just the Red Pill, but its opponents. While radical feminists on Tumblr, for example, become more extreme in their views, so too does the subreddit. In many ways, the extremes of each group justify one another's existence in their minds. 

“People within the group will try to get social approval from other members of the group,” Wood continues. “So they’ll play to that standard that they’re supposed to live up to – and then people will take it further because they reason ‘If I’m more extreme about this then I will get more approval’, so the norms of the group shift over time.”

Jack’s story aligns with this. “Trump represented everything that the Red Pill told me to value at the time in a mainstream political candidate: anti-PC, anti-feminist and social Darwinist policy,” he says. Those aspects of Trump that he still found unpalatable, or racist, he accepted as "a price to pay for the other stuff".

***

There exists another misogynistic subreddit which is, in fact, deeper and darker than the Red Pill. Reddit.com/r/Incels is a place for “involuntary celibates” – people who are struggling to lose their virginity – to talk. In theory, once again, this is not terrible. In practice, however, the nearly 10,000 subscriber strong group breeds bitterness towards women, and a hatred of “Chads” – men who are romantically successful. Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara student who killed six people in 2014, considered himself an incel.

For Callum, the Red Piller from Western Pennsylvania, this subreddit spoke more specifically to his own situation. “The feelings of inferiority and utter hopelessness are indescribable and the worst things I have ever felt in my life,” he says. “I think that outsiders looking in just deem these people very bitter and angry and don't understand the long process it takes to get there… It takes a long and drawn out battle with yourself that those people have lost.

“It's listening to the voices in your head, telling you how shit you are, telling you that you will never be wanted, never be normal, all your friends and family are laughing at you behind your back at failing at the easy task of finding a girlfriend. You are a walking shame to your gender. Nothing you can do can overshadow such laughable inferiority. You are nothing.”

A meme from r/Incels

It is easy to see how the inferiority complex of Incels and the superiority complex of Red Pillers both in turn breed hatred and contempt. However, some subscribers to the subreddits manage to avoid being radicalised. From those I spoke to, it seems this is more likely if they have pre-existing political beliefs or circumstances that contradict the theories of the group. 

Tim*, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, believes that r/Incels didn’t lead him to become a misogynist because he was already interested in progressive and feminist politics. He found the sub when he was 16, after growing frustrated with the advice on Red Pill and other sites. As a self-described “nerdy” young man, Tim felt anxious about how relationships worked.

“I'm not very good at following my nose in those sorts of situations,” he says. “I can't dance for instance, because I have no idea what specifically to do, so anything without a ‘rulebook’ is pretty much impossible for me.

“I spent so long searching for my ‘rulebook’ until I realised that it's doesn't exist, no one seems to have any clue what makes a relationship happen. It kinda drives you mad thinking like that, that you're the only person in the world who doesn't ‘get it’. That's where places like r/Incels come in.”

Tim says that the fact he has always been friends with women might have meant he wasn’t convinced by the group’s misogyny. “It's possible to accept that you'll be alone forever, and accept that you're very unhappy about that, without becoming hateful or misogynistic. But it seems like everyone kind of forgets that,” he says.

Louis*, a 19-year-old from Albany, New York, joined r/Incels aged 16, and does feel that it made him more bitter and misanthropic. “You feel the world actively hates you so you need to hate it back,” he says. Nonetheless, he stopped frequenting the subreddit when, like the Red Pill, it began spreading extreme right-wing beliefs. “The alt-right is how I broke from incels as the racism sort of woke me up to the reality of it,” explains Louis, who is black.

***

Each of the Redditors I spoke to has a different reason for leaving the Red Pill.

João and Jack were both influenced by Mark Manson, author of Models: Attract Women Through Honesty. “Most of what he talks about is the mind-set to care for oneself and strive to improve. Hate is energy better spent finding and enjoying activities you love,” says Jack, who also began reading about feminism.

João says he left the Red Pill because he was attracting girls that were “emotionally damaged” and not “mentally healthy”. He also felt like its advice didn’t really work. “I was going out to bars to talk to women and I would have to talk with like literally like 100 girls just to pick up one, so the whole thing is a numbers game, a probability thing,” he says. He now considers himself a feminist and has a “fantastic girlfriend” who he has been with for nearly three years.

For Callum, it took “a series of psychedelic trips” to begin getting out of both the Red Pill and Incels. “The very idea of gender was alien to me when tripping hard enough,” he says. When I ask him how he feels about women now, he says: “I still hold on to the belief that women enjoy a major advantage in the dating world even though they suffer disadvantages in other parts of life." Nevertheless he now sees women as "scared, flawed, imperfect humans just like I am".

***

Not everyone who has left the Red Pill, then, did so because of some feminist revelation. Trevor, the man who ended up in a police cell after a confrontation with his ex, still holds many of the subreddit’s beliefs.

“Look, a lot of what they say is true unfortunately,” he says. “So it isn’t really a question of I don’t believe any of that any more, it's just I don’t believe it’s useful to continuously expose myself to that sort of stuff.” Although Trevor says the Red Pill helped him to “bed an unusually high number of women”, he now desires deeper relationships and hopes one day to start a family.  

Trevor has only been out of the subreddit for a few months, and it isn’t apparent whether his views will slowly change. As it stands, however, he believes that both women and men are destroying society, that the Red Pill and feminism are equally toxic, and that women who sleep around are "indirectly contributing to the depopulation of the white race".  

“I’m roommates with some Muslim people here, some Algerians, two girls and a guy, and these people take themselves more seriously," he says. "They kind of understand the importance of the tribe and community and family."

There is one Red Pill belief, however, that Trevor has completely shunned. “One thing I do believe is you can show a little vulnerability to your significant other,” he says. “A little, a little.”

***

No one still active on the Red Pill would admit that they are simply lonely, young, or vulnerable. The group is exceptionally hostile to outsiders, and the toxic beliefs on the subreddit easily inspire revulsion and hatred on first sight. But we are perhaps as guilty of considering Red Pillers a complete entity as they are considering all women to be joined together in some evil mission. In reality, there are many complex stories behind the subreddit, with some ex-users even claiming that they were struggling to come to terms with the fact they were gay or trans. 

Every man on the Red Pill has a different story. However, each of them do have striking similarities. The main one is anger. Like the name of the subreddit itself, it is blazing red. We must understand the psychology behind the philosophy not to condone it, but to better tackle the poisonous spider slowly infecting those across the web. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.