On the 17th of May, Elon Musk started a Twitter storm with a post telling the reader to “Take the red pill”. In short order, Ivanka Trump replied with “Taken!”, to which Lilly Wachowski — one of the directors of the film that the phrase comes from — replied: “Fuck both of you.” This short exchange between a billionaire with chronic twitter fingers, the daughter of the U.S. president, and a cult filmmaker propelled one of the favourite metaphors of the online far-right further into mainstream discourse. Moreover, its appearance in exchange between those at the highest levels of visibility in the attention economy stands in stark contrast with the red pill’s previous relation to underground Web subcultures.
The scene from The Matrix (1999) is well known: Morpheus tells Neo, “You take the blue pill… The story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill… You stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Since 2013, taking the red pill has become shorthand for a new version of ideology critique in which Neo’s awakening forces him to “face with sober sense his real conditions of life“. The difference from the progressive terminology of being “woke” is that to be “redpilled” is distinctly a reactionary type of political awakening:
The red pill might lead to an epiphany about the rightness of white nationalism and/or the repudiation of feminism, multiculturalism, leftism, liberalism, and globalism, followed by the embrace of traditionalism, hierarchy, and inequality. There are thousands of red-pilling stories, each one slightly different, yet they all pivot around transformation. (Stern 2019)
As such, discussions of “red pill awakenings” can be found across the right-wing spectrum, from ironic Nazis to “pick-up artists” and QAnon-believers. Unlike the “blue pills” of the false consciousness that must be constantly fed to the “sheeple” to keep them asleep, the red pill needs only be taken once. As with other successful far-right memes, such as the triple parentheses, the red pill’s popularisation also renders its previously narrow meaning nebulous, albeit generally remaining within anti-left, anti-social justice, and anti-establishment circles. For this reason it is important to trace the term’s history as it gained currency within different radical subcultures online. To this end, this brief blog post narrates the red pill’s journey (and colour offshoots) on the space within which it was supposedly first popularised: Reddit.
Figure 1 shows the amount of Reddit comments mentioning variations of “redpill”, separated per subreddit. From this we can clearly see the term has origins in subreddits concerned with “men’s-rights activism” (MRA) before moving to more explicitly politically oriented subreddits. This fits with the hypothesis that the “alt-right” primarily grew out of the MRA movement wherein the red pill metaphor was first embraced (Nagle 2017; Minna Stern 2019; Dignam and Rohlinger 2019). This indeed seems the case in the use of the term “redpill” within Reddit, where the now-quarantined anti-feminist subreddit r/TheRedPill consistently used the term (in around 200-500 comments every month in 2013 and 2014).
This is not to say that MRA circles were the first in appropriating the term. In our dataset, “redpill” is first mentioned on 22 October 2006 a time before subreddits even existed in the context of an otherwise mundane discussion thread concerning the regional difference in vernacular language use in the U.S. Perhaps appropriately enough for a discussion form in which one’s posts constitute a record of one’s very existence, the very first use of “redpill” on Reddit is as a somewhat melancholic expression of linguistic relativism:
In the intervening years, the term incidentally appears within a range of subreddits like r/AskReddit and r/atheism, including one post identical to Musk’s “take the redpill” tweet, but eleven years older. From 2013 onwards, it starts appearing more frequently, primarily on r/TheRedPill.
While Reddit can rightly be seen as a vast collection of separate issue-centered subspaces, in some cases one can find issues that interconnect different subreddits, often in antagonistic ways (Massanari 2015). In this case, Figure 2 shows how immediately after r/TheRedPill’s founding, the subreddits r/TheBluePill and r/PurplePillDebate emerged in response to the mens’ rights movement’s embrace of the phrase. These sites might also be considered counterpublics to the then-dominant mens’ rights discourse on the platform. In the same vein of r/gaming spawning r/gamingcirclejerk, r/TheBluePill is a parody subreddit mocking the discourse of r/TheRedPill, whereas r/PurplePillDebate labels itself as an intermediary space as a “neutral community to discuss sex and gender issues, specifically those pertaining to /r/TheBluePill and /r/TheRedPill”. Another notable early instance of a subreddit counterpublic in this graph is r/TumblrInAction, dedicated to mocking a particular type of identity politics at the time associated with Tumblr (that has been called “Tumblr liberalism”), and which was discussed along with r/TheRedPill as amongst “the most bigoted corners of Reddit”.
Following this early use of the term, we see its uptake on r/KotakuinAction with around a hundred appearances per month. This subreddit was associated with the 2014 controversy Gamergate, ostensiby concerned with “ethics in game journalism”, but which largely manifested as an anti-feminist harassment campaign and was manufactured by tech commentators on Twitter such as Milo Yiannopoulos and MRA Mike Cernovich (who both became influential figures in the “alt-right” or “alt-lite” some years later). Following its adoption within this reactionary gamer culture, the term was picked-up by the community of r/CoonTown, a notorious subreddit specializing in white supremacist humor that would shortly thereafter be banned. Coinciding with the banning of r/CoonTown, we see the term being used in r/european, an anti-migration subreddit that was likewise quickly banned after its inception.
The most striking event in the red pill’s Reddit journey is its proliferation on r/The_Donald, the infamous pro-Trump subreddit on which Trump once appeared for a live discussion and whose moderators were found to have coordinated with the Trump campaign (Lagorio-Chafkin 2018). Rising to around 2,000 mentions per month (to at most 4,185 in February 2017), pro-Trump, anti-immigrant, or mysogynist comments were likely to be met with the approval of being “based and redpilled”. Despite The_Donald’s undeniable transgressions, it eschewed the explicit white supremacism of spaces like 4chan/pol/. However, at the same time of its popularisation on r/The_Donald, “redpill” was also favoured by more explicitly white supremacist subreddits like r/altright, as well as the /pol/-inspired r/4chan4trump. It also appears on r/milliondolllarextreme, another now-banned subreddit for a comedy group popular in “alt-right” circles. Thus, from late-2016 onwards, the red pill proliferated as far-right slang term with currency beyond MRA- and gender-oriented subreddits.
Around the same time, two other trends are noticeable. First is the appearance of the red pill within Incel subreddits, notably, r/Incels and r/Braincels, at the time mentioning the term in between 100-300 comments per month. The latter was set up as a “polite” version of the former, but both are now banned from Reddit. Here, the term likely returns to its usage in relation to gender-related lamentations, considering the involuntary celibate’s concern with their lack of sex and the “unequal distribution” of women. Despite overlaps, the Incel communities vary from r/TheRedPill’s fascination with masculinity and “The Game”, further underlining the versatile understanding of whatever kind of “awakening” the red pill can lead to.
Second, “redpill” appears in conspiracist subreddits. Apart from the catch-all conspiracy subreddit r/conspiracy, it mostly appears on two (once again banned) subreddits dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy theory: r/CBTS_Stream and r/greatawakening. The appearance of redpilling within these spaces is perhaps unsurprising, considering the Q-truther’s profession of having “awakened” from the lies of the “MSM”, but nonetheless signals the red pill’s applicability in other contexts.
In the later years of the dataset, we can see that the r/TheRedPill’s use of the term dropped off as it got quarantined in September 2018 (Sommer 2018). A year prior, it was revealed that the subreddit had actually been created by a New Hampshire state legislator, who resigned soon after the revelations by The Daily Beast (Bacarisse 2017). Despite these controversies, the red pill metaphor remained prominent on MRA-adjacent subreddits. These include r/asktrp, a space dedicated to “Red Pill Discussion for personalized questions about specific situations”, and r/MGTOW, the subreddit for “Men Going Their Own Way” by refusing to engage in (sexual) relationships. At this time we also find the appearance of r/exredpill, a subreddit for “former red pillers to discuss their brainwashing and subsequent realization that they’ve been brainwashed”. Next to these, redpilling remained consistently prominent on r/PurplePillDebate. Based on this pattern, the measure of a subreddits’ subcultural impact can thus be said to be found in the number of imitators, commentators, and parody subreddits that it inspires.
In the final months of the dataset, redpill-mentions disappear from The_Donald as its user-base moved to a separate site (thedonald.win) following Reddit’s quarantining of this notorious bastion of toxic Trump memes. While overall frequency diminished its use is also more even spread across a variety of mostly familiar subreddits. Besides a few new incel-type subreddits, one notable newcomer here is r/PoliticalCompassMemes, a subreddit dedicated to memes on the Political Compass matrix, which may be seen as representing the meme’s canonization as a concept in the field of radical generational identity politics (Citarella 2018). Relatedly there is also some uptake in r/ConsumeProduct, a subreddit with a traditionalist bent containing memes on late capitalism’s fetishisation with consumption, suggesting the possibility of anti-capitalist redpilling.
As the red pill metaphor has refracted across Internet culture, it also led to the emergence of differently-coloured pills. After the red pill, the most popular of these is “the black pill”, typically invoked as an expression of nihilistic despair regarding the impossibility of intervening in political, economic, or social relations. While the black pill can also refer to a type of active nihilism, its frequent use on Incel subreddits (with r/Braincels ranking on top with 32,557 mentions) signifies a bleak outlook. Recently a number of other niche pills have also emerged including “the white pill” (representing a recovery from black pill nihilism often to the cause of insurgent white nationalism), “the green pill” (usually representing radical environmentalism), and “the bread pill” (named for the left-wing r/Breadtube), amongst others. Finally, coming full circle, Curtis Yarvin AKA Mencius Moldbug, the neo-reactionary political theorist who is actually credited as having popularized redpilling in the first place (Sandifer 2018), has recently proposed a “clear pill” in an attempt to reboot the original concept. However, none of these newer terms have significantly caught on within Reddit.
The prominence of redpilling on Reddit serves as a testament to the power and versatility of the “awakening” metaphor. Indeed, the sense of waking up was also central to the new age movement, which emerged out of the early 1970’s counterculture. In theorizing this, the sociologist Colin Campbell developed the concept of the “cultic milieu”, which he claimed functioned as a repository for an accumulation of “alternative perspectives” that stood in contrast to the “common consciousness” of the dominant culture (Kaplan and Lööw 2002, 12-25). United by the idea of a “forbidden knowledge”, Campbell argued that those involved in the cultic milieu share a “seekership” ideology characterized by libertarian as well as mystical leanings. The continual fragmentation of cults was thus counteracted by the syncretic worldview of their initiates, which rendered them open to each other’s ideas. Cambell’s idea helps explain the apparent recent convergence or red pill overlap of right-wing QAnon supporters, new agers, and anti-vaxxers surrounding conspiracies on COVID-19. While cults come and go, as Campbell argued, the milieu persists in part due its shared media. While it was the underground press and New Age ephemera that held together the “loose modernity” of the early ‘70’s, today it is subreddits, message boards, and the political slang of the deep vernacular Web keeping these tightly wound subcultures loosely connected.
The data of the amount of comments per subreddit referring to the “red pill” per month can be downloaded here (200kb).
The full data of all comments referring to the “red pill” can be downloaded here (240MB).
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Campbell, Colin. 2002. “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization.” In The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization, edited by Jeffrey Kaplan and Heléne Lööw: 12-25.
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