Science

What People Misunderstand About Red-Pilling

I study the hate-filled online spaces that spawned the Buffalo shooter.

A Tops grocery store with a white police truck, police officers, and yellow police tape outside
The supermarket where the racist gunman carried out his attack. Scott Olson/Getty Images

When the news alert popped up on my screen, I froze. Another deadly mass shooting had taken place, and a racist white man had murdered innocent Black people. Once again, the communities I study had fomented mass murder. And I very much doubt this will be the last time.

I’ve been doing fieldwork in far-right online communities since 2016. I hang out on white supremacist Telegram channels, comb through QAnon threads on 8kun (formerly known as 8chan), and watch TikToks that claim COVID-19 is a globalist plot. Like most people who work with far-right content, I find it emotionally draining and unpleasant. But I’m also convinced that the mainstream acceptability of extremely racist and conspiratorial beliefs is a threat to American democracy.

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While racism is woven into the fabric of the United States, the daily repetition of white supremacist viewpoints by Fox News and political elites alike is an organized backlash to racial progress. It justifies police violence against people of color, virulent anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policy, and local campaigns against “critical race theory” that shut down any discussion of race in school. Many of these ideas are workshopped and circulated in extremist spaces before they filter into mainstream political discourse. Understanding how they operate—and how and why extremist beliefs spread—is crucial.

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Days before the Buffalo shooting, my team released the culmination of two years of work systematically analyzing research on why people commit political violence. The killer was not a member of a white supremacist organization, but he saw himself as part of a larger movement, one with which I am intimately familiar. His manifesto repeats the same arguments I find in thousands of documents in my archives; he uses the same slang and memes as my research subjects. He also kept a diary that detailed his progress preparing for the shooting. It includes his workout and diet regimen, lengthy discussions of gear he purchased on eBay, and “evidence” for his white supremacist and antisemitic beliefs. These diaries demonstrate clearly that his “radicalization” was a process in which he was socialized into thinking the same way as the other people in these communities. He was not “mentally ill” or a “lone wolf.”

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White supremacists and other far-right extremists describe their “red pill moment,” the instant they realized that everything they had been taught was a lie. Instead of racial equality, they now believe that white people are genetically superior to Black people. Instead of the realities of the Holocaust, they accept that Jews control the world and are trying to destroy white culture. Instead of believing in gender and sexual equality, they learn that feminism is a plot against men, that homosexuality is evidence of social degeneracy, or that being transgender is a mental illness—or, more likely, all of these. (Like many other white supremacists, the shooter was primarily concerned with Jews, whom he sees as an enormous threat to white culture; he decided to attack Black people because he hoped to inspire others to start a race war. That doesn’t seem logical to me either, but I’m not a murderous white supremacist.)

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But how do people take on these beliefs? Our research shows that red-pilling is not a single conversion moment. Instead, it is a long process of socialization in which people are exposed not just to hateful language or racial epithets—although those are omnipresent—but to “evidence” that supports white supremacist and antisemitic worldviews. Counterpoints are virtually absent: When people do try to argue alternative points of view, they are shouted down or simply banned. Over time, statements that may have seemed extreme at first are normalized, and participants gradually adopt the arguments and vocabulary of the community.

Far-right community members also use “redpill” to describe a particular fact, book, or event that is so seemingly incontrovertible as to effectively transform someone’s worldview. Detailed archives of red pills or “hatefacts” are assembled by white supremacists and then passed around on 4chan or in Discord servers. Red pills range from hundred-year-old antisemitic texts to mainstream books like The Bell Curve. Yes, there are some YouTube documentaries, but red pills are more commonly scientific-looking charts and graphs, and sometimes even peer-reviewed scientific articles. When viewed through an anti-Black, antisemitic, conspiratorial frame, this evidence can be powerfully persuasive.

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That’s not to say that it’s accurate, of course. Most of it is of uncertain provenance, and often it takes only minutes to find that the claims therein are either distorted or completely false. (Some of it is factually accurate, but marshaled to support hateful conspiracies, such as infographics on high-achieving Jewish people that are used as “proof” of Jewish control.) White supremacists are obsessed with biological determinism, renamed by modern racists as “race realism,” the idea that social difference between people of different races or genders is inborn, and thus society reflects biology. This, of course, has been an active debate in Western society for hundreds of years, and so there is no dearth of writing that supports it. There is plenty of excellent scholarship thoroughly debunking “race realism,” but little of this trickles down from academia. Instead, curious young white men (and they are almost all men) who think of themselves as “logical” and “rational” cling to the scientific gloss on racist materials, thereby couching their hateful beliefs as factual. The shooter’s diaries are filled with statistics and graphs alongside racist cartoons and tweets.

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Online communities immerse people in inaccurate facts and made-up ideas, and this “evidence” is presented and reinforced among people who constantly repeat racist slurs and hateful beliefs. Radicalization researcher Kevin MacDonald argues that part of becoming an extremist is learning to take on the emotions of the worldview. In far-right communities, these include pride in whiteness, anger at being “victimized” by diversity or multiculturalism, and the fear of a threatening Other (Black and Jewish people, immigrants, feminists, trans people, etc.). This potent combination of pride, anger, and fear justifies violence against those who purportedly seek to harm. The Buffalo shooter felt a responsibility to preserve the white race; positioning himself as a warrior in a race war was far more potent than his real-life identity as a community college student still living at home.

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It is this emotion that complicates the obvious answer to this preponderance of hateful “evidence”: education. Still, honest acknowledgment of the presence of biological determinism and conspiratorial thinking in youth communities might help counter it. The shooter wrote, “White genocide is real when you look at data, but is not talked about on popular media outlets. I think this is connected to globohomo propaganda and the ‘capitalists’ agenda for a new world order.”

A lack of direct engagement with these distorted facts may serve as proof to the far right that there is a conspiracy suppressing these “truths.” So, rather than ignoring “race realism” or the “new world order,” teachers, parents, and journalists could acknowledge the evidence that is presented to support these beliefs, debunk them, and develop countermessaging. Because hateful communities justify their beliefs through “facts” and “science,” we can use the same tools to advocate for the value of multicultural societies. Otherwise, these data voids are quickly filled with hateful rhetoric.

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This is, of course, hamstrung by anti-CRT bills that make it extremely difficult to talk about race in schools, as well as the repetition of far-right messaging by the mainstream right, increasing its exposure. It’s also not guaranteed to work. Spreading “facts” and “science” about things like COVID-19 vaccines and stolen elections has been completely ineffectual. Conspiratorial thinking breeds distrust in institutions, so information coming from scientists, government, or mainstream media is automatically suspect. The stories told on extremist social media and in elite political rhetoric reinforce people’s identities and their sense of being in the world, which is partly why they spread so rapidly. There’s a delicate balance between contributing to the amplification of racist disinformation and facing it head-on, and understanding the emotional pull of hateful propaganda that justifies horrible actions.

We face many obstacles in countering far-right extremism. But we need to get away from simple models of radicalization that position innocent white men as pawns who stumble into extremist spaces and are instantly red-pilled. Instead, we must understand the ecosystems that immerse people in emotion and pseudoscience, and how even watered-down versions of hateful rhetoric give people like the shooter the space to dissociate from the people they harm.

For more on how efforts to limit extremist content online have fallen short, listen to this recent episode of What Next: TBD.

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