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Is the 'Intellectual Dark Web' Politically Diverse?

After gathering a lot of data, it’s important to do a “sanity check,” which means taking a step back and making sure that the big picture that emerges from the data makes sense.

· 8 min read
Is the 'Intellectual Dark Web' Politically Diverse?

Earlier this month, popular author and podcaster Sam Harris tweeted out a graph titled, “A Visual Breakdown of Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) Positions.” The graph purports to compare the political positions of six prominent members of the IDW on the main issues that supposedly divide liberals and conservatives.

The tweet links to a blog post by cybersecurity expert and writer Daniel Miessler, where he explains his motive for producing the graph. Miessler was frustrated that members of the IDW often are labelled conservative or even alt-right, so he set out to gather information on the positions of six prominent members—Harris, Eric Weinstein, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro—on some important political issues. The resulting graph indicates that all these people, with the partial exception of Ben Shapiro, are far more aligned with liberals than with conservatives on the issues that Miessler believes divide liberals and conservatives. The IDW members are not conservatives, Miessler argues, but “mostly a collection of disilliusioned liberals looking for a place to have honest conversation.”

Now, this claim by Miessler is one that is often made by members of the IDW themselves, and he certainly deserves credit for gathering the data and making a graph. There are reasons, however, to be skeptical. When I saw Harris’s tweet, I responded with the following:

After gathering a lot of data, it’s important to do a “sanity check,” which means taking a step back and making sure that the big picture that emerges from the data makes sense. In this particular case, if it’s true that the IDW members, with the exception of Shapiro, align almost entirely with liberals on the main issues that divide liberals and conservatives, then we should reasonably expect them in practice to align politically with liberals and not conservatives. Yet, as I point out in my tweet, this is clearly not the case with Rubin, as even the briefest of glances at his twitter timeline reveals: he relentlessly attacks Democrat politicians (but never Republicans); regularly appears at speaking events with conservative organisations such as Turning Point USA; and frequently retweets—and is retweeted by—prominent conservatives like Donald Trump Jr., Charlie Kirk, and Candace Owens. In other words, while the data suggests that Rubin should be politically aligned with liberals and against conservatives on the main issues that divide them, in practice the opposite is true.

The Problem with Candace Owens
Owens assured me these pages were from a “dummy test site,” not the real Social Autopsy database which was not online yet.

Much the same can be said of Peterson, who Miessler’s chart claims is aligned with liberals and in opposition to conservatives on every issue but one (climate change), yet who nevertheless is admired by prominent conservatives from Charlie Kirk and Donald Trump Jr. to Douglas Murray and Roger Scruton, while many liberals reject him completely. Even if you grant Miessler’s assertion that liberals have been misled about Rubin’s and Peterson’s actual positions, you still have to explain why so many conservatives embrace them. Have conservatives also been misled, in this case into embracing people who oppose them on the issues that matter most to them? It’s possible, I suppose, that a mass delusion has occurred, but a far simpler explanation is that something is off with Miessler’s chart. Either he’s wrong about their positions on the most important political issues, or he’s wrong about which issues truly divide liberals and conservatives.

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In a long article published last yearVox’s Ezra Klein describes how a political realignment has taken place on YouTube, in which disparate groups of people have coalsesced around an opposition to “the social justice left.”

Klein draws on a report by Data & Society researcher Rebecca Lewis titled, “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube” (which, it should be noted, was strongly criticised by Weinstein upon release; later an analysis showed that YouTube actually disproportionately recommends channels on the centre and left rather than the right), and he echoes her use of the term “reactionary right” to describe this loosely connected set of people. He then draws on the work of political theorist Corey Robin to explain why these people are reactionary, suggesting that their motivation is a resistance to social and demographic changes and a desire to hold on to power and privilege.

Now, I’m not a fan of using the term “reactionary” so broadly or, relatedly, to attribute the positions of all these people to threats to their power and privilege. There is a useful analogy to be drawn, to the socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. These movements were driven by social changes, and they were resisted by people attempting to hold onto their power and privilege, yet it was still the case that many criticisms of these movements were valid. Similarly, while it’s true, as Klein suggests, that the term “reactionary” has a lineage and a specific meaning that can be useful here, it’s also true that the term has been used historically by radicals as a smear against those who weren’t sufficiently radical. In other words, Klein is too dismissive of an entire set of people and their cultural and political criticisms.

Having said that, I still think his core argument is correct. A “new” right has indeed been forming online, especially on YouTube, and it includes many people who don’t think of themselves as being on the right, but who nevertheless find common ground with conservatives in opposition to the “new” left, with its focus on identity and structural oppression. As Klein points out, what constitutes left and right changes over time, and this particular division is the basis of the main political and cultural tensions on YouTube. So, in the YouTube world of politics and culture war, it’s largely irrelevant that Dave Rubin is gay married and pro-choice, what matters is that he angrily calls out the “social justice warriors” of the new left.

Klein is also right in claiming that YouTube is, “where tomorrow’s politics are emerging today.” We’ve already seen this in action the past few years, on both political sides. On the left, appeals to identity and structural oppression have become increasingly mainstream, while on the right, criticisms of these appeals have become similarly popular. Mainstream conservative outlets like National ReviewThe Spectator and Fox News increasingly express the kinds of arguments and phrases that a few years ago were mostly found on YouTube channels like Rubin’s.

Why Sam Harris—Not Ezra Klein—Is the One Making Space for People of Colour
Source of conflict between the two best-selling authors was the extent of white privilege, and the question of how it should be accounted for in public debate

It’s no surprise, therefore, that as the mainstream right gradually morphs into the new right, characterised first and foremost by opposition to the new left and its focus on identity and structural oppression, agreement on issues that previously divided liberals and conservatives (such as gay marriage and abortion) is no longer a requirement for being on the right, even on the mainstream, offline right. This development is further enhanced by someone like Rubin appearing on Fox News and at conservative speaking events touting his socially liberal beliefs on gay marriage and abortion while emphasising their shared opposition to the new left.

There’s also a commercial aspect to this. The new left provides an endless supply of monetisable outrage for conservative news outlets, even more so than more traditional social issues. Once someone is immersed in a worldview where the left is characterised by intolerance of diverse opinions, mob behaviour, and divisive identity politics, it’s easy to produce a steady stream of articles and news segments confirming what they already believe. This is what popular new right YouTube channels like Sargon of Akkad have been doing for years: scanning the news every day for examples that confirm this worldview and presenting them with outrage. Mainstream conservatives, perhaps most notably Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, are adopting a similar approach. This further exacerbates the shift in the political divide, as mainstream conservatives become more and more convinced that the new left represents an existential threat that supersedes all other political issues.

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What does all this mean for the IDW? Well, a significant selling-point for the IDW has been that it fosters political bridge-building and across-the-aisle debate. And if one accepts Miessler’s claim that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are the main points of contention between liberals and conservatives today, then it does indeed seem that this is what the IDW is doing. If, however, one accepts that the main point of contention between liberals and conservatives (or left and right, if one prefers) is not the particular political issues Miessler lists, but rather has now become acceptance or rejection of the new left and its focus on identity and structural oppression (i.e., modern “social justice”), then it’s pretty clear that this is not what the IDW is doing.

To put it more concretely, when Rubin and Shapiro get together to do a show, are they bridging the political divide between left and right in order to find common ground, despite disagreeing on fundamental issues, or rather, are they simply setting aside their disagreements on things like gay marriage and abortion in order to focus on what truly matters to them politically: defeating the new left? I find the second description far more convincing, and indeed, it seems to me to apply to virtually all the IDW members.

The IDW needs to make a choice. Does it want to be a partisan organisation, where its members get together in front of an audience to iron out their differences and strategise on how to defeat the new left, or does it want to be genuinely non-partisan? If the latter, it needs to open itself up to new left people and ideas. When a prominent IDW figure dismisses white privilege as a “Marxist lie,” which Peterson did in a speech in late 2017, it’s really hard to have good faith discussions on such issues. As I’ve written on several occasions—with decidedly mixed feelings—the new left isn’t going anywhere, and issues of identity, structural oppression, privilege, critiques of classical liberal notions of free speech and assembly, and similar topics will probably play an important role in the cultural and political discourse in the future. The question is whether the IDW will take a leading role in these discussions or will it allow itself to be pigeonholed?

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include reference to two criticisms of the Data & Society Report “Alternative Influence Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube” by Rebecca Lewis.

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