The ideas and the imagery of The Matrix run through internet culture like an aquifer—seeping almost undetectably through everything, and then bursting to the surface in unexpected ways. “I know kung-fu.” “There is no spoon.” But one of those concepts, written by the Wachowskis and delivered by Laurence Fishburne, pooled at just the right place to be lapped up and internalized as a self-valorizing metaphor by the dark, toxic wilds of the proto-alt-right internet: the red pill.
That sprawling, diffuse community isn’t united by much, but in every corner its members have adopted the idea as their own. They’ve turned it into a verb, and spread it so successfully that to be “red-pilled” is now widely understood shorthand for having your eyes opened to a certain kind of “conservatism”—generally nationalistic, often white-supremacist, and nearly always suffused with violent misogyny.
And most recently, that verb has taken hold of Kanye West—who, after a long social media hiatus, embarked on a long pro-Trump tweeting spree. this week. It’s not just 4chan or the dark parts of Reddit who claim West is red-pilled— it’s spread to Fox News and even, in even subtle ways, West himself. This marks an enormous success for the fringe ideologies that first popularized the red pill meme, and perhaps the end of our ability to think of those ideas as fringe in the first place. For internet extremists, Kanye West has become an entirely new, and unreservedly welcomed, conduit for recruitment.
From Sci-Fi to White Supremacy
In its original context, the red pill was a handy, handheld metaphor. If you haven’t seen The Matrix, then brace yourself for its central conceit (and really, if you haven’t seen The Matrix, you may want to remedy that): nearly all humans on the planet been enslaved in suspended animation by malignant AI, experiencing what they think are their lives in a persistent, all-encompassing simulated reality. A small group of rebels fighting against the AI have found a way to awaken some of these people, and—after hauling them out of a tub of life-sustaining goop—present them with a choice. “This is your last chance,” rebel leader Morpheus (Fishburne) tells Neo (Keanu Reeves), holding a colored pill in each hand. “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.”
It’s easy to see why it caught on. “That metaphor is so resonant because it has an empowering tenor,” says Ryan Milner, who teaches communications at the College of Charleston and co-authored The Ambivalent Internet, a book about digital culture. “You’re being awakened, unlocking your power, bending spoons and seeing into code.” And for people like men’s rights activists, who felt besieged by the whole world telling them they were wrong, it allowed them to dismiss everyone else as a passive ideological sheep. “I kind of rolled my eyes at it when I saw it in 2011,” Milner says. “It was an overly simplistic metaphor based on an obscure 12-year-old reference. It was the most niche of the nichest of memes.”
The meme blew out of its niche, though, when Gamergate—the widespread sexist harassment campaign against female game developers—happened. “The red-pill memes on 4chan and elsewhere were about dosing people with a piece of information that would shake their fundamental beliefs and awaken them to the ‘conspiracies’ of feminism,” says Joan Donovan, the media manipulation research lead at New York City research institute Data & Society.
But since espousing one extreme idea is likely to expose you to others, becoming red-pilled often meant believing in other hateful conspiracy theories, like the patently false but very old idea that Jewish people are out to take over the world. Oh, and white supremacy. “A crucial red pill in the arsenal was to talk to people about the Trayvon Martin killing and ask them to answer the question, ‘is George Zimmerman white?’” Donovan says. (Zimmerman’s mother is from Peru, a fact the redpilled claimed as proof that no racism was involved in Zimmerman shooting the unarmed teenager. Allegedly, this is the red pill that catalyzed mass murderer Dylann Roof’s radicalization.)
Since Gamergate, and even more so since President Trump’s campaign and election, the ideas underpinning red-pill culture have become ever more mainstream. The idea that a media-directed conspiracy exists to hoodwink the (white, male, Christian) masses into forfeiting their power to women, minorities, and Muslims is central to President Trump’s emotional power. But given that less than half of Americans voted for President Trump—and given that he has endured historically low approval ratings since his inauguration—there was a clear ceiling on how far that idea, and the red pill meme, were likely to spread. That is, until Kanye West, arguably the most popular living rapper and the world’s biggest celebrity after Beyonce, chimed in.
Why West, and What Now
It’s not just that West declared his love for President Trump that’s endeared him to the red-pilled, though that’s certainly part of it. It’s also how he did it.
The keywords are all there. Characterizing criticism as “monolithic thought” and insisting that President Trump’s ideology is at consistent with free thinking are core to the culture.
But the imagery truly begain with last week’s endorsement of Candace Owens, whose YouTube channel used to be called “Red Pill Black,” and still “prescribe[s] red pills” as an antidote to the “alt-left.”
West’s fans online may have been stunned (and ready to get jokes off), but in reality his prolonged tweetstorm makes perfect sense. “Kanye seems to be eternally memeable,” Milner says. “Like President Trump, he’s really good at drumming up participation around himself. The “dragon energy” thing really welcomes a response. He says things people can latch onto.” He’s done it before: his 2005 telethon outburst, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” springs to mind. As does his interrupting Taylor Swift’s 2009 Video Music Awards acceptance speech with his infamous “Imma let you finish” rant. “It’s a way of arresting people’s attention and inviting them to play with their words,” Milner says. Is it any surprise that a massively successful rapper has an ear for earworms that beg to be remixed?
This time around, though, the words “red-pilled” jumped into the mouths of liberals and conservatives alike. But, as is now 2018 tradition, not everyone agrees about what the phrase even means. “People on both sides of the spectrum are using the same words to have very different conversations,” says Whitney Phillips, a professor at Mercer College and Milner’s co-author on The Ambivalent Internet. “It’s a kind of dystopian political Mad Libs.” To conservatives, presumably including those behind Fox New’s coverage of the tweetstorm, the phrase has retained its original Matrix meaning of having been awakened. To liberals, it means he’s been radicalized. Either way, Kanye West and red-pilling are now front and center in a way the meme has never been before.
For less extreme right-wing factions, though, there’s a more complex bit of political strategy at play. “Conservatives movements are trying to make conservatism the new counterculture,” Donovan says. “It’s an interesting transgression because what they’re trying to mainstream is formal authority, adherence to structure and law, and respect for government in the authoritarian sense.” The fact that taking the red pill originally was supposed to produce the exact opposite effect just doesn’t seem to matter anymore. West is the perfect avatar for the ‘nothing means anything’ movement. (And remember, despite his committed performance, this all could just be a weird marketing strategy for his upcoming albums.)
However, there’s real danger in conservatives labeling West as red-pilled. This isn’t The Matrix; in the real world, the rabbit hole doesn’t lead to the liberation of the human race. It leads you to extremism, to the people who have been handing out the red pills all along. “If you search for Candace Owens, you’ll get to the far-right in two or three clicks,” Donovan says. Men’s rights activists, the “incel” community that is now celebrating Toronto van attack suspect Alek Minassian, and the alt-right have all been posting about the red pill for years. If you search for the keywords, you will end up in their spaces; that’s just how search algorithms work.
And to those movements, the truly radicalized communities of the internet, West’s tweets mean something entirely different than they do to either mainstream conservatives or liberals. They’re proof that West has adopted their “race realist” ideology in full. “They’re celebrating Kanye’s coming out as somewhat conservative, but they’re still saying horribly racist things about him,” Donovan says. (We confirmed in multiple forums, but won’t reproduce their racism here.) “Their idea of media messaging relies on vessels to spread their message for them.” And with West, they’ve hit a winner. According to Donovan, a misspelling of West’s name (“Kayne”) started trending shortly after the tweets did. Most people aren’t paying attention to this story because they’re fans—they’re paying attention because red-pill culture influenced West’s tweets, and their feeds are telling them he’s red-pilled.
What does all of this mean? It’s almost impossible to say. “The dragon energy, the fire emojis, the MAGA hat, none of this sounds like an important story. But the stakes could not be higher and everything is deeply consequential,” Phillips says. “Our political narrative that’s so convoluted that when you get new data you don’t know where to put it.” West is an unreliable narrator. Words slough off their old meanings and acquire new ones like snakes shedding skin. But one thing is for sure: the red pill is, metaphorically and literally, a gateway to the far right. And thanks to the true rabbit hole—the internet—it’s not likely to stop being one any time soon.