Addled by technology and a particularly potent sect of online culture, the right wing persecution complex is growing faster than ever before. Case in point, the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (a self-bestowed moniker), a group of provocative-for-the-sake-of-being-provocative YouTubers, podcasters, and former academics that derive their very name from a false sense of perceived oppression, while their audiences swell into the millions.
Most members of the Intellectual Dark Web are neither intellectual nor on the dark web. Instead, the group’s name is purposefully chosen to fit within the paranoid narrative of conspiratorial malfeasance that has taken the worst parts of the internet by storm as of late. It conveys an addictive “us against the world” mentality for a particular genre of vulnerable young audience members. By adopting the language of the misunderstood, potentially-counterculture hacker, startlingly popular (yet undeniably vitriolic) speakers like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro are able to convince listeners that the mere act of engaging with their (monetized and branded) content is a meaningful moment of defiance against the powers that be.
Episodes of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which have featured many members of the I.D.W., can draw nearly as big an audience as Rachel Maddow. A recent episode featuring Bret Weinstein and Ms. Heying talking about gender, hotness, beauty and #MeToo was viewed on YouTube over a million times, even though the conversation lasted for nearly three hours.
Ben Shapiro’s podcast, which airs five days a week, gets 15 million downloads a month. Sam Harris estimates that his “Waking Up” podcast gets one million listeners an episode. Dave Rubin’s YouTube show has more than 700,000 subscribers.
These bonafide celebrities are just about as mainstream as it gets, with fanatical fanbases that often pay members tens of thousands of dollars a month just to continue sharing their opinions online. “Mr. Rubin said his show makes at least $30,000 a month on Patreon,” writes Weiss, for the New York Times. “And Mr. Peterson says he pulls in some $80,000 in fan donations each month.”
Members of the Intellectual Dark Web don’t connect their wild popularity and financial success to being mainstream, because without their beloved narrative of persecution and their self-imposed “outsider” status, they lose their access point to the most easily manipulated emotion: outrage. Everyone loves to be part of something larger than themselves — to be engaged (even if it’s through the other side of a screen) in what appears like some grand, cosmic war threatening to shake the foundation of our democracy. It’s the sort of thing that lifts the listener out of the humdrum dregs of daily life by convincing them that they’re the only one who truly gets it. The so-called Intellectual Dark Web is selling escapism, plain and simple, and so long as people continue buying it (and New York Times Opinion writers keep showering the practice with praise), they probably won’t stop anytime soon.