When the academic, sister of Mark Zuckerberg, began exploring online antifeminism, she discovered far-right men’s groups were using classical antiquity to support their views
Sun 11 Nov 2018
Donna Zuckerberg didn’t expect to spend two years trawling through the corner of the internet defined as “the manosphere”, unpicking the grim alliance between pick-up artists, men’s rights activists, incels (involuntarily celibate men), the far right and the most ardent Make America Great Again advocates.
“It started as a curiosity,” she says, as we video call from her home in Silicon Valley, which she shares with her husband and two children. “But it took on a life of its own.” A classicist with a PhD from Princeton, Zuckerberg edits the online journal Eidolon, publishing scholarly essays on the Greco-Roman world from academics and students.
In the summer of 2015, she noticed an unprecedented level of traffic towards a piece entitled “Why is stoicism having a cultural moment?” and went down a rabbit hole to determine why. The results stunned her: men – or rather, misogynists – were using an armchair enthusiasm for the classics to justify manifestos of hate against women. The results were spreading online under a pseudo-intellectual guise, twisting ancient world philosophy to buttress a contemporary hatred of feminism. And it wasn’t a one-off.
“So, there are online communities that exist under the umbrella of what we know as the Red Pill, which are men connected by common resentments against women, immigrants, people of colour,” she explains. “What I was surprised to find was the extent to which they are using ancient Greek and Roman figures and texts to prop up an ideal of white masculinity.”
Red Pillers name themselves after a scene in The Matrix, in which Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers Neo (Keanu Reeves) the option of taking the red or blue pill and arriving at either gritty, painful truth (red) or blissful ignorance (blue). Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor and YouTube sermoniser who rails against identity politics and feminism, is revered as one of the high priests of the movement, while incels have gathered much attention this year.
But in the case of stoicism’s sudden revival, Zuckerberg found that an active corner of Reddit was applying Hellenistic philosophy to explain the pain and hardship white western men were suffering in the 21st century. Except these men didn’t consider themselves angry – they considered themselves oppressed.
“The ancient world was deeply misogynistic – it was a time when there was no word for rape, feminism did not exist and women’s actions were determined by male relatives,” says Zuckerberg. But now the classical texts are being “distorted and stripped of context” online to lend gravitas to campaigns of misogyny and white supremacy. Not only is it toxic but, as Zuckerberg calmly outlines in her new book, Not All Dead White Men, it is deeply dangerous.
At 31, Donna is the third of the four Zuckerberg siblings and the only one to shun working in tech: her brother, Mark, is CEO of Facebook, which he co-founded; her older sister, Randi, joined Facebook in 2004 and has since developed her own media career; while her younger sister, Arielle, has worked for Google. The children of a dentist father and psychiatrist mother (who worked most of her career as office manager to her husband’s dental practice), the Zuckerbergs grew up in a village of less than 10,000 people in Westchester County, New York. In a rare family profile interview with New York Magazine in 2012, Donna described their upbringing as “tight-knit” and supportive. Her book, then, may come as a surprise.