So­cial me­dia Donna Zucker­berg, sis­ter of Mark, on her new book, Not All Dead White Men

When Donna Zucker­berg, sis­ter of Mark, be­gan prob­ing the dark un­der­belly of on­line an­tifem­i­nism, she found far-right men’s groups were us­ing clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity to sup­port their views. She is hop­ing her new book can be a cat­a­lyst for change

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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 Gre­coRo­man 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 pseu­doin­tel­lec­tual 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. 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.

“It is with­out doubt that so­cial me­dia has al­lowed this to hap­pen,” she says of the toxic mo­ment we’re in. “It has cre­ated the op­por­tu­nity for men with anti-fem­i­nist ideas to broad­cast their views to more peo­ple than ever be­fore – and to spread con­spir­acy the­o­ries, lies and mis­in­for­ma­tion. So­cial me­dia has el­e­vated misog­yny to en­tirely new lev­els of vi­o­lence and vir­u­lence.”

To any­one with a pass­ing in­ter­est in in­ter­net cul­ture or, in­deed, the news, this might seem to be stat­ing the ob­vi­ous. From the sis­ter of Mark Zucker­berg, CEO of the largest so­cial me­dia com­pany of them all, it’s a pretty bold dec­la­ra­tion. Is this fight­ing talk? Zucker­berg lets out a quiet sigh. Un­de­ni­ably, she looks a lot like her brother – al­beit softer, pretty, and with cy­ber­punk­ish strands of blue run­ning through her hair. Her hus­band as well as her sib­lings have, at one point or an­other, worked in so­cial me­dia. The sub­ject re­mains fraught for her.

“Face­book is the big­gest of them all, but Red Pill mem­bers of­ten sneer at so­cial me­dia, de­spite it be­ing es­sen­tial to their modus operandi,” she says. To that end, in the book she writes that her brother is “fre­quently mocked as ‘Mark Cucker­berg’ or ‘Zuck the Cuck’, ep­i­thets based on the term cuck, a par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant form of in­sult within the Red Pill de­rived from the term cuck­old”.

This may be true, but it barely ex­on­er­ates him or Face­book for the part it has played in al­low­ing an­gry men – and it is, with­out ques­tion, largely men – to fan the flames of one an­other’s rage on­line. That the con­tem­po­rary global slide to pop­ulism has co­in­cided with the ex­ploita­tion of Face­book and Twit­ter, What­sApp and YouTube by ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist trolls, data firms and Rus­sia’s now in­fa­mous In­ter­net Re­search Agency is well es­tab­lished.

Has she ever taken her brother to task? “I can see why you have to ask,” says Zucker­berg with an apolo­getic smile, “but I’m not go­ing to an­swer that ques­tion.”

In her book, Zucker­berg ex­plains that po­lit­i­cal and so­cial move­ments have “long ap­pro­pri­ated the his­tory, lit­er­a­ture and myth of the an­cient world to their ad­van­tage. Bor­row­ing the sym­bols of these cul­tures, as the Nazi party did in the 1940s, can be a pow­er­ful dec­la­ra­tion that you are the in­her­i­tor of western cul­ture and civil­i­sa­tion”. And the study of clas­sics, of course, re­mains very much the pre­serve of elites.

“Clas­sics are wrought with his­to­ries and nar­ra­tives of op­pres­sion and ex­clu­sion,” says Zucker­berg. “By quot­ing Mar­cus Au­re­lius – as Steve Ban­non is known to of­ten do – Red Pillers per­pet­u­ate the idea that they, white men, are the in­tel­lec­tual au­thor­ity un­der threat from women and peo­ple of colour.” While uni­ver­si­ties make pro­gres­sive at­tempts to broaden the canon so stu­dents aren’t sim­ply read­ing one dead white man after an­other, “the manosphere rebel against this. They see them­selves as the guardians of western civil­i­sa­tion and the de­fend­ers of its cul­tural legacy.”

This twist is es­pe­cially galling for Zucker­berg, an avowed fem­i­nist who has ded­i­cated her ca­reer to the clas­sics. “Any­body with an in­ter­est in the field of so­cial jus­tice should not ig­nore this trend,” she says. “These men are weapon­is­ing an­cient Greece and Rome in ser­vice of their agenda and re­shap­ing what that his­tory means.”

Zucker­berg digs deep through the most pop­u­lar and ex­cru­ci­at­ing mes­sage boards, blogs and threads. She un­cov­ers the com­mu­nity of pick-up artists (PUAs) who use, say, the po­ems of Ovid to le­git­imise their most ne­far­i­ous “tech­niques” to sleep with women. “PUAs, as one ex­am­ple, use fa­mous se­duc­ers from his­tory and re­po­si­tion them as in­tel­lec­tu­als so they can en­force a be­lief that women’s bound­aries are per­me­able and that con­sent is a flex­i­ble con­cept,” she says.

Her re­search, on which she set her­self a limit of an hour a day, led her to es­says ad­vo­cat­ing rape, posts of­fer­ing ad­vice on how to de­hu­man­ise, trick and con­trol women, and re­flec­tions on the case against fe­male ed­u­ca­tion. “Sure, it was up­set­ting,” she ad­mits. “I made a rule that if some­thing re­ally got to me, I’d stop right there for the day.”

To hear Zucker­berg tell it, there is a main­stream mis­con­cep­tion about the sta­tus and in­flu­ence of the manosphere. “The elec­tion of Trump has been em­pow­er­ing for the manosphere. They’re even more out­spo­ken about their ide­ol­ogy and these voices are loud on­line.

“It’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say the Red Pill com­mu­nity are writ­ing na­tional pol­icy,” she says. “But on some level, they seem to be­lieve they’re in­flu­enc­ing pol­icy.”

Hav­ing a self-de­clared “pussy-grab­bing” pres­i­dent cer­tainly ups the ante, but Zucker­berg won’t be drawn on Trump. “The irony is, of course, that the peo­ple you would hope to most reach, that you think you might con­vince and present this case to, would be the last to read this book.” She smiles. “The most I can hope for is for this to be talked about, for the ideas to dis­sem­i­nate and change think­ing on cam­puses.”

Not All Dead White Men is pub­lished by Har­vard Univer­sity Press (£20). To buy it for £14.99 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

‘The manosphere see them­selves as the guardians of western civil­i­sa­tion’: Donna Zucker­berg pho­tographed last month for the Ob­server New Re­view.

Mark Zucker­berg awaits to tes­tify be­fore a com­bined Se­nate ju­di­ciary and com­merce com­mit­tee hear­ing in Wash­ing­ton, April 2018.

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