The intellectual dark web (IDW) is a term used to describe some commentators who oppose identity politics, political correctness, and cancel culture in higher education and the news media within Western countries.
Individuals and publications associated with the term reject what they view as authoritarianism and ostracism within mainstream progressive movements in Western countries, especially within universities and the news media. This includes opposition to deplatforming, boycotts, and online shaming, which are seen as threats to freedom of speech. Those who have been labelled as being part of the IDW come from both the right and left of the political spectrum. The validity of the term is contested by some it has been applied to due to the range of beliefs it encompasses.
Sources differ on the nature of the IDW, with some describing its members as "small-l liberals" and others as "reactionaries" and ideologically diverse. Shared beliefs include opposition to political correctness, but focus areas vary. Those who have been linked to the IDW are generally critical of what they perceive as "conformist" liberals, and some have been associated with the alt-lite and the alt-right of the political spectrum. Writers for Psychology Today characterized it as "generally concerned about political tribalism and free speech", or as a rejection of "mainstream assumptions about what is true". Writers for Salon dubbed it a politically conservative movement united more over a rejection of American liberalism than over any mutually shared beliefs. Alternatively, Christian Alejandro Gonzalez, writing for the National Review, posited that, despite comprising "all political persuasions", the IDW was united in a particular conservative-leaning conceptualization of injustice and inequality specifically.
In his book Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right, progressive author and political commentator Michael Brooks lists a "devotion to affirming capitalism", a "shared obsession with campus and social media controversies" and an "intense interest in IQ and other innate justifications for systemic inequalities" as defining features of the group.
Origin and usage
Eric Weinstein, mathematician and former director of Thiel Capital, stated that when he coined the term he was "half-joking". This occurred after Weinstein's brother, biologist Bret Weinstein, resigned in 2017 from his position as professor of biology at the Evergreen State College in response to protests against his criticism of a campus event that asked white students to stay off campus, as opposed to the previous annual tradition of black students voluntarily absenting themselves. The website Big Think has argued that other controversies, dating back to 2014, should also be viewed as antecedents to the IDW. These include a debate between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher in October 2014, the publication of "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" by James Damore in August 2017, and Cathy Newman's interview of Jordan Peterson on Channel 4 News in January 2018, each of which related to controversial topics such as Islamic extremism and workplace diversity policies.
The term gained popularity after a May 2018 opinion piece by then staff editor Bari Weiss in The New York Times titled "Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web". Weiss characterized individuals she named as associated with the intellectual dark web as "iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities", who have been "purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought", and who have instead taken to social media, podcasting, public speaking, and other alternative venues outside "legacy media".
Weiss's article sparked a number of critiques. Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review, said the "label is a bit overwrought", writing that it struck him "as a marketing label – and not necessarily a good one. ... It seems to me this IDW thing isn't actually an intellectual movement. It's just a coalition of thinkers and journalists who happen to share a disdain for the keepers of the liberal orthodoxy." Henry Farrell, writing in Vox, expressed disbelief that conservative commentator Ben Shapiro or neuroscientist Sam Harris, both claimed to be among the intellectual dark web by Weiss, could credibly be described as either purged or silenced. Weiss' fellow New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted the irony of claiming popular intellectual oppression by the mainstream, while publishing in the Times, among the most prominent newspapers in the nation, although Weiss did not herself claim to be part of the IDW and would depart the Times almost exactly one year later over the same issues central to figures in it. David French contended many of the critics were missing the point, and were instead inadvertently confirming "the need for a movement of intellectual free-thinkers."
In 2019, a study from the Federal University of Minas Gerais found a pattern of migration of viewers who comment on YouTube videos, from commenting on clips associated with the IDW and the "alt-lite" to commenting on more algorithm-defined "right-wing and/or alt-right" videos. The study looked at over 331,000 videos that an algorithm had classified as right-wing, analyzed 79 million YouTube comments, and found a group that migrated from IDW channels to "alt-lite" channels, and then the alt-right channels. The subjects who left comments at an IDW channel were more likely to graduate after a few years to leaving significantly more comments on alt-right channels than the control group. The study's authors said they were not intending to "point fingers", but to draw attention to the effects of YouTube's recommendation algorithm, calling it an "almost totally algorithm-driven process."
In a New York Times editorial, Bari Weiss listed individuals associated with the intellectual dark web, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sam Harris, Heather Heying, Claire Lehmann, Bill Maher, Douglas Murray, Maajid Nawaz, Camille Paglia, Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, Michael Shermer, Christina Hoff Sommers, Bret Weinstein, and Eric Weinstein.
Although those associated with the IDW primarily criticize the political left, some describe themselves as liberal, but criticize what they perceive as the excesses and indifference of the American Left, while others lean to the right. Nick Fouriezos of Ozy magazine describes IDW as "a growing school of thought that includes a collection of mostly left-leaning professors, pundits and thinkers united in their criticism of the modern social justice movement as authoritarian and illogical." Liberals who have been labelled as being part of the IDW often credit the Enlightenment with vast improvements in human welfare since the 18th century, and see Enlightenment values such as freedom of speech and individual rights as threatened by both political correctness on the left, and Trumpism and religious conservatism on the right. Criticism of the IDW has come primarily from the left and support from the right. The Guardian characterized the IDW as "strange bedfellows" that comprise the "supposed thinking wing of the alt-right". The Los Angeles Review of Books described the members as identifying with both the left and the right, but united against "primary adversaries" including political correctness, progressives, left-wing politics, and "the neo-fascist alt-right".
The characterization of it being an alt-right group (for example, in The Guardian) has been rejected by members of the IDW.
Some writers, including Cathy Young, have expressed uncertainty over whether they belong in the intellectual dark web. Historian of medicine and science Alice Dreger expressed surprise in being told she was a member of the IDW at all. After she was invited to be profiled in the New York Times article, she stated that she "had no idea who half the people in this special network were. The few Intellectual Dark Web folks I had met I didn't know very well. How could I be part of a powerful intellectual alliance when I didn't even know these people?"
In November 2020, Harris distanced himself from the movement, saying that he was "turn[ing] in [his] imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization", because some unidentified members of the group were propagating President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen through voter fraud. He later described the focus on COVID-19 vaccines by Bret Weinstein as being "completely crazy".
In 2021, Dave Rubin described a growing ideological split among the early IDW. According to Freddie Sayers, Rubin includes Bari Weiss, Sam Harris, and Bret Weinstein among "those who believe the tools of liberalism can still be deployed to persuade the Woke Left to change their mind", while Rubin believes that isn't possible, and that he is "better off building bridges with the Right".
- Weiss, Bari (May 8, 2018). "Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 31, 2020. Retrieved May 8, 2018.
- Farrell, Henry (May 10, 2018). "The "Intellectual Dark Web," explained: what Jordan Peterson has in common with the alt-right". Vox. Retrieved August 14, 2023.
- "A Better Way to Understand the Intellectual Dark Web". Merion West. September 23, 2020. Retrieved November 20, 2021.
- Hamburger, Jacob (July 18, 2018). "The "Intellectual Dark Web" Is Nothing New". Los Angeles Review of Books. Archived from the original on March 27, 2019. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
...the movement does tend to think of liberals, progressives, and leftists as its primary adversaries.
- Finlayson, Alan (September 6, 2021). "Neoliberalism, the Alt-Right and the Intellectual Dark Web". Theory, Culture & Society. SAGE Publications. 38 (6): 167–190. doi:10.1177/02632764211036731. ISSN 0263-2764. S2CID 239690708.
- Blum, Alexander. "The Intellectual Dark Web Debates Religion". Psychology Today. Archived from the original on December 15, 2020. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
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- Link, Taylor (September 2, 2018). "The Intellectual Dark Web conservatives fear". Salon. Archived from the original on June 20, 2019. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Alejandro Gonzalez, Christian (May 16, 2018). "Inequality and the Intellectual Dark Web". National Review. Archived from the original on June 20, 2018. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Brooks, Michael (2020). Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right. Hampshire: Zero Books. ISBN 9781789042306.
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- Lester, Amelia (November 2018). "The Voice of the 'Intellectual Dark Web'". Politico. Archived from the original on November 12, 2018. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
- Goldberg, Jonah (May 8, 2018). "Evaluating the 'Intellectual Dark Web'". National Review. Archived from the original on July 15, 2020. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Bonazzo, John (August 5, 2018). "NY Times 'Intellectual Dark Web' Story Savaged on Twitter—Even by Paper's Staffers". The New York Observer. Archived from the original on July 22, 2019. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Pompeo, Joe (July 14, 2020). "In Dramatic Exit From the Times, Bari Weiss Makes Bid for Woke-Wars Martyrdom". Vanity Fair. Retrieved October 29, 2022.
- French, David A. (May 11, 2018). "Critics Miss the Point of the 'Intellectual Dark Web'". National Review. Archived from the original on August 13, 2019. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Dickson, EJ (August 28, 2019). "Study Shows How the 'Intellectual Dark Web' Is a Gateway to the Far Right". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on September 21, 2019. Retrieved September 25, 2019.
- Ribeiro, Manoel Horta; Ottoni, Raphael; West, Robert; Almeida, Virgílio A F; Meira Meira, Wagner (2020). "Auditing radicalization pathways on YouTube". Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. pp. 131–141. doi:10.1145/3351095.3372879. ISBN 9781450369367. S2CID 201316434.
- Burgis, Ben (March 22, 2022). "Bill Maher Didn't Change. He's Always Been a Cringe Centrist". The Daily Beast. Retrieved May 21, 2023.
- Murray, Douglas (February 21, 2018). "Inside the intellectual dark web". The Spectator. Retrieved July 15, 2023.
- Weiss, Bari; Winter, Damon (May 8, 2018). "Opinion | Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 7, 2021.
- Link, Taylor (September 2, 2018). "The Intellectual Dark Web conservatives fear". Salon. Retrieved November 7, 2021.
....the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a quasi-informal group of political commentators... who've gained traction for its hostility towards American liberalism
- Fouriezos, Nick (August 10, 2020). "American Fringes: The Intellectual Dark Web Declares Its Independence". OZY. Archived from the original on September 19, 2020. Retrieved September 5, 2020.
- Bowden, Blaine (May 6, 2019). "Yes, The Intellectual Dark Web Is Politically Diverse". Areo. Archived from the original on August 5, 2019. Retrieved July 30, 2019.
- "The 'Intellectual Dark Web' – the supposed thinking wing of the alt-right". May 9, 2018. Archived from the original on June 10, 2019. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Lester, Amelia. "The Voice of the 'Intellectual Dark Web'". POLITICO Magazine. Archived from the original on December 15, 2020. Retrieved May 30, 2019.
- Drezner, Daniel W. (May 11, 2018). "The Ideas Industry meets the intellectual dark web". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on May 29, 2019. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Young, Cathy (May 20, 2018). "Who's afraid of the "Intellectual Dark Web"?". Arc Digital Media. Archived from the original on December 15, 2020. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
- Dreger, Alice (May 11, 2018). "Why I Escaped the 'Intellectual Dark Web'". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Archived from the original on June 25, 2019. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- Sam Harris (November 19, 2020). "Republic of Lies". samharris.org (Podcast). Sam Harris. Event occurs at 0:03.48. Archived from the original on December 15, 2020. Retrieved November 19, 2020.
Insofar as I've noticed what others in the so called Intellectual Dark Web have been saying, it's generally not something I want to be associated with. I don't want to single anyone out in particular, but allow me to take this moment to turn in my imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization. I mean, the IDW was always tongue-in-cheek from my point of view. It was the name for a group of people who were willing to discuss difficult topics in public mostly on podcasts, but it never made sense for us to be grouped together as though we shared a common worldview. I never saw much downside to it, and I didn't much think about it, but in the aftermath of this election with some members of this fictional group sounding fairly bonkers, I just want to make it clear that I'm not part of any group.
- Anthony, L. Fisher (January 19, 2023). "The Intellectual Dark Web's Descent Into Paranoia and Trumpism". The Daily Beast. Retrieved July 12, 2023.
- Sayers, Freddie (April 6, 2021). "Dave Rubin: why the 'Intellectual Dark Web' split up". UnHerd. Retrieved July 12, 2023.