Hypertabs is The Varsity‘s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities. You can read the other articles included in this project here.

The Internet has the ability to affect nearly every facet of a student’s life. If you need to search for a library book, the catalogue is online. If you’re not sure how to cite a source, you can Google it. When you want to know when the next event for a student society is, Facebook is often to first place to check. Even during lectures and classes, students browse websites such as Twitter and reddit, reading the most recent updates on their favourite forums. They are part of different online communities, where they can interact with other users who share their interests and hobbies.

Online communities offer acceptance, support, and rapport. In January, reddit boasted over 19 million unique visitors, and hosted 800,000 individual, user created forums, or ‘subreddits’. Twitter has approximately 320 million monthly active users, while Tumblr has 555 million, and social media behemoth Facebook averages over 1.5 billion active monthly users; most students are members of at least one..

While these sites can provide easy entertainment through bad jokes, cute animal pictures, or inspiring stories, they are also home to more tumultuous communities. Fringe groups, especially those that advocate for radical social and political change, are very active  online. These types of communities — anti-vaxxers, Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) — can become talking points in the public sphere.

Many men who identify as part of the MRA movement believe that there are significant social and legal inequalities affecting men that are not being addressed by society, and particularly by fourth-wave feminism. Issues such as paternity rights and sexual assault are popular topics of discussion on MRA subreddits and Twitter accounts. The forums rarely contain original content; instead, users share newspaper articles which they then discuss. The men’s rights subreddit page (r/MensRights) has 115,676 unique readers, the largest of all mainstream men’s rights related subreddits. r/MensRights is in the top 400 subreddits based on number of subscribers, an accomplishment on a website as popular as reddit. MRA activists are also active on Twitter with several hashtags and accounts devoted to the cause.

Online MRA groups often the cause of controversy. r/RedPill is a subreddit that references The Matrix, where the protagonist takes a red pill to make himself aware of his true surroundings. The majority of its 142,000 subscribers are male, and unlike mainstream MRA groups, these subscribers create the majority of the content. Outrage and anger is expressed at posted personal anecdotes of men being scorned by women, and congratulations are offered for stories about subscribers’ successful sexual encounters. r/RedPill embraces the MRA philosophy of turning “beta” males into “alphas”, anti-feminism, and the techniques of so-called ‘pick up artists. There is a strong sense of community and loyalty in r/RedPill, which some have gone so far to describe as cult-like.

Recently, notorious pick-up artist Daryush Valizadeh, or “Roosh V”, made headlines by calling for the members of his website “Return of Kings” to meet up in person on Feb 2, 2016. While the meetings — one of which would have been held in Queen’s Park — were cancelled two days later, the plans garnered international media attention. This is merely one example of how the actions of a online fringe group can have real world ramifications. 

Online threats of violence against female U of T students were made last September. In an instance of online threats being put into action, in 2014 Elliot Rodger — an active member of the MRA community — committed a mass murder-suicide in California. Before committing the attack, he posted a video claiming that his motives were retribution against women who had rejected him sexually. These events don’t necessarily suggest that online communities are the cause behind such behaviour. However, they offer a unique outlet where radical thoughts can be expressed without judgment or fear of real repercussion. 

Some online communities even have enough clout to influence mainstream politics — anti-vaxxers are a good example. The movement, which began in 1998, believes that vaccines cause autism, among other problems, in young children. Proponents of the “Vaccine Resistance Movement” congregate on Facebook pages and use Twitter to target politicians and lobbyists that are pro-vaccine. They base their beliefs on a now debunked scientific study on the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine by a British physician who lost his medical license due to the study. It is now believed that his findings were a correlation, not causation, as signs of autism typically emerge around the same time the MMR vaccine is administered.

While any immunology student studying in Gerstein can tell you that avoiding vaccines can cause serious problems, it wasn’t until last year when a measles outbreak in the United States reinvigorated the public conversation on anti-vaccine philosophy. As such, California lawmakers have now passed legislation preventing parents from citing “personal beliefs” as a reason for not vaccinating their child. It is now mandatory for all children in public schools to be vaccinated. This is a way of preventing the spread of measles and other viruses to not only children, but also to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Even Rand Paul, member of the US Senate and trained physician, has come out against vaccines, but has since become pro-vaccine due to backlash.

As we spend more and more of our time online, we have to be critical with the content of what we choose to engage with. Fringe ideas are making their way to the forefront of our lives with the click of a button. While many of them may be harmless, it’s been proven that radical online thought can incite real world danger.

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