Radical Liberal Online Activists and Right Wing Bodybuilders represent two poles of the political spectrum—but they are are each a product of the waning of institutional narratives
I’ve spent the last year exploring “extremely online nutrition”: lifting weights, eating raw eggs, and sunning my balls to better understand how social media has fragmented consensus reality. Cultural divisions now seem deeper than ever, and society no longer agrees on the basic principles of political freedom or even empirical science. From conflicting narratives around the COVID pandemic, to overturned “conspiracies” like the Hunter Biden laptop, to the pure disinformation surrounding election theft and coordinated voter fraud, one begins to wonder: Has the internet destroyed truth?
Productive disagreement has always been a foundation of American liberal democracy, but it requires that citizens inhabit (more or less) a shared reality. Instead, today’s runaway polarization seems irreconcilable. Can this cultural splintering be reversed? Should it be accelerated? Where do we go from here?
Online, all conflicting viewpoints are represented simultaneously. At the touch of a finger, every wingnut can call up information to support any claim, no matter how absurd. Everything can be disputed and nothing is clear. For example, I tweet a study that claims, “Eggs are good for you.” Someone replies with a counterstudy that reads, “Actually, eggs are bad for you.” To which I reply with a counterstudy to their counterstudy, showing, “New data proves eggs are really very good for you!” And so on and so forth ad infinitum. Now multiply this typical exchange for every topic across all of social media. Online discourse has become a sinkhole of infinitely granular debates, without any coherent summary to cut through.
Data is the antithesis of narrative. Effective narrative frames work to compress complex conflicts, statistics, and trends into forms which a non-expert public can grasp. Professional researchers and historians may sift through volumes of primary sources to craft an overarching story, but when this information is made available to the public (such as through an online database), it often leads to pseudo-experts and hobbyists piecing together conspiratorial threads by cherry-picking conflicting points of data. Sometimes, too much information makes an issue arduous to understand.
In earlier (more functional) decades of American society, universities and papers of record performed an important role: shaping definitive interpretations in fields of science, politics, and culture. But today, academia and legacy media—as well as experts of all fields—feel popularly discredited. From the literal fake news about weapons of mass destruction that paved the way for the war in Iraq, to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, to the ever-inflating student debt bubble, to the overwhelming media consensus over a democratic victory in 2016, our elites have repeatedly lost the public’s trust. Events like these contribute to a growing suspicion of systemic incompetence and corruption. As things continue to get worse for increasing numbers of people, the legitimacy of the mainstream erodes, and alternative views grow in popularity. Today, trust in the media is at an all-time low, and online counternarratives are thriving. In the late neoliberal era, our institutions withered, and platforms rose up to take their place.
I’ve embarked on a year-long, all-consuming auto-experiment, immersing myself in the esoteric and pseudoscientific health practices of extremely online communities spread across Twitter, Discord, and 4chan. While exploring these uncertain fields of “bro-science” and internet folklore, I observed a variety of trends that similarly map onto progressive subcultures, seemingly indicating a broad pattern inherent to all of social media.
“Today’s cultural and political chaos is no longer the result of corrupt institutions, but of a lack of trustworthy institutions.”
Radical Liberal Online Activists and Right Wing Bodybuilders seem to represent two poles of the political spectrum—but they are deeply related. They are each a product of recent history, the waning of institutional narratives, and artifacts crystallized through the atomizing design of today’s social media networks. Each of these exaggerated archetypes thrives in this unique discursive environment.
On the right, ultraconservative yet homoerotic fitness personalities tell us that eating copious amounts of butter, heavy cream, and 36 raw eggs a day is the healthiest diet possible. (Yes, they literally do this. Google “Vince Gironda shake 3x daily.” It’s only about 5,400 calories.) And while this advice runs contrary to common sense, these guys are totally ripped. The proof that their claims are true is the physique of the bodybuilders themselves.
Nutritional science is a relatively new field, and its findings are frequently overturned. This lack of expert consensus results in an uncertain terrain, where fitness influencers can demonstrate progress over time as a way of substantiating their claims. Posting photos or videos of themselves performing sets of exercises or following a meal plan becomes the necessary proof of efficacy.
On the left, we’re censored and chastised over an ever-expanding list of microaggressions. And while some of these perspectives defy popular intuition, activists speak of a lived experience that is unfalsifiable. The substantive proof behind their claims is their own embodied identity.
While struggles for social justice stretch back much further than the neoliberal era, within the fields of academia and media, institutional bias is a relatively recent concern. This glaring historical oversight creates an environment where activists must use extra-institutional means to force an authority to address its own inequalities. Public pressure campaigns, firsthand accounts, and co-signs from members of marginalized identity groups help mount the case that an institution is unjust.
In the absence of trustworthy institutions, society has retreated into self-validating rubrics of meaning-making. We now attempt to posit anti-conspiratorial truth in a vacuum of credibility. On social media, “proof of body” has become the de facto verification for all claims. Simply put, no one wants Rachel Dolezal to lecture them on the Black experience. And no one would take fitness advice from someone who is unfit.
For better and worse, platforms created a way to bypass institutional gatekeepers and experts. But this necessary challenge to authority came at a time when institutional legitimacy was already on the decline. From the 1980s onward, neoliberalism privatized more and more aspects of American life. As a result, the increased cost of living erected new barriers to all elite positions in society. When state funding withered, our universities, museums, and papers of record were increasingly forced to seek aid from private donors and powerful interests. Ever-steepening competition posed greater risk for whistleblowers. The decline of tenure eliminated those oppositional voices that once made expert consensus rigorous and trustworthy. Moreover, the only individuals who could soon afford to enter into these elite positions came from increasingly privileged backgrounds. Once inside, they began to reproduce the same ruling-class ideologies their institutions had once been erected to protect us from. Austerity chips away from all sides. If being an artist, journalist, or professor doesn’t pay, then the only people who can afford to do it are those who have access to intergenerational wealth. This slow process of elite capture decimated institutional legitimacy, and platforms absorbed the public’s trust into the domain of the market. Not surprisingly, things got worse.
In the 2010s, society ceded its main communication network to an advertising platform. The incentives of this online economy have driven our cultural and political discourse ever since. This cacophonous horizontality has given rise to many new forms of snake oil salesmen: outrageous headlines, dopamine addictions, wire fraud scams, health crazes, and much more. On the right, it pushes fitness influencers to fake their gains, like with Liver King’s plainly obvious use of steroids (which he continues to deny), or to sell dangerous supplements, like InfoWars’s lead-tainted ashwagandha from 2017. On the left, it drives bad-faith callouts among activists, and encourages academics to make dubious claims to identity groups as a cynical way of advancing their own careers, like with Jessica “La Bombalera” Krug or Elizabeth Warren.
Editors and curators are also imperfect, and in need of their own checks on power. But in the absence of strong institutional frameworks, precarity and competition will continue to actuate new forms of profitable deception. Drop all of this into an environment of ad-driven media (where everyone is forced to chase infinite scale to barely survive), and the result is strong incentives for desperate people to lie, without any legitimate authority to correct them. Today’s cultural and political chaos is no longer the result of corrupt institutions, but of a lack of trustworthy institutions.
“By immersing yourself in someone else’s reality, you may glean a few insights that subtly shift your own.”
I do not recommend treating yourself like a guinea pig for insane health advice found on niche internet message boards. But when you cannot trust the experts, you must DYOR (Do Your Own Research). I couldn’t believe that any of these bizarre programs would actually make someone fit. So I had to try it out. At my peak, I was eating two pounds of meat and six raw eggs per day. I would occasionally supplement with some leafy green vegetables like spinach or kale. After a period of about three months, I got very lean and muscular. It was probably the best shape I have ever been in. It was a lot of work to manage my daily consumption so carefully, and I probably could not have done it if I wasn’t living in my mom’s basement at the time. (By the way, I no longer live with my mom and I have a gf, so miss me with that incel shit.)
While esoteric influencers claim that sunning your balls will increase testosterone levels by up to 200 percent, the only thing it is indisputably proven to do is vehemently upset liberals. Sitting in the sun with a cup of coffee for five to 10 minutes in the morning is a good practice to gather your thoughts and take a moment, before diving into the drudgery of work. This alone will have beneficial health effects. There is no need to spend $600 or more on specialty red light machines that have dubious scientific backing.
Hypermasculine subcultures like to fixate on rigorous evidence for declining fertility and testosterone levels, due to the pervasiveness of microplastics and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. But they also believe in a variety of other topics that are basically totally made up. Seed oils do not turn your blood into plastic. You can’t change your face through positive thinking. And teleportation isn’t real. (This is too complicated and stupid to explain.)
My advice is to avoid seed oils when possible, because they are very cheap and usually put into foods that are highly processed and unhealthy. Thinking strong and handsome thoughts will not spur muscle protein synthesis, so I recommend eating .75 grams of protein per pound of body weight if you are seriously lifting.
You should drink raw onion juice once, just to know what it feels like, but be prepared to stink like body odor the next day.
Mewing is an exercise technique for the tongue and jaw muscles, with the goal of reshaping one’s face into a more desirable Chad-like appearance. This totally worked and has visibly improved my face. In most cases, it involves overpriced plastic bite guards, but I recommend the much more affordable Falim gum (for beginners) or Tears of Chios tree (for experts).
After a year of transforming my body, I realized that I was not so much in search of health advice, and was instead looking to uncover some counterintuitive truth in a world of deeply conflicting viewpoints and information. By immersing yourself in someone else’s reality, you may glean a few insights that subtly shift your own.
Despite our social chaos, there is an emergent consensus among the disparate branches of today’s fractured discourse. In RLOA spaces, it is common for people to undergo hormone replacement therapy in their journey toward self-design. Similarly, RWBs consume a “Hormone Precursor diet,” and often related (if not identical) drugs to increase testosterone levels and muscle growth. From different facets of our political reality, we find the unexpected agreement that “nature” is insufficient, and true bodily autonomy is realized at the level of self-design, whether it be through pink pills or raw eggs.
The task of creatives and intellectuals today should be to collect these uncommon points of alignment. We must weave these narrative threads into a newly coherent social fabric. In this final chapter of postmodernism, we will find new ways to reconstitute consensus reality. We must build new truth-seeking institutions for a society that has lost its way.