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How the red pill got to Elon Musk: A brief look back at public figures co-opting ‘The Matrix’

Elon Musk, pictured at the SpaceX headquarters in October 2019. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)
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This past weekend, Elon Musk, the father of a confusingly named newborn, deemed it time to stir the pot once more when he encouraged his Twitter followers to “take the red pill.” The tweet, which could be read as an addendum to his POTUS-backed attempts to reopen a major Tesla factory, prompted a response from another Trump family member: presidential adviser Ivanka, who simply responded, “Taken!”

Sent during the greatest public health crisis of her father’s administration, Trump’s tweet served as another reminder that things can always get more surreal. Red-pilling, originally a reference to the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” is a term used online to describe a conversion to extreme, far-right views. Musk and Trump are far from the first public figures to seemingly espouse this form of radicalization; the term has been co-opted so often that its online meaning has become the dominant one. Recognizing this, “The Matrix” co-director Lilly Wachowski expressed her disapproval in a brief reply to Trump: “F--- both of you."

“The Matrix” is set in a dystopian future where humans remain oblivious to the fact that they’re trapped in a simulated reality controlled by artificial intelligence. After rebels awaken protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) to this truth, rebel leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers him a choice between a red and blue pill: “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” Morpheus says. “You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

In the Wachowskis’ world, the red pill represents Neo’s commitment to knowing the truth, no matter what it holds. Far-right movements appropriated this metaphor, each assigning their own meaning to the term: “What the red pill actually reveals depends on who’s offering it,” a New York magazine article stated in 2017. “To men’s-rights activists, being red-pilled means throwing off the yoke of popular feminism and recognizing that men, not women, are the oppressed group. To the alt-right, it means revealing the lies behind multiculturalism and globalism, and realizing the truth of isolationist nationalism.”

The mainstream use of the term — which found a home on Reddit and surged after GamerGate, as well as Donald Trump’s election — reached the pop culture sphere two years ago when Kanye West tweeted his support of Candace Owens, a black activist in the pro-Trump Internet who formerly used the social media handle “Red Pill Black.” Owens, as The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser reported at the time, is known for promoting “her thesis that black people have been brainwashed to vote for Democrats by the media, and that they would vote for Republicans if only they could be red-pilled by recent converts like her.”

West’s tirade of tweets, which included a call for people to break “out of our mental prisons,” led many to wonder whether he had been red-pilled — a cause of concern to those who operate outside of the far-right Internet and view the ideologies promoted there as sexist and/or racist. It’s the same reason Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine felt a need to clarify the band members “had no idea about the association with men’s rights” when they chose to name their 2017 album “Red Pill Blues.”

“We’re like, ‘Oh man, of course, like 2017 is the worst.’ We were talking about the scene in ‘The Matrix’ ― do you take the red pill or the blue pill? And the fact that seeing the world for what it is in 2017 can be kind of rough,” he told HuffPost. “Hopefully, everyone knows from all of our pasts that from our statements on the issue and our actions in the past ― that we are all hardcore feminists in the band.”

West, it just so happens, is also a fan of “The Matrix,” having once referred to it as “the Bible of the post-information age.” He is also a fan of Musk ― and vice versa. Musk doubled down on his “Matrix” tweeting Sunday afternoon with a Morpheus meme captioned, “Did you seriously just take both pills? WTF is wrong with you.” To this, Musk added, “When u take DayQuil & NyQuil at same time.”

Perhaps this served as an explanation for the original red pill tweet, the meaning behind which was already murky (especially given that it contained a rose emoji, often used online to signify membership in the Democratic Socialists of America). But Musk has long exhibited a libertarian streak, exemplified by Tesla’s response to the spread of covid-19. He has also professed multiple times to wondering whether, as in “The Matrix,” we are all living in a simulation. The question is, who’s controlling this one?

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