(Rachel Orr/The Washington Post; iStock)

It’s virtually impossible to take a census of an online subculture — even the academics who study them say it can’t be done. But by all accounts, the number of people who actually follow Daryish Valizadeh is smaller than it looks.

Valizadeh, known online as “Roosh V,” is the self-styled prophet of a strain of radical misogynist pick-up artistry. He’s also the proprietor of an obscure virtual empire that spans three websites, a forum and 17 self-published books. (According to analyses conducted for The Washington Post by the firms Tweetsmap and SimilarWeb, Valizadeh’s international “hordes” can be mapped to a few clusters of readers in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.)

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And yet, when Valizadeh proclaimed the objectively impossible — that his cult would emerge from the shadows on Feb. 6 and mass at 165 prominent public locations from Phoenix to Phnom Penh — millions of people, and hundreds of journalists, took his word for it.

The ensuing global uproar has manufactured publicity on a scale that few fringe Internet movements have ever dreamed of. By the time he “canceled” the faux-revolution Wednesday afternoon, Valizadeh had become a household name in places as far-flung as Winnipeg and Sydney — never mind that even social justice activists hadn’t taken him seriously.

“We only count real organizations as hate groups,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremists online and off. Valizadeh’s rhetoric has all the markings of hate speech, she said; but at the end of the day, “he’s a guy with a blog.”

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Unfortunately for Beirich and others like her, the line between “real” movements and mere Internet grumbling is becoming increasingly hard to see. For one thing, the Internet makes it virtually impossible to quantify groups like Valizadeh’s, which claim to command — but rarely produce — untold hordes of followers. Much like Anonymous, with whom Valizadeh has sparred, and Gamergate, with whom he’s sympathized, the “neomasculines” could hypothetically number in the tens of thousands … or consist of a few hundred keyboard warriors with a legion of sock puppets.

Valizadeh seems to fall in the latter camp: The last time he attempted something like Saturday’s canceled meet-up — a well-publicized, eight-city lecture series last summer  — his largest crowd maxed out at 77 in New York City.

And while his flagship website, Return of Kings, is well-trafficked — averaging slightly less than 2 million views per month, according to Similar Web — that number is not necessarily indicative of the size of Valizadeh’s following. On both Twitter and Facebook, Return of Kings has fewer than 13,000 followers. The site’s accompanying forums have registered 19,600 accounts, but half have never posted.

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Nevertheless, giving the impression that the “movement” is massive — or that it is a coherent movement at all — has immeasurable benefits for Valizadeh and Co. For one thing, it foments outrage proportional to the false front (thousands of pro-rape women-haters are massing in public squares around the world), but disproportional to what is actually happening (a handful of readers of a misogynist blog grabbing beers and grumbling). That lends critical credibility to Valizadeh’s claim that men like him are persecuted by a culture of feminist shrills. It also draws more eyeballs to Return of Kings, where he hopes to sell new books and find new converts.

“When extremists draw attention to themselves, it artificially increases their numbers,” said Thomas Holt, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University who studies fringe online groups. “These communities see a bump as people read the news and check it out. … And while we don’t know know how acceptance of belief happens online, exposure definitely matters.”

Valizadeh and his followers are certainly aware of that fact: In the past 72 hours, the blogger has bragged repeatedly about the growing traffic to his blog and the spiking number of Google searches for his name. On his forum, one adherent advocated more media participation: “Even negative publicity gets more men to join the cause,” he claimed.

But most telling, perhaps, is a Wednesday tweet sent by the prominent manosphere blogger behind “The Rational Male”: “ ‘Tribe’ meetings are more about inciting the protests for Roosh’s notoriety,” he complained, “than any real connections among men.”

While that suggests that neomasculines are far from gathering allies together in a city near you, it still concerns analysts like Beirich, who sees a growing trend toward virtualization among U.S. hate groups. More and more organizations are moving online, she said, and maintaining no trace in the physical world. Without protests, there can be no counter-protests. Without clear leaders, there can be no arrests or lawsuits.

“We are way concerned with hate groups operating online, much like we are with Islamic extremists,” Beirich said. “There’s always this potential for online radicalization.”

In the case of Valizadeh and the great global meet-up, the media only seems to have helped: For a brief period Wednesday, so many new people were on Return of Kings that the site actually crashed.