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Shining a Light on the So-Called “Dark Web”

The term—once reserved for unindexed parts of the internet—has now taken on a second life as shorthand for the naughty parts of online existence. It’s not as scary as it sounds.

A laptop surrounded by a spider web Ringer illustration

When a word or phrase suddenly and (sometimes) unexpectedly hits our collective consciousness, you cannot stop hearing or reading it. Lexicon is The Ringer’s running guide to collecting and defining these terms, and sometimes tracing their origins. It’s a never-ending pursuit, but one we’re happy to entertain.

This week, New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss described what she called the “intellectual dark web,” a community of podcasters, YouTube vloggers, and other media stars with a right-wing slant. Weiss argued that celebrities like interviewer Joe Rogan and men’s self-help author Jordan Peterson, who command vast audiences and have made fortunes doing so, are exiled from the mainstream and marooned on a daring “dark web” of their own making.

There is a real “dark web,” but it bears little resemblance to the platforms media figures like Peterson and Rogan use. Peterson has gained a large portion of his following on YouTube, while Rogan operates a successful podcast, which is available on iTunes, Spotify, and most other major streaming and podcast services. While they rose to fame on social media platforms rather than through television or legacy media careers, the loose group Weiss classifies as the “intellectual dark web” is very much a product of and a part of the regular old internet. These figures regularly irk and disturb some left-leaning members of the media with their antics. In particular, some decisions to view white supremacist and misogynistic arguments as worthy of debate has provoked disgust. But their general personas are not radical. If anything, they’re reminiscent of dads who just got into Ayn Rand.

The actual dark web, also referred to as the “deep web,” is a nook of the web that is not accessible by using standard search engines like Google or Bing, as its sites are not indexed. Instead, one must use a program to open specific websites (the most popular program is Tor, the Onion Router). The servers for these websites are cloaked with cryptography, making it more difficult to discover who runs them.

The United States Naval Research Laboratory originally released an early version of Tor with the aim of helping U.S. operatives and dissidents conceal their identities in repressive countries, and the software has been used in that way. Some Chinese dissidents use the “dark web” to hold online discussions as a workaround to the country’s restrictive internet policies. However, the “dark web” activity that has gained the most attention and helped color popular perception has been criminal in nature. The most infamous dark web destination, the Silk Road, was a digital market often used to sell and purchase illegal substances. Its demise myth-busted the idea that the dark web was impenetrable, as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were able to seize the website, which led to the conviction of its founder, Ross Ulbricht.

“Dark web” spaces have developed a reputation for the unsavory—shadowy enclaves for child-pornography swapping, assassin markets, terrorist chatter—but it is important to remember that the vast majority of criminal and immoral internet destinations are not on the dark web. “The number of people visiting the dark web is a fraction of overall Tor users, the majority of whom are likely just using it to protect their regular browsing habits. Not only are dark web visitors a drop in the bucket of Tor users, they are a spec of dust in the galaxy of total Internet users,” Wired writer Joseph Cox explained in 2015. Tor cofounder Roger Dingledine broke down how uncommon it is for people to use the browser to access the “dark web” in 2017, noting that only 3 percent of Tor users chose to use the service to access unindexed websites. The majority of users chose Tor as a way to protect their anonymity, as the software makes it harder to track online behavior. While the dark web has been the site of crime, it is not a stronghold; it is too obscure and little-used to be anything beyond niche. Dingledine spoke bluntly about how little-known and infrequently visited the “dark web” actually is. “There is basically no dark web. It doesn’t exist,” he told an audience at the Las Vegas hacking conference DEFCON. “It’s only a very few webpages.”

By invoking the specter of the unknown in discussing mainstream celebrities, Weiss grants these figures of her “intellectual dark web” a reputation for being cast into obscurity that does not track with their level of prominence. She also infuses these figures with an outlaw mystique, implying that they are saying things that they could not otherwise say by circumventing legacy media. Weiss is not the only person who has grabbed onto the idea of a “dark web” as a murky underbelly of the digital world. The Showtime documentary series “Dark Net” uses the phrase as shorthand for the naughty and nefarious parts of online life, from camgirls to facial-recognition technology. Writer and journalist Jamie Bartlett’s 2014 book The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld also bent the meaning of the phrase to include fringe online communities, including self-harm groups and transhumanists. In this way, its use has expanded to accommodate the internet’s criminal and renegade corners, even if they’re tucked into a private Facebook group or a easily Googleable porn website.

The idea of the dark web has always been more potent than the actual dark web—an online bogeyman playground for the subversive and taboo in theory, but a little-used, difficult-to-navigate scrapyard in practice. While the “dark web” was once shorthand for out-of-bounds behavior, Weiss’s cynical use of the term sheds light on how inconsequential the concept now is. While the activities of people who root around in the darkest pockets of the internet are morbidly attention-grabbing, there’s no need to fear or admire Weiss’s “dark web” figures for their subversiveness. Their activity is well-lit, legal, and far from risky. Beneath the renegade surface, they represent some of the most banal parts of internet culture.