Doppelganger - a Trip into the Mirror World

5 Takeaways from Naomi Klein’s Book

March 30, 2023

book cover

In Doppelganger, Naomi Klein describes two overlapping plot developments: 1) liberal icon Naomi Wolf becomes a leading champion of conspiracy theories, and 2) Klein’s psychic impacts of being confused with another person, worse, a person she disagrees with and who makes her look bad. Throughout the book, Klein reflects on media technology and political identity. It’s a great read, and I’m sharing five takeaways.

1. Cultural History of the Doppelganger

Klein draws from a long cultural history of replicas and doubles, including Hannah Arendt, Charlie Chapin, Celtic legends, Aimé Césaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Walter Benjamin. She also writes about Dostoyevsky and the movie The Double, which was one of my 2014 favorites.

Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock shows how doppelgangers threaten our “desire for uniqueness” and, yet, feed into “powerful cravings to see one’s self reflected in another person.” We want to be individuals and also part of something bigger.

Racism, antisemitism, and other forms of discrimination create doppelgangers. “This is how prejudice works. The person holding it unconsciously creates a double of every person who is part of the despised group… whatever identity you have fashioned for yourself… for the hater you will always stand in as a representative of your despised group.” In 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois described how this doubling created a double consciousness and a feeling of two-ness.

2. Our Digital Doppelganger

Over the decades, stable jobs have largely disappeared, and our digital personas have taken an outsized role in our financial prospects and mediating our social relationships. Some people discount the importance of these online interactions as not “real life.” However, people increasingly rely on digital forums to get their news, shaping their political beliefs and emotional outlook and impacting their offline behavior. In addition, many people’s personal online brand is essential to their business and career. Most people aren’t getting rich off their digital persona, but many hope their digital self will one day lead to success, power, and accolades.

While people place big aspirations on our digital lives, managing our digital doppelgangers is precarious. Rather than working with a union or collective bargaining, people rely on individualism and standing out for online success.

While encouraging individualism, digital platforms paradoxically collapse our uniqueness. With varying levels of uniformity, everyone on social media uses the pre-assigned variations of typefaces, length, and structure of photographs and text. Crowd-sourced algorithms shape what we see, and features like autocomplete shape what we write. And stand out too much or say the wrong thing, it can come crashing down.

Our digital lives also amplify polarizing differences among us. Naomi Wolf was kicked off Twitter for spreading misinformation, and many people think removal solved the problem. But unbeknownst to them, she joined a copycat site and “has nearly 200,000 followers there, more than on Twitter before she got booted.” The Twitter replica is one of many entities that Klein refers to as the Mirror World.

3. Destroying Language Through Mimicry

A doppelganger can be a form of “brand dilution” — where a known entity becomes confused with a knock-off or approximation that the original entity can’t control. The bad actors of the Mirror World do this with language as well.

Take “Fake News” as an example. Communication scholars describe fake news as manufactured propaganda designed to look like real news but entirely made up. (It’s a news doppelganger.) Trump effectively deployed this propaganda technique and then started criticizing others as fake news, diluting and changing the meaning of the term. By mirroring the language of their critics, the Mirror World “farcicalizes everything, trivializes everything, superficializes everything.”

The doppelganger is “the ultimate tool of projection and absolution… flipped on its head, in their telling, it was actually vaccinated people were the selfish ones sacrificing the vulnerable, and who were the spreaders and shedders.”

Or consider how Naomi Wolf frequently appropriates Black liberation movement analogies. “Wolf was brashly putting herself in the same league as the Greensboro Four, as well as Rosa Parks… ” By claiming she is similar to famous movement leaders, Wolf is positioning her brand as a heroic icon while discounting the significance of social movements for collective liberation.

But it’s not just the reactionary Mirror World that mimics language to meaninglessness. Recall Greta Thunberg’s criticism of the 2021 climate summit: “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words, words that sound great but so far has led to no action.” Klein urges us to stand up to the true meaning of our language — fully connected to context and paired with action.

4. Mimicking to Co-opt

Klein highlights how bad actors “get the facts wrong but often get the feelings right.” I am reminded of how advertisers use our feelings to manipulate us into buying products; they speak to our desire to connect to nature to sell us petroleum-powered cars or our thirst to sell us dehydrating sodas. They speak to real feelings but then lead us to a false solution. And just like the advertisers, Klein shows how most leading conspiracy theorists are making money from these misdirections.

Klein points to surveillance as an example. For good reason, people are increasingly fearful and outraged over the omnipresence of digital surveillance. And I agree — it’s one of the reasons I advocated for privacy protections on county body cameras and surveillance equipment. But the Mirror World twists this problem for right-wing purposes and falsely argues that the vaccine has microchips to track you and that avoiding the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from digital surveillance — and don’t forget to buy their product and, of course, like/subscribe/follow them.

5. Heightening Uncertainty and Fear

There are competing visions for how we create a good life. Do we work together for a future where everyone has opportunity and safety? Or is it “everyone for themselves — a world of atomized individuals climbing over one another to get an edge in newly deregulated, precarious job markets”?

The less people believe that collective uplift is possible, the more likely they will turn to self-centered paths to success. The doppelganger effect feeds into this. Managing our digital self-branding heightens our sense of individualism. The Mirror World’s mockery of language encourages cynicism and a retreat from civic engagement. The Mirror World misdirects our real fears towards individualized solutions.

The more fear and out-of-control someone feels, the more likely they will choose an individualized solution. And the Mirror World amplifies those feelings of panic: “Society is crashing, and you as an individual (not a member of a society) need to prepare to toughen up.”

The crisis feeds itself. The more fear people have, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories. “Conspiracies have always swirled in times of crisis — but never before have they been a booming industry in their own right.”