‘The wokeverse’: exploring the culture wars online

“We reject woke ideology. We will never ever surrender to the woke agenda.”

These words were spoken by Florida Governor and Republican politician Ron DeSantis on the campaign trail, but they could just as easily been uttered by his throng of socially conservative supporters.

And speak up, they most certainly do – especially online.

Debates around “woke ideology”, such as the use of gender-neutral language, the validity of intersectionality, and the effectiveness of social justice activism, are hotly discussed on the modern equivalent of the town square. With the rise of the internet, culture wars – referring to the conflicts and disagreements that arise over different values, beliefs, and cultural practices in society – have increasingly moved online.

We can see today’s ideological tensions, therefore, play out in the comments section of trending cultural moments. But what triggers peoples’ sensibilities? What prompts engagement and strong emotional responses, and how is it expressed by participants online?

We’ve designed a method for answering these questions and exploring broader culture wars online. It is a way for brands to get front-row seats to how customers’ expectations of inclusivity are moving.

To illustrate the methodology, we have analysed comments relating to The Last of Us – a conversation centring on the ideological battle about representation in the media. The Last of Us – a popular video game franchise that was recently made into a TV-series –  is the latest subject of the culture wars online. HBO’s series is based on the 2013 video game of the same name and is set 20 years after a fungal pandemic leaves the world in ruins.

As its diverse cast of characters and themes explore topics related to identity and trauma, it has become a lightning rod for social media debates around diversity, representation and political correctness in popular culture.

Here is a deep dive into that ideological battle about representation in the media.

Method to the (socio-cultural) madness

To explore the ideological battle about representation in the media, we analysed 700 social media comments discussing the Last of Us.

To find relevant comments, we began by researching and identifying keywords. They were collected to represent the vocabulary used by both extremes of the cultural war spectrum and included terms like ‘PC’, ‘discrimination’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘snowflake’. We then placed the terms near the Last of Us name or related hashtags in a query.

After building the query and using it to draw a vast data set, we collected 24,600 social media posts in English about the Last of Us in a period of 30 days, encompassing about 1.5% of all conversations about the series.

We then analysed the collected data for common themes and broader audience categories.

Turning data into insights

We see that the ongoing battle about representation in the media and TV is one of its most important battlefields.

The show attracted more critique for its wokeness than positive comments expressing appreciation or approval. Our analysis showed how social conservatives may be seeing ghosts, reading ‘woke’ intent widely because their idea of the status quo is under threat.

Here are some critical voices:

“You are right the woke is oozing out of every orifice and I’ll probably tune out now. It sucks they have to ruin everything.”

“Same here, i have had enough of the woke bs.”

 “F**k this show. What a clear f**king stunt for all the woke critics.”

We see that the conservative opponents primarily criticised:

  • Homosexual relationships depicted in episode three and seven.
  • Strong female characters, particularly in leadership positions (e.g. Ellie,Tess, Kathleen, Maria, Marlene, Riley).
  • One of the characters, Sam, is deaf in the show, which is different from the game.
  • There is Communist propaganda in episode six of the series.

Liberal viewers were, in contrast, annoyed by accusations of ‘wokism’ and refused to be labelled ‘snow flakes’.


Most argued that diversity in a contemporary show shouldn’t be a shock, but the norm. Here are some examples:

“Honestly people believe “woke” is when a character that isn’t a straight white Christian male gets more than a line of dialogue.” 

“people who scream about stuff being apart of an agenda or being “woke” always swear up & down their not bigoted & it’s simply that they want whatever media to “stay true to the source material” but when we take TLOU for example (who stay true to the material) it still gets review bombed & bashed & called woke & other bullshit. it’s obvious that it’s simply racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc”

“Bigots are still convinced that there are only:

Two races: white and “political”
Two genders: Male and “political”
Two hairstyles for women: long and “political”
Two sexualities: straight and “political”
Two body types: normative and “political’”.

We thereby see that the two sides fight a deeply ideological battle about what they consider to be proper representation in the media.

Two broader themes along the conflict emerge:

1. Homophobia takes centre-stage

Criticism of homosexuality was the central issue in the Last of Us online storm and what most often triggered accusations of ‘wokism’ by more conservative viewers.

Their criticism of the show started with episode three. That episode in particular drew criticism from a small but vocal minority of fans who rejected the focus on the show’s LGBTQ+ characters. Many opponents claimed the scene, along with another gay scene in episode 7, were unnecessary to include in the show and that HBO had, in effect, include “LGBT propaganda” and “tricked people” into watching homosexual content.

Comments thereafter focus disproportionately on homosexual characters and plot lines, despite it making up a very small part of the show. Some were apparently frustrated at the deviation from the original 2013 video game while others were simply homophobic.

As some commentators said:

“I hate this forced woke gay shit on every popular media today.”

 “The new #HBO series ‘The last of us’ was good up until the third episode. Why do they have to ruin everything with their #woke bs? There’s hardly anything good out there without some woke angle.”

“Will cancel hbo if they continue the homosexual content on the show the last of us. That life style should not be pushed on us or our kids”.

The last comment highlights the coded language that a segment of critics of the show are using. Unable to openly admit “I did not like watching gay people on TV” – an overtly homophobic reaction that would expose them as bigots –  they seem to be criticising a supposed hidden political agenda instead.

The homophobic backlash over gay storylines shows that homophobia is still a major issue in gaming in the gaming community. A 2019 survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 74% of adults who have played online video games have experienced harassment. 53% of those who experienced harassment were targeted for their identities, and 35% of LGBTQ+ players said they had experienced harassment over their identity. The response from some homophobic fans to the Last of Us also comes nearly a decade after “gamergate,” a far-right online movement against “progressivism” in gaming, built on racism, sexism, homophobia, and misogyny.

2. Men are more triggered by The Last of Us than women

Men are buying into online culture wars much more than women.

This was partly evident by the demographics of the social media data we analysed. We found that men are much more active and dominate the conversation to a greater extent than women. 24% of the comments we analysed were evidently male, 2% female and 72% unknown.

It was also evident from a slew of sexist commentary on the show’s female characters. It’s culturally significant that the Last of Us has its two main characters be female, one also queer, neither designed as male-gaze heroines. This also drew a backlash in the casting.

When the young actress Bella Ramsey was cast as Ellie, the protagonist of the game, a wave of hatred and negativity surged as some felt that Ramsey was not beautiful enough.

We thereby see that the loudest and most visible partisans in these culture battles are aggrieved heterosexual men, insisting that they’re scapegoats in unhinged identity-driven witch hunts and eagerly putting themselves forward as martyrs in ugly confrontations over free speech.

The cultural is now political.

We see thousands discuss tv shows, including The Last of Us, on social media through their lens of cultural sensitivities.

Therefore, brands need to master a new methodology to navigate it.

To find out how brands can use social media data for better business insights, sign up to our newsletter or schedule a chat with us.

By: Louise Alestam

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