Freedom of speech vs spewing out misinformation

Some final thoughts on Pete Evans, & why giving a platform to QAnon is a bad idea.

Edit: Since I wrote this piece, Art Green and I have had some really nice back and forth emails about things raised in my piece. He’s great some stuff about QAnon and seems open to

Hey, you made it to the weekend. Congratulations!

A few days ago, I sent out a newsletter called “Influencer Culture Should Be Burnt To The Ground.”

Some people asked me if I really meant it.

To answer those people: Yes, I did.

A few cheeky souls also asked “But you’re an influencer too?!” — to which I said “of course anyone with a platform is an influencer!

But don’t play coy. You know what I am talking about:

Influencer culture.

Where being an influencer is a full time job. Where you’re paid to hawk products. Where broadly speaking, you’ve been given a platform because you’re famous for being famous. The kinds of people discussed in this wonderful Wired piece, “Could the Coronavirus Kill Influencer Culture?

That’s what I’m referring to.

With that in mind, I was really encouraged by your comments, which made me feel like sanity is still an option in 2020. That was a good feeling. I am going to publish some of your comments at the end of this piece.


But right now, I want to look back at influencer Art Green’s apology — and what came after.

The timeline was simple: Last week, Art and Matilda had celebrity chef Pete Evans on their podcast, where the chef shared his infinite wisdom on COVID-19, including “I think it’s a hoax. I think this whole f**king thing is a hoax.

Chef Pete went unchallenged as he ranted and raved — and when the podcast was released, people called it out. And so Art and Matilda took the podcast down.

And then they posted an “apology”, which read in part:

“While we feel Pete offers some great insight into nutrition*, we have found a large amount of feedback from the public that some of his other opinions and views on health have the potential to cause harm […] We have made the decision to remove the podcast.”

(*debatable, if you’re a baby)

Before this, I’d reached out to Art, sending him some background on QAnon and conspiracy culture, and was encouraged when he said he’d take a look at the pieces I’d sent.

It was my hope that he’d see how the chef’s points on the podcast played into a damaging and utterly loony narrative documented on podcasts like QAnon Anonymous.

I also wanted to communicate that the “FREE SPEECH! FREE SPEECH! FREE SPEECH!” argument doesn’t always trump handing a megaphone to a village idiot.

So I was really happy Art had kinda listened, taken down the podcast, and posted an apology.

But then I went back and looked at that apology — because I hate myself — and I started to notice the comments under it.

What I saw was Art replying and agreeing with those who said he’d done the wrong thing by taking it down.

Here was a man openly disagreeing with his own apology.

He still doesn’t get it. This isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about pandering to a conspiracy narrative that Mr Green hasn’t even begun to grasp. It’s not being “open-minded” or “showing two sides of an argument” — it’s about being wilfully ignorant.

The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance broke down how the QAnon theory works — and it’s this stuff I desperately want Art — and other influencers — to clock:

QAnon is a mass rejection of reason and Enlightenment values.

In the face of inconvenient facts, it has the ambiguity and adaptability to sustain a movement of this kind over time. For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it.

It’s not going anywhere. In QAnon, we are witnessing the birth of a new religion.

Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming. They’ll wait as long as they must for deliverance.

So yeah — I’m annoyed at the backtracking. I even went on the radio to grumble about it.

I’m annoyed at influencer culture, and how it plays into all the bullshit we don’t need right now.

I feel sad New Zealand role models are going down this rabbit hole, under that lazy, misleading pretence of “Just Asking Questions.

And I don’t buy the cop-out of “we’re all adults and can make informed decisions, so say what you want.

That isn’t an excuse for those with a platform to blatantly spout and share bullshit.

Because where does that end?

I guess it ends with the orange man himself believing it, too.

Donald Trump regularly ups QAnon followers on twitter. Vox has documented plenty of this behaviour:

“On December 27 [2019] alone, [Trump] posted about 20 tweets from accounts that have promoted QAnon, including at least one from an account that also promoted the equally ludicrous Pizzagate conspiracy theory about Democrats running a sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC, pizzeria.”

And of course, then Trump’s followers believe that stuff, too. The ones who voted for him last time, and may well vote for him again come November. Hell, we even have some of them here, in Aotearoa.

I guess it all comes back to a central question: Why?

Why have we abandoned logic and become so unhinged — drifting around in this ocean of utter bullshit? It’s got to the point where it’s embarrassing. It’s like a bad joke.

This piece offers some clues: The psychology of misinformation: Why we’re vulnerable.

In it, First Draft’s Tommy Shane writes: “The psychology of misinformation — the mental shortcuts, confusions, and illusions that encourage us to believe things that aren’t true — can tell us a lot about how to prevent its harmful effects. Our psychology is what affects whether corrections work, what we should teach in media literacy courses, and why we’re vulnerable to misinformation in the first place. It’s also a fascinating insight into the human brain.”

Insight into the brains of Pete Evans, Alex Jones and Donald Trump.

One thing that leads these people into misinformation is something called “bullshit receptivity” - something I’ve been reflecting on a lot over the last week.

Bullshit receptivity is about how receptive you are to information that has little interest in the truth; a meaningless cliche, for example.

Bullshit is different from a lie, which intentionally contradicts the truth.

Pennycook and Rand use the concept of bullshit receptivity to examine susceptibility to false news headlines.

They found that the more likely we are to accept a pseudo-profound sentence (i.e., bullshit) such as, “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty,” the more susceptible we are to false news headlines.

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As far as bullshit receptivity goes, I won’t be writing any more about Art and Matilda Green, or others that work in the “wellness” space.

Believe it or not, I am not here to bully them — I just want them (and other influencers) to realise that as public figures with a relatively large audience, they can’t just worm their way out of this stuff when they feel slightly confronted.

Before I wrote this newsletter, I reached out to Art one last time:

Hey man. I’m sure you’re pretty sick of hearing people telling you off for the Pete Evans thing — and I won’t go on at length here — but it’s super disappointing after seeing your apology, that you’re just agreeing with people saying you’ve been unfairly treated etc and bowed to pressure. I’m worry you’re just gonna do what Evans does, and become increasingly dismissive of “the media” and act as a sort of martyr, because people called Evans out. I hope you get a chance to read that Q piece in the Atlantic, to get an idea of where this thinking is coming from.

I finished with this:

My message to Art Green sits on “Seen.


Edit: 18 July, 2020 - Art Green has since been in touch, and we’ve had some fairly constructive back and forth emails. He read my pieces, and did some further reading on QAnon. From talking to him, he appears to clock the danger and misinformation present in these theories. Curious to see where he takes his podcast from there. I also note one of his Instagram posts in regards to the podcast (including the apology, and therefore the comments under it, have been deleted.


As I said earlier, I wanted to finish with some feedback you gave after my last piece.

I really appreciated reading your comments, and it made me feel some hope in this cesspit of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation we’re living in.

Thank you.

And thanks for telling people about Webworm, and for taking out subscriptions. By subscribing, you are directly supporting the work I do. Special subscription rates are still available ahead of my July 15 launch. Only do this if it causes you no financial hardship. Free newsletters will keep on coming, regardless.


Your feedback. Thankyou.

John:

I wish I had tuned in earlier. Part of my lock-down involved engaging with friends — some of them now ex — who were parroting this terrible QAnon narrative.

It’s as if they finally had the time to sit down and become radicalised by all this bullshit.

It’s a never ending labyrinth of lunacy which, as you have pointed out, is impossible to argue with. Like drunk infants.

It could be quite exhausting, and I was fearing that I was becoming a little mad myself, like I was on some kind of unfashionable inquisition to insist on the truth.

In the end, Evans, Icke, Paltrow and that old English coot Dr Vernon, appear to be little more than greedy parasites on a relentless search for more followers, and therefore more dupes who will buy their shit.

Elfin:

I’ve always followed Pete, because I think he raises some very good points on nutrition and health — which I agree the medical system hasn’t put too much emphasis on.

But I am becoming more and more convinced Pete has his own agenda now. His feed is literally littered with “Wow that seems odd, I’ll repost” or “This seems weird, I’ll repost.”

I totally agree with you when people should be allowed free speech, but Pete in particular seems to be revelling in causing confusion and fear.

Marissa:

After the 2016 [USA] election, which blindsided me in the way it did many of my fellow Americans, I was left with the undeniable fact that I just didn’t fucking understand a huge swath of my countrymen. And worse yet, I felt that I couldn’t trust them.  

It’s a terrible feeling, because we are all stuck here together, one nation under god and all that jazz. What the wilfully ignorant or misinformed or simply uncaring do affects us all. That’s the case in elections. And it’s the case in a pandemic.

This virus and its cavalier deniers have made me feel that same feeling – the “oh shit, I’m stuck here with these people” feeling.

Now, as then, I am not coming into direct contact with many of them. But everything I read and all the stats tell me they’re out there. That makes it even scarier, as if the America I live in is totally illusory.

I’m mostly sorry that you’re having to stomach this same kind of wilful ignorance and “basic-ness” in New Zealand. But there is the tiniest part of me is glad that it’s not a solely American problem.

Sara:

In neighbouring Germany, there are two celebrities going full QAnon.

One is a singer who has been flirting with right-wing extremist views for several years now.

The other is a vegan chef — or rather a guy who wrote several vegan cookbooks to market his merchandise, and is not even vegan. A couple of weeks into lockdown he started spreading QAnon theories: COVID, child abuse in bunkers and Soros.

He got suspended from Facebook, Twitter and Insta, so he started several telegram channels and has now 80k followers.

He calls democrats fascists, and fascists democrats. He claims Germany is still oppressed by the US and the German deep state is preparing to vaccinate and chip its citizens aaaaaaand only Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping might save Germany.

He calls on his fellow ‘democrats’ to arm themselves and get ready for civil war - or the apocalypse.

[Note: If you want to read about what is going on with misinformation in Germany, this piece is great - and this paragraph really stood out to me:

We must take a clear stand against conspiracy theories and speak out against movements which use toxic propaganda to prey upon our communities. We Roma have survived slavery, famine, the Holocaust and several plagues. It is our responsibility to share the facts about COVID-19 with our minority communities and to confront misinformation whenever it appears.

Oh, and the German singer mentioned by Sara is Xavier Naidoo, who got very passionate about very non-existent “Adrenochrome-Children”. If you haven’t gone down that hellish rabbit hole, Josie Adams has an excellent summary here.

And yes: chances are celebrity chef Evans is very convinced Adrenochrome-Children are real, too]

Igor:

I think deep-down people are scared. So many uncertainties in the world, a world that's so much broader because of the internet.

Religion is too quaint now to quiet racing minds, so people cling to these new convoluted crazy ideas to try to make sense of the world.

All anyone needs to do now is “their own research”. Which just means googling.

Lucy:

My partner works for a telecommunications company and when they were rolling out 5G there were people who worked for the company who were like “I can't support the 5G rollout, I believe it affects people’s brainwaves.”

How can you work for a phone company and still believe the conspiracy?

Abby:

So, being American I had no idea who this Chef Pete Evan’s was, so I went to his insta and started reading the comments.

SO MANY UNHINGED PEOPLE.

It was so upsetting that I started tearing up. How are we ever going to get past this pandemic if there are so many people who have lost their damn minds?

I am absolutely terrified for our future.


“I am absolutely terrified for our future.”

Me too, Abby. Me too.