The conspiratorial delusion - Digital Threat Digest
PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.
On Saturday night, Channel 4’s Dispatches aired an investigation into Russell Brand, presenting allegations of sexual and emotional abuse towards multiple women between 2006 and 2013. The day before the investigation was published, Brand uploaded a video to his social media refuting the allegations, referring to the investigation as a “concerted media attack… to control these kinds of spaces and these kinds of voices… for getting too close to the truth”. This response was immediately amplified by a cadre of alt-right and alt-left personalities referencing a media conspiracy which uses accusations of sexual violence to ‘censor’ anti-establishment voices, citing the examples of Julian Assange, Elon Musk, and Andrew Tate.
The Dispatches documentary tracks Brand’s life and career, portraying him as a narcissist obsessed with his own image and fame. In 2013 after finding success in Hollywood, Brand started building his online personality, moving into political commentary and becoming the face of the radical left. Initially he was seen as a ‘cool’ voice in politics, even interviewing the Labour Party leader ahead of the 2015 UK General Election. However, over time his content and observations have become increasingly conspiratorial – sharing what he calls ‘true news’ – including anti-vaccine and pro-Russia narratives.
Conspiracy theories can also be viewed as a form of narcissism, a product of an ideology of individualism which pits personal freedom against the state and its ‘structures of control’. Rather than accepting the world’s chaotic nature, conspiracy theorists see themselves as having attained a heightened analytical awareness allowing them to form connections which expose hidden systems of power – and thus evade having to assume personal responsibility. While conspiracists have always existed within extreme subsections of society, social media has placed a spotlight on these contrarian personalities, algorithmically placing them at the top of our feeds and perpetuating a cycle of distrust and confusion. This creates online echo chambers which push ordinary celebrity fans and social media users further down the rabbit hole of radicalisation.
On the night the investigation was made public, Brand performed at a theatre in North London where an army of loyal supporters cheered him on. While most conspiracies are relatively harmless, when they centre on serious real-world matters such as sexual violence the issues become trivialised, weaponised into just another example of the establishment’s instruments of control. As such, they undermine the experiences of the victims, turning them into pawns of the ‘culture wars’ and obscuring the reality of the situation – serious criminal allegations against an individual who abused his position of power.
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