“Of course the news makes us anxious,” Russell Brand says. “I think you could possibly contest that that’s its primary function. Beyond giving you information about world events.”
In this inconceivably complex world with its webs of deceit and hypocrisy, Brand has rebranded.
The 46-year-old stand-up comedian, actor and author has long had libertarian leanings but has now metamorphosed into a guru for those disenfranchised by what they see as the shady systems that steer the planet and a complicit mainstream media.
On YouTube, Brand posts daily videos pontificating on, if not the big issue of the day, the big issue he says you’re not being told about. Counter narratives, threats to freedom. The devilish duplicity of government and corporate leaders.
A video titled ‘The Truth Is Coming Out’ asks why the US Food and Drug Administration said it would take 75 years to process and publish a report on the Pfizer vaccine. Another, ‘You Couldn’t Make This Sh*t Up’, asks if there are other motivations behind calls for military escalation in Ukraine, pointing to members of Congress who recently purchased shares in weapons-manufacturers.
Brand’s popularity has exploded in recent weeks. Each video now draws upward of one million views, and his channel boasts 5.3 million subscribers. He has won devotees of all political stripes and alienated plenty of people too. He’s a hero or villain depending on how much you agree with what he says, labelled ‘the Mad Hatter of conspiracy theories’ by the so-called mainstream media.
Like most broadcast media, Brand’s videos run with advertising and are optimised for clicks, shares and audience interests. And the audience Brand has built would be the envy of most media organisations. Currents are shifting. Doesn’t that mean he is now the mainstream?
“Maybe the mainstream media, we could say, is a nexus of intersecting interests that are abiding by the same implicit and sometimes explicit codes; where there are ownership models that are possibly biased and influence the nature of their reporting,” he answers.
“This is stuff that’s been spoken about from Chomsky onwards, but has become – oddly, given the availability of information – more concentrated.
“I suppose it’s part of, at bare minimum, a triumvirate of establishment power: the media, government, big business.”
So how would he fix it?
“I don’t know, is the short answer.”
The longer answer takes in fixing society in its entirety. “Decentralisation, devolution, where possible. What I mean by that is more assemblies, more juries, more control over your own workplaces, schools, hospitals and communities.
“In one word: democracy. Actual democracy, not democracy on a blade of fear and desire.
“Democracy where you look at the full gamut of possibilities of the ways that we might live. Accepting that tradition has to be observed at the same time as progressivism, where some people want to raise their children gender neutral and other people want to raise their kids double Orthodox, and both of those perspectives are going to have to be respected, otherwise we’re going to live in continual tension.
“I feel like we need to bring spirituality to the forefront of our politics. What I mean by spirituality is what I would call Sesame Street values: kindness, service, community. The values and morals our grandparents had.”
Brand is a talented communicator. He’s always had a way with words, which either delight and enlighten or flummox you into submission.
Google his name and this is top of the suggested queries that comes up: ‘Is Russell Brand intelligent?’
In every video he is at pains to say he doesn’t have all the answers, instead we’re encouraged to ask questions. Is that his definition of intelligence? Knowing that he doesn’t know everything?
“No, my definition of intelligence is the definition of intelligence, which is the ability to observe patterns. David Beckham is intelligent because he knows how to spot patterns. Stephen Hawking is intelligent because he knows how to spot patterns. Piers Morgan is intelligent because he knows how to spot patterns.
“This is necessary for our species to evolve. If you can recognise patterns, whether it’s migratory behaviours of quarry, the movement of currents or the sun across the sky, you will be at an advantage and your genes will survive. Now, in evolved, advanced primates such as us, intelligence can become more refined: linguistic, mathematical, geopolitical.
“That is a definition of intelligence that I enjoy because if you have the basic skillset of being able to observe patterns, it doesn’t allow you to classify certain types of information as valuable and others as not valuable. Although context is everything.”
Another definition for intelligence would be “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”, according to the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. Implicit in this is understanding that some information is objectively more valuable than other information.
In a vaccine-related video uploaded the day before we speak, he said: “Follow your heart, follow your intelligence, follow whatever information appeals to you.” That could act as a signpost directing viewers from healthy scepticism to confirmation bias and onwards down a slippery slope to conspiracy.
The idea of reasonable readers and perfect information relies on everyone knowing everything and making up their own mind. That’s not the reality, especially in YouTube’s world of recommendations, echo chambers and rabbit holes.
There has been increasing criticism of Brand’s content. The alarmist titles and presentation that don’t necessarily reflect all available information. A video on censorship and, ironically, misinformation talks about “the knee-jerk condemnation of Russian cultural artefacts”, featuring a Cardiff orchestra who pulled Tchaikovsky pieces from a concert.
Brand sees this as “reminiscent of the 1940s where we’re smashing up Italian ice cream shops” but doesn’t present their side of the story. The programme contained two military themed pieces that were withdrawn to respect a member of the orchestra who had family directly involved in the Ukraine situation. That doesn’t get a mention in Brand’s video. And, to be fair, plenty of other media also covered this story without asking the orchestra for the reasons behind their decision.
A statement from the orchestra read: “We have no plans to change our summer and autumn programmes which contain pieces by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakoff… this is a one-off decision made with the best of intentions.”
This is a minor moment in this one video, let alone in the context of what’s happening in Ukraine, but it illustrates that facts can be cherry-picked, accidentally or not, to make a point. Things can be partly true without being entirely true. Mixing some facts in with conjecture doesn’t always equal complete truth.
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Presenting a balance of evidence is hard, but Brand’s videos – with their clickbait headlines – are reminiscent of the worst habits of the mainstream media, which damaged their reputation in the first place.
Brand had been the subject of not one but three opinion columns from the Independent in the two days before we spoke. He responded in a video called ‘My Response’ decrying the title’s Saudi shareholders.
Does Brand think that was establishment collusion at play or just different commissioning desks not talking to each other?
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
Speaking from experience, it’s more likely colleagues not communicating and looking at the analytics, rather than orders from above to take you down.
“It’s probably just a coalescent set of interests that always head in that direction,” he says. “Like if your sponsors all come from a particular place, the ad revenue is all driven by data capturing from the readers, you don’t need to do that.”
“It’s like, once someone’s playing for Liverpool, you don’t have to tell them not to score a goal for Everton!”
. But sticking to the football analogy, Brand has a squad of defenders. The latest signing is Elon Musk who told his almost 80 million followers:
“With so many mainstream media companies saying @rustyrockets is crazy/dangerous, I watched some of his videos. Ironically, he seemed more balanced & insightful than those condemning him!
“The groupthink among major media companies is more troubling. There should be more dissent.”
Those comments were welcome. “As Elon Musk kindly observed,” Brand says, “I’m being accused of being radical and dangerous. You can look into my eyes and see if you think I’m telling you the truth.”
And Brand is completely genuine. But truth is complicated.
That’s why he encourages people to ask questions. But if we’ve to be distrustful of the established establishment, where do we find answers?
“Obviously it would depend on the question, hugely. I wouldn’t say this is as simple as, ‘why don’t you look for a new news source?’
“Think about how the way you live today is connected to what you evolved for. Because when you came out of your mother, that infant was expecting to be living in a hunter-gatherer tribal society. Everything that’s happened to it since has been a jarring shock. And the psychological consequences you are experiencing are the result of that.
“This body and this consciousness evolved to survive in certain conditions for hundreds of thousands of years. We lived in tribal communities that broadly speaking, as best as I understand it, were – to a degree – democratically run. Everyone wasn’t sitting around threading daisies through their hair, there was a lot of problems, people were doing human sacrifices and flinging people off pyramids and all sorts of stuff. But we recognise that our identity as individuals, while sacred and important, intersects meaningfully with our identity as a member of a community.
“You can map that onto communities of 30 or 150 people. When you map it onto communities of 60 million or 300 million there starts to be a little bit of tension. Some of the cultural issues would not be so spiky if people didn’t think we all have to be homogenised into one unit.”
I tell Brand that I agree with what he says in some videos but I disagree with others. So what’s a constructive way to disagree with someone who has different opinions?
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“I reckon just to communicate. Sometimes, like anybody, I get attached to my opinion and my view, and I can get defensive or argumentative about it. But the truth is, I don’t know anything.
“I do videos all the time, I go, ‘yeah, I said that – that weren’t right’. It’s hard enough to just be in a family and to look after the dog properly. I don’t think I know the answer to complex geopolitical issues with rich and contradictory and complex histories.
“We should communicate with one another from a position of good faith, accepting that other people might know stuff that we don’t know, and hopefully vice versa.”
How does he decide what to talk about each day?
“I have a team of people and we just talk about what’s in the news,” he says, explaining that the team has differing political views – “we don’t agree on some pretty fundamental things” – and that content is aimed at a growing audience based in the US.”
When did America start awakening to his YouTube channel?
“I don’t know. But I try to keep things as universal as possible.”
Planning a US tour any time?
“Not planning but I might do one. A friend of mine, who also is married into the royal family, said that other than the Queen of England, I was the most English person she knew. So, like, I belong here.
“I’ve got kids and dogs and cats and stuff. I like it here. It’s hard enough going to Hull or Plymouth or Bristol… That bloody great big, sprawling, blocky continent. I’m sure I will go.”
Brand is currently part-way through a UK tour, named 33 – the age Brand didn’t think he’d live past. It begins with the audience sharing some of the mad ways they coped with lockdown before Brand retraces the already surreal-seeming period of our history, taking at least one positive from it: “You now know society can be radically reorganised overnight. You can’t say it can’t any more. It can. We’ve all just seen it.”
So after two years of nobody going out, what’s the energy like in the room?
“Magnificent. There is a new kind of seriousness and urgency. People are looking for more than entertainment.
“The reason I’m doing a tour is because I want to go to Scarborough, I want to be in Glasgow and Plymouth and Stockton-on-Tees. I like the people in this country. I like seeing their faces. I don’t like the continual attempts to divide people around whatever single divisive issue it is that day – Brexit. ‘Oh people that voted Brexit, they’re all morons up north and they don’t understand.’ I don’t trust that at all.
“Being with people gives me a great deal of faith and hope in people. Even though, let’s face it, there’s enough to get desperate and despairing about, it’s pivotal and necessary that we come together, literally, and ideologically.”
For those who wish to stay at the end of the show, Brand leads a meditation session. “I do put quite a lot of effort into remaining calm. It’s strange for us to think about stuff like that. But we accept that everyone goes to bed and dreams all night, we accept that the moon has a consistent influence on tides and menstruation.”
The show starts at 6pm. “Punishingly early,” he says. “And it goes on so late – punishingly late. Make sure you put in that it’s punishing.”
In the days before the interview I tried to guess what Brand’s next video would be each day. I was thinking about his tour of regional theatres when news of the theatre bombing in Mariupol came through. I thought touring similar-sized venues might have prompted him to talk about that. I was disappointed when he didn’t and instead the next video was about neo-Nazi factions in the Ukrainian army.
Why does he feel like he always has to go for the counter narrative? Is sometimes the real narrative not compelling enough?
“You said ‘real narrative’. I’ll remind you what Chomsky said to Andrew Marr when Andrew Marr said, no one’s told me what to say: ‘What I’m telling you is that if you didn’t agree with what they wanted you to agree with, you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair’. Often we don’t even know. We just unconsciously say, ‘real narrative’.
“That’s an ideological thing and not an accusation, by the way. But what I will say is when we’re selecting the content, we don’t go: ‘What’s on the news?’ – because that’s on the news.
“It’s not to negate or to say ‘that’s just not true’. Because if there’s been a pile-up on the M25, there’s been a pile up on the M25. If there’s been some terrible devastation in a war zone, there’s been terrible devastation in a war zone. What else might be relevant in the way we discuss these things?”
What is the consequence of only consuming counter narratives? Who’s to say if Brand’s audience is also watching Clive Myrie on News at Ten as a counterpoint, or launching headfirst into the darker corners of the internet where debate grows distant from the facts.
“Based on what I read in the comments they come from a wide and varied background with a wide and varied set of interests, probably like people that are watching a football match, or a makeup tutorial, or anything,” he says.”If you’re not willing to have conversations with people you don’t agree with, who are you going to have conversations with?
“The people that you love most in the world you disagree with all of the time.
“Surely our aim is to get to a point where we operate in good faith. Like, I’m going to love this person and see if we can, through open communication, get somewhere together.”
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