AL Andrew Leigh
VB Van Badham
Guest Questions from the audience
VB He describes himself as a democracy enthusiast, and I’m a democracy enthusiast. I think democracy’s great. I think without democracy, people like me never get to go to university. That without democracy, there’s no safety. There’s conscription, there are these Russian kids who currently are on the frontline in an imperialist war. That’s the cost. And democracy requires not only internal vigilance, but the point is participation, and the point is to do as much as you can.
AL Welcome to The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation. A podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.
This week’s episode is something a little different. In front of a live audience at the Australian National University, I speak with playwright, author and activist Van Badham about her new book, QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Well, thank you very much, Colin. As you did, let me acknowledge we’re meeting tonight on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people. [Non-English]. And I want to acknowledge any indigenous people present tonight.
There is a conspiracy to educate the Canberra public in new books and Colin Steele is at the heart of that conspiracy. He is the Q of the conspiracy, and we are much the better for it. So, Colin, thank you for all that you do with new books [inaudible].
And it’s an absolute treat to be here with Van Badham, playwright, political campaigner and author, to talk about QAnon and On. Van, I want to start with the broad issue of conspiracy theories. Why are humans drawn to conspiracy theories?
VB Well, Andrew, just before I start, I want to acknowledge that I’m on Ngunnawal land. I live on the land of the Wathaurong people and forgive me if I’m a bit, wow, there are people in this room, because I haven’t left the land of the Wathaurong people in a couple of years. So it’s amazing to see so many faces that aren’t looking bored on a Zoom.
So the appeal of conspiracy theories, there are numerous appeals of them. In my research, looking specifically at QAnon and the sort of octopus of movements around QAnon that I encountered on the internet, the particular theory about the appeal of conspiracy theories that I saw lived out in the internet behaviour of these people I was monitoring and getting to know, it was certainly a combination of two things.
One, it was an indication of distress. And this is something that psychologists have identified in their study of conspiratorial belief. That when people feel that their environment is unstable, when they feel that their position in the world is unclear, they seize on conspiracy theories because of a psychological response which psychologists call the splitting or the paranoid-schizoid position.
So one of the psychologists I interviewed for my book explained this need for people who are overwhelmed by information and feeling unstable, to have simple binaries to sort information. That, essentially, conspiratorial belief comes from an information overload where people are seeking very simple answers to complex problems and polarisation so they can easily pick a side. Good, bad. Light, dark. Heroes, villains. Patriots and the cabal in QAnon.
One of the other appeals of conspiratorial thinking which is particularly relevant to the QAnon movement and the movements around it, is that conspiratorial thinking gives people an ego boost. It is this notion of having knowledge which is secret and special that gives people an enhanced sense of status. As if they possess something that other people don’t or can’t have. And it ties into all kinds of psychological projections around an insecurity of intelligence.
And when you look, as I unfortunately have, at a lot of social media material produced by these people, and I talk about it in the book, you see this really obvious pattern of resentment towards intellectual elites and this sort of anti-expert sentiment that’s been encouraged by populists in the broader political discussion, particularly in England.
So I lived in England for ten years and I monitored the Brexit movement as it really took off and at the statements of the Brexiteers and people like Farage and Johnson. And there was this incredible statement that one of the Brexiteers came out with, was people are sick of experts. And that there was this encouraged belief that experts are wrong, what would elites know? Common sense isn’t that common.
And you can see that theme in the conspiratorial movements, so that’s really a combination of the appeals. It’s a status game, but it’s also a way of settling psychological tension.
AL You talk in the book about a number of the pathways that people have into conspiracy theories. The Facebook algorithm is one that, I think, others have spoken about. But two gateways that surprised me were a sudden loss. You spoke about QAnon adherents that had lost a lawsuit or they’d gone through a messy divorce.
And then you also have talked about the pathway through the wellness womb movement and the way in which some people come to conspiracy theories via the sort of Gwyneth Paltrow kind of approach to health. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
VB Yes, so QAnon and that swell, but I’ll just say QAnon, but I mean the sovereign citizen movement, they’re all cross-pollinating at the moment as I’m sure everybody in Canberra knows all too well. Yes, so in the United States, of course, you have a particular community of people who are quite vulnerable to these ideas because they’ve been raised in quite a polarised political environment.
There’s a lot of language associated with these movements that’s associated with particular strains of evangelical Protestantism. Not all of them, but some of them. And certainly, QAnon language like the great awakening, the great awakenings are historical events in Protestant congregations in the United States that happen every few decades or so.
And there’s certainly an appeal of the language in the movement. Various tribal markers and identities, they play into things like alignment to Trump, obviously, and the Trumpist cause. A really committed American Republican Party libertarianism. And those people, because they’re primed in the language and the ideas that Democrats are evil and out to get us and you don’t progress if social change is something to be resisted at all cost.
But in Australia, that’s not how QAnon got in. In Australia, it got in through the wellness community through a phenomenon that sociologists have called fusion paranoia, which is just amazing. And fusion paranoia is when seemingly unlike groups, and you can see it with some of the discussion around Russia and the invasion of Ukraine at the moment, fusion paranoia is when supposedly unlike groups find a common cause. And all of a sudden, what began as a polarities belief, merges into a unifying theory of paranoia.
And in Australia and particularly in Germany as well, which was how QAnon got into Germany where it’s been lethal, unfortunately, it got in through an anti-vax community that pre-existed the pandemic that was based in a resistance towards Western medicine and pharmacology. People seeking out, again, a secret knowledge, a special, elevated status from having a greater insight about health and doctors.
And that was the pathway into these ideas. That tying into a lot of old American tropes of conspiracies around big pharma and a resentment towards the global drug industry and various exploitations that have gone on there. It’s sort of difficult.
I did an interview with an American podcast the other day and they were like, is healthcare really prohibitive in Australia? And I was like, we have universal healthcare, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, the resentment towards big pharma when you have a pharmaceutical benefit scheme.
And this American was just like, I really don’t understand what they’re complaining about. I’m like, yes, most of us are on the same page. But that fusion has seen this cross-pollination of beliefs. And a lot of the people who I interviewed in the book were people who’d had these Australian experiences with QAnon through various wellness channels.
In fact, one of the immediate provocations for writing the book was a friend of mine and I talk about her in the book. A woman who’s known as Michelle, whose yoga teacher had gone through a messy divorce and was really unsettled by it. And through these various communities and the way that the algorithms promote connections between these ideas and these paranoias, he went, and she quoted it as full QAnon, and it was Hillary Clinton abducting children and the Lizard People and the whole thing.
And she rang me in just absolute distress, not knowing what to do. She knew I had written about this kind of stuff before. And I made enquiries of other friends of mine who are practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and various yoga people and other people on my radar. And they were like, it is everywhere, and it is really polarising that wellness community. And people who just want to be a bit more limber are getting these lectures about Hillary Clinton and doing Zoom stretches.
And it is really terrifying, especially when you consider various alternative communities in Australia that have gone from a bit woe to absolutely full-on anti-vax communities and prepared to engage in the propaganda that’s associated with that very American libertarian, destroy the government, people’s revolution kind of stuff. It’s really frightening, and the algorithms are to blame.
Another person who I speak to in the book, Cam Smith, who’s fantastic, who’s an extremist monitor from Melbourne, he talked about watching yoga mums, essentially, become radicalised using the language he would have associated with jihadists. As they went from, I’ve got a few questions about Western medicine to we must destroy the deep state, they’re mutilating our children, we must rise up. I’ll meet you in a pub in Oakley and let’s get organised, kind of thing.
And that’s really what is so disturbing, is that once you start down the rabbit hole, it is very easy to get sucked into a propaganda channel that becomes a sealed information environment, sometimes within a matter of hours.
AL So unless it hasn’t become apparent, Van is very comfortable with social media, so you should feel free to tweet or Facebook our event and it’s also being live-streamed on my Facebook page, Andrew Leigh MP, if you want to mention it to friends who might be interested.
Van, one of the tensions I find in thinking about these movements is, there’s moments when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The ludicrousness of the Pizzagate conspiracy, for me, began by the fact that the place didn’t even have a basement at all.
AL Let alone a basement that was hiding child abuse. This notion that Donald Trump was actually playing three-dimensional chess while others were playing two- dimensional chess. The idea that Julie Bishop wore red shoes because they’re the kind of shoes that child murderers wear because the blood doesn’t show. This kind of stuff is just barking mad.
But then you’ve got some really nasty real-world stuff, the persecution of people directly in real life. We’ve got Ginger Gorman here who’s experienced that directly. You yourself have. The Christchurch shootings, of course. And a range of the hate that’s being directed to people for doing something as straightforward as starring in a Ghostbusters remake. So how do we think about this? To what extent should we be rolling our eyes and to what extent should we be really worried about these movements?
VB We should be terrified. And, in my experience under covering this book, so when I started to write the book, I hadn’t seen this stuff for years and because I do live on the internet, I was particularly attuned to its emergence. So I’m used to, I mean, I’ve had a big wake, Andrew. I usually have a particular group of people who attack me on the internet and it’s usually neo-Nazis, neo-fascists. Somebody who really liked me until I had a political opinion they didn’t like that one time, in which case I have betrayed everyone.
I had transgender exclusive radical feminists this week. Sometimes it’s vegans. Sorry, vegans, I eat the good vegan burgers and the whole thing. It depends. But once it was bonobo fanciers. I had made some kind of glib post on Twitter about the cabinet of Scott Morrison behaving like crack addicte bonobos and I got this line which was like, that’s really disrespectful of bonobos. They’re a highly sophisticated animal. And I was like, okay, cocaine addicted bonobos, ha, ha, ha. And they were like, how dare you?
And it just escalated from me making a funny political joke, or maybe even not that funny, and I take full responsibility for that, to literally, within four days, I had death threats from like the Bonobo Association of America [?]. So I feel myself as a bit of a litmus of various groups and their more violent impulses.
And apparently this… I won’t even go into it, but I started, because I get death threats and I have unfortunately been targeted by various individuals and acts of opportunistic violence that drove me out of my home. I had parcels delivered and I was attacked in the street. Numerous terrible things have happened to me.
Obviously, I have to take my security very seriously. And, well, I keep files on whoever basically, I think, might have some kind of obsessive issue. I keep files on the people who attack me online. Hi, anyone watching.
And I started seeing this very early on, this weird, apocalyptic language from people who were like, you will pay, you will swim, the [unclear] is coming from [?] you, you will face judgement kind of thing. And I was like, what is this? And soon was keeping files on this stuff and saw the American journalism that started to appear around this QAnon particular mythos and started following it.
And, of course, it’s completely bonkers. It is absolutely beyond bonkers. Just so you know, the various groups that have infiltrated some of the things that have been going around the groups that I’m in about the protests in Canberra, there was a classic in the genre the other day.
Apparently, there was a streaker outside Parliament House, and they were like, he was a plant. He was planted, this streaker. He’d been part of the demonstration and he was arrested. And the issue was, they had taken him into Parliament House, so clearly, he was onto it, like he was part of the deep state for some reason because why would they be taking him to Parliament House? And I was like, clearly to put some clothes on him and probably to put him in the cells that are underneath Parliament House for this precise reason.
But they were saying, the analysis was that he had to be an agent of the deep state because the police were so paranoid, they had deployed robot dogs in Canberra. Guys, did you know there are robots, and the police are behind them? And somehow this streaker is involved. And it was just the kind of thing that you would be politely surprised to see, somebody on a really intense acid trip saying these kind of things.
But they were absolutely vetting him and supplying evidence and it becomes like this group delusion where people like, yes, and I saw this other thing. And it becomes like a group-generated belief system because they all contribute. It becomes like this orthodoxy that, definitely, the streaker was from the deep state and the rest of it.
And the reason why it’s so problematic is that you now have a population of people. And I put this in the context of my own experience as somebody who has been attacked and has had these things happen to me in real life, based on a persona that other people have created for me as a fake villain on the internet. I’m 5 foot two, I dress like a librarian, I lead a very quiet life. And, yes…
AL Not that there’s anything wrong with librarians, Colin?
VB Yes, but this is the thing. You genuinely don’t expect to get death threats in… Like, I did a theatre degree, this is not… Before I was on the internet, the idea that I would be at the centre of anybody’s conspiracy was crazy. But when it becomes that group project, when they all invest in it, it’s not just a statement of group belief, it becomes like an act of loyalty to something that’s been shared with the group to take those positions to the next level.
When I was attacked in Melbourne and I went to the police, and I wasn’t badly hurt, but I was incredibly shaken up because it happened in Bourke Street in the middle of the day. And the police described it as opportunistic violence and they said that the guy who attacked me had probably just recognised me from the internet and seen an opportunity and was like, I’m going to get her and leapt and got me.
If you extend that to a political realm where you have that conviction and that sense of righteousness around acts of violence, you are looking at a population of people who can be mobilised and deployed by various bad faith political actors to do anything.
Because the problem is that if you can literally convince someone that there are robot dogs operated by the police in Canberra or the Moderna bees or the Moderna wasps, as I’m sure you all know about. They were getting wasp stings and they were convinced it was the police filling little tiny needles full of Moderna and deploying them.
But this is what was going on and it’s so funny because you just think yes, there is no basement in the pizza restaurant. But they believe it because they want to believe it. And they can justify anything to themselves because the moment that you accept that the internet has become your reality, could changing that reality and pushing that reality and directing it, means real-world violence. And we’ve seen that around the world.
And I think you and Cam were very, very lucky and some very sophisticated policing probably went into minimising the amount of damage they could cause, as confronting as it was for all of you who were living through it.
AL So how have these experiences changed the way in which you engage? Because many people would take the approach of deleting their social media accounts and stepping right back. You’ve stepped right into it. How do you manage that both emotionally and how do you think about it practically? What is the work of fighting fascists to you?
VB Well, I have been a very proud anti-fascist activist for a very long time. My anti-fascist crusade began as a teenager when my high school in a really multicultural part of Sydney was attacked by National Action, who were part of the old fascist riot. And there were a handful of them in Sydney and they attacked my school.
And it said something about the moment that I was living through and the community that I lived in that we didn’t actually understand the meaning of the racist terms that had been put up around the school. And we were saying to the teachers, but what does that even mean? What is that? And I had such a profound sense of offence at that, that when I got to university, I became involved in anti-racism campaigns and anti-fascist campaigns.
And I mean, fascists are the lowest form of human life. They’re the lowest form of life. I think that’s kind of obvious. And left to pursue their desires, they kill millions of people, so vigilance has to be eternal.
I can do what I do because I don’t have children. I think it’s a massive… That does enable me to be a wild-eyed learner at the gates of oblivion. And I don’t have that vulnerability that other people have in that particular space. That being said, so I got a parcel of material depicting gang rapes and circumcisions delivered to my flat in Melbourne at the time that I had taken a stalker, who was associated with the far-right, to court over an intervention order which he appealed.
And I ended up doing seven court appearances in a year to get him to leave me alone. And he had organised people to follow me home from work. And they live-tweeted what I was doing in my apartment on a Monday night because they camped out on the multistorey car park. Or I believe that’s what they did. I mean, physically I don’t know how, unless they had a satellite, which would be unusual.
It was terrifying. It was a terrifying time of my life. When I got hurt, my partner was like, that’s it, we’re leaving Melbourne and we moved to a secure location which I don’t disclose. And I do have to take all these bizarre precautions around my security just because I don’t know what will happen. And usually everything’s fine, and obviously I’m not a particularly physically intimidating or threatening person. But it’s the language of threat, is really interesting.
And it’s great to have Ginger Gorman here whose book, Troll Hunting, is fantastic and which everybody should read. And I mean it. And when Ginger was putting that book together and I was talking about my experiences, just doing Q and A, and then a thousand people threat to kill you in an hour and things like that, it did really have a terrible effect on me for a very long time.
And my partner unlocked it. Because I went to art school, my partner was like, so in art school, do you learn to take criticism? And I was like, oh my god, that’s the whole point of art school because they can’t really teach you about art because it’s either in you or not, but they teach you how to take criticism. And he was like, right, the people on the internet, they don’t want to make you a better artist, they want you to die. And that unlocked for me that maybe I shouldn’t take it all on board.
But also, I just got to a place where it was like this is what it is, this is a day at work, this is a day in [unclear]. And that’s a joke in the house. My partner will be like, so, how was today? And I’ll be like, well, I was told I’d betrayed the working class and that I’m a puppet of communism. Communist dyke Jew whore, was, I’m only one of those things but it describes my entire Venn overlap of friends, so I’m on board.
And these various types of things that happened, that’s just what it is. I have to get up in the morning and if I believe these things that I’m committed to, I have to keep prosecuting that argument. And if the price of that is a bunch of neo-fascists threatening to kill me, that’s the price. But, I mean, what’s the alternative?
AL There’s a tension that runs between the book between denouncing those who believe into conspiracy theories, and you talked about fascists as the lowest form of life, and then wanting to understand and to bring back people from down the rabbit hole. Who do you think can be brought back and what do you believe are the most effective strategies of doing that?
VB I think, it was very interesting in the pandemic and particularly living through the pandemic in Victoria because people were under incredible amounts of psychological pressure and it was a hell of a thing to live through. Even if you were really psychologically well, even if you had various structures of security and support, it was a really tenuous time.
And for people, particularly people who were in insecure work, whose working lives and incomes were upset by what was going on, even with Jobcare [?], but even with the very generous support provided by the Victorian State Government and Victorian State Government really were incredible. Because, I mean, nobody could get away from what was happening in Victoria. It didn’t matter who you were. It was a frighting and strange time.
Because they were in environmental distress and they had a status interruption of losing work, finding themselves in the Centrelink queue for the first time, people who were in that situation were vulnerable to conspiratorial entranty [?] on the internet. And people who I wouldn’t associate with any kind of libertarian or neo-fascist ideological proclivity were being sucked into those beliefs because they were simple and they were good guys, bad guys.
And, obviously, when I was writing the book and started putting stuff on social media saying has anybody had an encounter with these believers, I got like 600 responses in a day, which was really frightening.
But one of the really interesting things that I learnt in the course of researching the book was the people who’d become the really hardcore believers as opposed to the sort of day travellers. People like you mentioned before who’ve had a status upset.
And the most extraordinary thing was that as with Trump voters, there’s been this big misconception that I actually think is incredibly classist. This idea that believers in conspiracy theories and Trump voters are these poor, intellectually denuded working-class people who’ve been displaced by globalisation and have economic resentment.
And this has been a very popular thesis on the left and it’s entirely, it’s just classist prejudice. Because that’s not who Trump voters are and it’s not who QAnon believers are. Overwhelmingly, these people are middle class. They’re small business owners. They’re people who have had positions of status in the community and had that threatened in various ways. Like you said, a bankruptcy or a divorce or an adverse legal finding or a child custody battle. But something that has changed their image of their own superiority.
And in the United States, this is particularly based around white communities, obviously. But they’re not poor and they’re not the oppressed working class. The oppressed working class in the United States is very black and very brown. And that’s not who these people are.
And there’s a cosplay element, particularly in the United States, around the Trumpists where you have people who own car dealerships who dress up as if they’re blue-collar workers trying to connect to this image of American hard work and authenticity. Revealingly, in Canada, in the trucker protest, the overwhelming majority of people participating in that were not truckers. None of the trucking unions in Canada backed that action.
There’re like 70, no, it was more than that. 90% of truckers in Canada were vaccinated and didn’t support those protests at all. But it is that cosplay element of playing to the tune of these earthy, everyman’s or ordinary, hard-working blue-collar… I’m constantly reminded of Sean Hannity, who’s the reprehensible Fox News host, who described Donald Trump as a blue-collar billionaire, which is, martyrists [?] in the audience, let’s all just sit with that one for a moment.
And that element of it is really fascinating. Because, again, in the Australian context as well, when you track the cookers and their work, you genuinely find a lot of complaints around the small business performance and how lockdown’s affected their business.
And the arrests on January 6th, obviously the Venn overlap of this community is quite strong. You had these people who were the less successful sons of successful businessmen, and I’m using gender language specifically in this context, and you had people who flew down to the demonstrations in private planes.
Joy-Ann Reid, who’s an MSNBC host, made the point that working-class Americans don’t have the money to stay in the Hilton in Washington for the weekend and they decided to overthrow the government. And again and again, you see this particular pattern of status anxiety that plays out in this particular middle-class community that’s quite defensive, protective, trying to hold on to an anion [?] sense of social superiority.
And in terms of can we bring those people back from the rabbit hole, it’s like well, there’s a rather solid investment in perpetuating an unequal and hierarchical status quo that I think those people maybe don’t want to let go of.
AL Yes, your analysis of who supports QAnon did remind me of, there’s some nice political science research looking at the last democratic elections before Hitler’s rise to power and where the Nazi Party vote came from. And overwhelmingly, it finds this sort of small business component there.
But I want to get your sense as to how permanent that is. There’s a book by Karen Stenner called The Authoritarian Dynamic, which argues that a third of the population is pretty strongly committed to authoritarian ideas, hostile to cosmopolitanism and therefore are amenable to being tacked into by any would-be authoritarian. And she argues this is pretty stable across a range of different countries and, therefore, that that group is always going to be vulnerable to supporting authoritarians or conspiracy theories. Are you that pessimistic?
VB I think at the moment I am. I think looking at the total capture of the GOP in the United States by these hard-right positions is a really terrifying thing to run through. Bill Kristol follows me on Twitter now. And Bill Kristol, of course, was one of the leading neocon intellectuals of the Reagan Revolution, deeply invested in the American neoliberal central line I have fought my entire adult life. And suddenly, we’re on the same side because we both hate authoritarianism.
And he did an extraordinary fundraiser for Joe Biden with Billy Crystal, which is just one of the weirdest political moments, I think, I’ll ever live through. And again, you see people like Rick Wilson, who was the ad guy and campaign mind behind Rudy Giuliani for New York, and all these guys who are involved in promoting the Sarah Palin campaigns and things like that, who are now these feral anti-Trumpers.
And I find them really politically interesting because their politics have not shifted an inch since the Cold War, but they are deeply invested in opposing the Republican Party in the United States. The party that fed them and served them and made a lot of them rich and powerful. Because it has been absolutely captured by this mad, right-wing populism that uses QAnon and these other conspiratorial communities as shock troops, essentially.
Lauren Boebert, who’s the Congressional representative from Colorado who I talk a bit about in the book, who’s very QAnon friendly, she was giving a speech in the past 24 hours. I mean, there is a war of aggression in Ukraine being led by the Russians, and she was telling her followers that the real enemy is Canada because Canada had imposed mask mandates and vaccine requirements. And is literally calling for Americans to take up arms against Canada.
Candace Owens is another one who was talking about how Australia is a totalitarian state. Did you guys know? We’re a totalitarian state now and that Democracy [?] Australia has [unclear], Australia has fallen. I mean, these used to be the most absolutely loon-wand kind of positions and they’re now desperately influential in the other major party alternative in the United States of America. And that’s why, these are all old Cold War warriors, campaigning, fundraising with Billy Crystal for Joe Biden and the Democrats.
It is really, really frightening. Now we have a check on that in Australia because in that moment of pure wisdom, we legislated universal enfranchisement, also known as compulsory voting. It means in Australia you cannot polarise politically. You can’t abandon the centre or disillusion or just disenfranchise them from voting.
But in the United States, where that has happened, and in other countries that have voluntary voting, those wedges have been driven and grown wider and wider where you have a political party totally taken over by very extreme positions.
So with congressional elections coming up in the United States of America, there are people with absolute outright QAnon beliefs prosecuting those beliefs to the Republican preselectors in their primary system. And they will get preselected and a lot of them will get elected. But that’s terrifying.
AL We’re now going to open up for questions. If you’d like to ask a question, please come down to the mic out the front. While we’re waiting on people to come down and ask questions, Van, tell me about your transition from being a playwright to being a politically engaged writer. Have you always had both strengths or was there something that drew you across?
VB Yes, I actually earn the majority of my living from being a theatre-maker. That’s actually what I do. The rest is sort of my side hustle, but I’ve always been a politically engaged person. I grew up in a family of trade union members. I was taken to pickets when I was very young and that has always been a huge part of my, like, when you’re raised in a union family, you’re union forever or you have betrayed the people who loved and raised you.
And I’m very proud that I’ve always had that connection. I joined my first union when I got my first job. And certainly, I just have a very solid sense of conviction. I’ve had a lot more opportunities in my life to express my politics than my parents did. So my parents were white-collar working class.
My dad worked in the club industry. He worked in the Dog Club in Canberra. So we lived here very briefly in the 1970s, and that’s another story. And my mother was a public servant. She was a stenographer. Both of them left school when they were 15. They were highly intelligent people, but they just didn’t have the opportunities to complete the educations that they would have liked to.
And I’ve always been very aware of the fact that, especially when I turned around to my dad and when I got into university, I’m going to do creative arts, become an avant-garde feminist theatre-maker, it was not exactly what dad what expecting in the whole Furstein [?] family conversation. I mean, he was desperately hoping I’d do like a law degree which is frankly ridiculous. I’m not criticising anybody who did those, but look at me, please.
And certainly, with the platforms that I’ve had access to, I have a very deep sense of responsibility that I’m constantly fighting for the values that my parents held but didn’t have the chance to platform. And I think that’s really important.
In fact, it is, like I said, I’ve become really fascinated with the anti-Trump Republicans. I’m really into them. I find them a source of the dialectic around democracy. And one of them, an academic from the American Naval College called Tom Nichols, who I mention in the book because he describes these people as the lumpen bourgeoisie, which I think is spot-on.
He describes himself as a democracy enthusiast, and I’m a democracy enthusiast. I think democracy’s great. I think without democracy, people like me never get to go to university. That without democracy, there’s no safety. There’s conscription, there are these Russian kids who are currently on the frontline in an imperialist war. That’s the cost. And democracy requires not only internal vigilance, but the point is participation, and the point is to do as much as you can.
Ideologically, if you’re on the left, the centre-left, the centre, the centre-right and obviously the far-right don’t support it or believe in it, it’s your absolute sacred duty to fight for democracy and for democratic participation by participating in it at every opportunity that you have.
AL First question.
Guest Thanks very much for your presentation. I too am scared by what’s going on. But Facebook’s attitude is that if it drives traffic to their site, who cares if the postings are crazy or not. Do you see any chance of reining in Facebook and certain companies to take their social responsibility seriously? Thank you.
VB Thank you. Good question.
AL Can we take two questions, Van, and then take them both together?
AL That way we’ll get through more of those, sort of way. Please.
Guest Thanks, Van. Sorry, I’m right down here. In your research, did you find that both sides of politics tend to use trigger words to enthuse their supporters? And quite often the words are quite similar. Now I’m asking this because according to my brother I’m a woke lefty, he’s very conservative, a communist and a few other things.
But with the war in Ukraine, I’ve been reading a lot from people who are not necessarily Putin supporters, but not Ukraine supporters. And they use similar words. So according to these people, and some of them have written quite lengthy opinion pieces in various newspapers around the world about the fact that these are fascists and neo-Nazis who are running Ukraine. And so what Putin is doing is justified.
And the interesting thing I found in reading these articles was it was the similar sorts of trigger words. Not exactly the same, but that are used, for example, against Dan Andrews in Victoria, and similar words were being used against the prime minister of Ukraine. Have you found that those trigger words are important?
VB Well, I’m sure it’s news to Zelensky to be described as a neo-Nazi, being Jewish and having lost three grandparents in the holocaust. But obviously, those words are used because they’re loaded propaganda terms. The two questions are actually related.
And in terms of talking about this specific Ukraine example, there has been a very concerted effort by the Russians under the leadership of Vladimir Putin to weaponize the disinformation war. There’s a book anybody who’s interested in this discussion should definitely read called How to Lose the Information War, whose author, Nina Jankowicz is a scholar from the Wilson Centre and has become an incredibly close friend of mine.
I interviewed her for my book. Where Nina talks, she was based in the Ukraine for a long time and also studied in Estolic, studied disinformation campaigns in Estonia and in various places where the Russians have been pioneering disinformation techniques for the internet for a long time. And looking at how those societies deal or didn’t deal with how the Russians were disinformation campaigning.
The reason why you’ve picked up on this notion of they use the same language and the same trigger points is that, and this is what Nina’s book goes into some detail about, is the Russians will happily back both sides. And she talked about her experience of being in Washington where she lives, and realising that America had this problem of Russian disinformation campaigning. I mean, this is what she was studying in Eastern Europe and had seen this play out before.
Where she had friends from her other life as a musical theatre performer who were going down at the behest of a Facebook group that they didn’t know the moderators of. There had been this request for everybody who was anti-Trump to go down to the Capitol building and sing songs from Les Mis and campaign against Trump.
At the same time, there was a group that had been mobilised to go down there as a pro-Trump activity. And she realised that they had been mobilised in the exact same way and that various data investigations revealed that they were coming basically from the same set of accounts, were playing off these groups on the left and on the right against one another. And that’s been going on for a long time.
The anti-Ukraine stuff that you’re seeing, a lot of it has come from, on the left, there are people who have become captured to Russian disinformation. There are bloggers who’ve been popular and other influencers who are on the left and supplied with all kinds of information to encourage a particular anti-American, anti-imperialist world view that’s literally based in dot points of Russian propaganda. I mean, that’s been happening.
There has also been, obviously, this encouragement on the American right. It’s fusion paranoia. It serves the interests of Russian disinformation campaigning for democracies to be divided and polarised and angry and to desert the centre. Because this is used by Putinistas to turn around and go, you make these democratic demands, but look how miserable this society is. Look at those people who walked up onto the Capitol building. Look at all this division around various flashpoint issues.
And it’s not that a Russian internet agency created those points of division. They exist in democracies, but we used to mediate them through the democratic process. When we mediate them through the internet, it is in the interest of bad faith actors, whether they’re the Russian government of Steve Bannon, to play up those divisions and to play us off against one another and to make our democracies aggressive and dysfunctional. That serves the interests of aspirational autocrats wherever they’re from. And this is a huge problem.
In terms of looking at Facebook, Facebook could shut this down tomorrow. In Germany, where there are very specific laws about what you can and cannot say in public, strangely enough, given the historical experience of that particular country, Facebook has no choice. If they want to do business in Germany, they have to obey those laws. And they have all the power of algorithmic control to ensure very strict moderation and stop various points of view from being platformed there.
We don’t have that kind of control over Facebook in Australia, and we should. The Biden administration is moving on because they’re obviously quite aware of the problem, given the 2016 scenario. They’re very aware of the fact that there has to be an oversight about what the social media platforms can platform or should platform or should be able to.
But it is hilarious to read and I talk about this in the book, Facebook talk about, we’ve got new moderation and blah, blah, blah. I’ve made personal complaints about people sharing vaccine misinformation, and in the middle of a public health emergency, it’s not getting removed from Facebook. As if that’s happening, because there’s no punishment, there’s no law and it’s good for their bottom line.
Because in the same context, if you can convince people to believe there’re robot dogs being operated by the police in Canberra, you can convince those people to buy all kinds of lovely products that can be advertised on social media platforms or anywhere else.
In the mainstream media, the entire business model of the mainstream media in Western society is, if it bleeds, it leads. People respond to advertising when they’re angry and they’re frightened. And Facebook knows that the atmosphere of anger and fear that’s fostered by bad faith actors active in that space is a really good way to sell advertising.
AL We need to wrap in five minutes, so let’s take two more questions and then I’ll get you to answer those and then we’ll wrap. [Unclear].
Guest Hello, loved your book, by the way. One of the things that you noted in your book was the fact that anti-feminism turned sad boys into let’s kill the government bad boys. Is there any role in feminism for dealing with those things or do you think it should be part of feminism’s role to deal with those issues?
AL Thank you. And our final question for Van?
Guest Just a double-barrel. One, I’ve been looking at the anti-vaxxers riots in Canberra quite closely and my question is, to what extent do you think that the conspiratorial type of thinking is spreading through those protests? And secondly, do you have a view about what impact that energy and agitation is going to have on the forthcoming election?
VB Yes, I love talking about this one. Here’s a fun story. So during the last election as I’m sure Andrew knows all too well, there was a rumour that the Labour Party were going to be introducing death tax. Just not the death tax. And it was untrue. It was never part of the Labour platform. Repeatedly, the Labour Party called this out and said this was not true.
But I saw the death tax rumour being circulated in a very interesting way. That it was always copied and pasted, so you couldn’t actually track back to who had originated this death tax rumour. It was always on the page of somebody you might have vaguely known.
Particularly, I noticed a lot of real estate agents because, I’m serious, I was tracking this guy, what is this, what is going on? And it was quite specific that if you inherited a car from your dad, you’d have to sell it in order to pay the evil Labour government, it’s coming for 40% of the cost.
And there were some really specific statistical demands made in this rumour that was untraceable and copied and pasted and getting enormous amounts of traction. In fact, the statistics were absolutely the same as being used in the campaign in the 2016 United States election in various swing-voting communities, particularly in Florida. They didn’t even change the numbers.
And it had been supported by various front groups on Facebook and looked pretty much like something that you would associate with a Steve Bannon-like campaign presence.
There were worse things that were circulated in the 2019 election. Some of you might have seen just that absolute horrific defamation of Bill Shorten and his family that went online. It’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen.
These are practised campaigns that have been run in the United States and run in Ukraine and run in Estonia and run all over the world. The level of disinformation campaigning we saw around the Brexit referendum and untraceable lies, mass-produced, pumped out by front groups and the rest of it.
Somebody’s obviously paying for these campaigns. There is no organic genius so singular on the Australian right that they’ve just managed to invent these things themselves. Though I do think they have the intellectual capacity to write a few cheques and make a few phone calls to where this is happening elsewhere.
I think that we have to be particularly vigilant. The situation in Ukraine and the amount of disinformation that is pumped out is so obvious that I think, in fact, that particular conflict is doing our democracy here in Australia some flat favours. Because I think people are particularly aware about disinformation and less likely to trust what they see on the internet which is unsourced.
The fact that that’s had to come about through a catastrophe elsewhere is terrifying and speaks to how well-organised internet-based disinformation campaigning is. And it is absolutely in the interest of various bad faith actors in Australian politics, and I think we can probably all name them, to pursue that.
Because if you can’t lean on your record and if you can’t lean on material reality, rumours, defamation, libel, slander and outright lies are your arsenal. And the internet facilitates that very quickly, especially around crucial democratic voting groups. Which you can, of course, target through Facebook advertising if you have the deep pockets to pay for it.
Do feminists have a responsibility to campaign against misogyny? Well, yes, that’s what we do. But more broadly, in my broad point about democracy, and democracy is about participating in it, what do women think happens in non-democratic countries? Can anybody name me a non-democratic country where women have anything even approaching a conversation around equality?
And we can look at what happens to feminists in places like the Russian Federation. And you can look at, if we think we have a lack of representation here and that representation is skewed and quotas are necessary, they’re not having conversations about quotas in non-democratic countries because they fundamentally don’t believe in equality or, in fact, even of equal humanity.
So, again, democracy is a use it or lose it proposition for all women. And fighting for democratic rights for the triumph of truth, for the campaign against disinformation, it's not just a feminist practice, it should be a sacred feminist responsibility.
AL That brings us to the end of our conversation tonight. I’m going to hand back to you, Colin, for a final couple of words. No? Okay. So in closing tonight, I just wanted to make two comments of thanks. The first is to the ANU security team who very calmly, professionally and politely managed tonight’s event.
Particularly in the light of events of recent weeks here in Canberra and our friends camped at EPIC, it wasn’t a fait accompli that tonight was going to run smoothly, so I’m very grateful to the ANU team for making that happen.
And secondly, to Van. You’ve heard pretty directly about some of the stuff that Van has been subjected to both online and in the physical world. It takes guts, bravery and a real passion for the issues of social justice that she writes about for her to be here tonight. And I just wanted, in closing, for all of us to acknowledge what an extraordinary human being we’ve got here. Go out, buy the book, thanks for joining the conversation.
VB And I obviously want to thank all of you for hosting me. Thank you so much, Colin. Thank you all for being here. As a person who’s been trapped in their house for two years observing neo-fascists and the Brownshirts without borders, you can imagine it’s really quite averring [?].
But I just wanted to acknowledge Andrew who gave one of the best, most impassioned speeches in the parliament in its last session, calling out these people and the appalling anti-democratic agenda they serve. You are so lucky to be represented by one of the most empathetic and intelligent politicians in the country and I want to acknowledge Andrew for that.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you liked this conversation with Van Badham, I reckon you might also like past discussions with Cate McGregor, Kate McClymont and Ginger Gorman.
If you enjoyed the episode, please take a moment to tell your friends about it, either on your favourite social media app or be it face-to-face. It really helps others find the show. Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.