Good morning, Lyte Gang (experimenting with names, bear with me), today is truly a special day. Starting with the below interview, every Friday I am going to try to publish a Q&A with someone interesting in the media world. If the interview is uninteresting or just an inane conversation with one of my non-media friends, you will know I have failed.
Today, however, is interesting, because the below interviewee is both an interesting figure in the media world and one of my friends. Take that, East Coast media elites!
Ali went to the University of Texas at Austin with me, and he was also part of the Plan II Honors program, which is how we met. After graduating, he began climbing the proverbial media ladder, working at NPR, Politico and The Hill, before taking his current position as the tech and disinformation reporter at Mother Jones.
Follow him on Twitter here, and check out his newsletter, Balenciaga Beats, here. Read on to hear him talk shop about what makes conspiracy theories compelling, why he’s skeptical about traditional notions of journalistic “objectivity,” and what ’80s glam-pop anthem he’s listening to when putting together his newsletter.
Socials: Twitter: @alibreland
Legal Disclaimers: He asked to use this photo, and this interview has been edited for clarity.
What got you interested in the conspiracy and misinformation field?
I got a job at The Hill as a tech reporter kind of because it was open and I was vaguely interested in tech, and then the beat made itself way more interesting at the end of 2016, when it became clear that all this tech misinformation stuff was happening.
So I ended up going deep into the weeds on how Facebook was being manipulated by Russians, and from there I got interested in every which way misinformation was happening on social media platforms.
Covid has given rise to a number of conspiracy theories. Which do you find to be the most dangerous?
A lot of the misinformation is really quotidian; it’s not great, but it’s ultimately inconsequential. Like, “Oh, if you drink water every 15 minutes it drastically reduces your likelihood of contracting Corona,” which isn’t true, by the way. But ultimately the impact of that is minimal. Maybe you get a sodium deficiency from pissing out all the sodium in your body?
But it got really bad in the last couple of weeks, because there’s been a massive spike in QAnon activity. I’m in the process of writing a story right now about how people seem interested in turning to QAnon because of the coronavirus. People in seemingly unrelated areas, like wellness influencers, homeopathic people and lifestyle influencers, are all spreading weird, QAnon-adjacent or far-right conspiracy theories.
How would you explain QAnon?
QAnon is a big conspiracy that alleges that there is a thing called the “Deep State,” which is a bunch of government agents who are trying to take down Donald Trump, but Trump is trying to take them down.
It’s a sprawling theory that ends up being problematic because it creates a lack of trust in the democratic process, which allows people to adopt a cult-like ideology and ends up being very bad for discourse because it gets people debating things that don’t exist.
It can also lead to violence. There are bizarre cases of people trying to commit acts of terror or showing up with guns – in at least one case there’s been a murder.
What makes any one conspiracy theory more compelling than others?
I’m not a big conspiracy head, but stuff around Jeffrey Epstein is really interesting — the level of believability to it, how there are gaps that can’t be answered. The Epstein theories are really interesting given the universality with which they’ve been adopted. Also stuff like Martin Luther King’s assassination – I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy or not, but you’re not labeled as a nut if you’re like, “Hey, that’s fishy.”
Those theories are really compelling because they show how the machinations of power can exist in ways that people can’t thwart. They show us how fucked up shit can be.
What does your media diet look like?
A ton of Twitter. Unhealthy amounts of Twitter. I just got a subscription to New York Magazine, which I’m really excited about. I read The Intercept a good amount; Politico is great. I really like The Outline even though their founder bullied me online. I like The Baffler a lot, Current Affairs, n+1, The New Yorker.
What’s a media trend you predict will become more popular in 2020?
The erosion of performative objectivity. I don’t think it will go away, but I think it will continue to be scrutinized a lot.
I think there is an old guard of reporters who think you need to do this “objective” style of journalism, but when you interrogate that — a lot of people end up interpreting that to mean not actual objectivity, but an assumption that there are two specific sides and that the correct answer for journalists is to operate in the middle. That’s not what objectivity is; people who think about epistemology would think that’s insane.
I think that as you try to understand objectivity rigorously, and not just make assumptions based off of years of tradition, it will be harder and harder to justify these bizarre “both sides” positions.
Tell me about your newsletter, Balenciaga Beats.
I like music a lot. I started off as a music journalist in college writing for The Daily Texan, and then freelancing a little bit.
I was intentionally pulling through my music looking for music that I could read and work to more easily, and I was doing it so much that I figured I could share it with people and practice a style of writing I don’t get to practice that often for Mother Jones.
What’s one song or album you’re playing on repeat this week?
“Tell It to My Heart” by Taylor Dayne. It’s very good in its own right, but it also has an arrangement that’s really similar, in the chorus, to two country songs I like a lot.
The way she hits the notes is just like “Better Off Alone” by Logan Mize and this other song by Randy Rogers Band called “Kiss Me in the Dark.”
What shows are you watching/streaming?
“Neon Genesis Evangelion.” It’s an anime from the ’90s that’s caught some steam and is on Netflix now. It’s fun. It’s robots, kind of like “Gundam.”
Have you adopted any new hobbies or started any personal projects during Covid?
I’ve started biking again. I used to bike in school, and I got my bike repaired before this because I didn’t want to get on the Metro or get in an Uber.