Wide Angle

When Did Russell Brand Become a Hugely Popular Pandemic “Freethinker”?

Russell Brand stands before a white wall.
Russell Brand in 2017. Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Russell Brand is aptly named. His brand has long been loud and specific and memorable; the manic pixie dream dude from Forgetting Sarah Marshall had a show on the BBC’s Radio 2 before he emerged on the American scene as a tall, attractive scamp in leather pants and hair like an onion dome. He flaunted his loud, appetitive sexuality in ways that tweaked the more usual understanding of masculinity (and straightness). He arrived on the scene in the 2000s young but fully formed, with a history of former addictions that would inspire a number of amusing books on how he dealt with them and how you can, too. Guru-ish and irreverent, Brand is contradictory, which is also what makes him fun: He’s self-deprecating and self-aware about his (considerable) vanity, equally obsessed with hokey enlightenment and poop humor, and delights in using clips of himself doing other interviews (some good, some bad) to make flattering and embarrassing points in his acts—usually about how he is covered by various dishonest media outlets, but sometimes to make himself look ridiculous too. He is temperamentally epiphanic. He gives the impression of total candor, of not caring at all how he comes off provided he’s perceived as original. If he sometimes appears to confuse attention-seeking with renegade truth-telling, no one—one imagines—would be quicker to admit it. He’s witty and voluble and has such an absolutely enormous amount of stuff to say that the consistency of his message matters less than the enormous pleasure he takes in his ability to produce fluid, almost incantatory speech about how much “the media” and other evil entities suck.

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This is the key to his charm, such as it is: how sincerely and consistently he’s been a loud critic of power and “dominant narratives” despite his fame and wealth. Like a classic theater kid, he has prioritized—and insisted on—presenting as an outsider even as he ascended a ladder largely dominated by insiders. “Even now,” he wrote in his memoir My Booky Wook, “I always tend to think I won’t fit in, and gravitate toward an identity that will stand out.” That’s revealing, I think: Brand’s invective against the status quo—while compelling—has always been more an energy than a position. It’s not that surprising, then, that his YouTube channel has exploded in popularity as he started talking less and less about enlightenment, meditation, and more and more about COVID—specifically, how policies to curb it are curtailing freedom. He has become an important figure among self-styled “freethinking contrarians” and antivaxxers. Brand’s sizable channel has become home to almost daily videos with deeply alarming titles about how everything is a conspiracy and little is true except “their” intention to censor you. Recent entries include “ ‘They Must Think We’re DUMB!!’ Disinformation Or CENSORSHIP?!” “ ‘We Were Sold a LIE!!!’ No wonder People Are ANGRY.” And “ ‘It’s All Rigged!’ Government Insider REVEALS.”

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This is, to many old Brand fans, likely a little depressing, if not a total surprise. If Brand has long championed outsiderhood as a politics—and gotten a little cosmic, a little vague, when describing his political vision—that’s historically part of his appeal. He’s a great proselytizer for the kind of freshman dorm thinking I mentally classify as Not This (waves broadly). Brand ably diagnoses social alienation and weariness but his solutions are more hopeful than concrete. He champions some third as-yet-unarticulated alternative that no one has come up with yet, but which might emerge if ordinary people just came together. “I think if you tell stories in a different way, then we can create different realities. Reality is only a story, a consensus, what you believe in. That’s why it can change so easily,” he told Jonathan Ross in an interview.

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It’s an optimistic if slightly astrological take on human potential! It’s extremely curious, therefore, that the stories Brand has been telling more and more on his YouTube channel—which has over 4 million subscribers—aren’t different at all. They’re inflammatory but unoriginal, pitched to stoke anger and fear in a very particular and familiar way. Take a video he published on Dec. 15, titled “’Hang On … The FDA Are Doing WHAT Now?!’ This Is SHADY.” The description under the channel: “Last week the FDA approved the Merck covid pill despite evidence that it is only 30% effective. Could profiteering from both Big Pharma and politicians have played any part in its approval?” And here’s Brand’s pitch: “We’ve a new COVID pill being proven to be only 30% effective. What’s the real reason it’s been approved? HMMM?” he says, rubbing his fingers together, making the sign for money.

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The packaging is recognizable as the kind of pure, uncut, YouTubish conspiracy-mongering blowing up all over the internet these days. Brand’s followers love it, and they love him for—among other things—how skillfully he appears to evade YouTube’s fearsome censors on the lookout for COVID misinformation. “I have no opinion on this new COVID medication,” he says performatively in the video, practically winking. “It might be wonderful, it might not be … I offer no opinion other than that it is 30 percent effective.”

But Brand is a tick better than his contemporaries. Unlike many a conspiracy-peddler, the first half of Brand’s video actually offers a relatively decent and well-sourced description of the situation he reduced to all-caps hysteria in his titles: that the FDA advisory committee vote for emergency use was relatively narrow, at 13–10, and marked by disagreement. He also cites David Sirota’s October article in the Guardian objecting to how pharmaceutical companies gouge Americans for this kind of treatment after receiving government subsidies. He describes how much pharmaceutical companies spend on lobbying.

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So far, so good. There are small errors (the FDA did not “approve” the drug, which he repeatedly states it did—but that’s likely to happen soon), but the gist is right. But then Brand makes the disappointingly familiar leap of logic that powers so much conspiratorial thinking. He asks: “Do you think that there is a connection between the lobbying and the advantage” that pharmaceutical companies get? Then comes the real rub: “Increasingly, it’s getting difficult to discuss those things.” A question about mysterious, powerful interests is capped immediately with the threat of censorship. What follows is a hurricane of paranoid and exhortative misdirection in defense of so-called “antivaxxers”: “You wouldn’t get people being cynical, suspicious and full of doubt if there was an open public discourse and clearer, more defined and regulated relationships between government and the pharmaceutical industry. But every avenue of potential dissent is shut down. Freedom of speech, criticism, jokes, conversation, all shut down. Not to protect you, to protect me. No. To protect them.” (Emphasis mine.)

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This is the point of the video: to take reporting on the (very real!) problems with pharmaceutical lobbying and use it to stoke the anxieties of “regular” people already worked up about nefariously buried truths. What’s sort of remarkable about this is that it’s self-refuting: Brand himself had seconds earlier presented a bunch of evidence against his own thesis that “every avenue of potential dissent is shut down.” And dissent and debate about the Merck pill still continues, even after its emergency authorization. It’s even in Nature, for Pete’s sake! Sirota’s warning about the relationship between government and the pharmaceutical industry was published in a major newspaper. That’s how Brand saw it.

It doesn’t matter. Brand’s messaging is so reflexively set against institutions that he’ll prioritize the iconoclasm that made him refreshingly charming for much of his career over the dull slog of being merely accurate. It’s just that now this tendency is powering a dangerous embrace of public health skepticism. And it’s paying off handsomely for him: He has every reason to loosely and passionately connect recent news to his audience’s conviction that they’re being censored. Brand may think he’s beyond the reach of market forces, but to look at the history of his YouTube channel is to see—almost in real time—how grimly the platform can shape its content creators’ trajectories as they respond, consciously or not, to the incentives the algorithm supplies.

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In 2019, Brand’s content was almost all the kind of philosophical self-care stuff he’s largely known for. He published things like “Vulnerability (Learned from Brene Brown)” and “This is How Yoga Changed My Life!” The start of 2020 saw “Make the Unconscious Conscious,” part of his 12-step recovery course. Then the pandemic arrived. At first, his posts registered thoughtful skepticism about what an experience like this would do to humankind at a time when “trust in the government was at an all-time low.” They’re interesting videos—not inflammatory, not yet conspiratorial. He hasn’t started to frame his titles in suggestive all-caps, so it’s just “Coronavirus: What Has It Revealed?” By June, however, he’s publishing things like “Why the Left Can’t Handle Donald Trump” and, on Jan. 7, 2021, “Capitol Hill: Who’s To Blame?” But even these are still more interesting than manipulative. It’s starting around February 2021 that the caps-heavy, conspiracy-oriented titles start to make increasingly frequent appearances. (“Is there a CONSPIRACY between Wall St and the Establishment?”; “NEVER Trust the Government.”)

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By March 2021, Brand has officially shuffled all the self-help stuff that used to be his main content to another channel: “Awakening With Russell.” Here’s how he explains it: “Over there on the main channel, we’re talking about power, politics, the corruption in the world. Here we’re talking about personal solutions, what you can do to make yourself feel better today.” The channel has about 271,000 subscribers. Meanwhile, a “Welcome to My Channel” post appeared on the main page in July, and is so generic that it could have been written by any standard-issue intellectual renegade: “It’s basically me breaking down the news, providing you with information you won’t get in mainstream media, analyzed from a perspective of a man who’s been on the inside.”

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Clever, eh? Why settle for being Rush Limbaugh when you can be Joe Rogan and Goop at the same time?

As grifts go, at least this one has the sheen of warmth and sincerity. Brand’s stated mission—to seek refuge and camaraderie amid the world’s unrelenting oppression, corruption, and censorship—also explains why he’s so friendly to some (mainly conservative) interview subjects these days. Brand is a sharp “debate guy” when he wants to be; he’s good at keeping his interlocutors on the defensive when he wishes. (His encounter with Nigel Farage was legendary.) But he does not engage this capacity in his conversations with the conservatives he hosts on his YouTube channel and podcast. If he challenges them, he does so tenderly, usually prefacing the objection by repeatedly restating the common ground they share before venturing a dissent. Brand has been famously dickish to all kinds of interviewers (particularly those he regards as “corporate” reporters) in contexts where he’s clearly more invested in breaking the format than real discussion—but he is unflaggingly polite and solicitous to controversial guests like Ben Shapiro, Tim Pool, and Jordan Peterson. In a recent conversation with Glenn Greenwald he observes, of Trump voters and those who don’t bother to vote at all, that “for all the condemnation … the fact is that they don’t have an alternative. … These parties that were set up in order to represent their interests have been hollowed out and have become ultimately meaningless.”

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These conversations are interesting; I can see why people tune in. Brand isn’t completely wrong—most people are pretty alienated and disenfranchised! The parties are a disaster! And he’s speaking to Greenwald about nonvoters because he himself famously announced that he didn’t vote. But the selectivity of their points of agreement—and hand-waving away of substantial differences—is weird. Especially for a person whose brand isn’t exactly nonconfrontational. American conservatism stands for a lot that Brand has always appeared be against, but maybe it’s all relative. His political squishiness makes sense if you think of his political orientation as not actually based in policy but rooted in opposition to existing structures—a commitment more than anything to an anti-establishment vibe.

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You can see a lot of this going back to his earlier YouTube channel which he called “The Trews” (that’s True News). His farewell there back in 2015, years before the recent return to news and politics, is quite moving. He laments his “mad rows with Fox News on Hannity,” resents that he “was called a hypocrite on Fox News on American TV because for sticking up for people who were losing their homes because my landlord has a tax haven, where Rupert Murdoch actively lobbies to create tax loopholes,” and reiterates his thoughts on revolution: “What revolution really means and what it literally does mean is a change of power not using the conventional means of power. … I believe in the possibility of ordinary people to change their circumstances to come together.”

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He was ending “The Trews” because he had become a story, and in becoming the story, he felt he needed to pull away—from social media, from his channel, to listen and learn more. In his goodbye address he promises that on his return he will be “more truthful, more inclusive than ever, because we’re going to need it, because the world is going mental and more than ever, the world needs to come together.” The sad irony is that he was right then, but the reanimation of his mission has totally confused which powerful interests are trying to screw us (hello, YouTube!) and which ones are trying to save our lives.

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