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Voices: Russell Brand is the new Joe Rogan — and I’m the one he warned you about

The Independent logo The Independent 14/03/2022 Clémence Michallon
Comedian Russell Brand called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a tyrant in a video discussing the war in Ukraine and democratic ideals - screengrab © screengrab

Comedian Russell Brand called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a tyrant in a video discussing the war in Ukraine and democratic ideals

- screengrab

The search for Joe Rogan’s British counterpart has ended, and Russell Brand is the lucky winner. Yes, the same Russell Brand who was once married to Katy Perry. The same Russell Brand who portrayed Aldous Snow, Kristen Bell’s brazen, sex-education-dispensing boyfriend in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The same Russell Brand who could once be relied on to raise hell alongside Noel Fielding on the Big Fat Quiz set.

I know! I’m disappointed too. But such is the age we live in: One minute, a comedian is going about his life, building his career, and the next, he’s peddling conspiracy theories on YouTube and quoting Glenn Greenwald’s newsletter at length. No, I don’t like it. Yes, I’m exhausted.

Brand has been on YouTube for a decade now. At first, he primarily used his channel to share promotional clips for his now-defunct late-night talk show Brand X with Russell Brand. Eight years ago, however, he switched to a more traditional vlogging format, sharing a series of videos he called The Trews (a contraction of “true news”). Those videos, in which Brand held a newspaper and commented on the day’s headlines, were mainly meant as comedy bits – today, they’re the kind of content that would be shared on Instagram Stories, but Stories didn’t exist back then, so on to YouTube they went.

Over the years, Brand’s videos evolved. In 2017, he launched a podcast called Under the Skin, on which he has welcomed a wide array of guests from Marianne Williamson to Jordan Peterson. On YouTube, where he now has 5.24 million subscribers, Brand is no longer a comedian pointing out the idiosyncrasies of the news cycle. Instead, he has leaned hard into a brand of pseudo-scepticism we’ve come to expect from the Joe Rogans of the world.

Brand’s video titles can be sorted into three broad categories. First, the ones that refer to an undefined “they” – an apparently powerful entity that the viewers have supposedly been blind to – at least until now, when Russell Brand has finally stepped up to tell us all about “them”. Recent examples include “This Is What They’re Not Telling You About Russia”, “So This Is What They’ve Been Hiding”, “It’s Official: They Lied”, “Are They Just Puppets?”, and “So they DO Run the World.” (Lest we think I’m cherry-picking, these were all published over the past couple of weeks.)

Then, there are the ones that allude to a supposed lie and/or cover-up: “I’ve Been Warned Not To Talk About This” (the title of a 14-minute video), “We’re Not Allowed To Discuss This” (says man publishing a 16-minute video on this), “This Goes Deeper Than You Know”, or “WW3! So THIS Is Why They Want Russia War”. And finally, there are the ones that don’t really say anything, but which, when combined with the right images, hint at a variety of conspiracies: “How Did They Cover This Up?” next to a photo of a vaccine being injected; “It Begins” next to an image of Joe Rogan with his mouth taped shut; and a laconic, innocent-seeming “This Looks Bad”, also next to an image of a Covid vaccine being administered.

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The videos themselves use the language of conspiracies: Brand affectionately calls his viewers “awakening wonders” and occasionally welcomes them on a purported journey towards truth. Where Rogan has leaned into the “I’m just a guy asking questions” angle, Brand has opted for the language of openness, of non-judgmentalism: he, too, is just a guy asking questions. He doesn’t like boundaries. He doesn’t like dogma. He, much like any Twitter reply guy who has ever polluted your mentions, just wants to have a conversation!


Video: Joe Rogan says The Rock could make $2m a day selling his ... (Indy 100)

In his videos, Brand is given to claim a particular view is being silenced, only to back it using… information he found online. In other words, he’s not uncovering anything – he’s just a guy reading the internet and talking. Which is fine, but where I’m from, we call this having a chat, not being a revolutionary truth-teller.

Unsurprisingly, Brand has publicly backed Rogan, including when the President of Just Asking Questions landed in a spot of trouble earlier this year for spreading misinformation about Covid. (You know, what every luminary does – spread misinformation about a deadly virus during a pandemic.) In Brand’s world, there should be room for “alternative opinions” such as Rogan’s. Maybe the “mainstream media” are just jealous that Rogan is so successful, Brand suggested. Maybe we’re jealous because Rogan’s viewers trust him.

Or – and humour me for a second here: we’re frustrated to see the same people who criticise “the media” for using “incendiary” headlines chase clicks on YouTube by stoking fear of an unnamed enemy, urging people to believe there exists a deeper, hidden truth that only the guy with the podcast could possibly reveal. Maybe we roll our eyes when said guy delivers such cutting bits of analysis-cum-word salad as: “As Putin puts Russia on nuclear high alert, we ask: how many sides are there to a story that may lead to World War Three?”

I’m not the only one to have noticed Brand’s Joe-Roganisation, especially in the midst of his comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. On Twitter, writer Chloe Combi aptly described him as “basically Joe Rogan dressed as Jack Sparrow at a wellness retreat”. Others are already reacting to criticism of Brand by claiming he’s being silenced and/or cancelled for asking questions.

Brand’s platform is seemingly designed with exactly this kind of criticism in mind: If you think he’s wrong, if you think it would be preferable that he not use his massive platform to share shaky conspiracy theories, then you’re part of the problem he’s been trying to warn you about. You’re the “they” that surfaces in his video titles. You’re part of the cover-up, and never mind that your own right to voice your disagreement should be just as protected as his.

It alarms and depresses me that people are making money becoming conspiracy theorists while at the same time painting themselves as the rare speakers of truth. I worry about how easy it is to look smart if you can talk for 15 minutes, throw in a couple of internet links, and weaponise the language of nuance. I realise this means I’m probably not an “awakening wonder”. I guess I’ll just have to live with myself somehow.

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