This is a story of conspiracy, money and free speech that cuts to the heart of our current crisis. All the questions of how we make sense of the world, how we find truth and who we trust are being magnified in the midst of a global health crisis. Meanwhile dubious actors are cashing in on the confusion.
After years of saying they are not publishers, but platforms, the big tech companies are finally starting to take editorial responsibility for the content published on them, but are making heavy handed censorship decisions (the latest being to ban David Icke entirely) that are arguably making the problem worse.
For the last two weeks I have been digging into one particular high profile story that brings all of these issues into sharp relief. On April 6th, the veteran ‘conspiracy researcher’ David Icke was interviewed on the YouTube channel London Real. In it, Icke claimed that the Covid panic was a cover for a murderous global cult who were determined to bring in a fascist state, were using 5G to engineer a mass cull, and that if humanity didn’t “get off its knees” then “human life as we know it is over”.
YouTube and Vimeo removed the video the day after it was released, but not before several million people had seen it. The video is still available on the London Real website.
It created headlines on the BBC and throughout the media. In the wake of that interview, the interviewer, London Real’s Brian Rose announced that he was going to do another interview with Icke on the 3rd of May and that he wanted it to be “the biggest livestream in human history” to be watched by a million people. He launched a crowdfunding campaign to create a ‘Digital Freedom Platform’ that has now, allegedly, raised a huge one million dollars.
As a journalist, I’ve spent twenty years in the heart of the traditional media, and two years creating a YouTube channel, Rebel Wisdom. It has given me a visceral sense of both the advantages and dangers of this alternative media landscape. And right now, abstract conversations about the rights and responsibilities of free speech and the health of the ‘information ecology’ are becoming life and death issues in the wake of the Covid 19 crisis.
We need to be free to question official narratives around the pandemic, but we also need to be alert to how these vital questions of free speech can themselves be exploited.
While I was writing this piece, both Facebook and YouTube took down David Icke’s pages. This is exactly the kind of heavy handed and unaccountable censorship that fuels the backlash.
I began digging into into the backstory of the David Icke interview a couple of weeks ago, and what I have found is an incredible tale.
I’ll start by saying that I have sympathy for many of the issues raised by the situation London Real and Brian Rose find themselves in, equal concerns about the threat to free speech and the unaccountability of the big tech platforms, but have huge concerns about the way they are doing it, and the likely trajectory of the project, and the motivations and ethics of Brian Rose. I would much prefer to be having this conversation with Brian Rose himself, but I have asked him for an interview now six times and have had no response.
YouTube’s decision to ban the video on April 7th created a firestorm around free speech and censorship. Rose immediately framed the issue as a clear violation of basic human rights, and mobilised what he called the #londonrealarmy.
Soon after the interview, Rose started a crowdfunding campaign for what he called the “Digital Freedom Platform”, to allow him to livestream the next Icke interview, and other controversial interviews without the risk of being deplatformed by YouTube.
One proviso here — the crowdfunder is hosted on London Real’s website, so there is no independent verification of these numbers. Even so, I personally know many people who donated, so certainly money has been raised.
Rose initially asked for $100,000 to pay for the Icke interview, he hit that goal within hours. He then added the goal of interviewing other ‘controversial voices’ for an extra $200,000, adding ‘blockchain technology’ for another $200,000.
The current total is just over a million dollars. This now includes the aims of “taking YouTube to the EU court” and “forcing private companies to adhere to basic human rights”.
I started looking into the project, and a few things just didn’t add up. Rose framed the ‘Digital Freedom Platform’ as fully independent of London Real, “Of the People, By the People and For the People”: “This is a separate entity that lives on past us that is independently funded. So we don’t draw any of this money. This is set up as an independent platform. So that has nothing to do with London Real”, he said.
However, reading the terms and conditions of the crowdfunder reveals that the “Digital Freedom Platform” is wholly owned by Longstem Ltd, and a quick check of Companies House reveals that this is the entity that owns London Real, and has one sole shareholder, Brian Rose.
What’s more, the videos themselves are hosted within the London Real website itself. Looking at the source code of the first video, an interview with Dr Rashid Buttar, was using a Dailymotion (YouTube competitor) plugin, rather than a separate site. The interview with David Icke on 3rd May seemed to use the streaming service Dacast, a silicon valley company.
Like many YouTube sites with high subscriber numbers (London Real has 1.7m), the content is largely offered for free, as a loss-leader for high value products. These products are not on YouTube, but the website. With London Real that is principally their business accelerator & podcasting courses ($3,500 for an eight week course).
While making this film I was sent a link to the website ‘Scamguard’, which has twenty negative reviews of London Real’s business courses, with comments like: “Fraudulent misrepresentation” and “This course is a COMPLETE SCAM and uses tactics of exploiting peoples vulnerabilities to get them to enrol.”
Encouraging viewers to visit the company’s own website is of much higher value than YouTube traffic, because it allows them to collect user data from all the visitors, and then serve them ads elsewhere on the internet. London Real puts huge amounts of money behind targeted ads like this, while writing this article Rose put out a new video saying that Facebook had shut down the company’s ad account, and that they had been spending forty to fifty thousand pounds a month for the past few years, around half a million pounds a year on Facebook alone.
Companies house also holds the last set of accounts for London Real, from December 2018, showing the company in serious debt.
Since the Icke interview, London Real have pivoted fullscale towards controversial and conspiratorial figures, including an interview with Alex Jones, the founder of the original and most famous conspiracy site, Infowars, who Rose described as “a great man”.
London Real is following Infowars’ lucrative model of monetising conspiracy. An investigation of Infowars in 2017 showed that the company makes very little money through the content, but was now effectively a hugely lucrative supplements business, with up to $25m in sales over two years for apocalypse essentials like ‘Infowars Life Survival Shield X-2’.
First, a little context. I have been watching London Real occasionally for several years, it’s a slick operation, entirely oriented around Brian Rose. As a YouTube channel they interview a range of people from business to personal growth and new age, from the entrepreneur Tim Ferris to Breathwork guru Wim Hof to addictions specialist Gabor Mate.
Despite the set of London Real being dressed in Union Jack flags, Brian Rose is American, and comes from a background in finance in the City of London. He set up London Real a decade ago and has built it up into a channel with 1.7 million subscribers and half a billion views.
The channel is an unusual mix of high octane take-no-prisoners business advice and personal growth, self help and psychedelics. Rose himself epitomises those contradictions, Rose has been open about many of his own struggles with alcoholism and heroin addiction, and talked about his vulnerabilities around self-worth. He is a mix of the genuinely empathic and vulnerable, as he showed on his recent documentary about his journey with Ayahuasca, and how it helped him work through some of his traumas.
This combines with the ruthlessly corporate, he is mentored by the brutally successful “fifty billion dollar man” Dan Pena, who includes Hitler as one of his “influencers” and is on camera telling Rose: “You’re a cunt Brian, not me, you’re weak. And you want these people to like you. You have no idea how limitless it is when you don’t care what people think or say. And if these little cunts (referring to viewers) think that you’re something now, I see you a thousand times more. These fucking weiners that watch this thing have low standards, I don’t. I know what you could be. And deep down inside Brian, you know that I’m closer to the truth than they are.”
This gives Rose access to a different audience than Alex Jones and Infowars, less right-wing and angry, and more personal growth, spiritual and new age. Instead of mainlining righteous anger against the “globalists”, Rose frames his business in terms of ‘global transformation’ and inspiration of being the ‘best that you can be’.
My background mirrors Rose’s in that I made a journey from the ‘mainstream’ to the alternative. I have been a journalist for two decades, mainly at the BBC and Channel 4 News, and latterly making documentaries for the Emmy award-winning Unreported World (for which I was nominated for a Royal Television Society award in 2015).
In 2018 I started up a YouTube channel called Rebel Wisdom, ironically with an interview with and a set of films around the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has also appeared on London Real.
With my background in the ‘traditional media’ (I won’t be using the term Mainstream Media or MSM, as it’s not useful or helpful), I’ve been acutely aware of both the opportunities and drawbacks of the alternative platforms. I set up Rebel Wisdom because there I had a direct and personal experience of what perspectives just weren’t included in the traditional media.
These questions of finding truth while the institutions were failing were already obsessing many of us before this crisis hit, the mission statement of Rebel Wisdom, set up two years ago was that “The old gatekeepers are losing their power. Rebel Wisdom was founded on the conviction that we are seeing a civilisational-level crisis of ideas, as the old operating system breaks down.”
Now it’s becoming increasingly apparent to anyone who cares to look that our existing institutions are simply buckling under the strain, for deep reasons that I will come to later in this piece.
Nothing is more important than finding ways of seeking for truth outside the institutions and conventional thinking.
The rebellion against the traditional media was fuelled by a deep, and correct sense that they had power without accountability. Who “watches the watchmen”? No-one, was the answer. Especially in America, where the profit motive and corporate capture had gone deepest, the media had grown complacent, self-satisfied and dysfunctional.
As one of our other interviewees, the mathematician Eric Weinstein explained in ‘Glitch in the Matrix 2’, this was replicated throughout the entire system, where since the 1980s our institutions had been rewarding conformity and groupthink, and kept out the new ideas and unconventional thinkers necessary to ask the difficult questions.
The issues with the traditional media have been shown up by the rise in alternative media. YouTube and other platforms allowed people to self-publish, and demonstrate that there were perspectives that were simply excluded by the closed shop of the traditional media.
But the flipside of this was that the tech platforms are starting to grapple with the issue of becoming gatekeepers themselves, and are making the problem worse.
The Covid crisis is showing all the holes in our truth seeking systems. Firstly, all our governmental and authoritative news sources are bucking under the strain. They’re overwhemed, and in many cases compromised, as with the WHO at times seemingly more interested in protecting their relationship with China’s dictatorship than prioritising the world’s health.
And then on the other side, in the world of social media, we have a perverse incentive landscape where any medical figure who says ‘counter-narrative’ or conspiratorial talking points is hugely signal-boosted by people desperate for answers. The model is simple, sit there wearing a medical outfit and repeat ‘Bill Gates/Dr Fauci is a criminal’ and watch the likes and shares roll in.
We have concentrated most of our remaining ‘gatekeeping’ power to determine truth into the hands of a few vast tech companies, which have neither the skills nor the incentive to carry out that gatekeeping role properly.
And their solutions are masking the problem worse. Right now the tech platforms seem to be retreating to a position where only official sources of information are to be trusted and allowed, as with YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki saying that anything that deviated from WHO guidelines would be against their terms of service. This is the same WHO that was saying that masks were ineffective against the virus, and declared that the US and others banning flights from China was “increasing fear and stigma”.
But we can’t simply block alternative sources. Some of the most valuable information and insight is coming from outside official channels. Dr Cameron Kyle-Sidell of New York put out a video a couple of weeks ago saying that the symptoms he was seeing were much more similar to altitude sickness than pneumonia, and suggested that could be why ventilators weren’t working, and why more than half of those put on them were still dying. A few weeks later, what he was saying seems to have been verified and assimilated into the understanding of the disease, as this well-researched article in NYMag put it: “But for weeks now, front-line doctors have been expressing confusion that so many coronavirus patients were registering lethally low blood-oxygenation levels while still appearing, by almost any vernacular measure, pretty okay. It’s one reason they’ve begun rethinking the initial clinical focus on ventilators”.
Then you have other figures like Dr Andrew Kaufman (nearly 500,000 views on London Real) claiming that what’s identified as the virus could actually be the result of ‘amplified genetic material’ found in everyone, or the result of naturally occuring ‘exosomes’ in the body.
We have no way of differentiating between these different truth claims. In a functioning media ecosystem, the truth would gradually be weeded out, as different interviewers and production teams would research their guests, ask pointed questions, other interviewers would do their research and watch previous media appearances and then gradually the bluffers and the frauds would be exposed and those with high signal would be amplified.
Brian Rose is rightly angry that YouTube took his interview with David Icke down without consulting him, and explained their decision to the BBC before talking to London Real about it. London Real has been in partnership with YouTube since 2012, and by sharing advertising revenue with them, has made them likely hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds in that time.
He’s also right to point out that there are multiple other videos on YouTube that make similar claims that they are not removing. It seems clear that YouTube only acted over the Icke video once it became a public relations issue for the company, not because they have any commitment to ‘truth’. Which points to another problem, that the tech platforms have little financial motive for prioritising truth over engagement.
David Icke has his own channel on YouTube, and videos remain up where he makes exactly the same claims about 5G’s link to the virus as he made in the banned London Real interview.
I am likewise as concerned as Brian Rose is about the censorship threat of the big tech platforms. I would like to know that I can talk about any subject I wish, or interview anyone I believe has something to add to the conversation, without worrying that just by ‘platforming’ someone the tech giants think is beyond the pale, that I will have my account shut down. This is an intolerable threat to free speech, the lifeblood of the entire western experiment.
Ethics matter. Intentions matter. Free speech and anti-censorship are hugely powerful cards to play in the new media environment, because they’re essentially true. However, no value is an absolute, it always has to be held in tension with other values, and especially within an ethical framework.
Freedom of speech is worthless unless it’s coupled with accountability, with responsibility and with challenge. The concern with conspiracy theorists like David Icke is that he frames anyone who disagrees as part of the conspiracy and therefore won’t engage with anyone who would challenge him. Icke has a history of making far fetched claims, from declaring the world would end that year (in 1991) to claiming that the moon is a hollow spaceship, that Saturn’s rings are a mind control device and that the world is secretly controlled by a race of twelve foot lizards.
He has been predicting a global fascist state for decades. Right now in the midst of a pandemic and a global lockdown, this fear is amplified and it has an extra resonance for many people. Plus, it’s a genuine risk that bad actors could use this opportunity to restrict rights and freedoms that continue after the lockdown.
Unlike Alex Jones of Infowars, who pioneered the genre of ‘Conspiracy as Entertainment’ in the US, Icke seems to actually believe everything he’s saying.
He also hasn’t shifted his message in line with the shifts in public opinion, in the way Jones has. He continued to talk about the lizards even when it was clear that this was restricting his reach.
And he’s not obviously a fringe character, he’s hugely popular and regularly fills large venues across the UK, and his interviews on London Real were some of the channel’s most popular even before the Covid crisis.
Until now, the mainstream platforms could simply ignore the likes of David Icke, and rely on everyone else doing the same. But pandora’s box is now open, and it’s not going to be closed again.
I don’t believe it’s defensible to interview David Icke in the middle of a worldwide crisis and allow him to spread the message that it’s all part of some vast evil plot, that the virus is a hoax and that 5G is designed for a ‘mass cull’ without challenging these claims, and asking him why many of his previous claims haven’t come through.
And Rose did far more than that, despite trying to claim after the interview that he disagrees with Icke, but defends his right to free speech, this is not what happened. He clearly framed Icke’s message as being truthful, saying things like: “David, what’s it like to watch 30 years of what you’ve been working on all come to fruition, prediction, reality in three weeks, what’s it like?” and “People are listening, they’re tuning in, does this give you hope?”.
Icke can and should be allowed to say whatever he wants. The decision to amplify his message, to frame it within a slick technical operation like London Real, and to deliberately frame his words as: “wisdom for days and I need to listen to him, more and more of what he said is coming true”, as Rose did in the aftermath of the interview, is a decision that has to be looked at in light of all the other motivations that someone like Rose may have for making those decisions.
All of my former colleagues in the media would still maintain that ‘platforming’ David Icke at all is indefensible. Whether or not it was a defensible decision to interview David Icke, and I agree with Rose that we should be allowed to make our own decisions about what to believe or not to believe. Right now I would argue that it IS editorially justified to interview Icke.
Several million people have watched that interview with Rose, and there are hugely important claims being made in it that many people have seen.
The reason many conspiracy theories thrive is because of the failures of the mainstream. People can sense that on some level they are being lied to, and they fill in the gaps. 5G for example is being rushed out because of huge competition between different providers, before safety testing is being done. There is a ‘financial conspiracy’ that people are concerned about.
Mixed up in the nonsense about Elon Musk being a “super psychopath” intend on irradiating humanity with 5G satellites are valid questions that need to be asked about the rollout of 5G and the apparent lack of testing. From my initial and uninformed inquiries I have gone from believing that there is zero risk, to thinking that there could be, that the typical ‘mainstream opinion’ is focusing only on acute risks and ignoring longer term chronic ones.
Another example, the possibility that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan rather than the nearby animal market has gone from being ridiculed as a batshit conspiracy theory to a genuine possibility with substantial evidence behind it.
We desperately need to be able to find a way to do ‘responsible conspiracy theorising’ outside the organs of the traditional media.
The traditional media has often become a parody of genuine truth-seeking, replacing performative and virtue-signalling questioning for actual intention to get at the truth. But the vast majority of the alternative media doesn’t even attempt to get at the truth. There are all sorts of different reasons for that, the failure conditions of the alternative include audience capture, the need to ensure repeat guests and also a simple lack of skills or experience on the part of the interviewers.
I want to be able to do an interview with figures like David Icke (I’ve asked for an interview with no response so far) in a responsible way, where I can ask him questions about parts of his narrative that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
I do not want the tech platforms to simply decide that some people are off limits, and they are completely unable and unwilling to make editorial decisions based on whether an interview is responsibly conducted or not. Yet they would need to be able to make those nuanced decisions to be able to operate in an ethical manner.
Right now the ‘Digital Freedom Platform’ still has a gatekeeper that we are forced to trust; Brian Rose. He is the only person making decisions on who to invite on and how to frame those guests.
If Rose was to genuinely make it an independent platform, I would have much more sympathy. However, if he did open it up to others to use he would quickly face the exact same problem that everyone else who has tried to do this would face. Basically, where do you draw the line? Or in another more pithy question: “are Nazis allowed?”. He would find himself wrestling with the same problems of gatekeeping that none of the huge tech platforms, with their immense power and budgets have been able to solve either.
We are now in a position of exponential tech, therefore exponential disinformation in a playing field of limited attention. To have zero curation is impossible, we then just have overwhelm and chaos. We are all broadcasters, we are all nodes in a network of information, and some of us are more powerful than others.
When I was at the BBC or Channel 4, we were making decisions every day based on complex factors like news value, protecting sources, responsibility and safety of contributors, and they were always difficult and nuanced and dependent on many different values in tension with each other.
In this new media age, where the old gatekeepers have lost their power, it seems to come down to the individual conscience of every individual curator. The key thing is that we accept that responsibility with humility and self-awareness and wrestle with the ethics of it, not assume that we are the good guys, exposing the evil ones on the other side.
Rebel Wisdom is a media platform founded by BBC & Channel 4 filmmaker David Fuller, on the conviction that we are seeing a civilisational-level crisis of ideas, as the old operating system breaks down. The new is struggling to emerge — and the most transformative ideas always show up first as rebellious.
Rebel Wisdom looks to move beyond ideology. We create our content with the intention of engaging with the whole person — intellect, body, and intuition — to create honest discussions.
Fuelled by social media, many have become trapped in reaction and ideology, yet big questions can only be explored with open-minded, self-reflective, grounded conversations.