The recount was launched by the GOP-controlled stat legislature. Maricopa County is the largest in Arizona, and stunned many observers when its traditionally Republican voters favored Joe Biden over Donald Trump in November 2020.
The state GOP ordered the audit on April 27, citing the unfounded allegations of mass fraud spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
In her letter describing the recount, Hobbs writes that observers found troubling irregularities, and said the process was opaque and in breach of state rules meant to ensure accuracy and integrity.
Observers also discussed their concerns in a press conference Thursday, reported local media.
Computers on the recount floor left unlocked. They said this risked the data on the machines being altered.
Inconsistent rulings for counting. The observers said different teams were improvising their methods rather than following a common approach.
They criticized data entry too, saying that figures were being plugged into a central spreadsheet in a haphazard way that risked error.
They said counters weren’t keeping proper track of batches of votes, risking them being miscounted or counted more than once.
They questioned the motives of the workers – claiming that there was no screening process for political bias. They said some counters attended “Stop the Steal” rallies, which were predicated on Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud.
Observers who spoke to The Guardian also drew attention to use of a mysterious technology developed by the failed inventor Jovan Pulitzer.
Details were scarce, but it appeared to be used in an attempt to verify conspiracy theories alleging that thousands of counterfeit ballots were used in the election.
The process is being conducted by a contractor called CyberNinjas, whose founder has expressed support for Trump’s election fraud claims.
The concerns of the secretary of state’s office were echoed by other observers of the recount. According to reports, some counters are searching ballots for traces of bamboo on the basis of a theory that many were smuggled from Asia.
Questions have been raised over why auditors are examining ballots using UV lights and looking for watermarks. It’s another sign that auditors are working to verify conspiracy theories alleging that ballots are fake, observers say.
“A number of items detailed in the Counting Floor Procedures appear better suited for chasing conspiracy theories than as a part of a professional audit,” wrote Hobbs.
In remarks to reporters Thursday, Hobbs warned that the recount methods could be used as a template to subvert election results across the US.
“This is really dangerous for our democracy and we think they are writing the playbook for them to take this across the country,” Hobbs said, reported the Arizona Mirror. “This is potentially precedent setting.”
The Twitter account representing the recount rejected her claims.
The US Department of Justice has reviewed details that “raise concerns” about the integrity of the Republican-led audit in Maricopa County, telling the president of Arizona’s state senate that the effort may violate federal law.
The audit, taking place at a sports arena in Phoenix, is being conducted by a private firm, Cyber Ninjas, that has no experience in elections and is led by a man who promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. The firm was chosen to lead the effort by state Sen. Karen Fann, over the objections of Maricopa County’s local Republican officials – and after two audits were already conducted last year.
President Joe Biden won the county by more than 45,000 votes.
In a May 5 letter to Sen. Fann, obtained by local news station KNXV’s Garrett Archer, the Department of Justice’s Pamela S. Karlan, principal deputy assistant attorney general with the Civil Rights Division, said Cyber Ninjas’ involvement may be illegal.
“Federal law creates a duty to safeguard and preserve federal election records,” Karlan wrote. The department is concerned that this is not happening in Maricopa County, where the records “are no longer under the ultimate control of elections officials, are not being adequately safeguarded by contractors, and are at risk of damage or loss.”
-The AZ – abc15 – Data Guru (@Garrett_Archer) May 6, 2021
The department’s second area of concern is Cyber Ninjas’ stated intent to “identify voter registrations that did not make sense, and then knock on doors to confirm if valid voters actually lived at the stated address.” This, Karlan wrote, “raises concerns regarding potential intimidation of voters,” which is prohibited by federal statutes.
The letter closes by asking for a response on what steps the Arizona Senate will take to ensure the audit does not break federal law. It comes the same day that one audit official told reporters he was attempting to find traces of “bamboo” on voters’ ballots to prove a conspiracy theory that they came from southeast Asia.
Sen. Fann did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The Department of Justice’s letter comes about a week after a coalition of voting rights groups had requested such an intervention, as Insider reported.
In an interview last month, the head of the Arizona Democratic Party, state Rep. Raquel Terán, said that Cyber Ninjas was engaged in a “sham audit” intended to justify new restrictions on voting.
Local Democrats welcomed Wednesday’s intervention.
“We are glad that the DOJ is engaged and monitoring this sham,” Alex Alvarez, a party spokesperson, told Insider.
He repeatedly drew a ‘Q’ symbol in their air with his right index finger, Newsweek reported.
The letter ‘Q’ has become synonymous with the far-right conspiracy movement ‘QAnon.’ Adherents of this discredited conspiracy theory believe that a mythical cabal of Satanic pedophiles, who are thought to be part of the “deep state,” work together to undermine former President Donald Trump.
During Wood’s speech, Newsweek reported, he referenced ‘Q’ several times.
“He [God] is going to rebirth you into the spirit world and create exactly the person that he intended you to be,” Wood said, according to the media outlet. “There’s your Q.”
The audience, Newsweek said, then began cheering and rose for a standing ovation while he continued to sound out and draw the letter.
“That is Q. What does that Q mean?” he reportedly continued. “Don’t you ever give up hope on this country.”
Wood then proceeded to claim falsely that Trump is still in office. “He won the presidency and he is the person that we the people selected,” Wood said, according to Newsweek. “Donald J. Trump is still the president of the United States of America. He is your president.”
He also used the speech to target Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser, and to compare himself to the Hebrew King David, the media outlet said.
Wood, who is best known for painting a false narrative of a stolen election by filing failed lawsuits, is no stranger to controversy.
He was permanently banned from using Twitter after violating a suspension by inciting violence, BuzzFeed News reported.
The State Bar of Georgia is also looking into disciplining him for imploring his followers to target members of the institution, Insider’s Connor Perrett previously reported.
The Health and Freedom Conference dedicated to opposing the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of freedoms is due to conclude Saturday night with a mask burning ceremony.
He had watched as other spiritual advisors, including the self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” Mark Taylor, incorporated wild and dangerous QAnon beliefs into their sermons on YouTube, and as organizers of the Christian Jericho March gathered in Washington, DC, days before the insurrection, urging followers to “pray, march, fast, and rally for election integrity.”
So when hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol hours after his premonition, Swieringa was shocked, but not surprised.
“I think some of the signs had been there all along and it just all came to a perfect storm,” Swieringa told Insider.
The pastor said he had been worried about so-called “Christian nationalism” since Trump was elected into office in 2016. (Neither Swieringa nor any of the other pastors interviewed for this story say who they voted for in 2016 or 2020.)
He became even more concerned when, in 2018, some elderly members in his own congregation started sending him “disturbing” QAnon videos. When Swieringa brought these to the attention of his superiors, they were mostly dismissive, telling him they didn’t know what QAnon was.
Swieringa felt increasingly uncomfortable when a large part of his congregation said they believed the pandemic was a hoax.
The 61-year-old pastor had been taking the pandemic very seriously, partly because his wife was considered at risk. A bout of pneumonia in 2019 had left her with permanent scarring in the lungs.
“It was at that point when I put my foot down and said, ‘I’m not going to preach in front of a congregation that wants to sing and not wear masks,'” Swieringa said. “But they still wanted me to preach in front of them without wearing a mask.”
He said the church offered to him a plexiglass barrier to preach behind, but he felt it wouldn’t make much of a difference in an enclosed space.
“We agreed to separate at that point, and so it felt pretty cordial at the time. But I found out later that there were really hard feelings amongst the congregation, and many of them felt like I abandoned them,” Swieringa said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Swieringa left the church in December 2020 after eight years of service.
He now works part-time at the Kibbie Christian Reformed Church in South Haven, 30 miles away from his original job. His new church has a mandatory mask rule.
One in four white evangelicals believe in QAnon
Swieringa is not the only pastor who has struggled with the rapid spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation in his congregation.
According to a poll released in January by Lifeway Research, more than 45% of protestant pastors say they have often heard congregants repeating conspiracies about national news events.
Another survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that more than a quarter of white evangelicals believed in QAnon, and that three in five believed that President Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election was “not legitimate.” Those rates were the highest in any religious group.
The trend has prompted hundreds of evangelical pastors and faith leaders to speak out. In February, more than 1,400 of them published an open letter condemning “radicalized Christian nationalism” and the “rise of violent acts by radicalized extremists using the name of Christ,” The Washington Post reported.
Among them is Jared Stacey, a Southern Baptist youth pastor from Virginia, who ended up leaving the church altogether after QAnon and other conspiracy theories began to divide his congregation.
He moved to Scotland in December, where he now studies Theology at the University of Aberdeen.
He told Insider he left to “create some space,” adding that pastoring in 2020 was “a struggle” for many faith leaders.
“I do think that a lot of pastors are burdened right now and need a friend,” Stacey said. “It’s not easy watching people that you’ve invested time in becoming radicalized so quickly right in front of you.
He said that while some people might say that politics shouldn’t be discussed in churches, there comes “a point where refusing to talk politics is a false front for protecting the political sensibilities of your stakeholders.”
“That is why there is a theological need to address what the Bible would describe as telling lies or having a false God,” he added.
But keeping up with the information online is not always easy, and Stacey worries that the church is falling behind in the race to bring Christian messages to a world that spends most of its time online.
“The church is going through the biggest information shift since the printing press,” Stacey said.
The road to recovery from QAnon
One person trying to use technology to reach more Christians who have become affected by QAnon is Derek Kubilis, the senior pastor of Uniontown United Methodist Church in Ohio.
Kubilis runs the Cross Over Q podcast, which offers “healing for QAnon followers and family members from a Christian perspective.”
The pastor started the podcast after the Capitol riot, and since then received a wide range of listeners, including former QAnon believers who have told him that the podcast has been part of their recovery.
“When I saw crosses being carried alongside QAnon banners and a noose as those folks marched on the Capitol I just knew I had to do something, but from a Christian perspective,” Kubilis told Insider.
While some pastors, including Stacey and Swieringa, opted for private conversations with their congregants to warn against the dangers of misinformation, Kubilis does it publicly.
In his podcasts, he debunks theories, speaks about how they’re dangerous, and preaches about the importance of unity.
“Members of the clergy are expected to maintain a certain kind of distance from secular politics … both in order to preserve the unity of our congregation, and to make sure that we don’t unduly influence elections,” Kubilis said.
“But I don’t believe that QAnon is inherently political. It starts with politics, but these are people’s lives, in relationships, that we’re talking about.”
Kubilis is aware that the recovery from QAnon radicalization is by no means a short one, but he’s hopeful that his efforts will bring Christians back home eventually.
“It takes a lot of courage, time, and patience,” he said. “But when you hear the stories of people who are being hurt, in the families that are falling apart, you recognize that it is absolutely necessary.”
A small group of QAnon followers flew all the way from California to Washington DC on Thursday in the hopes of watching Former President Donald Trump’s inauguration that never materialized.
March 4 had become a highly anticipated date for followers of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, who believed it was the date Trump would be sworn in for a second term in office. Until 1933, March 4 was the date of the presidential inauguration.
But while thousands of National Security Guards patrolled Capitol grounds and the House of Representatives canceled their session, only a small number of Trump supporters actually showed up.
Among them was a group of QAnon followers, who had flown all the way from California to watch Trump’s return to power. Couple Karyn and John Carson had taken time off work to make the trip and spent the week in the city waiting for something to happen.
“Every day that we’re here, we’ll probably come out around noon and see if anything transpires,” Karyn, 52, told Reuters. “If it doesn’t happen, we’ll obviously be sad ’cause it didn’t happen while we were here, but we believe that it will happen. It just hasn’t happened yet.”
The couple believes the 2020 election – won by President Joe Biden – was fraudulent and that the military will restore Trump to power by the end of March.
However, the Carsons told Reuters they condoned the deadly attack on the Capitol in January and that they had no intention of using violence to restore Trump to power.
“It may seem foolish to some people that we came all this way to see something that may or may not happen, but we don’t care,” Karyn told Reuters.
The belief that Trump will be sworn in on March 4 is rooted in theories promoted by the obscure sovereign citizen movement.
With the passing of March 4, experts predict that QAnon will continue to invent new dates to look forward to in an effort to perpetuate mind games.
“Reality doesn’t really matter,” Nick Backovic, a contributing editor at the fact-checking website Logically, told Insider this week. “Whether QAnon can survive another great disappointment, there’s no question – it can.”
“Don’t be disappointed,” wrote one subscriber on a popular QAnon Telegram channel late Thursday night. “The race is not run yet and I have reason to believe March 20 is also possible.”
Another believer posted a similarly optimistic message. “We still have 16 days,” they wrote. “Lots can happen between now and then!”
With the passing of March 4, a highly-anticipated date for the conspiracy group, followers remain characteristically delusional.
With the uneventful passage of yet another supposedly momentous date, QAnon fans spent Friday morning urging followers to look forward and “keep the faith.”
QAnon’s March 4 failure
When “the Storm’ – the promise of mass arrests and executions on Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day -amounted to nothing, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory scrambled for a new date to imagine Trump’s fictional swearing-in ceremony.
March 4, like several fruitless dates that preceded it, was born out of a convoluted political fantasy.
QAnon adherents borrowed from the obscure US-based sovereign-citizen movement to suggest that Trump would return to power on March 4, 2021. Sovereign citizens “believe that they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks extremism.
The conspiracy-theory movement will continue to invent new dates to look forward to, or else their years of obsessional beliefs will all have been for naught, say far-right experts.
“Reality doesn’t really matter,” Nick Backovic, a contributing editor at fact-checking website Logically, where he researches misinformation and disinformation, told Insider. “Whether QAnon can survive another great disappointment, there’s no question – it can.”
The March 4 theory is rooted in a bizarre belief that argues all laws after the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, are illegitimate.
The 20th Amendment, which moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20, is viewed by sovereign citizens as invalid.
Therefore, proponents of this conspiracy theory insisted that Trump would restore a republic that has been out of action for over 150 years on the day when former presidents were sworn-in.
Travis View, a conspiracy theory expert and host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, previously told Insider that it’s based on a “blind faith” that Trump can “fix everything.”
A series of no-shows
Before March 4, the QAnon follower’s calendar was marked with a string of dates that were once hailed as moments of reckoning that didn’t happen.
In 2017, the first “Q drop” – the cryptic messages from the anonymous “Q” figure whose guidance runs the movement – claimed that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be arrested because of an unfounded allegation that she was involved in child sex trafficking. This, of course, never happened, but the QAnon conspiracy theory was born.
Then, in a bid to reconcile their belief that Trump would remain president, they believed January 6, which went on to be a deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, was a precursor to “The Storm” – a violent event that would result in the execution of child-abusive elites.
The goalpost was then moved to January 20, based on the claim that Trump would seize power prior to Biden taking his oath.
But Trump was not inaugurated again on January 20 and instead left Washington to move down to his Florida home. In the hours after Biden’s inauguration, some QAnon believers were left confused and crestfallen.
Mental gymnastics ensued, with some QAnon influencers arguing that Biden’s inauguration had happened in a Hollywood studio and was therefore invalid; others claimed that Trump sent signals during his final pre-inauguration address indicating that he’d remain in office. These influencers again promoted to their followers the idea that somehow, their theory was not yet over.
“QAnon is dealing with a very difficult cognitive dissonance situation,” Michael Barkun, professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University, told Insider.
Naturally, some believers become fed up with failures
A Wednesday post on a QAnon Telegram channel with nearly 200,000 subscribers called the plan “BS,” though the same page told their followers that the “new Republic” would begin on March 4.
Another top conspiracy theorist told their 71,000 subscribers on Wednesday morning that a “Q drop” contained a hint that the March 4 conspiracy theory was a false flag. “March 4 is a Trap,” the post said.
Whenever QAnon’s prophecies are proven wrong, the movement does lose some support, Backovic said.
In the days after President Biden’s inauguration, many QAnon believers did express a desire to leave the movement, fed up with the lies they’d been told. Even Ron Watkins, once QAnon’s top source for voter-fraud misinformation, told his 134,000 Telegram subscribers in the afternoon of January 20, “Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”
QAnon influencers calling the March 4 conspiracy a “false flag” also helps place blame on others in case things go awry like they did on January 6. Finding a scapegoat is a common tactic for extremists, according to Backovic.
After the Capitol insurrection, QAnon supporters and other pro-Trump protesters – and several Republicans in Congress – spread the false claim that antifa, the anti-fascist movement, staged the deadly coup attempt on the Capitol.
In addition to focusing on specific dates, QAnon has evolved and adapted to include other conspiracy theories and enter more conventional spaces.
Last spring, the movement pivoted to focus on ending human trafficking, making “Save the Children” its new battle cry. QAnon leveraged on mainstream social media, including Instagram, where lifestyle influencers spread it.
With nothing happening on March 4, believers look forward (again)
The latest disappointment has already resulted in new dates being introduced with increasingly desperate explanations.
Some QAnon influencers have suggested that March 20 is when Trump will seize control, misinterpreting the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019, which streamlines the presidential transition by providing certain services to the previous administration 60 days after the inauguration.
The claim, first made on a popular QAnon Telegram channel, appeared to be making ground with supporters offline, too. A QAnon supporter interviewed by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel said he believes Trump remains in command of the military and will be inaugurated on the 20th.
But core followers of the conspiracy theory are reluctant to throw all their weight behind a particular date.
In another Telegram message board for QAnon believers, one post encouraged people to remain open-minded about Q’s plan. “Dates for late March, April, May, and more dates in the fall have been tossed out there,” the post said. “While we can speculate and hope, no specific dates have been landed on… don’t get caught up in the dates, watch what’s happening.”
For those tempered by repeated disappointment, some are simply set on a resounding victory for Trump in 2024.
“Whether it’s some date in March or whether ultimately it will be a second Trump term after an election in 2024,” Barkun told Insider. “There will be some further set of explanations and a further set of dates.”
QAnon followers, unable to cope with Joe Biden’s elevation to president in January, have now coopted a new belief to argue that the next legitimate inauguration date will be on March 4.
After President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021, some QAnon believers concluded that their conspiracy theory was a “lie.” But its most fervent followers weren’t ready to give up on their conspiratorial beliefs, clinging to an absurd hope that former President Donald Trump will be sworn in at a later date.
Using ever-shifting goalposts, the pro-Trump conspiracists have now set their eyes on March 4, 2021.
Where does the conspiracy theory come from?
The belief that Trump will be sworn in on March 4 is rooted in theories promoted by the obscure sovereign citizen movement.
The sovereign citizen movement is a highly-fragmented grouping of Americans who believe taxes, US currency, and even the US government to be illegitimate.
A minority of them believe that laws do not apply to them at all, resulting in the FBI designating some members as “domestic terrorists” and “anti-government extremists.”
A central tenet of the movement is that the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, converted “sovereign citizens” into “federal citizens.”
This belief also goes so far as to dismiss the validity of any presidency after 1868, making Ulysses S. Grant the last valid president.
The ideas are esoteric and, arguably, nonsensical.
“You really feel like you’re in an Alice in Wonderland world when you start going through the ideas of the sovereign citizens,” Michael Barkun, professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University, told Insider. “It’s like you’ve gone down some kind of rabbit hole into a parallel universe.”
Some sovereign citizens also believe that an obscure law from 1871 reveals that the US has become a corporation.
The District of Columbia Organic Act established a single municipal government for Washington, DC. The use of the word “corporation,” referring to an incorporated district, has led to the mistaken interpretation of this to mean that the entirety of the US became a business.
“Some believe that President Joe Biden is the executive of a bankrupt corporation – the United States Inc.,” said Travis View said, conspiracy theory expert and host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast.
Creating an alternate reality based on a misinterpretation of a minor detail in an old law is typical of conspiracy groups, Media Matter’s deputy research director Stefanie Le told Insider.
“They can create elaborate mythologies based on the smallest and least significant details,” she said.
Why March 4?
Before the 20th Amendment in 1933, all presidents were sworn in on March 4.
It was introduced to shorten the “lame duck” period between elections and the start of new administrations.
Given that followers of the sovereign citizen movement reject all constitutional amendments passed after the 14th amendment, they do not view this date change as legitimate.
QAnon followers, who failed to see Trump inaugurated in January, have recycled the argument and reinvented the next legitimate inauguration date.
They say that on March 4, 2021, Trump will succeed the last legitimate president, Grant, to become the 19th president.
Le told Insider: “Now that one of their most highly-anticipated events – the January 20 inauguration – has failed to come true, they’re grasping for explanations from other conspiracy theories.”
View said that there is no clear logic to it besides the blind faith that Donald Trump is the chosen one to save humanity.
‘Maybe we should gather again and storm the Capitol on March 4’
Adopting conspiracy theories from other groups to contribute to a specific, imaginary narrative isn’t unexpected.
It’s QAnon’s survival method “because their own predictions have fallen apart,” said Le.
The forums populated by QAnon adherents are now buzzing with chatter about March 4.
Telegram and Gab have led the way according to research by Media Matters seen by Insider, and it is widely circulating on 4Chan and right-wing forum Patriots.win, the researchers said. The rumors have also reached TikTok, reported the Independent.
There have been real-world consequences to the March 4 rumor-mill.
Notably, Trump’s DC hotel has hiked prices for March 3 and March 4. It is the only luxury hotel in the area to increase its rates for those nights.
The US Capitol Police, fearing potentially violent clashes, have ordered almost 5,000 National Guard troops to remain stationed in Washington, DC, on March 4.
Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, referred to the conspiracy theory during a hearing on the matter.
“Some of these people have figured out that apparently 75 years ago, the president used to be inaugurated on March 4,” he said. “OK, now why that’s relevant? God knows. At any rate, now they are thinking, ‘maybe we should gather again and storm the Capitol on March 4’ … that is circulating online.”
A HASC Democratic spokesperson told Insider that Smith had seen the reports identifying March 4 as “another inflection point” in the capital.
“The House Armed Services Committee’s role is to validate that military personnel are used in accordance with their aligned task and requirements,” the spokesperson said.
Will QAnon ever give up?
Security is also expected to be high throughout March to anticipate the still-unscheduled State of the Union address.
The Capitol Police plans to maintain an elevated presence due to intelligence suggesting that extremists have discussed plans to attack the Capitol building during the speech, Politico reported.
Experts, however, don’t expect the insurrectionist violence of January 6 to be replicated on March 4.
Barkun, who previously advised the FBI on security threats posed by extremist groups, said he is confident that sufficient attention is being paid to QAnon’s activities.
View also doubts that there will be widespread violence. “I think the events of January 6 spooked a lot of Q followers,” he told Insider.
But none of the experts Insider spoke to believe QAnon is going away any time soon. It is commonplace for conspiracy theory groups to deal with incorrect predictions by just kicking the can down the road.
“They will construct more and more complex rationalizations that push the events that they wish for farther and farther into the future,” Barkun told Insider.
Insider is taking you behind the scenes of our best stories with our new series, The Inside Story.
This week, Insider’s Grace O’Connell-Joshua spoke with tech correspondent Rob Price about his recent investigation into Gaia, a streaming business with a wild catalog of conspiracy theories, new-age mysticism, and yoga.
Below, Price spoke with Insider fellow Grace O’Connell-Joshua about how he stumbled into the story, the rise of misinformation on the internet, and the role of Facebook in popularizing platforms such as Gaia.
Your story on the rise of Gaia is astounding. You describe the company as a “catalog is a kaleidoscopic array of wild claims, conspiracy theories, and new-age mysticism” and say that some of its employees are scared of its CEO invading their dreams. How on earth did you come across this story?
I’ve been interested in new-age belief systems and how they’ve been bolstered by the internet for a while, and I joined a bunch of increasingly esoteric Facebook groups with an eye to writing about these communities. Doing so apparently put me into an unusual advertising bucket, and I started getting constant ads from Facebook and Instagram by Gaia.
The company, its content, and its mission sounded intriguing, so I decided to make a few calls to insiders around November 2020. It quickly became clear there was a fascinating story here.
I then spent the next few months talking to dozens of current or former employees of the company, to build up a comprehensive picture of its history, operations, culture, and mission.
Many readers have never heard of Gaia. Why do you think this story is so important to tell?
I found it an important, interesting subject on a bunch of levels.
It’s an exploration of how misinformation can be monetized on the modern internet – and what happens when that misinformation invades the workplace itself. It’s the story of an accomplished and unusual serial entrepreneur, and the companies he has built.
It’s a microcosm of a broader trend in the new age/wellness/spirituality space, of the intersection between wellness and conspiracy theories, and how people in the former space can be radicalized into the latter.
What was it like talking to employees? Were they forthcoming with you about their experiences?
Like employees at many companies I speak to, workers were hesitant to speak publicly about their experiences because of concerns of professional, legal, or personal consequences. It’s why most of our sources asked for, and were granted, anonymity to talk more candidly about the company and their time there.
You covered Facebook for a long time. In this story, you report that Facebook played a big role in helping Gaia garner more subscribers through sophisticated advertising tools. Do you think Gaia would exist without Facebook?
These belief systems long predated Facebook, and would continue to exist even if Facebook closed down tomorrow. But it’s clear that Facebook’s advertising platform played a huge role in allowing Gaia to grow to the size it has over the past few years – 700,000-odd paying subscribers around the world.
In 2017, Facebook even boasted that Gaia was a “success story” that made particularly good use of its services to grow.
Do you think Gaia and platforms that propagate conspiracy theories will continue to flourish, given that Facebook is now saying it’s trying to crack down harder on misinformation?
Yes. Gaia is doing well financially, and it’s clear that there’s a big and growing audience for its content. And sections of its content around yoga and spirituality aren’t misinformation by any definition of the term, with growing audiences interested in them.
But part of what’s fascinating about Gaia is how its content is a spectrum from fitness through to secret Nazi moon bases, and that can lead to people inadvertently following more and more extreme material.
What’s your favorite part about being an investigative journalist? And the hardest?
I love the variety. I can go from digging into misleading sales practices at Yelp to new-age mysticism, from looking into the blood-donation industry in India to Facebook’s failures to protect users’ data. It’s permission to follow my curiosity and dig into a thousand interest worlds.
The flipside of that is needing to be able to convince people to open up and entrust me with their stories, often on extremely serious and consequential subjects.
Conspiracy theories are no longer the domain of fringe websites, but have aired on major cable news networks. Now Democrats in Congress say they want to examine the role that the mainstream media has played in promoting false and outlandish claims.
“The prolonged severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attack on our Capitol on January 6 have driven home a frightening reality: the spread of disinformation and extremism by traditional news media presents a tangible and destabilizing threat,” Reps. Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle said in a joint statement on Thursday.
Palone, a Democrat from New Jersey, chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee while Doyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, leads the Communications and Technology subcommittee. On February 24, the two lawmakers will host a remote hearing, featuring unnamed “media experts,” examining the issue.
“Some broadcasters’ and cable networks’ increasing reliance on conspiracy theories and misleading or patently false information raises questions about their devotion to journalistic integrity,” the lawmakers said.
Though not stated, it’s possible that lawmakers will be discussing Fox News, which until this year has long been the top-rated cable news network. In January, host Steve Hilton promoted a claim that Dr. Anthony Fauci played a direct role in creating the coronavirus. Many of the network’s anchors and commentators also promoted false claims about election fraud, assertions that were challenged by some of its more fact-oriented, straight-news personalities.
All three released statements following the vote condemning Greene while also calling on Democrats to review comments made by members of their own party.
“As I have repeatedly criticized Ilhan Omar for her anti-Semitic comments, I had to hold Marjorie Taylor Greene accountable for her denial of the Parkland Massacre, the Flight 77 crash, and accusing a Jewish family of starting the California wildfires,” Salazar said.
“If MTG is being removed from her committee positions for her past inappropriate comments, then these members should’ve received the same treatment. I’ll continue to demand that Democratic leadership & the press stop the double standard & hold these members equally accountable,” Díaz-Balart said.
Giminez similarly called on Democrats to review past statements made by members, but emphasized that Greene’s comments “must not be tolerated.”
“When she goes after students, victims, and survivors of senseless gun violence as in the case of the Parkland High School shooting, she loses all credibility as someone assigned to crafting policies in protection of our children from violence,” Giminez said.
Freshman lawmaker Malliotakis represents constituents in Staten Island – a group of people who would likely be unhappy about Greene’s past support of conspiracy theories that suggested the terror attacks on 9/11 were staged by the US government.