- 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.
- You can read Price’s full story here.
Insider correspondent Rob Price is known for his hard-hitting investigations into some of the tech industry’s most secretive companies. His reporting into how Facebook obtained 1.5 million users’ email data without their consent prompted an investigation by the New York attorney general, and a story on Instagram’s lax privacy practices caused the company to alter its platform.
Price spent more than four months digging into his most recent story, about the conspiracy-theory-peddling streaming service Gaia: “Gaia was a wildly popular yoga brand. Now it’s a publicly traded Netflix rival pushing conspiracy theories while employees fear the CEO is invading their dreams.”
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.