Very Fine Day #7: Brandy Zadrozny
Brandy Zadrozny is a reporter and former librarian. She is one of the key voices in the depressingly relevant reporting beat of disinformation, politics, and conspiracy. For years now, Brandy has jumped into the more chaotic parts of the internet so others don’t have to, and her reporting on QAnon, grifters, and the state of America is an essential read.
VFD: When I look you up on your Twitter it says you were a librarian turned reporter. When did that happen?
Brandy Zadrozny: So I've had a lot of jobs. I was a school teacher - I was an English teacher for Middle School kids. And then I was in Brooklyn and I worked at this school that didn't have a library. And my kids were from across the street. So like, in Middle School, they came from across the street and then went back home. And it wasn't the best neighbourhood actually - it was near Dumbo before Dumbo became Dumbo.
Brandy Zadrozny: And they just didn't really have the opportunity to get books. So I was like: well, we need a library here. So I started to sort of build a library.
But then, because of union rules, I wasn't allowed to because I was behaving as a librarian but I didn't have a library degree. So it was this really weird union thing and they were like “you can't do it”. And I was like: Well, I guess I'll just go get a library degree. I like reading. And so I went and enrolled in a Master's programme at Pratt, and I did get into English education because I love literature and reading and books and whatever.
So I started this library degree and one of the internship things was you could intern at a news library – and I didn’t even know that was a thing. But there used to be - they're all pretty much gone now, except for a couple - but like, there used to be these really big research departments and newsrooms where you could be like: Hey, Janet, what's the capital of Kansas? Or, like: Give me everything that we've ever written about, y’know, the mayor of this town. Or like: We're trying to find people who have been hurt by this doctor.Let's like look at legal records.
Just killer researchers… like just “Jeopardy” people in these rooms all just giving answers all day long for stuff.
And I interned at ABC News's library and it was so cool. I just loved it. I thought it was so fun. It was basically the reference desk, but for the news. So it's fast-paced, and it was just great. And so I started working at that news library and I quit teaching.
Then my brother had gotten sick and I went off to Tampa for a little while to take care of him. And then when I came back, my job wasn't there at the school anymore in the same way, so I was like: nevermind, I'll just go do this thing. Which I really loved. So I started working in news libraries.
And then I stopped for a little while, moved to Vermont, and couldn't really get a job there. It was around the the financial crisis,
VFD: Like 2008?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, a small community town in Burlington - everybody sort of knew everybody. I had a hard time finding my place there. I worked at the local library and then at a college library, but never really felt at home. So then I moved back and got a job at Fox News’ library. Which, oh man…
VFD: Hey, that's a good experience though, right?
Brandy Zadrozny: Oh, totally, totally. Like, I've never felt so secure in my critique of a place. There's so few monsters in the world. I never want to like, frame anyone… everyone has good in them. Every place has something redeemable. But I feel totally great saying that place is trash, because I worked there for a long time and I know it's true. So I worked there for a long time.
VFD: What would happen? Like, what was it about it?
Brandy Zadrozny: Oh, well, let me just finish this thing – So I worked there for a long time and then I decided I wanted a way out of Fox. And so I took a huge pay cut to be a baby reporter at The Daily Beast where this very kind editor took a chance on me and let me write for them, which was great. And I really loved it. And now, I'm here.
But Fox News… So, I worked in the brain room which is the research department.
VFD: Sounds cool.
Brandy Zadrozny: I mean… does it? It sounds branded in a way that anyone could understand it, but I don't know… I was always like: I work in the brain room. It's a very silly name for a journalist with, like, a degree and stuff. Anyway.
Brandy Zadrozny: So what the brain room was – it was supposed to be like any research department you would give context to. So you would make briefing books - like my briefing book was I had women's issues. So like, statistics around crimes against women or abortion, stuff like that. And then I also had the Syria briefing book, which I can't believe that is still going on. That says how long that's been happening.
But there were doctors, and they're in the brain room, there were lawyers, there were subject specialists, we had like an old SEC guy. Everybody had their sort of specialty. And I was like a generalist as a librarian, so it was cool. So we did those general things, but a lot of your day was spent with producers having a question, and they would send you the question, and then you would answer it.
Different shows had, well…
There's a clear point of view at that network, which is clear from anyone who has eyeballs. But you had varying degrees of questions. So like, Shep Smith's team would ask for, like: this news event is happening, we need witnesses or user generated content. Stuff like that. And then, y’know, “Fox and Friends” would ask the kinds of questions that you might imagine “Fox and Friends” would ask. My favourite “Fox and Friends” question was some producer was asking if dolphins raped people.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, I don't know.
I mean, listen, there are no stupid questions. There are no stupid questions. But, you know, it was during the Obama years, so everything was like: the deficit, the debt, how can we show this with a pile of doughnuts??
They wanted the mathematical computations to be able to say, like, how many doughnuts equals the debt. That was actually an Eric Bolling segment that actually aired and I remember just screaming at the TV - like we had all of these TVs and I was like: Nooooo. So a lot of screaming.
VFD: You said you were at Fox for a while? How long?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah I was there for over two years.
VFD: OK. Yeah, wow.
Brandy Zadrozny: Long enough.
VFD: Yeah, long enough - And then the Daily Beast: you said the editor kind of took a chance on you as a cub reporter? Did you have a beat when you started? Or was it just picking up things?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, when I got there, it was Newsweek and The Daily Beast. And the way that it was… everybody sort of had their dibs, I guess, on beats. And my job was what is now - or was then called - the cheat sheet. So it was like aggregated, 100 words or less. Which sounds like it's easy, but it was actually really hard.
You had to be under 100 words, you had to get the story, you had to have a lead and a kicker, and then you had to have the right voice. So we'd have, like, real editing sessions. It was cool. It really taught me to be a writer, I guess.
But I started there, and then once you did that, you got reporting days. So you'd have four days on the cheat sheet and then one reporting day. Which isn't that much right? And essentially everybody else has beats and you're basically… What I had to do was find a beat that nobody else wanted.
So in my first couple months, I remember just scrolling on the internet, just going down rabbit holes to be like: is this a story that no one else knows about? Like: I need to find a story that no one knows about. And then like, no one can beat me and I have no competition inside or outside. And so the first story I ever wrote was about this internet subculture called Christian Domestic Discipline.
VFD: Oh man, OK.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah. I remember I found the forum and I was like: [angelic noises] No one knows about this!
And so yeah, it was these people who – it's BDSM but for super Christians. And they have these cool, weird forums. And they have an influencer market. And like, bloggers. And I was just like: this is amazing.
So yeah, I interviewed a bunch of people who talked about the forum. It was like most of the stories I do now but that was the first one.
And then I kept telling those weird stories. Another piece I remember doing was on people who documented the loss of stillborns on YouTube. So, photos of their dead babies - which is weird, right? But actually it’s not very weird, because there's a long history of people documenting death and we're just weird about death now. And so it's sort of the most normal thing in the world. And then that story got picked up by the BBC. And I was like: Oh, it's not that weird. Like: there's a general appetite for weird news stories that actually sort of tell a story about human behaviour generally.
VFD: You might not have this experience, but I feel like I used to do that as well, as far as what you write about and what your beat is. And you spend so much time digging, and trying to find stuff, and there are often days or weeks where you're like: I can't find a fuckin’ thing! Do you have a process? At least - Did you back then? Or was it really just like: gotta be online all the time. Because that's all I could ever tell people.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, yeah. It’s terrifying. After every story – except in 2020, which was like a crazy year where the stories never stopped.
But like, even now, I’m on a weird lull. So it's been a week since I've had a good, strong story. And I'm like: Oh, that's it. Journalism's done with me. I'm quitting. I'm over. No one's gonna know who I am. No one remembers me, I suck. I'm the worst.
And it’s like… every single time. And my husband - he'll see it and he'll be like: you don't have a story? And I’ll be like: I don't have anything…
And it sucks. It's so hard. It feels so bad. And my process is to just be incredibly online. I try to read more non-internet stuff when I'm broken. Because a lot of times ideas will sort of come out of the paper New Yorker, like the physical copy of The New Yorker, y’know, not in places where sometimes you just get stuck in this scrolling thing. And it's like: wait, this isn't actually helping.
They just come. There's so many stories in the world, though. And I never remember this at the time, but like, there's so many stories. And now I've gotten to a place where I'm not a baby reporter. Like, I have people that will reach out to me and say: here is my story. Which is really, really nice. Yeah, it's good. That's a little helpful, but it's still really hard.
VFD: You ever have a period, particularly early on, where it was like… just as much about finding the story as it was about convincing the people around you professionally that it was a story? Are you lucky, because I guess The Daily Beast was a bit more online and therefore more accepting, saying: Okay, yeah, do it.
Brandy Zadrozny: I mean, I remember the YouTube stillborn story. I remember my editors being like: No… like, why would you want to tell that story? But I mean, I guess it sort of depends on what story it is. There are times that it takes forever to find a story. Luckily, like when I was at The Beast, I had other reporting days - the aggregation days - where it's like: you report on the news.
But I think it's really hard on this beat because most of the time what's happening online is not a story for public consumption, especially at NBC News. I do not think it's healthy for me, or anyone else really, to have that amount of Internet drama. Especially now, where I have sort of a more dangerous beat.
Like, you don't want to know what's happening in the QAnon spaces every day. They're sad places. There's just gonna be no story on that for a month. Y’know, we didn't do a story on QAnon until Summer 2018. And we had followed it the whole time. It was just like… when a story becomes responsible to report, or in some way informative, instead of just saying: here's this stuff on the internet. It has to become…
VFD: - Worth it?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah.
VFD: So from The Daily Beast did you go straight to NBC? Or was there somewhere in-between?
Brandy Zadrozny: I thought I'd be at The Daily Beast forever. I loved it. I really did. It was really great. My editor was lovely. I don't like change. But NBC started to poach my colleague, Ben Collins. And Ben and I, at that time, had started working on the darker side of online. It was less fun, niche stuff, or women's issue stuff. But it became darker. I was doing stuff with the Manosphere and…
VFD: What year was this?
Brandy Zadrozny: 20…. 2015. Yeah. So like, I was doing [stories on] pickup artists and their crimes revolving around that. And he was doing conspiracy theories. And we started working on school shooter / mass shooter stuff, because that was happening more and more. We'd find their online profiles - I'm really good at finding stuff.
So Ben's really good at like, finding things early, because he's one of the most online people I've ever met in my life. And so he'll be like: I'm looking at this thing. What do you think of this? And he's just as good now, but I was the researcher. I became the researcher at the Daily Beast too. So I'd help people do all of the things that I would do as a researcher at Fox News or wherever else. And so I was really good at finding people and, y’know, finding court cases and stuff like that. And so we sort of let our powers combine and we started working together more and more. NBC started poaching, or not poaching…That's a terrible thing. NBC, I think wanted…
VFD: They “recognised the talent,”
Brandy Zadrozny: Yes exactly - recognised the talent of Mr. Collins. And they started talking and then Ben was like: I think there's a place for a team. And we both went over in 2016.
VFD: Very timely.
Brandy Zadrozny: No… it wasn't I'm sorry. It wasn't until… it wasn't until 2017. That’s a lie.
VFD: And how would you describe what you do now then? Because I know that I think Ben, his Twitter is like: “I write about the end of the world.”
Brandy Zadrozny: His is the “dystopia beat”, yeah…
I mean, I should have thought about that. I guess I should think about that. I mean, I want to write stories. I want to write good stories. So like, technically, I think I'm a tech reporter. But I hardly know how to plug-in my laptop.
I'm not like a techie person. People tend to constantly be like: you report on the dark web and I’m like: I do not… I report on Facebook groups.
But my interest and like, my passion, is how people are utilising this new communication tool to communicate and decide what they believe, and decide how they're going to raise their children or, y’know, live their lives, or engage in politics.
I just think it's so interesting how quickly these platforms and this medium… It feels like it has changed everything. And I really think documenting that is really neat. And I like it.
VFD: And when did it start becoming like, a lot a lot about QAnon and conspiracies and the fun part of the American internet?
Brandy Zadrozny: I think in 2016 this thing happened where, like, all of the weirdos on the internet became politically important.
VFD: That’s a good way to describe it.
Brandy Zadrozny: I think a lot about Mike Cernovich. Unfortunately. But he's the kind of person that I was watching as a weirdo on the internet, right? Like, same thing with Roosh. My Manosphere people.
But suddenly, y’know, Mike Cernovich becomes a political operative after spreading these Pizza Gate rumours that are so stupid but fly because they're on platforms that reward terrible behaviour and bad faith and shocking content. And that somehow helped elect the President of the United States. So like, altogether, those pieces sort of became my beat.
And I think what happens is when you had respectable reporters who would go and talk about politics, and important people in the world, and even people who would interview Mark Zuckerberg, then you'd have all of a sudden, like, Pizza Gate questions. And so those reporters would come to us and be like: What is this thing?
Suddenly, the stupid stuff on the internet, the scary stuff on the internet, became just so mainstream and important. And that totally should not be??
I get really worried about my sort of status in journalism when I just don't think this beat should be as important as it is right now. And I'm hoping that it will become somehow less important in the days ahead. I don't know if that's true or not, but like, I'd be happy to go back to writing profiles of people, or, y’know, the way that you know the internet is changing and shaping lives. That sounds great to me.
VFD: A bit more positive?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, yeah, totally. I mean, it’s a dumpster.
VFD: How do you feel about – and disagree with me here if you think so - but in my mind, I see this 2015, ‘16, ‘17… like you were saying: weirdo people of the internet.
How aware do you think they are of their role in all of this? Have they become serious now? Because in my mind, it was a lot of meme-chasing, clout-chasing, growth hacking kind of shit. And then being like: well, it works. And y’know: I'm making money. So let's continue.
Whereas now, at the pointy end of things like QAnon and conspiracies, and just broader disinformation, you are seeing genuine lives getting ruined and genuine, real, serious world effects.
I guess my roundabout question is: do you think that the people that are really making those decisions, posting in those forums at the top level, that are influential… are aware of what they're doing? Or do they just genuinely believe what they're saying and they're just like: well, this is what I think. So this is my opinion. Or is it curated?
Is it like a deliberate thing to be like: Well, this has been working for us. So let's just keep hammering this.
Brandy Zadrozny: I mean I think about it like the old televangelists, right?
Brandy Zadrozny: Like Benny Hinn… I don’t know whether those people are true believers. I tend to think that they know exactly what they're doing, because we've seen examples of televangelists, specifically, behaving one way in front of their flock and another way in private. And I think the same thing sort of goes here.
Let’s take Mike Cernovich for example.
Mike Cernovich, he used to have the Gorilla Mindset, right? Like: improve your life, take supplements… little baby Alex Jones sort of thing. And then he got on the Trump train. He started being a political operative. And then you saw that sort of thing become replicated by a lot of folks from, like, Laura Loomer to Ali Alexander… Jack Posobiec. All of the people in that crowd – I don't know if they truly believe that Trump is the best thing ever. I don't know. And it almost doesn't matter, right? Because they have a formula that they know works.
Somebody like Roosh, right, who was a pickup artist. Like… Terrible, awful. Then he became a Trump supporter, blogger, whatever. And now he's like an evangelical Christian, and he's selling that sort of thing to his crew.
I think these people will pick up literally any ideology that will make them money or get them fame, or clout, or whatever it is. I mean, they're just… they're just hucksters. And unfortunately, people have a very short memory and so these folks can reinvent themselves really easily.
Even when Laura Loomer was running for Congress and she had just gotten banned from Twitterfor all that stuff. Like: she had a very short history! And then she was just there. And it was just sort of… I mean, some people knew that she was a wild one. But generally, people don't watch these spaces like we do. And so I think that these people can reinvent themselves super easily. And I think that they can basically peddle whatever sort of far-right talking point they want and get into this new fan club or, y’know, become leaders because they're good at it. They're good at media manipulation, they're good at conversation hijacking.
They have a network and they utilise this network to go wherever the wind blows them and the dollars push them. And I think that will continue forever. Probably. God, I hope I'm not reporting on them forever. It's so boring. Don't you find it boring?
VFD: I find it almost distressing. Because you're like: I keep writing the same story. It has different names. Different names in it, and maybe a different city in a different situation. But like: it's the same story. And people just keep reading it. Being like: Whoa, this is crazy.
And you just… I mean, you must have gone through that a lot in the last two or three years of screaming and yelling and screaming yelling, and then something like January 6 happens and you go: I told you so. But you say “I told you so” also with the knowledge that it doesn't matter. You don't really get to say “I told you so” in a way that feels rewarding because it just carries on. And now I'm making myself sad.
Brandy Zadrozny: I had this moment the other day when I had written something about QAnon rallies that were happening in a couple cities - like the “Save the Children” rallies. That’s a lie - scratch that - it was about Antifa. People were afraid that Antifa was coming to their town. And so we wrote this story about this town in Washington where militias came out looking for Antifa because they saw on Facebook Groups that Antifa was coming because the President was coming, and then there was law enforcement, and then it trickled down through the Facebook Group… And so there were like, these huge standoffs.
I know, even that, it's like: just normal.
Anyway, there was this standoff between Black Lives Matter protesters and - I mean that's the wrong word - but they were standing on one side of the road saying the names of black men and women who were killed for no reason. And then on the other side was like an army of fatigued white people with huge guns everywhere saying like: Go home! They’re shouting Go home! And it was just, like, terrifying.
So I wrote the story. And then the next week it just happened again - and the same in every town. It was just like: what is the point of this? So the only way I can sleep at night is by thinking like a librarian here. And it's like: the point of this is to document it. We're just documenting. The idea that we can change anything… I have given up on.
The other day, some tech executive was telling me how much power journalists have. And I was just like: Are you joking? Is this a joke? No one is listening. No one.
I mean, it doesn't affect the way that people act, or behave, or the policies… it doesn't matter to Facebook. Like, they don't care about an article I write. Nothing changes for these people. And I'm just pulling my hair out getting emails every 20 seconds about what a liar and a shill I am, and I can't put my children's faces on Instagram.
VFD: What do you do about that? Do you just ignore it?
Brandy Zadrozny: I think it depends who it is. There's like varying degrees of reaction. But yeah, I don't know. I mean, it depends. You know,
VFD: A lot of the time it's someone with the email account that's like a bunch of firstname.lastname@example.org. And you're like: OK, don't worry about them.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, I don't know. We get more correspondence from people. And I think because that's our beat, too. And the best stories I get are people reaching out being like: I'm in this weird Facebook group, or like: I'm getting this text message.What does it mean? So you have to be super available to people. But that availability comes with… it’s just so much.
I get like… I don't know, 20 emails a day. On a day that I don't have a story. Just from randoms mostly telling me how terrible I am. And mostly you don't do anything. You just, like, feel sad? I feel sad a lot. Is that a reaction?
VFD: That’s an honest reaction. I think that’s valid.
Do you think that… So in 2013, Alex Jones, for example, was just this guy, who… I mean he's been around since like, the ‘90s. He broke into… what's that secret club that all the Presidents go to? And I remember seeing that footage that he got when I was like 12 or 13 and being like: who is this dude running around???
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah,
VFD: What was that called? Camp David I think? [Editor’s note: It’s actually Bohemian Grove].
Brandy Zadrozny: Where they were having the meeting, right? Yeah.
VFD: But here's this crazy dude on community radio who talked about Bigfoot and supplements, and then we saw him break into mainstream in late 2015-2016. Do you think that… I guess has the audience always been there of genuinely serious people that believe him?
Because when I used to watch it, I felt like there was a big crew of people that were like: look at this crazy guy. That's funny! But in hindsight it's like: Was I actually in the minority and the majority was a lot of people that were like: Need to take my brain pills and need to watch out for Bigfoot!
Brandy Zadrozny: I mean, it's weird right? I don't meet a lot of people who are front-facingly crazy enough that I believe that they would think these crazy things. Buy his Brain Force Plus pills or whatever it is. But he makes so much money off of it. There must be a lot of people who believe it. I mean, there are right. But like… Alex Jones is entertaining as hell. He's very funny.
VFD: Yeah he’s like a comedian. He's like a Bill Hicks-level guy.
Brandy Zadrozny: It's like… he's a genius. He's really something to watch. I find it very enjoyable. I mean, what was the question? Whether people believe his schtick? It’s so much like the televangelists though, right? People just need leaders and people need people to follow and to believe in.
I don’t know, I don't believe in anything. But that's good. Right? People are people and everybody's weird and they have their things and we're trying our best and there you go.
But then there are these super charismatic sociopaths that know how to… I don't know. I'm not a good actress. I'm not a good performer. I'm not leading anybody. My goal in life, professionally, is to never manage anyone. So like, I don't understand how these people operate but it's clear when someone has it. Alex Jones has it. President Trump has it. This charismatic skill. And you can use that for good or evil, and evil just seems like it pays more.
VFD: Yeah, totally. Are you OK by the way with time?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah I actually have until 4:45PM. So you can tell me whenever you're done.
VFD: OK great. OK. When you're writing about these serious cases - let's say you're seeing people organising a militia-backed protest, or something like January 6, and you're seeing it on Facebook. And you're seeing it on 4chan. When do you make this decision to get police involved, if ever?
Because I know from my own experience, as a reporter in Australia, the moment you got police involved it was the moment that they killed your story and you never heard from them again. And so you're like, ethically, probably should get them in on this. But also, they're probably going to just completely squash everything that's happening here. Nothing to write about.
Brandy Zadrozny: There's been some times where I've seen targeted threats against a person, like a specific person, and I've called law enforcement. I've gone to my editor. We've gotten law enforcement involved. Or I've seen a couple of things involving specific people at specific companies, and I called the company and notified them to the threat or the harassment. But something like malicious planning and action at the State House… I don't involve law enforcement. I wouldn't involve law enforcement. I would report out what I see.
Like, if I see people organising on Facebook, I don't call Facebook and necessarily ask like: do you see this group? I'll just tell the story.
Once I saw this guy who was a QAnon person and he was saying that he was getting ready to go to one of the rallies, the QAnon rallies, and he was just like, strapped in very serious weapons and ammo. And he made some scary hashtags on it. And I just, like, tweeted it out. And I don't think Facebook was very happy with that. They would much prefer, whether it's law enforcement or platforms, they would very much like us to just quietly say: Excuse me, do you see this thing is happening? But like: that's not our job. That's their job. So my job is to inform the public about these activities in a way that informs them or helps them protect themselves or helps change policy or elevate marginalised voices or whatever the case may be, but it's not to tip off the cops.
VFD: Yeah. I just realised something. So probably a majority of the people that read this are “online”. Their brains are broken just like ours. But for those that aren't - and this might be a hard task - could you do a simple explanation of QAnon? And what it is?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, sure.
QAnon is an umbrella of conspiracy theory that started on 4chan, and it posits that there is a secret cabal of demon-worshipping baby eaters and they are people who are mostly Democratic members of Congress or democratic politicians. The Hollywood elite, like Tom Hanks, is the favourite. They sort of play this game online that they decode clues from a supposed government insider who's leaking all these clues about the secret war to stop this cabal. Who's leading the call? Donald Trump, of course. Notorious humanitarian and lover of women and children. He's saving them all. And this moment when he will unveil what he has done to save all the children is called The Storm and that is when all these people will be executed. And we will all have the awakening. And we will all live in bliss with the knowledge that all the children are now safe.
VFD: That was great. My favourite thing about that, which no one else is gonna get, is the way that you went into… Like it was reading the Miranda Rights or something. It sounds like something you've been asked quite a bit, probably, over the last 12 months.
Brandy Zadrozny: My word. I have typed it out so many times and you try to do it differently. I'm like: Am I plagiarising myself? Do you have to say it in a different way? Every time? I should just have a secret key that does the QAnon explainer, that would be great.
VFD: How much do you think QAnon is because of a lack of internet literacy, I think would be a term I'd use, or education on the matter. And people just blindly trusting all of these forums and comments and threads when they shouldn't.
Brandy Zadrozny: I think it's more like the widespread adoption of Chan culture, right? Like, the participatory nature of the Internet. And it just has reached this audience, but with a terrible message.
I mean, a lot of that has a terrible message. But yeah, for the boomers that are into it now and the general MAGA crowd which really made it balloon, I think they had never really played an online game like this before, right? And it is very gamey. And so I think it just got big because it was this participatory game that involved politics. So you already had half the people interested. And it came at a time when the older folks - is it rude to call people boomers? I think it is? I'll say baby boomers right?
VFD: Boomers get pissed about it, yeah. But it’s like… come on.
Brandy Zadrozny: OK, well… So when baby boomers, they just figured out Facebook, and now there was this cool new game to play. They remembered the Satanic Panic and I think they took a lot of the wrong lessons from it. They just remember like: Oh, yeah, I think that was a thing. Now it's still happening. And so yeah, it just got really big and then you had the Instagram people take it up as another MLM opportunity. Just a way to grow their brands, get clout… it just sort of fit wherever you want it.
You had this ready made audience that people wanted access to, and people wanted amplification from, so some people used it like that. Bad actors had a bunch of fools, right, that would buy into anything you said as long as you had the tag: where we go on we go all added to it. So that was really helpful.
VFD: What do you do when you’re interviewing someone who has completely bought into all of this, and you're listening to them, and they're just rattling off the complete laundry list of shit that's crazy and not real. And you have the knowledge that you're like: well, I gotta hang up this phone now and let them carry on living that life. I don't know if I'd have the strength to just not turn that interview into a whole conversation where we unpack their life and just be like: Hey…
But then you obviously can't do that for everyone you interview when you interview 50 people a week, right?
Brandy Zadrozny: Well, at first when I started doing QAnon stuff I got very invested in the believers. There is this woman and she is a mitten maker in Michigan. And she's so cute, man.
VFD: I'm already sad.
Brandy Zadrozny: It's sad. It's real sad. It's real sad. It's true. So buckle up. But she made these mittens… I think it's called like Sitting in a Mitten. So cute. And she had turned her little factory into a QAnon thing. So she was full on QAnon. And she would print out every Q drop and put it in this big binder and then she would read it like a devotional. So like, I don't know, it's just the people like that. And she was just really into it, man. She was looking for connection.
I used to sort of get involved emotionally. I do that less now. Because it's like… it's hard to feel so bad for these people when there are actual victims: people, lawmakers, and actors who are mercilessly harassed. And I'm harassed. I think it's terrible. I don't like it. It's not nice.
And then it’s based on this incredibly dangerous anti-semitic trope that is violent and dangerous, right? So like, I don't want to over empathise with people who choose to engage in this stuff all the time. It's hard.
Brandy Zadrozny: I'm also sick of the beat, to be honest. There's only so many times you can hear this stuff rattled off, or sit in the forums or the chats and just, like, listen to this. It's just that you get a little numb to it after a while, which probably isn't great.
VFD: OK, let's… On that uplifting note let's move away from QAnon because I think we've probably said all we can. But like, to a broader point of disinformation – Where I think America is kind of the industry leader and doing a very good job.
Brandy Zadrozny: Thankyou,
VFD: I see America, particularly in Internet and in politics, as the canary in the coal mine. They’re like this Looking Glass. So Australia, isn't there yet, but we're on our way -
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah I saw you all during the fires.
VFD: I mean I’m having face to face conversations with people about whether they're getting vaccinated. I'm seeing friends share things on Facebook that are absolutely cooked. We've got politicians that are beginning to realise: Hey, maybe this is what I actually need to become a multimillionaire. Rather than, y’know, serving the people in a way that's actually helpful.
But what would you say… When you notice the early stages of this kind of stuff, of the bad actors, and say it's like, 2015-2016, if you look back, what do you wish people had done more of? Or how do you think it could have been handled better?
Brandy Zadrozny: I mean I think a lot of this falls on tech, unfortunately. I know that's kind of boring to keep blaming them for everything, but I think that there was a social experiment going on, right? And no one wants to believe that they've created something terrible.
VFD: Yeah, evil,
Brandy Zadrozny:… That like, destroyed democracy. And caused genocidal maniacs to do their bidding and do their worst and to make people believe or fall into these rabbit holes where they don't have to take their cancer medication or, y’know…
All of that’s there, right? Again, we've had televangelists forever. Snake oil salesmen are not new. But the ability to amplify these untalented grifters - not the Alex Jones's - I'm talking about all the baby ones that come together in Twitter DMs and hijack an election,
VFD: Just the little things,
Brandy Zadrozny: Like those people who aren't good at anything. Like, they're not necessarily talented in any way, right?
Platforms, by refusing to think that there was a place for them to curate… Instead just allowing whatever the beast said to do the best. To like, sort of run free. I think that was… it was short sighted. And it was just dangerous thinking. And people get it now, I guess. They seem to get it. But now it's just… it's too big.
The scale is just too massive to actually do anything about it unless you unplug the website or drastically change the way that the feed works, which they're just not gonna do. They are still on growth mode. They're still on path to growth.
2016 was a stop point. Like: Whoa, something's happening here. Like: We're just gonna take a big pause until we figure this out. And nobody's gonna do that. And it’s just… I think people will get tired of it eventually, though.
Facebook is not long for this world. Like, it's not a good platform. Lots of people don't use it.
VFD: Old people can only be online for so long, right?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, and people that want all the gross stuff are now going to Parler and Gab, and telegram. Like, they have the places to do the bad stuff now. And so there's still misinformation on Facebook and whatever, but something's gonna have to change there, or it's going to die as we know it. And I think that probably it'll be the second thing.
I mean, marketplace is cool. Maybe it won't have the same ability to do the same harms. But I'm sure they'll think of new ones. So I don't know.
I think that maybe we're in a moment right now, where four years from now we'll say: oh, why didn't they think to do X, Y, or Z? But I don't know what that is. And that's why I make the small bucks.
VFD: Do you ever wonder if you're feeding the machine? And not, like, doing good?
Brandy Zadrozny: Ha, how dare you…
VFD: Well I only ask because that's how I always feel. You're just like: Fuck, am I just putting out more information?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, so I think that there's a way. There are times that I have been like: yes, I'm feeding the machine. I don't personally - and I’m not criticising other people's coverage - but I don't like writing stories that are like: there's still a misinformation problem on Facebook.
Brandy Zadrozny: Or: Facebook said they were gonna do something, but it's still bad.
Because I think that does add to the noise of it at this point. Everybody sort of knows Facebook's complicity in this and they know how that stuff works. So to just keep doing that sort of thing is a little much. But things that I'm interested in now, and the only way that I think you can differentiate the noise of tech criticism, is to have a good story. Right? And I don't think that adds to the beast.
Brandy Zadrozny: I'm proud of this story that I wrote about this woman who lost a baby at 45 weeks pregnant. She sort of fell down this internet rabbit hole of misinformation and freebirthing…
VFD:Oh I know it.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, and I just love it. She feels good about it afterwards. People now googling what was an internet lack of knowledge vacuum and get her story first, instead of the free birthing influencers who make a tonne of cash off this. And it's not so critical of the platforms, it's just… it's nuanced. And that's good. More nuance is always good. It's just… the internet is where nuance goes to die.
VFD: Yeah, that's fun. I am someone who works in, kind of, healthcare now, and that piece in particular is something I like, try and force people in my office and teams to just read. And you wrote it in… early last year, right?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah.
VFD: And it gave me knowledge to be like: we have to take a lot of time to think about how we do any sort of patient community or healthcare-based content strategy. Because the negative effects of people getting it wrong is just insane. So yeah, it’s a great story. I know what you mean about the nuance to it. And you feel good after writing it, which is… I think you should be able to feel that.
Brandy Zadrozny: Right? There are reporters in my shop who are just doing incredible work on voting restrictions being implemented right now. Or like, the immigration crisis at the border last year. You see that and it's like: that is real reporting. It's important work, you're shining a light on something, you're effecting real change, and you're promoting voices that normally don't get heard. I want to do that for Internet stuff.
Because, like you said, not only is it really, really, boring writing the same story about how these liars on the internet are lying and the internet is built in a way that helps their lives grow over and over and over and over and over again. It's very boring. And it makes everybody hate you even if it's true. And I don't know how much good it does. I mean, we've been doing it for years. And everything's pretty bad.
VFD: So maybe if… yeah. Oh, God. OK, I asked the subscribers if they had any questions for you. One of them was like,
Brandy Zadrozny: I'm so scared.
VFD: No no no, actually, there's only one. Well, there was two, but I snuck in the other one without mentioning it. But do you have an audience that you write to in your head? Have you pictured them? And let it sort of shape how you write?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, so… it depends. I write to my editor. I have a couple of editors. My long form editor particularly is a woman and she isn't that internet savvy. Or not not-savvy, but she's just not like, y’know, brain broken by the internet like some of us are and my other editor is as well. So like, it's really good, because it helps me write in a way that's super explanatory.
But before my editor here I had an editor, Katie at The Daily Beast, and I wrote to her as well because she's like a friend. Someone I care about. I think about the public generally, but particularly I write to impress.
When I'm writing a story that I really like I want to impress my editor because they're good at their jobs. They're just really good. They're good writers and people, and I want to make them feel something. Because if I can make them feel something then I can probably make the reader feel something and that's the only way. When you touch someone in a way, whether it's shocking them, or making them angry or making them extremely empathetic with someone else.
Brandy Zadrozny:Kevin Roose is great at this. I love the way he writes so many of his pieces, because it's like at the end of it you just feel a surge of empathy. And that's what I want from QAnon profiles to the medical misinformation stuff to whatever.
VFD: It’s good.
Brandy Zadrozny: I'm so nervous about this. Because, as you know, I feel like I…
Do you feel like you have lost the ability, the longer you spend online, the worse you get at talking?
VFD: Oh, I knew for probably two or three years. I needed to change my job significantly within media, or I needed to get out of media. And I did the latter. Which is like, maybe you could say, semi-cowardly, but I was also like: I can't keep doing this. I can’t keep being online all the time. And it's not just affecting me, it's affecting the people in my life that are not online all the time. And you just find yourself, like: it's 10PM at night and you're scrolling through 4chan, or Twitter, and you're like: why am I doing this? And the answer is because you have to. If you want to be good at it, you have to.
And that, yeah… I don't miss it. I'm not envious of you.
Brandy Zadrozny: It has been a long four years.
I've had a lot of jobs. I was a bartender, I loved it. It was so fun. I was a school teacher. It was great, really rewarding. I could do another job. But just recently I've just been thinking like: maybe that is a good idea? Like, I don't know – between the harassment, the brain brokenness, the …missing my children. Because you have to just be… you can't log off. It's just like: I don't know if this is actually worth it.
VFD: Yeah….Yeah. Okay, well, we can't end on that.
Brandy Zadrozny: What do I owe you for this therapy session. Oh, my God.
VFD: What do you think about that makes you happy? How do you get through it?
Brandy Zadrozny: Dolly Parton? A lot of Dolly Parton. I can see the light of a clear blue morning. Um, you know, I don't know.
VFD: It's like addictive, though, right? As much as it is draining. It's also, I mean, that's journalism, right? You're in a competition to find the story. And that feeling when you have the story, like you described at the top of this conversation, of knowing this community online and no one knows about it. I've found it and I’m going to be the one to tell everyone and really just educate. That's a very good feeling. And you don't really get that in any other line of work. And then you put it on Twitter and 100 people, 1000 people, say: great job! and you're like: Yes, I am valid! I am worthy of like… my space online!
God, Now I feel like I’m in therapy.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah I mean, attention feels really good. Getting attention. And the same thing with clicks and likes. And, y’know, we're all a part of this machine. That doesn't exclude me for sure. But after a while it does start to get old. I don't know. I'm on Twitter a lot less these days. And that seems great.
VFD: Yes, same.
Brandy Zadrozny: I scroll a little less than I used to. That's why I haven't had a story in a week.
But it'll come I guess.
Well this is really depressing. Hahaha. I'm sorry.
VFD: I keep trying to think of questions to bring it around. Let's do a favourite colour. What's your favourite band? What should we know?
Brandy Zadrozny: I mean, the fact is, it is depressing. It's a really depressing beat right now. I think there are spaces on the internet that are not depressing. And there are reporters doing a great job telling those fun stories. That's just not my beat.
VFD: Yeah. Well, I hope you get maybe another beat eventually. And yeah, you're great. You're very positive.
One more question: What do you think people get wrong about your line of work? Is there one thing that you're like: I wish people knew this about how I do what I do? Or why I do what I do?
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, I think that there is – I don't know if it's bad faith or if it's real. I think it it's guided by bad faith, but accepted by a large portion of the world or by the audience or whatever – who just think that I'm like a hall monitor looking to criticise. And I just wish people understood, like, how much we don't report
If you think my published stories are depressing, you should see my browser history, right? Like, it's just… we want to highlight stories where we think that maybe someone will read them and get something out of it that is good for their physical health, or their place in the democratic system, or, their media literacy generally. Definitely not to just beat up on tech or yell about the right.
VFD: And the whole tech thing, and the injection of CEOs and billionaires into the space now as characters, which I feel like is a story of 2021. Of the public facing Elon Musk and Horowitz. It's gonna be a fun 12 months.
Brandy Zadrozny: I’m not doing any of that. I'm saying no. I'm so glad that has nothing to do with my beat. I'm never writing about Clubhouse.
VFD: Not yet! What about Clubhouse QAnon? It’s definitely happening.
Brandy Zadrozny: I'm not ready. Actually, I liked Clubhouse for a couple of weeks. It felt like the old AOL internet or, like, you could just walk into a chat room about nothing that you understood and see people talking about it. But two weeks and I’m absolutely over it.
VFD: I think my issue with Clubhouse is the vapid transparency of the people on it trying to make themselves the Clubhouse People. And so you find those cool rooms, and you're like: this is cool. And then you realise there's the one person in there that's trying to be The Host. And it's just so transparent to me, and I'm just like: I'm not helping you do this. I'm not going to be a participant.
OK. Well, thanks so much for, really, an hour of your time. I know that was longer than we talked about, but I appreciate it.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yeah, my pleasure.