Very Fine Day #16: Jared Holt

Brad Esposito

Jared is a reporter and researcher who focuses on domestic extremism in the United States. Previously an investigative reporter at Right Wing Watch, Jared has covered the rise of right-wing extremism in the US over the last few years. He also has a podcast + newsletter called Sh!tpost, enjoys riding his bike, cooking, and not talking about his day job too much to his friends.

VFD: Alright Jared, for starters, when I was trying to do a background scrape on you, like: “what should I ask him?”, there’s actually not a whole lot out there about you. Is that deliberate? Because of your line of work?

Jared Holt: Yeah, it's very deliberate. I've spent a lot of time, over the years that I've been doing this kind of work, removing or obscuring things about myself online. Just to make sure that whatever blowback comes from doing this kind of work goes to spots where I can keep control over it. And also to protect my family members and my loved ones, that sort of thing.

VFD: I imagine that when you were a kid and you’re drawing “what I want to be when I'm older” – a crayon astronaut and stuff – you didn't draw an extremism researcher.

Jared Holt: No, when I was growing up, for a long time I thought I wanted to be an airline pilot. But then I realised there was a lot of math knowledge involved and I thought: nah, forget that, I’ll write for a living. I can do that.

VFD: So how did you end up where you are, in this position?

Jared: So when I was in college studying journalism I took a liking to political journalism. Growing up in a place like Arkansas, there aren’t a lot of job opportunities. Arkansas is one of those states where corporate conglomerates have gone and purchased up local papers, and really just culled them down to staff that are being paid embarrassing wages to produce obscene amounts of work on tight deadlines.

VFD: Sounds about right.

Jared Holt: And I thought there had to be something better than that.

So I packed up a few suitcases and moved to DC, where I started working at a media watchdog organisation: Media Matters. And for all the Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity, and columnists I was reading at the time, there was also something happening online in more social spaces, or on forum boards, that wasn’t traditionally thought of in the scope of media monitoring.

So after sitting around and kind of saying: Oh, somebody should do this, somebody should pay attention to it, I thought: you know what, I know a lot about these places already, having grown up using a lot of them, so why don't I take a shot at it? And the rest is history, I guess.

VFD: Yeah. So that was your first main role in journalism? Being this kind of reporter?

Jared Holt: Yeah, I mean I covered some local and state politics stringing for a state paper. But that was my first out of college, Big Boy Pants type of job.

VFD: I know you said that you'd generally noticed, on social media, the conversations that people were having on the internet… But was there a specific moment or news event that kind of triggered it in your head as: This isn't the Facebook designed for “socialising” and “friendship.”

Jared Holt: I think it probably happened over the course of a couple of years, slowly.

I was noticing that places like 4chan and Reddit were becoming more overtly political than they had been, or I thought I had noticed, growing up using those kinds of sites as a teenager who was just addicted to finding the weirdest, most terrible things on the internet.

And I was noticing that the politics developing in a lot of those places were very reactionary, right-wing politics that – even growing up in a conservative place like Arkansas – I had thought of as fringe or as something that a lot of people didn't believe. But there it was online, thousands if not more people espousing that kind of rhetoric.

And then in late 2014 to mid 2015, it really spun towards the extreme direction. That really concerned me.

Then Trump comes into the picture and all of these places explode, there's all these eyeballs on them, and at the time there were reporters who were writing about these kinds of issues and some who were doing it particularly well. But I felt that there were different aspects of this, particularly the way that these different communities had built out parallel networks for themselves to where they can exist and propagandise without relying on traditional media. That, I thought, should be explored a little bit more.

So that's where some of my early work focused on: looking at the networks of MAGA personalities that had rallied and boosted themselves behind Trump, different networks of influencers on YouTube that were regurgitating white supremacists talking points, and drawing some of those lines where maybe they hadn't been drawn as clearly before.

VFD: Were you just coming into work every day, like: What the fuck?

I feel like to be a reporter in Trump’s America, that four year period, but particularly to be a reporter on your beat, would have just been... not relaxing, to say the least.

Jared Holt: Yeah. I mean, it's certainly not relaxing. But the subject matter itself is very disturbing, oftentimes. And nowadays I have developed, whether it is through coping or through some sort of dissonance I've made in my head, a very clinical approach to this subject matter where I can hear something absolutely awful and not have a really deep personal reaction to it.

And then part of that is also easier, because I'm a young white guy, and this hate is not directed at who I am as a person, so I'd be remiss not to acknowledge that.

But when I first started doing this, looking back, it really did mess with my head in ways that were pretty gruelling. It's really disturbing.

A lot of these communities, when you start reporting on them, will turn all that intensity towards you: trying to find out where you live, calling your parents. And that's not something that they will teach you how to prepare for when you're learning to be a journalist. That's not really something I think anyone should have to go through for doing their job. But it is a side effect of this kind of coverage and a side effect that people are feeling even outside of the beat more and more as distrust grows for reporting in the country.

Different bad actors are in the mix, attempting to exploit the polarisation of the country, and they aim some of that ire towards reporters who are trying to produce stories that contribute to conversations and understandings about it.

VFD:  Yeah, I saw a tweet you did a few days ago that was talking about whether it was even possible to bring back the truth. To bring back a certain level of understanding.

Like, can we get to: “these are the facts”. Or have we gone beyond that point and there’s no coming back. At least in America.

Either way, do you think there's a return point? Or do you think we're in the “Post-truth era”. To use that phrase that I’m not super keen on.

Jared Holt: Yeah, I've been thinking about this a lot lately and the more I think about it, the more I become disillusioned with the idea of returning to anything that we might call normal. Because what we call normal, really, is just what we find familiar. So normal means different things to different people. And I think it's going to be almost impossible to convince a majority of Americans to return to a singular vision of “normal”. I think instead – because this kicked into motion years ago – instead of trying to play catch up, or trying to debunk every false claim, that perhaps the way forward is to recognise the environment that we're in and make the goal to dominate it by making the truth powerful and compelling and stronger than lies. But that's a very unique challenge. It's a mountain, right?

VFD: You'd also have to assume that more than the majority of the media would work towards that goal, right? And I don't know if they would.

Jared Holt: Right, it would require a certain amount of buy-in. Which, in some lights, could be kind of weird to think about. Y’know, all news organisations acting as a monolith.

But no, I think this problem is specifically tricky, especially in the United States where local-level and state-level reporting has suffered so many devastating blows with newsrooms laying off massive amounts of staff, and investigative reporters being told to look elsewhere for work. So producing the truth and making it compelling and making it sexier than whatever beanie-wearing YouTube pundit might say is going to be expensive, and it's probably not going to be especially profitable.

So whether the way forward is grants from nonprofits, or government entities, or simply persuading people to chip in to a news organisation the same way they might contribute to a Youtuber’s Patreon for a cost-driven reason. That's kind of where my head's been lately about this.

I think it makes more sense to go through the problem and try to blow through the other side of the wreckage in the best shape that you can, rather than trying to run back the clock and go back to this romanticised idea of how great things once were.

VFD: It's interesting to talk to people, particularly Americans, and hear the feelings about, politically, how a significant chunk of the political class of the government is working in a way that doesn't really line up with the solution you just put forward, right?

That lovely goal of achieving a fact-based, shining, glistening version of the media industry. And for many people I talk to in the US, their solution is: Well, the truth will always win. If we can just keep pointing out the truth that'll work! But if the truth always wins wouldn't it have done that by now?

Jared Holt: I think that type of thinking also ignores a lot of history where the truth did not win. Y’know, there's certainly countless examples of terrible things that have happened in the world that were enabled by lies winning over populations.

And yeah, part of this is confronting the incentives that media entities on a private level often have, and recognising how similar aspects of that can be to the same thing driving a podcaster or a YouTuber who is cranking out misinformation or dishonest perspectives about things, which is audience growth and relationship building. So the hard pill to swallow is that publications, to be profitable and successful, have to do those same things. But right now they're getting their ass kicked at it.

VFD: So what's the solution, then? Is it you on YouTube in front of the camera being like: What's up guys, this is the extremism report of the day! Like and subscribe, hit the notification button! Does it need to be that kind of presentation?

Jared Holt: I don't think we need to clone it and I certainly hope that personally, I will not become a YouTuber.

VFD: There’s still time, man.

Jared Holt: But I think we could stand to really pause and try to understand what makes people on platforms like YouTube able to build large audiences that trust them, regardless of truth value or objectivity, and try to see if we can apply some of that to an industry that actually operates with a set of understood ethics, and use strategies or presentation styles, or audience relationship building methods to convince readers of news, or viewers of news, to trust the sources that they really should be trusting over random people filming out of a spare bedroom. Who, y’know, might not know as much. And I don't say that to…

VFD: Discredit the entire YouTube generation?

Jared Holt: Yeah, I definitely don't say that to discredit every independent content creator. But unfortunately, what's really, really, solid isn't always what's popular when it comes to independent content creation. So I’m speaking extremely generally.

VFD: Yeah. Do you think the understanding of extremism and far-right / insane stuff out there is underestimated by the general public?

Jared Holt: What do you mean by underestimated?

VFD: That's probably the wrong word. How much of the American population do you think are just not aware of how serious this is? Like, I have friends in the US who I still talk to and they're like: lol QAnon. Look at these idiots. And in Australia, you don’t see it a lot, but even last year I saw someone ironically wearing a Make America Great Again hat because, like: lol Trump. And I was just like, I'm not sure you guys fully understand what's happening to the world.

Jared Holt: Yeah, I think there could be a tendency for average Americans to roll their eyes at, or be dismissive of, extremism reporting. Because although the US has a problem with extremism, and has experienced a surge in recent years, and has permeated a lot of areas where it normally wouldn't get to, like school boards and local elections, I think because this ideology – even though it's growing is still a fringe one – I think people underestimate the risks that it poses as it's growing and spreading and weaselling its way into places where it shouldn't be.

And something I try to explain to people, or try to get people to think about, is that to really pause and think of a conspiracy theory, like QAnon, or an extremist ideology like the White Nationalist Great Replacement theory, and to just sit with it and think about the effects or the thoughts or the motivation it could produce in a true believer.

For a lot of people this kind of stuff sounds crazy, but if you really try to picture what it could look like if somebody absorbs that kind of information, and believes it fully, I think the danger becomes a little bit more evident.

If a QAnon believer really thinks deep down in their heart that there is a cabal of satanic paedophiles doing immoral harm to children in plain sight, and that nobody's doing anything about it...most of them probably won't do anything, but somebody who really, really, believes it and feels like they need to act might be motivated to try something on their own. And that could be violent and people could get hurt. So, even though we're talking about these ideologies that are a fringe, and that a violent portion of that is a fringe within a fringe, that fringe within a fringe can do a lot of damage if it's left unchecked.

VFD: Yeah, it would only take one, right? Or a handful.

Jared Holt: And at this point, a fringe within a fringe becomes more concerning as these ideologies are spreading or blooming or reaching new audiences. Because at that point it's just a numbers game. If you had maybe one in 1000 QAnon believers who would feel motivated to do something in real life. But now you've got 100,000 QAnon believers, then that one in 1000 becomes 100 people. So yeah, that's kind of the way I try to get people to think about it.

VFD: Yeah, shit, that's scary. That is a good way to think about it. It unpacks it in quite a devastating way.

How do you find out what you find out? I know that sounds like a really simple question. But is it really just being online a lot, and reading a lot, and just having to absorb a lot of information? Or is there a particular method to your day or the way that you look into the subjects that you found useful?

Jared Holt: Well, every day, or I should say, every day that I'm working, I try to spend at the very least a few hours in the shoes of an extremist internet power user.

I'm just gobbling podcasts, slamming through blogs and Telegram channels, and just mass consuming content. And then I also have, from my years of reporting, sources developed within extremist movements who I'll check in with from time to time to try to suss out internal temperatures or what's happening behind the scenes. Because sometimes that can be very different than what's being presented forwardly.

When they're operating openly online, they're becoming more and more conscious of the fact that reporters and researchers are paying attention to them. Some groups, or even many groups, will try to project things to the audience. They almost take on personas. And what is happening behind the scenes can sometimes be different. So it's a mix of being just… online with the most poisoned brain… and also some old school reporting that goes into it too.

VFD: Do you have any self-care methods or anything to deal with being super online and putting yourself in the shoes of someone like that for hours at a time? Like, sometimes if I have to listen to a podcast that I don't like it ruins my day. I can't imagine what it's like to listen to hours of what you put yourself through.

And also, just how emotionally distressing, and maybe you don't feel this way anymore, but to interact with that kind of stuff and know that this is genuine, this is not a comedy piece, this is a genuine form of media that people genuinely interact with…

Jared Holt:  Yeah, as far as self-care goes, the best one I've been able to come up with myself is just drawing an absolute line between my work and my personal life. So by doing that I'm able to close the laptop screen and physically just walk away from this if I need to. And I have a lot of hobbies that keep me sane. I love to ride my bike, I love to do photography, I hang out with my dog and cook. So I have a lot of creative outlets where I can get some of that energy out, too, and that helps quite a bit.

VFD: Do you have people in your life that have no idea about the other side of you. They're like: That’s Jared, we go bike riding together. He's got a nice dog, cooks great food.

Jared Holt: Well, I live in DC, and the cliche about Washington DC is that people ask you what your name is and then ask where you work. So most people at least have an idea of what I do.

But I don't know that many people, besides friends I've made among colleagues who do this kind of work, who really understand what the day-to-day is like. And I never feel particularly motivated to share that with them.

Y’know, we're having drinks and it's a nice night… I'm not like: Oh, You'll never believe what this Neo Nazi said about trying to start a new political party, it's insane.

VFD: Haha, yeah, like let's go round the table: Jared’s turn to tell a story. Is the classic conversation of: How was your day at work? does that not really happen much?

Jared Holt: It happens. My fiancé knows quite a bit about my work and they have to hear me ramble about it. But yeah, I just don't get into too granular of details, because nobody should have to know about this stuff until they need to. That's kind of how I approach it I guess.

VFD: So tell me about what you're doing now. You’re with a research institute, right?

Jared Holt: Yeah, I’m with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, which is part of the Atlantic Council. I'm a resident fellow there, and I keep daily tabs and statuses, basically, on domestic extremism and where it's intersecting with the internet. Which is a particularly interesting place to work now, as these kinds of conversations are being brought up more in regards to national security or in congressional hearings.

So it has been really satisfying, at this point in time, to back off the daily publication schedule and be able to look and try to understand things as they function like a system, rather than whatever is happening in any given moment. And also to be able to develop that understanding and share it with people who can do something about it, who can influence policy, or get that kind of information to places it wouldn’t otherwise.

VFD: Do you ever just wish you wrote about baseball or something?

Jared Holt: I have this dream of just sitting down and writing an album review for Pitchfork, but I'm afraid that if I shared it, or if people saw my byline on it, they might immediately be like: Oh, my God, The Strokes are Nazis now.

But yeah, maybe one day that'll be an option for me. But right now I don't know. I'd love to write something like that. But I don't get asked to.

VFD:  I’ll reach out to Pitchfork after this and I’ll be like: Think about it, extremism meets album reviews. Go back to being edgy again, come on, it's been 15 years since you were.

OK, then what do you think about Fox News?

Before we go into this, I don't want to spend 25 minutes talking about Fox News or something, because I feel like that's not a great way to start my day or to end yours. But what is interesting to me about Fox News is not that it's completely cooked and broken in the US - which it is - but in that it's beginning to disseminate into other parts of the world, right? Like the Fox News platform, and the structure of it, is – you could argue – being softly recreated in Australia, and in the media ladder we have going on here.

And I'm sure that's the case in a lot of other countries as well, where certain people have looked at the US and looked at Fox News and its impact on the American people, and they've gone: That would be nice. Let's do it here.

So how do you think about that as such a polar opposite to what your job is about?Someone like Tucker Carlson going on TV every day and just screaming at people and being like: yell at people if they make you wear a mask! Be an American Citizen about it!

Jared Holt: Yeah, Fox News is kind of interesting in that it’s most weeks the most-watched cable news outlet in the United States. And because of that they're able to agenda-set the conversation in more powerful ways than even other cable news networks are. And the real shame is that with that power comes great responsibility. But with Fox News's power, there is no responsibility. They fail the Spider Man test. And when you have hosts like Tucker Carlson just actively mainlining extremist rhetoric and misinformation into such a massive audience, that really has a devastating effect across the whole field of misinformation and disinformation.

And Fox News is perhaps the largest and most visible example of this, but this happens all the time on smaller levels all across social media, and it's not like an exclusively partisan thing in the US. There's false information getting published by liberals, too. But the difference is that the media infrastructure of the GOP, the Fox News, Daily Callers of the world, are in on the game. And it makes it just magnitudes more effective.

VFD: Yeah. Is it just a money thing? Is it just like: we're onto it, it’s working? The past four years have obviously catapulted him into, as you said, the number one thing to watch every night. And there's got to be, just from a business side of things, people in those rooms saying: we gotta keep doing this. This is working. The business of television, the business of news.

Jared Holt: Yeah, I mean, I'm sure there's a financial incentive to keep doing it. But recently Tucker Carlson seems to be shifting into a little bit of a liability for Fox News. Advertisers will pull their campaigns from Fox News based on things that Tucker says on the air. But Fox News has stuck by him and continues to pay him very well. And part of me wonders if Fox News let it go on too long while they were still making a lot of money off it. And now, if they compromise, will the viewers who are constantly being preached at about cancel culture and political correctness, would they rebel against Fox News if Tucker Carlson was punished? He almost seems untouchable at the network now.

VFD Yeah, I hadn't thought of that.

Jared Holt: But I also think that having someone like Tucker doing what he does at the perch of Fox News contributes to the destabilisation of the country. Misinformation and disinformation can jeopardise the integrity of social networks and social safety… We saw it on January 6.

So that destabilising effect is always very worrying because populations that are chaotic and not stable, historically, have been vulnerable to more aggressive or authoritarian governments.

VFD: So what do you think's going to happen in the future of America, and of extremism? Do you see a return on the horizon of, well… chaos? Or has the Biden presidency, and a general kind of happiness about the end of COVID, will that be enough to keep people chill for a little while?

Jared Holt: As far as extremist organising on the ground goes, it's still pretty quiet since the Capitol attack. So many people got arrested and that national security apparatus roared to life and aimed its eyes at a lot of these groups, which probably caused them to simultaneously shit their pants…

VFD: They didn’t exactly make it hard, did they.

Jared Holt: But as far as the future of extremist organising goes, that kind of remains to be seen. Even against the worst public backlash, and government backlash, that extremist groups have faced through the years, they always wind up finding their way back home.

So the question really is: just how long will it be until they find their way, and what will look like when they do?

As for the future of America, I wish I had a crystal ball to look into and tell you what it was gonna be. If I had one of those, I'd probably make way more money than I make now.

At least the way I think about it, one way we could get out of this is by – as cliche as it sounds – returning to this modification on the idea of the marketplace of ideas or debate. That term has been thrown around a lot lately in contexts that I wouldn't encourage people to buy into. But if you think about it, people in society who are peddling extreme ideas, or misinformation, are selling something.

Sometimes it's literal. Sometimes it’s Alex Jones taking Super Male Vitality Drops that you put under your tongue that make you Superdude. But what you're also selling is a vision of what the country should be, what it should look like, how we should feel, how we should treat each other.

So I think if people can care about values, humanity, or truthfulness and stuff, if we can sell that, if we can sell a better vision than what these awful people are hawking to people, then maybe there's a way forward.

VFD: So what you're saying is: we need our own kind of supplement and vitamin.

Jared Holt: You need a newsletter-branded vitality serum.

VFD: Yeah. And then the solution is there.

Jared: And it'll grow your hair.

VFD: Now I’m thinking of four years from now when you're bright red and you have your shirt off, flexing for the camera.

Jared: You'll be like: I interviewed that guy once. He was kinda different then.

VFD: Alright man, well thanks so much. I really appreciate it.