It’s sad that I should regard it as a chore to watch something I helped to pay for, but that’s the way it is. I wanted to satisfy myself that Web of Chaos was exactly what I expected, and so it turned out. There are few things more richly satisfying than having one’s prejudices confirmed.
The first clue was in the name of the director: Justin Pemberton. I vaguely recalled the name from somewhere else, and it soon came to me. Pemberton made Capital in the 21st Century, which I described in 2019 as a masterpiece of the propagandist’s art.
I wrote then that “The film uses every trick in the documentary-maker’s book to dramatise its message, which is that contemporary capitalism is overwhelmingly rigged in favour of the ultra-rich and basically rotten to the core”.
Web of Chaos uses similar techniques – powerful images, slick editing, ominous music – to create a sense of dread and foreboding. It’s a clever piece of work that will have chilled the hearts of anyone open to its message, which is that shadowy, dark forces on the far Right (that term again) are using the internet to promote hatred, division and paranoia.
If the name of the director wasn’t a pointer to the likely tone of the doco, the identities of the participants certainly were. The names were almost comically predictable: self-described “disinformation researcher” Byron C Clark, cultural historian Kate Hannah from the shadowy Disinformation Project, “media literacy expert” and activist Sanjana Hattotuwa (I presume that being an expert on “media literacy” means we can trust him to tell us which sources of information are safe), celebrity TV reporter David Farrier (memorably, if unflatteringly, described by Sean Plunket this week as a gutter-snipe journalist), the achingly woke Marc Daalder, Newsroom’s in-house proselytiser on climate change and right-wing extremism, and University of Otago philosophy professor Lisa Ellis, the one name unfamiliar to me, whose online resumé tells us she writes about “climate adaptation justice”, whatever that may be, and edits a magazine called Political Theory. Enough said.
In other words, the usual suspects: a tight little coterie of mutually supporting (and apparently well-resourced) activists marching in lockstep with a radical leftist government and mainstream media. All are caught up in, and simultaneously promulgate, a moral panic over so-called disinformation, which can loosely be defined as any information or opinion they dislike.
So … not exactly a balanced line-up, but polemical documentaries like this – even ones funded, albeit involuntarily, by the taxpayer – don’t pretend to be balanced. Would I turn to any of these “experts” for guidance on what I may safely watch, read and hear? Absolutely not. No one should.
No surprises, either, in the political phenomena that the doco presented as proof of the far Right’s baneful influence: Brexit, climate change denial, Donald Trump, toxic masculinity, evangelical Christianity (white Christianity, to be precise) and pandemic conspiracy theories all got a raking over.
There was talk of gullible people falling down rabbit holes, yet it occurred to me that the participants may have fallen down a few themselves. (Ah, I can almost hear them say, but their rabbit holes are okay.) They have immersed themselves in the same febrile, conspiratorial netherworld as the people they rail against. Perhaps they all deserve each other.
It also occurred to me (as it did with Stuff’s recent Fire and Fury documentary) that by amplifying online hysteria and paranoia, and probably doing their enemies a favour by doing so, they become part of the problem they purport to deplore. A detached observer – someone living in the real world, perhaps, and thus immune to overheated conspiracy theories from either side – could hardly be blamed for wishing a plague on all their houses.
What particularly struck me about Web of Chaos was the feeling that what really vexed the participants most is that they’re unable to control the digital conversation. Much of the leftist idealism that drove the internet in its early years has evaporated and anarchy has moved in. This is not how it was supposed to play out.
This is not to deny that some of the online content deplored by the virtuous participants in Web of Chaos is poisonous – but in the information wars, the poison flows both ways. The documentary didn’t mention neo-Marxist vitriol on Twitter or the routine cancellation of any opinions, no matter how reasoned or moderate, that run counter to woke orthodoxy. Neither did it consider the possibility that conservative opinion has been driven underground because it was locked out of mainstream social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.
Extremism is bound to thrive when dissent is suppressed by members of a pharisaical caste that takes upon itself the right to determine what others may read and hear. This was the less than surprising conclusion to be drawn from Web of Chaos – a documentary accurately assessed by the aforementioned Sean Plunket as having the same level of journalistic integrity as Fire and Fury, but with the important difference that it was made using public money. Hence we all become accomplices in our own indoctrination.
And speaking of brazen, state-funded journalistic bias, how about the latest Sunday programme on TVNZ? In a lifetime of television viewing I’ve seen some atrocious reportage, but rarely anything so egregiously slanted as Mark Crysell’s report on the consequences of the US Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Crysell took it as given that it’s a fundamental human right to take the life of an unborn child. Not for a millisecond did he bother himself with the consideration that many of the people watching his report find abortion deeply repugnant. Insofar as objections to abortion were acknowledged at all, they were presented as being confined to a slightly mad and dangerous religious fringe.
He informed us that what’s unfolding in Texas, where abortion is now illegal unless the mother’s life is threatened, is a “human tragedy”. But wait! This could be to New Zealand’s benefit, Crysell revealed, because disenchanted American medical professionals are thinking of emigrating. This could be the solution, he suggested, to the staffing crisis in our health sector.
Really? I’m not sure I’d welcome doctors and nurses who want to leave the US for the sole reason that they’re no longer allowed to kill foetuses. I subscribe to the quaint idea that we’d be better off with health professionals who are concerned with saving lives rather than terminating them. Yet Crysell portrayed the Texas abortionists as being motivated by high principle. It was a striking illustration of how grotesquely warped the abortion cult has become.
As is invariably the case in media coverage of abortion, the unborn child was unmentioned and invisible. Easier and more convenient to ignore it.
Crysell’s report was a “f*** you” gesture to all the mugs in Sunday’s audience whom he must have known would find its tone offensive. They pay his salary and pick up the tab for his flights, hotel bills and rental cars (not that they have any say in the matter), and in return he exercises an assumed right to impose on them his personal prejudices on a profoundly contentious issue.
What a contemptible creep. As an arrogant abuse of media power, it’s equal to anything Rupert Murdoch ever dreamed up.