David Farrier is an incredibly talented New Zealand journalist who uses his vast array of interests to keep reskinning one of the most fundamental questions we ask ourselves – why do we do what we do?
David has been on our screens and writing for publications in New Zealand for the last fifteen years; he started his journalism work at TV3, and then branched out to create his own content, including the documentary film Tickled which was screened in 2016 at Sundance, and the Netflix series Dark Tourist. He has a delightful back catalogue of short-form articles on The Spinoff that I have enjoyed for a while, but this year, I’ve started to devour more of what David’s writing about specifically.
Without Twitter or Instagram, and a newsfeed blocker on Facebook, it can be hard to connect with what’s topical, so I was delighted to hear that David had started a Substack. This is an online platform that supports paid subscriptions to written newsletters, which most reporters keen to connect with their audiences and supplement their income seem to have tried out this year. David’s work lights up my inbox because he and I share a particular interest. In his greater quest to understand human motivations, David seriously scrutinises conspiracy theories.
He’s become such an expert in this area, he has started a podcast with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, famous from the podcast Armchair Expert, called Armchaired and Dangerous, where David explains a conspiracy to them each month. David’s thick Kiwi accent and seemingly inexhaustible knowledge about all things conspiracy-related tempers the conversation with his rather intense co-hosts. He can move a seemingly ridiculous, bizarre or frightening belief, step by step, into something almost everyone could understand.
I’m grateful for David, because he’s the one who trawls the truly xenophobic, hateful spaces on the Internet where conspiracies start to breed, screenshots comments that are hastily deleted, gets blocked for simply asking questions and suffers consistent abuse when he writes up and distributes his stories. Most recently, David was a target on a hoax golliwog sale site, where his face was used to sell the racist dolls without his consent by a man who has been stalking him for years. This man turned up to David’s old place of work and literally left him this note, a “clear threat couched in a jovial tone”…
As someone who is scared of criticism and being disliked, seeing a tiny sliver of what David puts up with to get his stories out there really made me grateful for his courage and determination to bring the truth to the light of day. I can only imagine that that kind of harassment would be wearying, upsetting, even frightening. David is so passionate about getting to the bottom of these beliefs, he is willing to put up with vitriol like this after breaking the story about Lonely, the lingerie brand whose owners put their staff at huge risk because of their belief in QAnon:
To counteract the abuse he gets, David naturally engages the steel man argument device. This is a technique used when you disagree with the person you’re talking to; instead of giving the impression that you have refuted the argument while actually attacking the ‘straw man’, you learn the argument so well, you’re able to explain it back to the person who believes it and show them that you understand what they’re saying, perhaps even better than they do. Farrier knows what he’s talking and writing about, inside out. And because he writes without condescension, what he actually does better than anyone else I’ve read is explain to his audience what is so appealing about conspiracy theories.
With a topic like conspiracy theories, it’s always personal. At this stage of the game, with the fertile mixture of a pandemic, a government-enforced lockdown and several major elections happening this year, I’d put money on the fact that we all know people who are dabbling in the shallows of UFO sightings and chemtrails, or has followed the white rabbit right into the adrenochrome-filled deep end.
Having a sane, clear-headed expert who can help each of us understand how to engage with those we love who believe in conspiracy theories is a true gift. I’d derided those who didn’t believe what I did, so I could never understand them. He helps me to understand what I have previously written off as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘unfathomable’, as having deeper psychological roots and implications than a simple paranoid belief. David has really helped me to pull back on my own scepticism (ironically) and dig a little deeper into their ‘why’.
David’s also a proponent of a style of media reporting that causes waves in some tradition circles. I had heard the term ‘both sides journalism’ bandied about throughout my study of the media, as well as reading about it later on in life. RNZ journalist Hayden Donnell has consistently called out this way of reporting, exactly because of how harmful it is when a story doesn’t deserve to be balanced. Here’s Hayden explaining what he means:
Reporters have been limited by a sense of professional decorum, where you really feel (and this is legitimate and it comes from a good place), that you have to give both sides of a dispute (particularly a political dispute in a democracy, and particularly in a two-party system) equal coverage. You put one side and then the other side, and you let the readers decide who’s right. That’s just the way that journalism is taught.Taken from RNZ’s Mediawatch
For example, when climate emergency articles are written, “both sides” journalism would give equal weight to the slim minority of people who believe global warming is a hoax, as to the 97% of scientists who believe this is the biggest threat to face mankind. David believes, as Hayden Donnell and Sinead Boucher and Robert Fiske believe, that there are topics where both sides are not morally equivalent, and he’s prepared to put the impractical and unattainable journalistic nirvana of ‘objectivity’ aside to write about what he thinks is the truth.
David is relentless, quirky, and kind. He shines a light where I am too frustrated and scared to direct the torch myself, and he comes back with stories to tell, not just about what conspiracies are out there, but why they have their hooks in so many people we know and love.
Thank you, David, for asking questions, for keeping the pressure on, for keeping your cool, for writing, and for publishing your stories. Many of us are all the better for it.
If you are at all interested in David’s writing, I’d highly recommend popping over to his website, webworm.co. You can subscribe to either a paid or free version of his newsletter and get world-class journalism right to your inbox.
I’ll leave the last word to David about why he does what he does, taken from his Webworm newsletter on 10th December. It is a beautiful insight into his own unanswerable question – why do we do what we do?
I don’t want to get too earnest or lofty, but a big part of what drives my work is that I’m just so tired of people who are dishonest and privileged; who move from one dodgy endeavour to the next with perceived invincibility. Whether I’m writing about an antique store that’s gone clamp mad, or diving into deranged QAnon beliefs, or making a film about a tickling kingpin — it all comes back to one thing: I really dislike bullies.