Sacha Baron Cohen's Fake Conspiracy Site Is Fully Post-Parody
The first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show Who Is America? hit Showtime over the weekend, and it makes for 30 minutes of brutally uncomfortable viewing. It opens with Cohen, disguised as Dr. Billy W. Ruddick, publisher of Truthbrary.org, interviewing Bernie Sanders about Obamacare. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I really don’t,” Sanders finally says after listening to Cohen tell him that if the 99 percent of Americans not in the richest 1 percent would just move over into the 199 percent, they’d be fine. By the end of the episode, Cohen easily convinces sitting senators to record a PSA in favor of arming three-year-olds in school with guns.
Cohen plays four different characters on the new show: the mobility-scooter-riding Ruddick who can’t do math, an Israeli counterterrorism expert who thinks exceptional 16-month-olds can handle guns, a Seattle liberal who forces his daughter to menstruate on American flags, and a British ex-con looking to start a career as an artist (his media of choice are feces and ejaculate). That all sounds like over-the-top parody, but the dry-eyed brutality of Who Is America? is how, aside from Cohen’s prosthetics, so much of the show is rooted in reality. It’s just that reality in 2018 is pretty absurd.
The existence of Truthbrary.org makes this clear. In the episode, Cohen's alter ego Ruddick directs people to visit his website , which turns out to be home to an insane mix of conspiracy theories. (Now that Who Is America? has aired, it also features Ruddick's claims of being duped by Cohen.) “REJECT THE MAINSTREME MEDIA + THE LIEbrary OF FALSE INFOMATION THEY TRY TO PUSH INTO THE PUBLICS MIND'S. THE TRUTHBRARY WILL SET YOU FREE. THIS IS A LIBERTY WEBSITE FOR TRUE AMERICA AND TRUTH LOVING AMERICANS,” it reads.
Along the left-hand side, the site presents an index of articles. Three are about 9/11, naturally. The other 25 cover topics like chemtrails, Hillary Clinton being a satanist, and why Pearl Harbor was faked. The articles are long and rabid, written in the breathless style that characterizes online conspiracy sites. A visitor to Truthbrary who is in on the joke might read them and think that Cohen and his team did a great job of mimicry. In reality, they didn’t have to. As others have noted, it appears they just took text from all over the web and put it on the site.
This website is post-parody. Parody that’s literally reality, copied and pasted. And that’s the scariest part.
WIRED reached out to Showtime to see if Cohen and the show had permission to reprint these articles. Representatives for Showtime said Cohen’s team at Sunshine Sachs, a PR firm, controls the Truthbrary site, and referred questions to them. WIRED reached out and will update this story when we hear back. We’re particularly interested to hear how they picked which articles to include on the site, whose URL was registered in October 2017. Because many of these sources are the very definition of misinformation, WIRED is not linking to them.
A quick Google search for snippets of text in the Truthbrary articles reveals all but the first article show up in largely the same form elsewhere, published under different bylines and dated in some cases to years before Who Is America? aired. The first article appears to be a list of headlines, though WIRED was unable to find its provenance. The rest seem to be sourced from a variety of online sources, ranging from mainstream news sources like the conservative website Newsmax (in the case of the Trump Immigration article, which matches an article headlined “16 Reasons Donald Trump Is Not Wrong on Immigration,” published in 2015) to fringe conspiracy websites to viral misinformation farms. One article matches a post on libertarian website Taki Mag, published by infamous writer Taki Theodoracopulos. The most commonly sourced site, with three articles that match posts on Truthbrary.org, is something called Sonarz, which based on its editor’s Medium bio and Facebook page appears to be published out of Thailand and peddles cat trees along with conspiracy theories about 9/11.
Truthbrary's “Military Neural Dust” headline takes you to an article that claims the US military has been implanting mind-control dust in people’s heads. The entire thing appears to have been taken word for word from a post on NaturalNewsBlogs.com, which is part of a discredited network of sites owned by Mike Adams, known for disseminating pseudoscience, including anti-vaccination missives. In 2014, Slate’s Brian Palmer wrote that Natural News, the network's flagship site, “has an uncanny ability to move unsophisticated readers from harmless dietary balderdash to medical quackery to anti-government zealotry.” In 2016, RealClearScience named Natural News the worst contributor of fake science on the web, and reported it had more than 7 million monthly visitors at the time. NaturalNewsBlogs' most shared story on Facebook in the past year, according to the analytics site Buzzsumo, has the headline: “Chemotherapy-how did mustard gas from a blown up WWII ship get into your veins?”
The Truthbrary article “21 Goals of the Illuminati,” meanwhile, appears to come from a chapter of a 1993 book that the author uploaded to his personal website. It includes such gems as Goal No. 6: “To encourage, and eventually legalize the use of drugs and make pornography an ‘art-form’, which will be widely accepted and, eventually, become quite commonplace.” The book, The Conspirators' Hierarchy: The Committee of 300, is still available on Amazon and has 120 reviews and 4.5 stars.
It goes on like this. The article on Hillary Clinton being a satanist was previously published on the personal website of a Canadian men’s rights activist whose Twitter bio reads, "Exposing Feminism and The New World Order." Snopes reported the same site spread conspiracies about crisis actors in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. Some of Truthbrary is sourced directly from threads on Reddit. The first article presenting theories about 9/11 comes from a comment in the subreddit r/conspiracy.
Perhaps the strangest inclusion on the site is the article “Did the CIA Propagate Rock N Roll?,” which is taken from a 2013 story with the same headline on The Awl, a now-shuttered indie literary site known for incubating talented young writers. Looking at the version on The Awl, it was unclear to WIRED if the original had been satire or serious reporting. Reached by email for clarification, the article's author, Adam Krause, was surprised to learn his work was on Truthbrary. He said he never gave Showtime or Cohen’s team permission to republish his work, and noted disapprovingly that his byline didn’t appear on Truthbrary.com. Silvia Killingsworth, who was editor of The Awl at the time of its closure, said Krause would have retained the rights to the article, so only he could grant permission to reprint.
“My original article is an interesting combination of serious and satire. Yes, the CIA waged a long-standing covert culture war against communism. The bewildered and confused character looking for more information is a fictional version of me and not actually me. It's a complicated piece that plays really poorly in this new context,” Krause told WIRED. He later tweeted at Showtime demanding the article be taken down.
Truthbrary presents all these articles as having been written by one skeptical doctor "for the good of the American people." The truth is that while a single person did not write these articles, it is absolutely possible that a single person read them all, and has a worldview informed by them.
That’s pretty damning commentary on the internet as a whole, and what it has done to the presentation and dissemination of fact. Truthbrary is also playing a dangerous game, as reproducing information from these sites risks amplifying their message and spreading it further—a line WIRED has tried to carefully walk in this article by presenting you with information about the sources while not linking to or necessarily naming them.
On the internet, it's hard to tell a conspiracy site from satire from clickbait. That flattening plays a huge role in the post-truth era we now live in, the one that leads to Cohen ask, “Who is America?”