Hello, new friends!
My name is Kate Knibbs, and I’m a senior writer at WIRED covering culture and media. I’ll be your substitute Plaintext guide this week, as my colleague Steven Levy has generously lent me his newsletter. “You can write about anything you want, as long as it doesn’t start with an anecdote that is rude to Tom Hanks,” he said, if I’m remembering correctly. I’m sorry for what I’m about to do, Steven.
The Plain View
My brother sent me a surprising text this week. “Do you think Tom Hanks is a pedophile?” he asked.
“No …” I responded. “Is that a rumor?!” I was at a loss for why anyone would have such a slanderous take on a beloved actor and America’s happy ol’ dad.
“Big rumor,” he texted back ominously.
I made a note to look into why on earth someone would spread such a horrid lie, but got sidetracked by another celebrity mystery. This summer, BuzzFeed published several reports on the workplace culture at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, resulting in an internal investigation—plus a heap of terrible press for Ellen, who already had a much-whispered-about reputation for being not so nice. (I haven’t done any reporting on this topic myself so I’m not going to wade into the conversation on those allegations here, though I urge you to read up on them!) Celebrities like Katy Perry and Diane Keaton rallied to DeGeneres’ defense, insisting that she is nice. Meanwhile, Ellen’s wife, Portia de Rossi, posted a text image on Instagram that said “I Stand With Ellen.” As a caption, she hashtagged: #StopBotAttacks.
The post left me with one major question: What bot attacks? OK, a few major questions: Does Portia de Rossi believe that the criticism DeGeneres is facing is the result of disinformation-sowing automatons? Does DeGeneres believe this? Who do they suspect is behind the bots, if so? Is there evidence that this could be the case?
So I started looking around the internet for clues. And, after spending far more time in the comments section of de Rossi’s Instagram than I ever thought possible, I developed a theory. (I reached out to representatives for de Rossi and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. De Rossi’s rep didn’t respond; The Ellen DeGeneres Show didn’t have a response at time of writing.)
In the comments, some people were angrily insisting that they were not bots and that their indignation was both human and sincere. Fair enough! But some of those people, and many others, were also in the comments accusing Ellen and Portia of human trafficking and pedophilia. So many, in fact, that I remembered the weird Tom Hanks text. Could they be connected?
Yes, yes, they are. Unfortunately, it appears that both DeGeneres and Tom Hanks, along with Oprah Winfrey, have become targets of rumors from the right-wing conspiracy group known as QAnon, which spreads narratives about a cabal of global elites who kidnap children. Recently, QAnon has started “piggybacking on the anti-human-trafficking movement,” as Kevin Roose recently wrote for The New York Times. Q adherents, as the conspiracy’s followers are called, are now insisting that Ellen, Tom, Oprah, and other high-profile liberal celebrities are part of a global pedophile ring.
And this means that now, de Rossi’s Instagram is flooded with hundreds of comments from people like @patriot_mom70, who wrote: “Be kind to one another??? How about be kind to sex trafficked children???? I stand for the children!!! Wow!! 😠” Even Portia’s older photos, like one of her dogs, are being inundated with angry messages imploring her to stop hurting kids.
I suspect that de Rossi conflated this onslaught of baseless, conspiratorial accusations with the backlash from credible allegations of misconduct on DeGeneres’ show. What I initially assumed was an unusual defense from Portia looks much more like an indication that this conspiracy is continuing to seep into mainstream conversation.
Recently, several major social networks have made belated efforts to clamp down on QAnon. Facebook began to remove accounts associated with it in May and banned a QAnon group with more than 200,000 members earlier this month. Twitter, Roku, Reddit, and TikTok have all made some efforts to minimize this strain of conspiracy-mongering, too. But this thing shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, this week, a QAnon supporter running for Congress in Georgia won her primary.
Someone check on Tom Hanks.
It’s confirmed—this week, Joe Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. So it’s a good time to read WIRED’s latest piece on Harris’ history with tech and dig through older reporting on how she has dealt with the digital world in the past.
I first learned about Harris in 2016, when I wrote “Digital Pimps or Fearless Publishers?”, a story on the rise and fall of the online classifieds platform Backpage.com, which had doubled as a hub of sex-work activity. (WIRED published an excellent cover story on the same topic in 2019, “Inside Backpage.com’s Vicious Battle With the Feds.”) As California’s attorney general, Harris called Backpage “the world’s top online brothel” and charged its founders with conspiracy to commit pimping. Those charges were eventually dropped, but the case dragged on and ended up revolving around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—something you may be familiar with, as it has since morphed into a political hot potato. Back in 2013, Harris signed a letter asking Congress to amend Section 230 specifically to help her go after Backpage.
Now that she could be the next vice president of the United States, maybe we’ll find out whether her position has evolved.
Ask Me One Thing
Here’s a question Steven received this week that caught my eye, so I’ll take a stab at answering it for him: “Do you think medical personnel at hospitals should have the right to check a new Covid-19 patient’s social media pages prior to admission to see if they were practicing safe distancing, and if they were not, to treat them with less urgency since that newly infected person cared so little for someone else’s life, i.e. the medical team and their families? I know the oath is ‘First, do not harm,’ however, given the climate of anti-maskers, shouldn’t that also be interchangeable with ‘But, don’t rush.’”
The person who wrote in described this as a tough question, but it’s pretty straightforward for me: No, doctors should not be permitted to triage their patients based on whether they’re no-maskers or not. The morality of the patient should not be part of the calculation there at all.
It’s perfectly fine for doctors to think some of their patients are jerks, doofuses, and all-around bad people. It’s not fine for them to dole out treatment based on their assessments of character. I’m emphatically not a doctor, but it’s my understanding that “do no harm” doesn’t come with a caveat. Everyone deserves medical treatment. Especially with so much misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19 floating around, I don’t think it’s very generous to assume someone with bad ideas about mask etiquette is malicious rather than confused.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
You can now book the last Blockbuster video store as a limited-time Airbnb destination in Bend, Oregon. You know what they say—all good things must eventually be subsumed into the relentless maw of the sharing economy!
Last but Not Least
If you saw scary headlines about a study indicating that neck gaiters aren’t effective as masks, don’t panic. Instead, read Megan Molteni’s explainer on what this particular experiment really reveals.
Something actually worth getting worked up about—Sidney Fussell’s report on how private cameras are used to monitor protests.
And if you’re buckling in for another round of remote learning with your kids, don’t miss Adrienne So’s guide to making it work this fall.
Looking to kick back with a movie this weekend? If you’re a horror fan who likes a feel-bad viewing experience … check out Spree, which I reviewed this week.
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