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“The idea that we can change anything, I have given up on”: NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny on documenting the “depressing” internet

“Suddenly, the stupid stuff on the internet, the scary stuff on the internet, became just so mainstream and important. And that totally should not be.”
April 8, 2021, 10:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Brad Esposito got his start as a reporter at BuzzFeed in 2013 and is currently the director of content at Eucalyptus, an Australian health tech company. A version of this interview first ran in his interview newsletter, Very Fine Day, which he created to “give more depth and context to the people who keep the internet humming.” Subscribe here.

Brandy Zadrozny is a reporter and former librarian. She is one of the key voices in the depressingly relevant reporting beat of disinformation, politics, and conspiracy. For years now, Brandy has jumped into the more chaotic parts of the internet so others don’t have to, and her reporting on QAnon, grifters, and the state of America is an essential read.

Brad Esposito: When I look you up on your Twitter, it says you were a librarian turned reporter. When did that happen?

Brandy Zadrozny: I’ve had a lot of jobs. I was a school teacher — I was an English teacher for middle school kids. And then I was in Brooklyn and I worked at a school that didn’t have a library. And my kids were from across the street. So like, in middle school, they came from across the street and then went back home. And it wasn’t the best neighborhood, actually — it was near Dumbo before Dumbo became Dumbo.

And they just didn’t really have the opportunity to get books. So I was like: well, we need a library here. So I started to sort of build a library.

But then, because of union rules, I wasn’t allowed to because I was behaving as a librarian but I didn’t have a library degree. So it was this really weird union thing and they were like, “You can’t do it.” And I was like, well, I guess I’ll just go get a library degree. I like reading. And so I went and enrolled in a Master’s program at Pratt, and I got into English education because I love literature and reading and books and whatever.

So I started this library degree and one of the internship things was you could intern at a news library. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But there used to be — they’re all pretty much gone now, except for a couple — but like, there used to be these really big research departments and newsrooms where you could be like: “Hey, Janet, what’s the capital of Kansas?” Or, like: “Give me everything that we’ve ever written about the mayor of this town.” Or like: “We’re trying to find people who have been hurt by this doctor. Let’s like look at legal records.”

Just killer researchers … like, just “Jeopardy” people in these rooms, all just giving answers all day long for stuff.

I interned at ABC News’s library and it was so cool. I just loved it. I thought it was so fun. It was basically the reference desk, but for the news. So it’s fast-paced, and it was just great. And so I started working at that news library and I quit teaching.

Then my brother had gotten sick and I went off to Tampa for a little while to take care of him. And then when I came back, my job wasn’t there at the school anymore in the same way, so I was like: never mind, I’ll just go do this thing. Which I really loved. So I started working in news libraries.

And then I stopped for a little while, moved to Vermont, and couldn’t really get a job there. It was around the the financial crisis.

Esposito: Like 2008?

Zadrozny: Yeah, a small community in Burlington — everybody sort of knew everybody. I had a hard time finding my place there. I worked at the local library and then at a college library, but never really felt at home. So then I moved back and got a job at Fox News’ library. Which, oh man …

Esposito: Hey, that’s a good experience though, right?

Zadrozny: Oh, totally, totally. I’ve never felt so secure in my critique of a place. There’s so few monsters in the world. I never want to like, frame anyone as — everyone has good in them. Every place has something redeemable. But I feel totally great saying that place is trash, because I worked there for a long time and I know it’s true. So I worked there for a long time.

Esposito: What would happen? Like, what was it about it?

Zadrozny: Oh, well, let me just finish this thing — so I worked there for a long time and then I decided I wanted a way out of Fox. And so I took a huge pay cut to be a baby reporter at the Daily Beast where this very kind editor took a chance on me and let me write for them, which was great. And I really loved it. And now, I’m here.

But Fox News … So, I worked in the brain room, which is the research department.

Esposito: Sounds cool.

Zadrozny: I mean, does it? It sounds branded in a way that anyone could understand it, but I don’t know … I was always like: “I work in the brain room.” It’s a very silly name for a journalist with, like, a degree and stuff. Anyway.

The brain room was supposed to be like any research department you would give context to. So you would make briefing books. I had women’s issues, statistics around crimes against women or abortion, stuff like that. I also had the Syria briefing book.

There were [also] doctors in the brain room, lawyers, subject specialists, we had like an old SEC guy. Everybody had their sort of specialty. A lot of the day was spent with producers having a question, and they would send you the question, and then you would answer it.

Different shows had, well … There’s a clear point of view at that network, which is clear to anyone who has eyeballs. But you had varying degrees of questions. Shep Smith’s team would ask for, like: this news event is happening, we need witnesses or user generated content. Stuff like that. And then, y’know, “Fox and Friends” would ask the kinds of questions that you might imagine “Fox and Friends” would ask. My favorite “Fox and Friends” question was some producer asking if dolphins raped people.

Esposito: Hmmm.

Zadrozny: Yeah, I don’t know.

I mean, listen, there are no stupid questions. There are no stupid questions. But, you know, it was during the Obama years, so everything was like: the deficit, the debt, how can we show this with a pile of doughnuts?

They wanted the mathematical computations to be able to say, like, how many doughnuts equals the debt. That was actually an Eric Bolling segment that actually aired and I remember just screaming at the TV — like, we had all of these TVs, and I was like, nooooooooooo. So a lot of screaming.

Esposito: You said you were at Fox for a while? How long?

Zadrozny: I was there for over two years. Long enough.

Esposito: Yeah, long enough. And then the Daily Beast: you said the editor kind of took a chance on you as a cub reporter? Did you have a beat when you started? Or was it just picking up things?

Zadrozny: Yeah, when I got there, it was Newsweek and the Daily Beast. Everybody sort of had their dibs on beats. And my job was what is now — or was then called — the Cheat Sheet. Aggregated, 100 words or less. It sounds like it’s easy, but it was actually really hard. You had to be under 100 words, you had to get the story, you had to have a lede and a kicker, and then you had to have the right voice. We’d have real editing sessions. It was cool. It really taught me to be a writer, I guess.

But I started there, and then once you did that, you got reporting days. So you’d have four days on the Cheat Sheet and then one reporting day. Which isn’t that much. What I had to do was find a beat that nobody else wanted.

In my first couple months, I remember just scrolling on the internet, going down rabbit holes to be like: Is this a story that no one else knows about? I need to find a story that no one knows about — then no one can beat me and I have no competition inside or outside. The first story I ever wrote was about this internet subculture called Christian Domestic Discipline.

Esposito: Oh man, OK.

Zadrozny: Yeah. I remember I found the forum and I was like [sound of heavenly choir] “No one knows about this!”

It’s BDSM, but for super-Christians. They have these cool, weird forums, And they have an influencer market, and bloggers. And I was just like: this is amazing.

I interviewed a bunch of people who talked about the forum. It was like most of the stories I do now, but that was the first one.

And then I kept telling those weird stories. Another piece I remember doing was on people who documented the loss of stillborns on YouTube. So, photos of their dead babies — which is weird, right? But actually it’s not very weird, because there’s a long history of people documenting death and we’re just weird about death now. It’s sort of the most normal thing in the world. That story got picked up by the BBC. There’s a general appetite for weird news stories that actually tell a story about human behavior, generally.

Esposito: I feel like I used to do that as well, as far as what you write about and what your beat is. You spend so much time digging, and trying to find stuff, and there are often days or weeks where you’re like: “I can’t find a fucking thing!” Do you have a process? At least, did you back then? Or was it really just like, gotta be online all the time. Because that’s all I could ever tell people.

Zadrozny: Yeah, yeah. It’s terrifying. After every story — except in 2020, which was like a crazy year where the stories never stopped.

But like, even now, I’m in a weird lull. It’s been a week since I’ve had a good, strong story, and I’m like: Oh, that’s it. Journalism’s done with me. I’m quitting. I’m over. No one’s gonna know who I am. No one remembers me, I suck. I’m the worst.

Every single time. My husband — he’ll see it and he’ll be like, you don’t have a story? And I’ll be like, I don’t have anything …

It sucks. It’s so hard. It feels so bad. My process is to just be incredibly online, but I try to read more non-internet stuff when I’m broken. A lot of times ideas will sort of come out of the paper New Yorker, like the physical copy of The New Yorker — not from places where sometimes you just get stuck in this scrolling thing and it’s like, wait, this isn’t actually helping.

There are so many stories in the world, though. I never remember this at the time, but there are so many stories. And now I’ve gotten to a place where I’m not a baby reporter; I have people who will reach out to me and say: Here is my story. Which is really, really nice. But it’s still really hard.

Esposito: You ever have a period, particularly early on, where it was just as much about convincing the people around you professionally that it was a story, as it was about finding a story? Or are you lucky, because I guess the Daily Beast was a bit more online and therefore more accepting?

Zadrozny: I mean, I remember the YouTube stillborn story. I remember my editors being like, no, why would you want to tell that story? But I guess it sort of depends on what story it is. There are times that it takes forever to find a story. Luckily, like when I was at the Beast, I had other reporting days, the aggregation days, where I’d report on the news.

But I think it’s really hard on this beat because most of the time what’s happening online is not a story for public consumption, especially at NBC News. I do not think it’s healthy for me — or anyone else really — to have that amount of internet drama. Especially now, where I have sort of a more dangerous beat.

You don’t want to know what’s happening in the QAnon spaces every day. They’re sad places. We didn’t do a story on QAnon until summer 2018, [even though] we had followed it the whole time. [You have to think about] when a story becomes responsible to report, or in some way informative, instead of just saying: here’s this stuff on the internet. It has to become…

Esposito: Worth it?

Zadrozny: Yeah.

Esposito: So from the Daily Beast did you go straight to NBC? Or was there somewhere in between?

Zadrozny: I thought I’d be at the Daily Beast forever. I loved it, I really did. My editor was lovely. I don’t like change. But NBC started to poach my colleague, Ben Collins. Ben and I, at that time [around 2015], had started working on the darker side of online. It was less fun niche stuff or women’s issue stuff. It became darker. I was doing stuff with the manosphere.

I was doing [stories on] pickup artists and the crimes revolving around that. And he was doing conspiracy theories. And we started working on school shooter/mass shooter stuff, because that was happening more and more. We’d find their online profiles — I’m really good at finding stuff.

And Ben’s really good at finding things early; he’s one of the most online people I’ve ever met in my life. He’ll be like: I’m looking at this thing. What do you think of this? And he’s just as good now. And I’d [become] the researcher at the Daily Beast, too. I’d help people do all of the things that I would do as a researcher at Fox News or wherever else. I was really good at finding people and, you know, finding court cases and stuff like that. We sort of let our powers combine, and we started working together more and more. NBC started …

[We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists]

Esposito: They “recognized the talent.”

Zadrozny: Yes, exactly — recognized the talent of Mr. Collins. They started talking and then Ben was like, I think there’s a place for a team. And we both went over in 2017.

Esposito: How would you describe what you do now, then? Ben’s Twitter is, like, “I write about the end of the world.”

Zadrozny: His is the “dystopia beat,” yeah.

I mean, I guess I should think about that! I want to write stories. I want to write good stories. Technically, I think I’m a tech reporter. But I hardly know how to plug in my laptop. I’m not, like, a techy person. People tend to be like, you report on the dark web, and I’m like, I do not. I report on Facebook groups.

But my interest and my passion is how people are utilizing this new tool to communicate and decide what they believe, and decide how they’re going to raise their children or live their lives, or engage in politics.

I just think it’s so interesting how quickly these platforms and this medium … It feels like it has changed everything. Documenting that is really neat.

[Misinformation fatigue sets in]

Esposito: When did it start becoming, like, a lot–a lot about QAnon and conspiracies and the fun part of the American internet?

Zadrozny: In 2016 this thing happened where, like, all of the weirdos on the internet became politically important.

Esposito: That’s a good way to describe it.

Zadrozny: I think a lot about Mike Cernovich. Unfortunately. But he’s the kind of person that I was watching as a weirdo on the internet, right? Same thing with Roosh — my manosphere people.

Suddenly Mike Cernovich becomes a political operative after spreading these Pizzagate rumors that are so stupid but fly because they’re on platforms that reward terrible behavior and bad faith and shocking content. And that somehow helped elect the President of the United States. Altogether, those pieces sort of became my beat.

Respectable reporters would go and talk about politics and important people in the world, interview Mark Zuckerberg — then you’d have all of a sudden, like, Pizzagate questions. Those reporters would come to us and be like: What is this thing?

Suddenly, the stupid stuff on the internet, the scary stuff on the internet, became just so mainstream and important. And that totally should not be.

I get really worried about my sort of status in journalism when I just don’t think this beat should be as important as it is right now. I’m hoping that it will become somehow less important in the days ahead. I’d be happy to go back to writing profiles of people, or, you know, the way that the internet is changing and shaping lives. That sounds great to me.

Esposito: A bit more positive?

Zadrozny: Yeah, yeah, totally. I mean, it’s a dumpster.

Esposito: How do you feel about — and disagree with me here if you don’t think so — but in my mind, I see this 2015, ’16, ’17 … like you were saying: weirdo people of the internet. How aware do you think they are of their role in all of this? Have they become serious now? Because in my mind, it was a lot of meme-chasing, clout-chasing, growth-hacking kind of shit. And then being like: well, it works. And, y’know, I’m making money. So let’s continue.

Whereas now, at the pointy end of things like QAnon and conspiracies and just broader disinformation, you are seeing genuine lives getting ruined and genuine, real, serious world effects.

I guess my roundabout question is: do you think that the people that are really making those decisions, posting in those forums at the top level, that are influential — do you think they’re aware of what they’re doing? Like, “Well, this has been working for us. So let’s just keep hammering this”? Or do they just genuinely believe what they’re saying?

Zadrozny: I think about it like the old televangelists. Like Benny Hinn … I don’t know whether those people are true believers. I tend to think that they know exactly what they’re doing, because we’ve seen examples of televangelists, specifically, behaving one way in front of their flock and another way in private. And I think the same thing sort of goes here.

Let’s take Mike Cernovich, for example. Mike Cernovich used to have the Gorilla Mindset, right? Improve your life, take supplements — a little baby Alex Jones sort of thing. Then he got on the Trump train. He started being a political operative. And then you saw that sort of thing become replicated by a lot of folks from Laura Loomer to Ali Alexander to Jack Posobiec. All of the people in that crowd — I don’t know if they truly believe that Trump is the best thing ever. I don’t know. And it almost doesn’t matter, right? Because they have a formula that they know works.

Somebody like Roosh was a pickup artist, then he became a Trump supporter, blogger, whatever. Now he’s, like, an evangelical Christian, and he’s selling that sort of thing to his crew.

I think these people will pick up literally any ideology that will make them money or get them fame, or clout, or whatever it is. They’re just hucksters. And unfortunately, people have a very short memory and so these folks can reinvent themselves really easily.

Even when Laura Loomer was running for Congress and she had just gotten banned from Twitter for all that stuff — [it was] a very short history! Some people knew that she was a wild one. But generally, [audiences] don’t watch these spaces like we do. So I think that these people can reinvent themselves super easily. And I think that they can basically peddle whatever sort of far-right talking point they want and get into this new fan club or, you know, become leaders because they’re good at it. They’re good at media manipulation. They’re good at conversation hijacking.

They have a network and they utilize this network to go wherever the wind blows them and the dollars push them. And I think that will continue forever. Probably. God, I hope I’m not reporting on them forever. It’s so boring. Don’t you find it boring?

Esposito: I find it almost distressing. Because you’re like: I keep writing the same story. It has different names in it, and maybe a different city in a different situation. But like: it’s the same story. And people just keep reading it being like, whoa, this is crazy.

It’s the last two or three years of screaming and yelling and screaming and yelling, and then something like January 6 happens and you go, I told you so. But you say “I told you so” also with the knowledge that it doesn’t matter. You don’t really get to say “I told you so” in a way that feels rewarding, because it just carries on. And now I’m making myself sad.

Zadrozny: I had written a story about this town in Washington where militias came out looking for Antifa because they saw on Facebook groups that Antifa was coming because the president was coming, and then there was law enforcement, and then it trickled down through the Facebook group.

There was this standoff between Black Lives Matter protesters, who were standing on one side of the road saying the names of Black men and women who were killed for no reason, and then on the other side was an army of white people [in fatigues] with huge guns everywhere shouting, Go home! And it was just, like, terrifying.

I wrote the story. And then the next week it just happened again. The same in every town. It was just like: what is the point of this?

The only way I can sleep at night is by thinking like a librarian here. The point of this is to document it. We’re just documenting. The idea that we can change anything, I have given up on.

The other day, some tech executive was telling me how much power journalists have. And I was just like: Are you joking? Is this a joke? No one is listening. No one.

I mean, it doesn’t affect the way that people act, or behave, or the policies … it doesn’t matter to Facebook. Like, they don’t care about an article I write. Nothing changes for these people. And I’m just pulling my hair out getting emails every 20 seconds about what a liar and a shill I am, and I can’t put my children’s faces on Instagram.

Esposito: What do you do about that? Do you just ignore it?

Zadrozny: I think it depends on who it is. There are varying degrees of reaction.

Esposito: A lot of the time it’s someone with the email account that’s like a bunch of letters-at-hotmail.com. And you’re like: OK, don’t worry about them.

Zadrozny: Yeah, I don’t know. [Ben and I] get correspondence from people. The best stories I get are people reaching out being like, “I’m in this weird Facebook group,” or “I’m getting this text message, what does it mean?” You have to be super available to people. But that availability comes with — it’s just so much.

I get like… I don’t know, 20 emails a day, on a day that I don’t have a story, just from randoms mostly telling me how terrible I am. And mostly you don’t do anything. You just, like, feel sad? I feel sad a lot. Is that a reaction?

Esposito: That’s an honest reaction. I think that’s valid.

In 2013, Alex Jones, for example, was just this guy, who … I mean he’s been around since like, the ’90s. He broke into — what’s that secret club that all the presidents go to? Camp David, I think? [It’s actually Bohemian Grove.] I remember seeing that footage that he got when I was like 12 or 13 and being like: who is this dude running around?

Here’s this crazy dude on community radio who talked about Bigfoot and supplements, and then we saw him break into mainstream in late 2015, 2016.

Has the audience of genuinely serious people who believe him always been there? Because when I used to watch it, I felt like there was a big crew of people that were like, “Look at this crazy guy. That’s funny!” But in hindsight, it’s like, was I actually in the minority and the majority was a lot of people that were like: “Need to take my brain pills and need to watch out for Bigfoot!”

Zadrozny: It’s weird, right? I don’t meet a lot of people who are front-facingly crazy enough that I believe that they would think these crazy things or buy his Brain Force Plus pills or whatever. But he makes so much money off of it, there must be a lot of people who believe it. I mean, there are, right? And Alex Jones is entertaining as hell. He’s very funny.

Esposito: Yeah, he’s like a comedian. He’s like a Bill Hicks-level guy.

Zadrozny: It’s like … he’s a genius. He’s really something to watch. I find it very enjoyable. I mean, what was the question? Whether people believe his schtick? It’s so much like the televangelists, though. People just need leaders and people need people to follow and to believe in.

There are these super-charismatic sociopaths that know how to … I don’t know. I’m not a good actress, I’m not a good performer, I’m not leading anybody. My goal in life, professionally, is to never manage anyone. So I don’t understand how these people operate, but it’s clear when someone has it, this charismatic skill. Alex Jones has it. President Trump has it. And you can use that for good or evil, and evil just seems like it pays more.

Esposito: When you’re writing about these serious cases — let’s say you’re seeing people organizing a militia-backed protest, or something like January 6, and you’re seeing it on Facebook, and you’re seeing it on 4chan. When do you make the decision to get police involved, if ever?

Because I know from my own experience, as a reporter in Australia, the moment you got police involved it was the moment that they killed your story and you never heard from them again. And so you’re like, ethically, probably should get them in on this. But also, they’re probably going to just completely squash everything that’s happening here.

Zadrozny: There have been some times when I’ve seen targeted threats against a person — a specific person — and I’ve gone to my editor and we’ve gotten law enforcement involved. I’ve seen a couple of things involving specific people at specific companies, and I called the company and notified them of the threat or the harassment. But something like malicious planning and action at the state house? I wouldn’t involve law enforcement, I would report out what I see.

If I see people organizing on Facebook, I don’t call Facebook and ask, like, “Do you see this group?” I’ll just tell the story.

Once I saw this guy who was a QAnon person and he was saying that he was getting ready to go to one of the QAnon rallies, strapped in very serious weapons and ammo, and he made some scary hashtags on it. And I just, like, tweeted it out. I don’t think Facebook was very happy with that. They — whether it’s law enforcement or platforms — would much prefer for us to just quietly say: “Excuse me, do you see this thing is happening?”

But like: that’s not our job. That’s their job. My job is to inform the public about these activities in a way that informs them or helps them protect themselves or helps change policy or elevate marginalized voices or whatever the case may be. It’s not to tip off the cops.

Esposito: Yeah. I just realized something. Probably a majority of the people that read this are “online.” Their brains are broken just like ours. But for those that aren’t, could you do a simple explanation of QAnon and what it is?

Zadrozny: Yeah, sure.

QAnon is an umbrella of conspiracy theories that started on 4chan, and it posits that there is a secret cabal of demon-worshipping baby eaters and they are people who are mostly Democratic members of Congress or Democratic politicians. The Hollywood elite, like Tom Hanks, is the favorite. They sort of play this game online where they decode clues from a supposed government insider who’s leaking all these clues about the secret war to stop this cabal. Who’s leading the call? Donald Trump, of course. Notorious humanitarian and lover of women and children. He’s saving them all. And this moment when he will unveil what he has done to save all the children is called The Storm and that is when all these people will be executed. And we will all have the awakening. And we will all live in bliss with the knowledge that all the children are now safe.

Esposito: That was great. My favorite thing about that is the way that you went into it like you were reading the Miranda Rights or something. It sounds like something you’ve been asked quite a bit, probably, over the last 12 months.

Zadrozny: My word. I have typed it out so many times and I try to do it differently. I’m like: “Am I plagiarizing myself?” Do I have to say it in a different way? Every time? I should just have a secret key that does the QAnon explainer. That would be great.

Esposito: How much do you think QAnon is because of a lack of internet literacy or education on the matter — people just blindly trusting all of these forums and comments and threads when they shouldn’t?

Zadrozny: I think it’s more like the widespread adoption of Chan culture, right? Like, the participatory nature of the internet. And it just has reached this audience, and a lot of it has a terrible message.

For the boomers that are into it now and the general MAGA crowd that really made it balloon, I think they had never really played an online game like this before. And it is very game-y. I think it got big because it was this participatory game that involved politics, so you already had half the people interested. And it came at a time when the older folks — is it rude to call people boomers? I think it is? I’ll say baby boomers — so baby boomers, they just figured out Facebook, and now there was this cool new game to play. They remembered the Satanic Panic and I think they took a lot of the wrong lessons from it. They just remember, like: Oh, yeah, I think that was a thing. Now it’s still happening. And so yeah, it just got really big and then you had the Instagram people take it up as another MLM opportunity, a way to grow their brands, get clout … it sort of fit wherever you want it.

Esposito: What do you do when you’re interviewing someone who has completely bought into all of this, and you’re listening to them, and they’re just rattling off the complete laundry list of shit that’s crazy and not real? And [you’re gonna] hang up the phone now and let them carry on living that life? I don’t know if I’d have the strength to not turn that interview into a whole conversation where we unpack their life and just be like, Hey

But you obviously can’t do that for everyone you interview when you interview 50 people a week, right?

Zadrozny: At first, when I started doing QAnon stuff, I got very invested in the believers. There is this woman and she is a mitten maker in Michigan. And she’s so cute, man.

Esposito: I’m already sad.

Zadrozny: It’s sad. It’s real sad, so buckle up. She made these mittens — I think it’s called, like, Sitting in a Mitten. So cute. And she had turned her little factory into a QAnon thing. She was full-on QAnon. She would print out every Q drop and put it in this big binder and then she would read it like a devotional. So like, I don’t know, it’s just the people like that. She was looking for connection.

I used to sort of get involved emotionally. I do that less now. Because it’s like … it’s hard to feel so bad for these people when there are actual victims: people, lawmakers, and actors who are mercilessly harassed. And I’m harassed. I think it’s terrible. I don’t like it. It’s not nice. And it’s based on this incredibly dangerous anti-Semitic trope that is violent and dangerous. So like, I don’t want to over-empathize with people who choose to engage in this stuff all the time. It’s hard.

Esposito: Yeah.

Zadrozny: I’m also sick of the beat, to be honest. There’s only so many times you can hear this stuff rattled off, or sit in the forums or the chats and listen to this. It’s just that you get a little numb to it after a while, which probably isn’t great.

Esposito: On that uplifting note, let’s move away from QAnon, because I think we’ve probably said all we can, and to a broader point of disinformation — where I think America is kind of the industry leader and doing a very good job …

Zadrozny: Thank you.

Esposito: I see America, particularly in the internet and in politics, as the canary in the coal mine. They’re like this looking glass. So Australia isn’t there yet, but we’re on our way —

Zadrozny: Yeah, I saw you all during the fires.

Esposito: I mean, I’m having face-to-face conversations with people about whether they’re getting vaccinated. I’m seeing friends share things on Facebook that are absolutely cooked. We’ve got politicians that are beginning to realize: Hey, maybe this is what I actually need to become a multimillionaire. Rather than, you know, serving the people in a way that’s actually helpful.

When you notice the early stages of this kind of stuff, of the bad actors — if you look back, what do you wish people had done more of? Or how do you think it could have been handled better?

Zadrozny: I think a lot of this falls on tech, unfortunately. I know it’s kind of boring to keep blaming them for everything, but I think that there was a social experiment going on, right? And no one wants to believe that they’ve created something terrible that, like, destroyed democracy, and caused genocidal maniacs to do their worst, and made people believe or fall into these rabbit holes where they don’t have to take their cancer medication …

All of that’s there, right? Again, we’ve had televangelists forever. Snake oil salesmen are not new. But the ability to amplify these untalented grifters — not the Alex Joneses, I’m talking about all the baby ones that come together in Twitter DMs and hijack an election …

Esposito: Just the little things!

Zadrozny: Platforms, by refusing to think that there was a place for them to curate, instead just allowed the beast to run free. I think that was — it was short-sighted. And it was just dangerous thinking. And people get it now, I guess; they seem to get it. But now it’s just — it’s too big.

The scale is just too massive to actually do anything about it unless you unplug the website or drastically change the way that the feed works, which [Facebook is] just not gonna do. They are still in growth mode.

2016 was a stop point, like, whoa, something’s happening here, we’re just gonna take a big pause until we figure this out.

[But] nobody’s gonna do that. And it’s just … I think people will get tired of it eventually, though. Facebook is not long for this world. Like, it’s not a good platform. Lots of people don’t use it.

Esposito: Old people can only be online for so long, right?

Zadrozny: Yeah, and people that want all the gross stuff are now going to Parler and Gab and Telegram. Like, they have the places to do the bad stuff now. And so there’s still misinformation on Facebook and whatever, but something’s gonna have to change there or it’s going to die as we know it. And I think that probably it’ll be [the latter].

I think that maybe we’re in a moment right now where four years from now we’ll say: Oh, why didn’t they think to do X, Y, or Z? But I don’t know what that is. And that’s why I make the small bucks.

Esposito: Do you ever wonder if you’re feeding the machine? And not, like, doing good?

Zadrozny: Ha, how dare you!

Esposito: Well, I only ask because that’s how I always feel. You’re just like: Fuck, am I just putting out more information?

Zadrozny: I think that there’s a way. There are times that I have been like, yes, I’m feeding the machine. I don’t personally — and I’m not criticizing other people’s coverage — but I don’t like writing stories that are like: “There’s still a misinformation problem on Facebook.” Or: “Facebook said they were gonna do something, but it’s still bad.”

Because I think that does add to the noise, at this point. Everybody sort of knows Facebook’s complicity in this and they know how that stuff works. So to just keep doing [stories like that] is a little much.

Things that I’m interested in now, and the only way that I think you can differentiate the noise of tech criticism, is to have a good story. Right? And I don’t think that adds to the beast.

I’m proud of this story that I wrote about this woman who lost a baby at 45 weeks pregnant. She sort of fell down this internet rabbit hole of misinformation and freebirthing …

People are now googling what was an internet lack-of-knowledge vacuum and get her story first, instead of the freebirthing influencers who make a ton of cash off this. And [the story] is not so critical of the platforms, it’s just … it’s nuanced. And that’s good. More nuance is always good. It’s just, the internet is where nuance goes to die.

Esposito: Yeah, that’s fun. I am someone who works in, kind of, healthcare now, and that piece in particular is something I try and force people in my office and teams to read. You wrote it early last year, right?

Zadrozny: Yeah.

Esposito: It gave me knowledge to be like: we have to take a lot of time to think about how we do any sort of patient community or healthcare-based content strategy, because the negative effects of people getting it wrong is just insane.

Zadrozny: There are reporters in my shop who are doing incredible work on voting restrictions being implemented right now, or the immigration crisis. You see that and it’s like: That is real reporting. It’s important work, you’re shining a light on something, you’re effecting real change, and you’re promoting voices that normally don’t get heard. I want to do that for internet stuff.

It is really, really boring writing the same story about how these liars on the internet are lying and the internet is built in a way that helps their lies grow over and over and over and over and over again. It’s very boring. And it makes everybody hate you even if it’s true. And I don’t know how much good it does. I mean, we’ve been doing it for years. And everything’s pretty bad.

Esposito: I asked the subscribers if they had any questions for you. One of them was asked, do you have an audience that you write to in your head? Have you pictured them? And let it sort of shape how you write?

Zadrozny: It depends. I write to my editor. I have a couple of editors. My longform editor is a woman who isn’t that internet-savvy — or not not savvy, but she’s just not, like, brain broken by the internet like some of us are and my other editor is as well. It’s really good because it helps me write in a way that’s super explanatory.

Before my editor here I had an editor, Katie, at the Daily Beast, and I wrote to her as well because she’s like a friend. Someone I care about. I think about the public generally, but when I’m writing a story that I really like, I want to impress my editors because they’re good at their jobs. They’re good writers and people, and I want to make them feel something. If I can make them feel something, then I can probably make the reader feel something, and that’s the only way — when you touch someone in a way, whether it’s shocking them, or making them angry, or making them extremely empathetic with someone else.

Kevin Roose is great at this. I love the way he writes so many of his pieces, because at the end you just feel a surge of empathy. And that’s what I want from QAnon profiles to the medical misinformation stuff to whatever.

I’m so nervous about this. Because, as you know, I feel like I … do you feel like you have lost the ability, the longer you spend online, the worse you get at talking?

Esposito: Oh, I knew for probably two or three years that I needed to change my job significantly within media, or I needed to get out of media. And I did the latter. Which is like, maybe you could say, semi-cowardly, but I was also like: I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep being online all the time. It wasn’t just affecting me, it was affecting the people in my life that are not online all the time. And you just find yourself, like: it’s 10 PM at night and you’re scrolling through 4chan, or Twitter, and you’re like, why am I doing this? And the answer is because you have to. If you want to be good at it, you have to.

And that, yeah … I don’t miss it. I’m not envious of you.

Zadrozny: It has been a long four years.

I’ve had a lot of jobs. I was a bartender, I loved it. I was a school teacher. It was great, really rewarding. I could do another job. But just recently I’ve just been thinking like: Maybe that is a good idea? Like, I don’t know — between the harassment, the brain brokenness, the … missing my children. Because you have to just be … you can’t log off. It’s just like: I don’t know if this is actually worth it.

Esposito: Yeah … yeah. Okay, well, we can’t end on that.

Zadrozny: What do I owe you for this therapy session? Oh, my God.

Esposito: What do you think about that makes you happy? How do you get through it?

Zadrozny: Dolly Parton? A lot of Dolly Parton. I can see the light of a clear blue morning. Um, you know, I don’t know.

Esposito: It’s addictive, though, right? As much as it is draining. It’s also, I mean, that’s journalism, right? You’re in a competition to find the story. And that feeling when you have the story, like you described at the top of this conversation, of knowing this community online and no one knows about it but you’ve found it and you’re going to be the one to tell everyone and really just educate.

That’s a very good feeling, and you don’t really get that in any other line of work. And then you put it on Twitter and 100 people, 1,000 people, say “Great job!” and you’re like: “Yes, I am valid! I am worthy of, like … my space online!”

God, now I feel like I’m in therapy.

Zadrozny: Yeah, I mean, getting attention feels really good. Same thing with clicks and likes. And, you know, we’re all a part of this machine; it doesn’t exclude me, for sure. But after a while it does start to get old. I don’t know. I’m on Twitter a lot less these days, and that seems great.

Esposito: Yes, same.

Zadrozny: I scroll a little less than I used to. That’s why I haven’t had a story in a week. But it’ll come, I guess. Well, this is really depressing. Hahaha. I’m sorry.

Esposito: I keep trying to think of questions to bring it around. Let’s do a favorite color. What’s your favorite band? What should we know?

Zadrozny: I mean, the fact is, it is depressing, it’s a really depressing beat right now. There are spaces on the internet that are not depressing, and there are reporters doing a great job telling those fun stories. That’s just not my beat.

Esposito: One more question: What do you think people get wrong about your line of work?

Zadrozny: Yeah, I think that there is — I don’t know if it’s bad faith or if it’s real. I think it’s guided by bad faith, but accepted by a large portion of the audience. They think that I’m just, like, a hall monitor looking to criticize.

I wish people understood how much we don’t report. If you think my published stories are depressing, you should see my browser history, right? Like, it’s just … we want to highlight stories where we think that maybe someone will read them and get something out of it that is good for their physical health, or their place in the democratic system, or their media literacy generally. Definitely not to just beat up on tech or yell about the right.

Esposito: And the whole tech thing, and the injection of CEOs and billionaires into the space now as characters, which I feel like is a story of 2021. Of the public facing Elon Musk and Horowitz. It’s gonna be a fun 12 months.

Zadrozny: I’m not doing any of that. I’m saying no. I’m so glad that has nothing to do with my beat. I’m never writing about Clubhouse.

Esposito: Not yet! What about Clubhouse QAnon? It’s definitely happening.

Zadrozny: I’m not ready. Actually, I liked Clubhouse for a couple of weeks. It felt like the old AOL internet or, like, you could just walk into a chat room about nothing that you understood and see people talking about it. But two weeks and I’m absolutely over it.

Esposito: I think my issue with Clubhouse is the vapid transparency of the people on it trying to make themselves the Clubhouse People. And so you find those cool rooms, and then you realize there’s the one person in there that’s trying to be The Host. And it’s just so transparent to me, and I’m like, I’m not helping you do this. I’m not going to be a participant.

OK. Well, thanks so much for, really, an hour of your time. I know that was longer than we talked about, but I appreciate it.

Zadrozny: Yeah, my pleasure.

Photo of Brandy Zadrozny courtesy of NBC.

POSTED     April 8, 2021, 10:50 a.m.
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