Comedian and actor Russell Brand has been trying on a new role for the last couple of years. As a general YouTube contrarian, he’s been promoting an energetic blend of conspiracy theories, COVID denial, and the liberal use of capital letters, with videos like “The TRUTH About Pfizer” and “The CDC Are SPYING On You!” The videos lean heavily on the idea that the government and the mainstream media are lying about COVID, a concept so worn smooth at this point that Brand often seems to struggle to add his own spin. This week, after glomming onto a piece of misinformation floating around anti-vaccine Twitter and repeating it to his nearly six million followers, he tried something truly novel: admitting that he’d been completely wrong.
Brand has gone through several phases after seemingly moving away from acting and comedy, first writing a book about addiction recovery and then trying on a spiritual guru hat; he spoke at the New Age expo Conscious Life just before COVID began. During the pandemic, he’s undergone what might gently be termed a rebrand, making a series of YouTube and Instagram videos using his trademark, exhaustingly frenetic delivery, all about the various ways the population is being LIED TO and needs to WAKE UP, strung together with some remnants of New Age thought. (Brand’s YouTube bio says that his videos “explore new ways to connect with ourselves and one another and how to elevate our consciousness.”)
The model has clearly worked; many of his videos now garner over one million views and praise from other popular social media contrarians like Tim Pool and Elon Musk, who lauded him on Twitter for opposing the “groupthink” among mainstream media companies. Since March, Brand has used that model to repeatedly Just Ask Some Questions about the mainstream media narrative around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, glomming onto a Kremlin and right-wing-supported narrative that the United States had secret labs in Ukraine meant to produce biological weapons, which disinformation experts see as a clear pretext to justify the invasion. He also told one interviewer that his content is now aimed at his growing U.S. audience, which might explain audiences with people like Pool and many frenzied videos decrying Anthony Fauci.
Revisionist history about Russia aside, COVID and COVID restrictions are truly what seem to animate Brand; in a September 6 video, characteristically titled “You’re Not Going to F*cking Believe This,” he attempted to decry what he called the “changing facts and changing narrative” around the pandemic. One central point of the video was that things like Vitamin D and—you saw this coming—ivermectin had been unfairly decried by the mainstream media and the government, but that those same bodies are now quietly admitting their efficacy. Specifically, Brand claimed that the National Institutes of Health had “added ivermectin to the list of COVID treatments” the day before he published his video. (The day after his video was published, the BMJ reported that two new trials found that Vitamin D supplements did not reduce the risk of COVID or other acute respiratory tract infections; an editorial in the British Medical Journal suggested that Vitamin D supplements could still be beneficial in Vitamin D-deficient populations, though, to take advantage of any possible effect it could have on respiratory illness in those populations.)
Brand seemingly got his ivermectin claim from Twitter, where one power-user named Dusty Dweller wrote of the NIH, “After years of denial, blocking, interference, villification, ruining social media accounts, killing people, etc. they silently add it to their antiviral protocol,” a claim which immdiately went fairly viral.
But a look at the NIH’s actual website, which is very easy to find on the same device you might use to watch vociferous videos on YouTube, shows that ivermectin is quite simply listed as one of the antiviral treatments the NIH has been evaluating for COVID. The NIH’s official guidance (still) recommends against the use of ivermectin except in clinical trials, and the ivermectin-shilling movement has suffered a long series of setbacks, as study after study has shown the drug is not effective as a cure, treatment ,or preventative for the disease. (Furthermore, a quick look at Wayback Machine shows that ivermectin was seemingly added to the list of antiviral treatments being studied around August 12, not early September, when Brand published his video.)
In a follow-up video, appropriately titled “I Was Wrong,” Brand admitted he’d been wrong. “Because it was a widely tweeted thing, we thought it was true. That was really silly of us,” he said. The mistake was brought to his attention, he added, by a raft of YouTube and Instagram comments. (“You need to click on that link, pal” one read).
“We should’ve done better,” Brand added. “We let you down. We will do better in future. So that’s the exact situation.”
In many ways, this is an encouraging data point: a would-be conspiracy peddler trying to fact-check himself, and the community that follows him showing that they’re actively evaluating his claims. Despite Brand’s repeated claims that COVID news is being censored to create “one official narrative,” as he put it in a 2021 video, this incident seems to show the exact opposite. Brand’s original video wasn’t taken down or subjected to some kind of YouTube oubliette; it was just fact-checked by its viewers.
Lest this all turn into a heartwarming anecdote about a man trying to fuck up less, Brand used his mistake, naturally, as a way to show that he is better than the mainstream media he decries. “When someone in media makes a mistake, they should be honest about it,” he said, before showing clips of places like CNN calling ivermectin “horse paste,” which, in fairness, they should not do without context. (Veterinary ivermectin is not a cure or effective treatment for COVID, as the FDA has had to warn the American public; ivermectin formulated for humans is used to treat serious illnesses like river blindness, but is—again—not a treatment for COVID.)
Brand then spent the remainder of the video Just Asking Questions about the antiviral treatment Paxlovid, accurately noting that one Israeli study found it did not seem to improve rates of hospitalization or death in patients under 65 before claiming that other media outlets are funded by Pfizer and accusing them of imposing “a set of systemic beliefs,” whatever that means, on their viewers. But those viewers have shown themselves to perhaps be more discerning than Brand himself—and that, at the very least, is a good thing.