Discover more from Webworm with David Farrier
The Con Men Are in Charge
The lie is the real product - and on social media, we’re all marks.
Five days in, and New Zealand has been… chaotic.
Mister Organ premieres tonight, and these two radio pieces probably sum it all up: The off-screen drama ahead of David Farrier’s Mr Organ, and this interview with Kim Hill — David Farrier: Playing Cat and Mouse with Mister Organ.
I’ll let you know how tonight goes.
The Webworm, Arise! event has also happened. It felt incredibly cathartic to break down the megachurch reporting over the last year, and get to meet a whole lot of worms in person! When I come up for air from this Mister Organ stuff I’ll be editing up the podcast version for paying subscribers.
Now in that last photo you’ll notice Hayden Donnell — he was on the Webworm, Arise! panel, because he reported a lot of the Arise stuff with me.
He also writes some very intense and funny columns here at Webworm (all his stuff can be found here) — and today he has a new piece.
It’s about how we’re living in the age of “confidence men” — and with the world’s richest man somehow managing to make Twitter an even more unpleasant place, and the subject of Mister Organ playing on my mind a lot at the moment, today seems the perfect day to share it with you.
The Con Men Are in Charge
by Hayden Donnell.
In his book Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale details an outrageous scam. The self-confessed con man had been jetting his way around the world impersonating airline employees. But this time he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
Instead of his usual cabin crew attire, he’d purchased a Pan Am pilot uniform and boarded a 747.
The crew understandably assumed he could fly a plane and ushered him to the cockpit. “I put the jet on automatic pilot and hoped to hell the gadget worked, because I couldn’t fly a kite,” he writes.
In convincing people to let him control a hugely important piece of machinery despite being drastically unqualified for the role, Abagnale provided a template for leadership currently being followed across the globe.
Over the last few weeks, Elon Musk has subjected one of our most influential social media networks to a stunning barrage of brain sharts, torpedoing its revenue streams and firing half its workforce while trying to replicate the worst aspects of Facebook.
He’s hardly the only overconfident mediocrity to mess up a role clearly beyond his abilities while being egged on by a huge band of sycophants. The good people of the USA famously put an oft-bankrupted alleged rapist whose greatest career achievement was a cameo appearance on Home Alone 2 in charge of the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal.
He promptly killed hundreds of thousands of people by handing over a pandemic response to his seething brain worms, while sending the country lurching down an apparently inescapable road to fascism.
The last few years have seen us subjected to a grim parade of these men, from Trump and Musk to Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson. Many of them are elevated to their positions partly by cynical, servile press outlets that would shoot an ethical standard on sight if it walked through their office door. But more than Rupert Murdoch, our idiot leaders are creations of social media.
Despite that, they don’t always get top billing in the coverage of the plagues big tech has inflicted on society. Outlets like The New York Times and ‘Webworm’ justifiably focus on the tsunami of algorithmically amplified disinformation that has liquified the brains of millions of people and got them gibbering about children’s blood being farmed in underground tunnels.
But the elevation of these clown messiahs is arguably as important. It’s hard to picture someone like Trump or even Musk mustering quite as much influence without the huge, virtually unmoderated platforms they’ve been provided by Mark Zuckerberg, Susan Wojcicki, Sundar Pichai and that weird hairy monk that got eaten alive by mosquitos in a Myanmarese cave.
In the pre-social media age, narcissists were subject to at least a few meaningful checks and balances. Even the most arrogant political figure would still need to submit to the scrutiny of some kind of journalist or editor in order to get their messages out to a mass audience. Those walls have broken down. Now Musk can tweet gobbledegook like ‘the bird is freed’, and hundreds of thousands of people will gush like he’s just come up with the Theory of Relativity.
In a world where you can elude the editors, shamelessness becomes a huge asset. The megalomaniacs who’ve seized power in recent years are united in their utter audacity; their refusal to acknowledge any mistake and their commitment to posturing as the smartest guy in the room.
Even if they get caught partying during a lockdown they ordered, advising people to beat Covid by shining powerful lights into their body, or setting fire to a social media company, they never acknowledge a reality outside the one they’ve constructed. In doing so they will that reality into existence. They put on the uniform and pretend to know how to fly the plane.
It’s a winning strategy. Research has shown that humans are hardwired to reward confidence. Friend of Webworm and psychotherapist Paul Wilson says the most effective con artists are fueled by supreme unshakeable self-belief, entitlement, and a lack of self-consciousness. “Psychologists call this ‘heightened social boldness’ and that boldness and decisiveness is very attractive, intoxicating and even sexy, especially when combined with physical attractiveness.”
Social media has been a big enabler for people with those traits, massively expanding their reach. Abagnale had to win people over one to one or in small groups. Today’s con men are able to broadcast their messages to millions of people at once. Now the whole world is a mark.
The problem for these people is that sometimes a crisis arrives and reveals they can’t actually fly a plane. Confidence can get you a long way in the social media age, but every so often our idiot rulers butt up against a hard wall of reality. Musk may be able to survive building cars that catch fire or constructing the world’s worst transit system, but flushing $44 billion down the toilet may be harder to survive with his mythos intact.
Trump eventually ran into an institution he couldn’t just brazenly ignore or obliterate, though he’ll try again in 2024. Boris Johnson managed to be so incompetent, corrupt and stupid his own enablers stabbed him in the back.
Our emperors have no clothes. When you chip away the bluster, there’s just an ultra-divorced man who makes faulty cars, a bad businessman, or an Eton grad with weird hair. But that’s par for the course.
Here’s the thing with that story about Frank Abagnale flying a plane: it’s not true. He made it up to sell books, and it paid off to the tune of a Hollywood movie. In the end, just as it is for Musk, Bolsonaro, Trump, Johnson or any number of con men, the lie is the real product.
- Hayden Donnell.
David here again. This whole time I’d assumed he’d flown the fucking plane. We’re all marks.
I’ll let you know how tonight goes.
If you’ve got an iOS phone and are sampling the chat function on the Webworm app, I’ll try and remember to post some live updates from the premiere tonight. The film opens this Thursday down under — tickets on sale at around 50 cinemas now.