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11 January 2023

Exposing the internet’s false prophets

Helen Lewis’s Radio 4 investigation charts the rise of today’s tech-led snake-oil merchants.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Wellness coaches. Productivity influencers. Crypto evangelists. Spend any time on the internet and it won’t be long before you come across modern-day prophets full of tips and training courses to fix everything that is wrong with you, and who broadcast their secret wisdom to audiences of millions (usually at a price). In January, with self-improvement on our minds, the lure of those who promise to turn our lives around with one quick hack is especially strong.

It’s therefore an apt time to listen to The New Gurus, an eight-part series released on BBC Sounds in December, which takes us down the rabbit hole to meet these digital cult leaders. Helen Lewis (formerly of the New Statesman) wants to find out how we got here. Where did these people come from, and how have they attracted such huge followings?

Their prescriptions for making our problems go away range from the basic (combat procrastination by breaking up big tasks into manageable chunks) to the bizarre (drink your own urine for a health kick) to the dangerous (refuse vaccines and eschew evidence-based medicine). They often have no qualifications and are increasingly being banned from social media platforms, such as YouTube and Instagram, for spreading harmful conspiracy theories. Yet their disciples remain devoted. Why?

It’s a fascinating investigation, both disturbing and entertaining (the image of the “wild naked man” who runs “sexual kung fu” and “semen retention” workshops will stay with me for a long time). Some of the new gurus you may have heard of, such as Jordan Peterson, Russell Brand and Steve Jobs – who, Lewis suggests, was a key architect of today’s obsession with secular enlightenment as well as of the technology which enables it. Others are lesser-known to all but their hoards of followers.

What they have in common is an uncanny ability to tap in to our deepest anxieties and desperate belief that there are answers out there. An appealing message – but be warned, that “one weird trick” is probably a load of piss.

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[See also: Susan Cooper’s land of shadows]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor