By Joel MacManus writing for The Spinoff
January 19, 2018 was a day that changed what normal meant in New Zealand's political history. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her pregnancy, and changed perceptions across the world about what it meant to be a working mother.
In the underbelly of the internet, gears started grinding. A team of secret writers sprung into action, published an article, and sent an urgent press release to news outlets across the country. It was then promptly ignored by everyone who received it, because, well, it was f**king insane.
'Is Jacinda Ardern a Transvestite Man - Faking Her Pregnancy?'
The answer of course, is no. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that. The article's claim was based on the fact that Jacinda looks different now to how she did in high school - darker hair, more pronounced teeth, and a less rounded face. You know, like aging.
None of those observations are followed up in anywhere near enough detail to justify the author's bold claim, but that doesn't stop them from asking the big questions.
"Who is this person posing as our leader? What happened to the young girl? And perhaps most importantly, where are Jacinda and Clark going to get their baby from? The Ministry of Vulnerable Children?"
The article came from MediaWhores, a conspiracy website which has posted over 1000 separate articles since it launched in August 2016.
The website, which claims to be "the leading news source in NZ", is an eclectic mix of paranoia, anti-Semitism and transphobia. Wild, offensive and untrue accusations are thrown at almost every public figure in New Zealand, and a bunch of overseas ones too.
Sometimes the headlines seem so absurd that it must, surely, be parody. But it isn't. The articles make little to no sense, but not in a satirical way. And they've just been way too committed for way too long. No one making a joke would put in that amount of time.
- Is Jacinda Ardern actually Peter Thiel Dressed in Drag?
- Is Mike Hosking a Transgender Woman?
- Did Richie McCaw Conspire to Help Cover Up the Murder of Jerry Collins?
But who is generating this bile?
The website is registered to Wireless Media Ltd, which lists 44-year-old Frankton man Cohen James Glass as its sole director.
When I first called Cohen, he denied any involvement. "I'm not involved in it. I run a website company with hundreds of domain names," he said. "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole, it looks dangerous. I keep a close eye on it because I know it's quite shocking."
But almost immediately, he gave up on his denials and got distracted by threatening me.
"They've been posting about shape-shifting snakes. I'd be very concerned if I was you. I imagine you're probably one of them. I know the articles you write. They probably need to have a better look at your teeth. You can always notice shapeshifters by their teeth."
Any claim that Cohen was simply a website administrator quickly dissipated, as he started spouting theories perfectly in line with the website, about government paedophilia rings, how the bible proved there was a species of reptiles that live among us, and Pizzagate, the debunked conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was behind a human-trafficking ring in the basements of a Washington pizza restaurant.
When I asked him for a second time if he was involved with MediaWhores, I got a different response. "I think you have an obligation to expose, to protect people from psychotic paedophiles. I said to [the people behind the website] that I would guarantee that if you register a domain, I'll back you up."
Before he hung up, he turned it back on me again. "There is organised masonic child abuse in this country. You were probably raped as a child. You're a hop, skip and a jump away from 1000 years in the pits of hell. Be careful, or you might end up as our next front cover story."
The next day, the story was up. They spelt my name wrong and accused me of being part of "the Satanist vampire shape shifters conspiracy", because I had "Shapeshifting eye pupils - not circular!" and "Demonic shape shifting teeth!"
I was part of "the new breed of 'liberal' journalists who all seem to conspire to help ignore and/or cover up all of the never ending child abuse scandals in our Nation".
As by far the least high-profile person MediaWhores has ever accused of shape-shifting demonic activities, I considered it an honour to be part of the same inner circle as Mike McRoberts, Leonardo Di Caprio, Mark Zuckerberg and the entire cast of Game of Thrones.
Cohen had insisted that if I wanted more thorough answers, I needed to get in touch with MediaWhores through an official email address, which I did. That led me to a very long, very strange call from a man named Alex, who called himself a "MediaWhores spokesperson". While Alex wouldn't reveal his last name, Glass confirmed it as Alex Bowden.
Alex described the site as "truth-seeking" and "anti-media", but he rejects the term "journalism". He claims around a dozen people regularly contribute to the website.
Alex spoke slowly and rationally. Over the 40 minutes we talked, he never tried to convince me or change my mind. It was like he was a lecturer, simply informing me of the "truth". He did however, warn me not to misquote him. "We have a very large audience, and you, your whole life in front of you."
Alex spoke, too, with the strength of his own convictions. Which is what made it so bizarre when he launched into his anti-Semitic, transphobic and generally slander-laden diatribes.
The site's most popular ever story, he said, was about Hillary Clinton, who, he asserted, "had advanced warning of the Christchurch earthquake, her emails prove it. When we published that, it was read 150 million times around the world. That makes it the most read of anything from New Zealand ever."
The article currently has three comments and the online view counter shows 36,000 reads. MediaWhores insisted that Google is "hacking" their website to show lower readership statistics.
At times, MediaWhores seems like a checklist of all the tinfoil hat movie tropes you've ever seen: Israel was behind 9/11, the Earth is flat, the Sandy Hook massacre was fake, and the Freemasons have secret control of the government.
But some are just plain weird. JFK and Jimmy Carter are the same person. Julia Gillard is Jodie Foster in makeup. Heath Ledger and Barack Obama are the same person - and they're also a snake.
But according to Alex, they're not just a whole bunch of unrelated secrets and cover-ups, there is a logic to it all. It all comes back to astrology and the constellations, he said, before trotting out a bunch of anti-Semitic tropes.
"We are in the time when Jesus Christ should return and awaken man. If that happens, the overlords are f**ked. And they know that, which is why they're fighting so hard to control us."
For the most part, the MediaWhores conspiracies are absurd enough to be harmless, simply because they fail the test of reasonableness.
They fall into the category of what University of Otago philosophy professor Charles Pidgen calls "cognitive suicide" - the idea that they are so crazy that in order to believe them, you have to disbelieve so much about what we know about the world that they're no longer plausible.
"How could you get so many people to be singing from the same hymn sheet? What would be their motive, what could be the point?"
But Alex, for one, believes. He says he is convinced there is a government conspiracy to keep a close eye on him. "I know they're watching me … Every time I go to stay somewhere, by the end of the week there will be three new streetlights."
But he also privately thinks there are people within the government conspiring to disrupt surveillance and keep his website online.
"I'm surprised MediaWhores is still up. There's a degree of protection. There must be a small army of intelligence officers going against the government to protect us."
He says he's going to keep posting and trying to expose the government conspiracies until the mainstream media and the rest of the population catches on.
"We haven't been murdered yet, it's quite surprising. But if we do get murdered we've proved ourselves right."