Documentary writer and director Brian Knappenberger has spent close to two decades making compelling, insightful films about the places in our culture where technological innovation rubs up against our civil liberties and human rights. His latest feature, the Sundance award-nominated Nobody Speak, a Netflix Original which had its UK debut at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, takes a hard look at the influence of powerful conservative moguls on our public and political discourse.
Ostensibly, Nobody Speak explores the peculiarities of the Hulk Hogan/Gawker sex tape scandal and subsequent lawsuit. Four years after Gawker published the 1:42 clip of Hogan having sex with the wife of Bubba The Love Sponge (filmed at Bubba’s request) the former WWE star sued the publication for $100 million. As the trial unfolds however, it’s revealed that Hogan’s suit is being bankrolled by PayPal billionaire Peter Theil - a man who has, at various points, rejected the notion of structural racism and white privilege, described date rape as ‘belated regret' and argued against women's suffrage. Still smarting from Gawker’s public outing of him back in 2007, Theil latches on to Hogan’s case as a means of settling a personal vendetta with the publisher. As the trial wears on it becomes clear that Hogan and his sex tape are irrelevant, it’s Theil and his distaste for the unapologetic media outlet that start to take centre stage.
From this somewhat salacious beginning, the film twists and turns its way through a fascinating expose of America’s wealthy and the lengths they go to, to silence those who challenge them. From this one court case, Knappenberger charts the rise of Trump, his rejection of those who challenge his beliefs and the emergence of a 'post-truth' world where the powerful look to undermine their opponents with a coordinated campaign of misinformation and deception.
At a time when journalists are being attacked by politicians, when the President of the United States is tweeting threats to news outlets and when our own Prime Minister is refusing to engage with the press, it's an essential watch for anyone with an interest in politics and how the media holds the wealthy to account.
Technology, privacy, civil liberties and the media - where does your interest in these topics stem from?
I think if you went back 15 years, you’d probably call me a techno utopian - somebody who was really bought into the promise of the internet. I believed, very strongly, that the internet would help spur democratic movements around the world. That it would aid with the sharing of knowledge, that scientists would be able to pool their findings and cure diseases, that it would open up lots of new business opportunities. Some of that has panned out, but now we’re waking up to the dark side of the internet. The very same tools that have spurred revolution and democratic protest have also been used to survey our movements and target opposing groups and individuals.
Does that make you feel apathetic? Or does it spur your curiosity?
There are days when you think everything is moving in the wrong direction, but I’m still strongly optimistic that technology also solves problems. It’s a double-edged sword. Technology is dazzling - it extends our reach in magical ways - but the darker bits are unknown because it’s still so new. You need to look at those two halves in a straight, clear-eyed way.
Thinking about Nobody Speak specifically, do you think it’s an overstatement to say it’s a documentary about truth? About how reality can be manipulated or distorted by powerful people?
The film is about the immediate threat of wealthy individuals shutting down or silencing critical voices, but there’s no doubt there’s a bigger picture question of what is truth? What is real? I’m interested in the ways that powerful, rich individuals can put an invisible thumb on the scales of public opinion in ways that aren’t readily apparent. It’s very difficult to get at what’s real, there’s intentional misinformation that’s being fed into the public sphere in order to confuse things. Climate change is a great example of this, we’ve understood climate change to be real, to be happening and to be human-caused for at least 40 years but there’s this massive misinformation campaign which is confusing the issue. That’s robbing us of an important discussion that we need to be having. The topics in this film aren’t the most important issue, rather they act as examples which show that you need information, transparency good solid journalism to have a functioning democracy.
Do you worry about the film’s ability to pierce through media bubbles and reach people on the other side of that discussion?
It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, I think everyone acknowledges that there’s chaos when it comes to the media and information at the moment. We’re pretty critical of Trump in this documentary, but I think he’s just one example of a wider trend. He’s built a wall of deception - his administration lies every day in their tweets, their statements - it’s a habit almost. He’s a troubling example of what’s going on but I don’t think the film is particularly partisan. It doesn’t matter what cause you care about, there needs to be a free, transparent and open discussion or else nothing’s going to happen about those causes. I have a sometimes radical belief in the importance of the first amendment, lots of different voices should contribute - that makes it messy sometimes, but it’s also self-regulating. Opposing opinions cancel each other out.
I think that belief speaks to the early promise of the internet, but do threads like r/The_Donald and r/4chan worry you?
r/The-Donald is certainly influential, but what you’re seeing there is the fringes of the internet, the fringes of speech. There are restrictions to free speech, you can’t threaten people, you can’t commit crimes. Rather than silencing those voices I have to belief that the counter arguments will be more persuasive. If you don’t believe in free speech for speech you disagree with, then I don’t think you believe in it at all.
In some ways I think this documentary is as much about the struggle to challenge those with enormous wealth and power, as it is a discussion about the importance of free speech.
One of the things these stories reveal is a real vulnerability in the United States justice system. If you’ve got money the odds are stacked in your favour - there’s a famous saying that it’s better to be guilty, rich and white in America than it is to be innocent and poor. That’s one of the ways money is influencing public opinion and public discussion. Another is that very wealthy individuals are buying papers in secret, so the reader of that paper can’t discern what the conflicts of interest are. Corporations like the Sinclair broadcasting company are the biggest owners of local TV stations in the US, and they’re forcing these must-run segments that have a highly conservative bent to them. That same company has made a deal with Trump to show ‘fairer’ coverage and that’s a real problem! Big money is being used to force public opinion and that’s a dangerous territory for democracy.
Do you think Peter Thiel's actions have in some way encouraged Trump's belief that the powerful are above critique?
In the documentary we speak to Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, who says some wealthy people believe they’re more powerful than the truth. They believe they’re more powerful than reality. That’s what we’re seeing with Peter Thiel and Donald Trump. I absolutely think one has influenced the other. Wealthy individuals have owned papers for a long time, but what’s really egregious is this new wave of people buying papers in secret. That’s unacceptable because if you can’t know what the point of view of the paper is, you don’t know what’s motivating their coverage or the news they’re reporting.
Is transparency the key to fixing this imbalance of power?
We need public editors - at the New York Times, that role was looked after by Margaret Sullivan - that’s an important function. You need people in the paper who are looking out for the public and who can hold the paper to account in some way. Companies like Facebook need to start filling that role now.
Even after the problems they’ve faced with fake news…
Yea, because of that actually. They’ve pretended that they’re not a media company, that they’re not a news company, yet 62% of Americans get their news from Facebook. We’re at a point now where Facebook shouldn’t skirt their responsibility, they need to face up to the fact that they have an enormous impact on public opinion. If they had a public editor, that would be a huge step forward.
Do you think we might be heading to some kind of post-truth dystopia?
Journalism is more vulnerable than it’s ever been, but I do have a little bit of hope. Trump is so obviously deceiving the American public, he’s such a blatant liar and he’s been so antagonistic to the press that journalists are beginning to rediscover their purpose again. Tom Stoppard once wrote that people always do terrible things to one another, but it’s always worse when those things are kept in the dark.