Sign up to our newsletter

Welcome to See Through News

Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active

[wpedon id=3642]

Cults, Con Artists, Charlatans and Moving People To Climate Action

cult leaders con artists charlatans climate activists carbon reduction storytelling

What can carbon reduction activists learn from Andrew Tate, Sam Bankman-Fried & Elizabeth Holmes?

Forget the content, respect the cunning. This article sifts through the rubble left by internet-era versions of old villainy, and asks if the same tricks used to bilk investors and inflate egos might be repurposed to move ordinary people to take effective climate action, and shrink carbon emissions.

Are cult leaders, con artists and charlatans ALL bad?

To be clear, cult leaders, con artists and charlatans are Bad People doing Bad Things to Good People. 

They blithely destroy innocent lives and leave a trail of destruction. Some repent, some style it out, some even die with their followers in mass suicides as the cops close in, when their teetering towers of lies have started to topple. 

But up till that point, what keeps their edifices of cults, Ponzi schemes, and online followers perpendicular? How do malign tricksters manage to appear as not just legitimate, but admirable? Who do they target? How do they avoid detection?

This article separates means from ends.

Hucksters’ moral turpitude is defined by their goals, usually cunningly-concealed egotism or simple grift, not by their tricks, which are common to many benign storytellers. 

If you agree that mitigating the worst effects of human-induced climate change on human civilisation is not a Bad Thing, might some techniques used in service of the malign not be put to better use in service of the benign? 

Might the conjuring tricks, smoke and mirrors, and sheep’s clothing so expertly deployed by these amoral, ego-driven cult leaders be of any use to altruistic climate activists interested only in measurable carbon reduction?

This article sifts through the rubble left behind by some Internet-era con artists, in search of useful building blocks that might be repurposed to build a more solid edifice, designed not to inflate egos and offshore accounts, but to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Moving ordinary people from inaction to action is hard, so why not learn from the best?

What’s wrong with cults?

Let’s start with what not to do.

To re-iterate, this article focuses as much as possible on means, rather than ends. Let’s set aside any judgements about morality, and focus on the behavioural psychology insights, storytelling ruses and distraction techniques exploited by three Internet-era Hall of Infamy giants. Each conjured up ‘cult’ status for themselves – what do they have in common, and what might be deployed to induce ordinary people to measurably reduce carbon?

We choose our case studies from the post-Internet era because any carbon-reducing solution will have to exploit the Internet. The human frailties preyed on by cult leaders and fraudsters haven’t changed, but some lessons on how to influence people online may be specific to these exemplars:

  • Sam Bankman-Fried: schlubby crypto-bro whose FTX Ponzi scheme conned investors out of US8Bm. Sentenced in 2024 to 25 years for various counts of fraud.
  • Elizabeth Holmes: contralto-voiced, unblinking biomedical dropout who convinced investors her Theranos blood-analysing black box was worth US$9Bn. Sentenced in 2022 to 11 years for fraud.
  • Andrew Tate: cage fighter-turned-’misogynist influencer’ whose millions of global online followers, and graduates of his online ‘Hustler’s University’, earned him hundreds of millions of dollars. Awaiting trial on rape and human trafficking charges.

The obvious answer to the question of ‘what’s wrong with these cults?’ is the ‘inevitable’ final chapter, set in a prison cell. They may have had a fun ride, but ultimately, they failed.

The more useful answer is how these fraudulent cult leaders evaded exposure up until the point when their demise became ‘inevitable’, and their movements ‘cults’.

Cult leaders and con artists are easy to spot once they’re labelled as cult leaders and con-artists. The challenge is how do we spot them when they’re still ‘visionaries’, ‘innovators’ and ‘geniuses’.

For years these villains, and others like them, hoodwinked not just ordinary people, but the sentinels to whom we outsource our due diligence because we’re too busy to investigate everything ourselves. The Internet may have changed the business model and job descriptions in journalism, but we still rely on journalists and courts to protect us from cults and tricksters.

It’s not as if there any lack of awareness of the dangers cults bring.

  • Democracies warn of the dangers of the ‘cult of personality’ relied on by dictators in autocracies. Dictators in autocracies warn of the dangers of the cult of capitalism/cult of human rights/cult of consumerism.
  • Conspiracy theorists everywhere ‘do their own research’ to warn the rest of us of paeodphile cults, Illuminati cults, Deep State cults, and many others.
  • Religions alert their followers to infidels or apostates, who they label as ‘cults’.
  • And of course cult leaders themselves spend their time rejecting accusations of being cults, or accusing others of being cults themselves.

Keeping the cults out

No one, it seems, wants to be a cult. Everyone, however, wants to be first to be in on the hot New Thing that no one else yet knows about.

This grey area, where the Thing is New, but not yet definitively Good or Bad, is the gap cult leaders exploit.

Think of is as a new nightclub that’s just opened. Let’s call it the Walks Like A Duck Club.

The Walks Like A Duck could be a hit, it could be a flop. From the outside, it’s hard to tell. There are bouncers outside to keep the undesirables out, and admit the lucky few. They’re there to enforce the admissions policy, but who’s pays them, what’s the policy and who decides it?

The bouncers at the FTX, Theranos and Hustler’s University nightclubs, were the usual crew, Mr. Hack, from the union of Journalists, and Mr. Shyster, despatched by the union of Justice. A free press and independent judiciary are supposed to protect us from the bad guys.

Instead, they not only waved us past the ropes, but ushered us deferentially towards the VIP lounge. 

Bankman-Fried’s list of saps included not just celebrity endorsers like comedian Larry David, NFL veteran Tom Brady, tennis star Naomi Osaka and NBA legend Steph Curry, but the supposedly hard-headed billionaire investors behind Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Softbank Capital. 

Holmes’ list of dupes included media mogul Rupert Murdoch, ex-US Secretary of State George Shultz. She was lionised on the covers of Fortune, Forbes, and the New York Times Style Magazine.

Tate’s hustle has fewer high profile scalps, maybe because he conducted it almost entirely online, rather than on Wall Street. This may explain why the pile of cash he accumulated was a zero smaller than the others (running ‘only’ to hundreds of millions), but also why Tate required a different kind of complicity – blind-eye turning from social media platforms.

The Bankman-Fried and Holmes court cases have produced remarkable lists of high-profile investors, image-conscious celebrities, broadsheet journalists, and other sentinels of media old and new, who were complicit in their rise. No doubt more will emerge from Tate’s trial, now Romania has approved extradition for Tate and his brother to face trial in the UK. 

How do these master storytellers spin their yarns up to the point when their inspiring saviour narratives suddenly become morality tales featuring them as the villains?

There are the obvious answers, of course: money, greed, power. 

These long predate the Internet, and in this sense, Bankman-Fried, Holmes and Tate are just the latest inductees to the Hall of Infamy that stretches back as far as human history.

Fraud historians credit OG status to Hegestratos and Zenosthemis, ship merchants in 300 BC Greece. They bought a ‘bottomry’, an insurance policy on their ship and cargo, and sunk the ship to claim the insurance, rather than bothering with actual trade. Caught in the act, Hegestratos lost his life while attempting to escape, and Zenosthemis faced the law’s wrath in the Athenian courts.

Hegestratos and Zenosthemis hold important lessons about carefully choosing the system you choose to cheat, but we’ll come on that shortly. 

First, let’s ask an unconventional question.

What’s right with cults?

Pontificating about the folly of cult followers is easy in retrospect. 

More interesting, more challenging, and of greater potential benefit to climate activists is to sift through the rubble they leave behind. Might we find some useful debris from which to construct a more useful structure than the teetering follies built on foundations of ego?

Google Bankman-Fried, Holmes and Tate today, and you’ll find plenty of forensic analyses, listing their litany of sins. But how many of those finger-wagging moralists raised doubts before the veil dropped?

Many of the slavish hagiographies, and cover stories from the venture capital and financial press have now been deleted, but the Internet, for all its many sins, is an unforgiving and thorough archivist. 

Cached pages, screen grabs and downloads make life hard for red-faced dupes. The Internet sifts through their trash cans to find their screwed-up discarded pin-up posters smooth them out, and post them online.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton must deeply regret sharing a stage with Bankman-Fried, they in suits, he in shorts and T-shirt, at one of his Cayman Island ‘conferences’, but much as their PR folk would like us to forget it, they did.

But what can we learn from these embarrassing celebrating the unique innovative genius of these exceptional trailblazers?

Like con artists throughout history, these modern digital incarnations are master storytellers. They know how to identify age-old human weaknesses, and play them like a fiddle while somehow appearing not to. Like conjurors, they make things appear to be what they are not – old wine in old bottles are marketed as innovations, breakthroughs, ‘this-time-it’s-different’s.

The Bouncers v The Bounders

It’s worth also reflecting on what eventually brought these con-artists down – journalists and judges.

Not all journalists and judges, of course. Most fluffed their lines. 

Individual journalists and lawyers are usually cast as the dogged heroes who triggered the denouement, against the odds, public opinion, and the groupthink of their professional peers. 

  • A bouquet for John Carreyrou, to add to his Pulitzer Prize, for digging away at the porous foundations of Theranos, while everyone else, including the owner of his employer the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch, was being dazzled by the flashing neon facade Holmes had created.
  • Kudos to the few legal advisors, lawyers, and judges who declined to drink Bankman-Fried’s Kool-Aid, and kept asking where the money was, while everyone else was too busy making money or too intimidated by those who were.
  • Instead of sniggering that its acronym happens to spell the name of the climate activist Tate tried trolling, how about a round of applause for the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), the European body that monitors the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, triggering Romania into arresting Tate and his brother.

Similar ‘awkward squad’ members lie behind every exposure of fraud:

  • Take a bow, David Walsh, the Irish cycling journalist who kept asking awkward questions at Lance Armstrong’s press conferences, despite the eye-rolling, dirty looks and shushes of his professional colleagues.
  • All hail the local journalists who caught a whiff of quackery on the 1971 hometown visit by local preacher ‘Jimmy’ Jones from his new base in San Francisco, and to the Indiana State Psychology Board for pursuing an investigation into his ‘healing practices’ the following year. It’s not their fault they triggered a paranoid cult leader on our course of actions that ended in a mass murder-suicide in Guyana in 1978, when nearly 1,000 died after drinking sports-drink-flavoured cyanide. Until 9/11, the ‘Jonestown Massacre’ was the biggest single loss of American lives. We still use the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ to mean duped into action against your best interests.
  • Daphne Caruana Galizia‘s reward for her persistent blogging about government corruption in Malta was a car bomb. The explosion exposed the hold crime syndicates had on the Maltese government, but also killed her. 

This last example is depressingly common, and often unreported. When you threaten the interests of a powerful foe, you can risk more than your professional reputation. Check the prisoners listed by Amnesty International and other human rights advocates for the ones know about. We may never know about the ones they don’t hear about.

So what is a climate activist to conclude?

Autocracies v Democracies: carbon don’t care

Despite all its links to dirty money, Malta’s corrupt government couldn’t act with total impunity. A blatantly criminal act, like a car bomb, had consequences in an EU state, subject to EU laws and scrutiny.  

Even if the right heads didn’t roll, and did so figuratively rather than, in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, literally, the forces of illegal inertia came up against the forces of systemic justice. 

And this is one key lesson for climate activists – optimise your chances of measurably reducing the most carbon quickest by operating within the prevailing system. 

Without deflecting any praise due to the stubborn, persistent truth-seekers, impelled to swim against the tide for so long with no guarantee of success by their burning sense of justice, let’s also consider what made their battles possible.

Bankman-Fried, Holmes and Tate were brought to justice because they operated in countries with systems of a free press and independent judiciary. It may have taken years, and the wheels of justice may have turned at a snail’s pace, but they did eventually grind down the edifice of lies.

  • Like all Ponzi schemes, Bankman-Fried’s house of cards was doomed to fail, obeying economic gravity. 
  • Like all snake-oil salesfolk, Holme’s mysterious black box would eventually be exposed as being empty. 
  • Most rapists get caught – though of course we never know about the ones that get away with it, and Jimmy Saville’s reputation lasted until his death removed his protective guard of libel lawyers.  

So, if you want to reduce carbon in places where institutions like a free media and independent judiciary operate to some degree, use them.

This is the path chosen by climate activists pulling on the levers of market forces and law to constrain Big Oil’s determination to keep burning fossil fuels. Campaigns involving shareholder pressure, lawsuits on behalf of nature, or targeting the banks and insurance companies who enable Business As Usual, are proving promisingly effective.

But timing is everything. By the time the wheels of justice have turned enough for their strategies to work, it may be too late to make much difference.

Lessons for climate action

What, then, can these fraudsters teach climate activists about how to better further their own goals?

What can See Through News, setting up its hot new venue, the Measurable Carbon Reduction club, learn from the Bankman-Fried, Holmes and Tait, once we strip away their venal egotism?


For a start, simply paying attention can offer useful protection from bad actors and their stooges.

If it takes a thief to catch a thief, and you should never try to scam a scammer, at the very least being familiar with the fraudster’s toolkit may prevent you from being taken for a ride.

See Through News has direct experience of this. In Sept 2022 it was invited to speak at an Effective Altruism conference in Berlin. Effective Altruism describes itself as ‘about doing good better’, was founded by an Oxford philosopher, and attracts a highly-educated membership. When it invited STN to its impressive multi-day conference at a Berlin city-centre venue, attended by nearly a thousand members from around Europe, EA was largely bankrolled by Sam Bankman-Fried.

As climate change was among EA’s major focuses (others include protecting humanity against AI and animal rights), and STN’s Goal is Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active, an invitation made perfect sense.

As STN discovered, however, EA usually only invites EA members to speak at its conferences. This was one of a number of red flags STN described in the Open Letter it wrote to EA following the conference (sample section heading ‘First, Don’t Sound Like A Cult’).

Within a few weeks of the Open Letter, FTX’s Ponzi scheme started to unravel. For all their education, altruism and philosophising, EA’s leaders turned out to be another of Bankman-Fried’s useful idiots. Like Blair, Clinton, Osaka and David, EA’s brainy boffins were fig leafs for his fraud. They traded their credibility (cheaply, compared to FTX’s valuation) to abet a cult leader in his schemes to distract critics and deter sceptics.

While EA was a relatively small pawn in Bankman-Fried’s game, the whiff of fraud was clearly detectable to sensitive nostrils.

Lesson: If you need money, be careful where it comes from. To avoid the problem, avoid money.

The Internet

We chose our case studies not just because their relatively recent downfalls would be fresh in our minds, but also in the hope there might be some Internet-specific lessons to be learned from their old-wine-in-new-bottle frauds.

One clear feature of the new bottle is that it has doesn’t have much bottle, at least when it comes to choosing between money and morality.

For all their disruptive ‘This Time It’s Different’ posturing, when it comes to motivation, our Silicon Valley Overlords are old-school capitalist monopolists. If you can deliver them their eyeballs, they’re not too fussy about how you do it, including coercing women into sex work, and teaching violence against women.

Social media platforms protect themselves from scrutiny either by pleading free speech, or by abrogating responsibility by insisting they are platforms, not publishers. Tate adeptly co-opted both of these mealy-mouths defences as cover for his cult, allowing him to build up an astonishing degree of influence among young men around the world before their teachers and parents had even heard the name of Andrew Tate.

Tate’s innovation was to not to bother with the usual bouncers – Mssrs. Hack and Shyster – but to hire the even less fussy Mr. Web.

Lesson: Assume our Silicon Valley Overlords’ main motivation is money, then work out how to use their ‘free’ infrastructure to reduce carbon.


The main trick is as old as mankind – great storytelling.

No need to go into great detail here, but the See Through News website is full of articles discussing this in great detail, including one specifically about its storytelling methodology.


All the projects described on the See Through News website deploy deception to some degree or other.

This is why it’s not immediately obvious that Superhero Drawing Competitions, experiments in community filmmaking, guerrilla gigs for bagpipe and ukulele, bedtime story podcasts etc. are simply all different starting points to the same destination.

For an example of a transparent Trojan horse that explains exactly how and why it’s a transparent Trojan horse, STN’s school Languages Day speech even explicitly says ‘But if I’m telling you exactly how I’m manipulating you, can I really be manipulating you?’.

See Through policy is to mention the ‘C-word’ (carbon/climate) as little and late as possible, ideally not at all. If you can trick a climate denier into measurably reducing carbon, why make things harder for yourself?


Cult leaders, con artists and charlatans, like priests, politicians, populists, persuaders, and PRs – share the same basic strategy. Any effective climate activist should surely follow the same time-tested trail.

  • A) Goal: know what you want
  • B) Means: identify what people want
  • C) Target: focus on the right people
  • D) Strategy: Convince C to link A with B

Goal: For sociopathic narcissists like Bankman-Fried, Holmes and Tate and other cult leaders, A) is usually some combination of ego, money and status. Lesson for effective climate activists: make ‘measurable carbon reduction’ the goal, measured in tonnes of CO2e.

Means: Ego-driven sociopaths can also display a profound intuition for B). Most people want status, credibility, sex, success, hope, power. Lesson for effective climate activists: everyone wants a stable, predictable climate.

Target: Like many psychopaths, cult leaders have a great sensitivity to C) usually mentally vulnerable or frail people, at moments of crisis in their lives. Lesson for effective climate activists: TargetUnwilling Inactivists’, i.e. people who accept the science and reality of climate change, but who feel unable to do anything about it.

Strategy: Learn from the best – use the full toolkit of rhetorical tricks, manipulations, smoke and mirrors – you can even afford to hide in plain sight, and make your Trojan horse transparent. Lesson for Effective climate activists: most people are more interested in the story you’re telling than how you tell it.