There is a single, innocuous phrase, used like a mantra by proponents of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, that drives me insane. Not because it is uttered in smug or combative tones, though it often is, but because it feels like such a distortion. “Do your research,” they say.
Why should this be maddening? I love researching almost anything. Research is exciting; it pries open the mind.
But how can they urge research when what they are saying cannot be documented, replicated, proved in any way? There is no real research involved.
Oh, but there is, say Alice Marwick and William Partin in an opinion piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. Child-eating pedophiles may morph into some other monstrous conspiracy theory, but the way QAnon was created will remain a powerful persuader, precisely because it steals some (key word) of the methodology of traditional research.
It has, for example, a primary text. Bits of that text are posted several times a week, have been for three years now. They are as cryptic as the ancient languages archaeologists must translate, the early scriptures Bible scholars pore over, the opaque Modern poetry literary theorists try to parse. They are not factual or substantive, mind you, but they are puzzles that beg to be solved. Taking the writerly admonition “Show don’t tell” to the extreme, they tap into the power of anything readers discover for themselves.
Q researchers, who call themselves Bakers, gather up these breadcrumbs and follow them to epiphany. They are driven by a goal a lot more powerful than a Ph.D., though: They want, explain Marwick and Partin, a “Great Awakening, an earth-shattering event in which all of Trump’s enemies will be arrested for being Satan-worshipping pedophiles.”
So this is what the phrase “digital soldier” means. People across the nation (and even in other countries) have taken an oath to “do the research,” working as devotedly as medieval scribes locked away in a monastery, using ink on vellum to illuminate and preserve their beliefs.
Today’s medium is electric. And in their own research, Marwick and Partin found “surprisingly rich online databases that Q researchers have created to aid them in their efforts.” The Bakers are not bumblers, the authors insist; nor are they simpleminded dupes; nor are they insane. They turn the cryptic primary texts into Proofs and offer authoritative interpretations, their diagrams’ red arrows connecting texts, news stories, and Trump tweets.
The human mind is adroit at seeing patterns—those that exist, and those the mind itself has created for the sheer fun of pattern-making. So when somebody puts up a collage of stuff that is mysterious but ostensibly connected, viewers are going to puzzle out connections, hypothesize, elaborate and reinforce one another’s notions. If you have ever tried an Escape Room with smart friends, you know how wild the theories can get.
Part of the excitement here is having so little to work with—sometimes just a short, intriguing list of words and numbers waiting to be spun together. Part of QAnon’s power is having so much to work with, in those rich databases and the growing number of adherents who are grabbing at possible connections and reinforcing one another’s theories. How much more fun this is than listening to a straight newscast. Marwick and Partin found wordplay, alternate spellings and definitions, imagined references to current or historic events, disguised namedrops, photos overanalyzed but with valid tools like Google Maps and FAA incident logs.
To add to the sense of authenticity, people quickly dismissed interpretations that seemed too bizarre, had no “research” behind them, or came from “biased” sources. Those that are branded “notable,” however, are closed and archived, expanding the database. These posts are now immutable, there to be invoked but not to be questioned.
The highest validation comes whenever Q speaks, like a dozing tenured professor who snaps awake when a grad student utters something brilliant. Q’s approval stamps something as true, and it becomes part of the canon. This gives new breadcrumbs more places to adhere.
On the flip side, one of the Bakers might issue an abrupt rebuke. Both practices maintain the illusion of true and false, and the festive comfort of following a scavenger hunt in which someone smart has written all the clues and planted the treasure and will reward you at the end.
To those of us not playing, QAnon feels like the nightmarish but logical conclusion to the gradual realization, in valid disciplines, that all truth is subjective and relative; that the observer can alter the situation; that facts can be bent to support a false narrative.
How do we know things to be true? Through our senses, our personal experience of the world. By using logic. Through consensus, the common wisdom of those around us. Via the opinion of experts who have studied, researched, experienced. Through the scientific method. All of which have been shown, on various occasions, to be unreliable. In the end, even sophisticated intellectuals go with their gut in deciding which interpretation to trust, which facts are significant, which empirical data is skewed.
And then, to back up their gut instincts, they “do the research,” looking for as many ways to document a truth claim as possible.
What we need, all of us, are some good old-fashioned incontrovertible facts. There was a time when photographs and film carried weight, but now we know they can be easily doctored. The mainstream media now make a featurette of fact-checking, but do they fact-check themselves as assiduously? How, in a time that mistrusts university elites, do we even define “facts”?
QAnon simply creates its own, then glues them down and refers back to them. It is a self-contained universe, grabbing street cred by bringing in the occasional outside referent, the way a novelist will use current events or real people or a city’s actual street names to ground the fiction for us. And its dogma is repeated and repeated and repeated.
A friend sent a link to the YouTube broadcast she is sure sent another dear friend into conspiracy fantasy. (“Conspiracy theory” is accurate, because a theory is only a group of linked ideas intended to explain something. But for me, a theory should be at least plausible.) I listened for a solid hour, and I noticed what seemed a deliberately scattershot delivery. The host tossed out bits of “information” (Trump was going to make an emergency broadcast that evening at 9 p.m., prisons had been built for 60,000 people, all the Antifa and Black Lives Matter folks had already been fingered) and obscure hints and theories, but in a rapid-fire, incohesive way. Nothing was allowed to be heard in context. There were no pauses for information to sink in. Every once in a while there was a wild hare (“What would you say if you learned that Nancy Polosi was a White Hat?”) to keep us off base and agog. References to history were made to sound significant, like a triumphant “Where do you think John F. Kennedy Jr. came from?” Answer: Joseph Kennedy was a whiskey bootlegger, a legend that has never been confirmed but would hardly seem to matter to the Trump presidency either way. At one point, it sounds as though he is making Donald Trump out to be Christ, emphasizing how he willingly put himself through all this suffering and turmoil, and would he do all that only to buckle at the final hour?
In the next breath, the host assures his audience that their side has weapons that can saw a body in half.
He continues in this manner, jumping around like a kangaroo whose paws are on fire. By the end, my head is spinning, and my notes are a scramble.
When you hear the same free-floating, emotion-charged bits of information over and over again from lots of different (but like-minded) sources, the repetition gives them the hard smooth surface of fact. Now you can cite them, and others can do their research. This, Marwick and Partin tell us, is “populist expertise.” And, they conclude, “the age of alternative facts has only just begun.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.