The Future

When conspiracy theories become weaponized

How a rage-fueled fever dream named QAnon took over the internet.

For a brief, unsettling moment this past weekend, one of the internet’s nastiest conspiracies bubbled to the surface. Like most terrible things, it began with a tweet: "President Trump has freed so many children held in bondage to pimps all over this world,” wrote actress Roseanne Barr late Friday evening. “Hundreds each month. He has broken up trafficking rings in high places everywhere. notice that. I disagree on some things, but give him benefit of doubt-4 now"

The cryptic (not to mention completely inaccurate) tweet was followed by a series of retweets and replies that all referenced Trump’s (non-existent, mind you) fight against pedophilia and child trafficking. Despite the fact that nearly all of the most glaringly unhinged tweets were purged from Barr’s account by Monday, they still sent the media into a bonafide frenzy.

Many at first attributed Barr’s crackpot theories to the Pizzagate crowd, but Barr is a long-term believer in an even more absurd conspiracy known as The Storm (also known as the QAnon conspiracy), which has been garnering hundreds of thousands of devoted adherents since late October.

The Storm is complex and convoluted, difficult to describe without a bottle of Aspirin in hand. At its most basic level, it revolves around this mysterious figure, Q, an anonymous 4chan user (hence the hashtags “QAnon”) who claims to be a high-level government official in the Trump administration tasked with informing his fellow patriots about about what’s “really” going on in the world. According to Q, Mueller’s investigation is really all about Clinton and Obama, who — in addition to being BFFs with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, ISIS — are also the leaders of a global child-sex-trafficking and torture ring, while still somehow finding the time to both lead the insanity known as “Operation Mockingbird” (with CIA operative Anderson Cooper) and feast on human adrenal glands, because why not?

Despite the fact that this all came from someone on 4chan no less, people can’t seem to get enough. The movement’s followers extol Q’s wisdom on basically every social media platform in existence. Some platforms have tried to tamp down on the disinformation machine (e.g. YouTube took down some of the most popular QAnon-related channels, Reddit banned the dedicated sub, etc.) but QAnon’s follower ranks only continue to grow.

Unfortunately, making a conspiracy theory this ridiculous and convoluted spread is not that difficult, with a basic understanding of what makes people love conspiracy theories: perceived marginalization. People who feel powerless offline can turn to conspiracies for a sense of control. Some of the most potent conspiracies — like QAnon — revolve around the existence of a “true evil,” which, of course, can only be stopped by the believers themselves.

The spread of QAnon is planned, with an assist from the polarization-prone algorithms of every major social media app. QAnon followers spend hours upon hours online debating the best way to “redpill the normies,” and created countless guides and cheat sheets in order to bring new members into the fold as quickly as possible. Of late, it seems to be working.

Take, for example, this excerpt from an extremely popular post on /cbts/, an 8chan board dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy:

One of /cbts/'s primary missions is memes (per Q) to redpill the normies. We want to coax them in the right direction. Open minds gradually without bludgeoning or traumatizing. Tactics will differ, depending on what they already know, and their openness to unsettling new info. Aim for slight to moderate cognitive dissonance. Remember that too much too fast can turn normies away. Hammer on current news topics…

Avoid: 1) Aliens, 2) "Energy" fields, 3) Hollow earth, 4) Metaphysics, 5) Religions pantheons, 6) Moloch / Satan / Saturn, 7) Chemtrails, 8) Crop circles, 9) Detoxing / Cleansing Pineal Gland, 10) Chakras, 11) Reptiloids because normies will take one look at any of those and dismiss you as a nutcase.

Instead focus on:

1) Elites are corrupt, and force newly elevated elites to do perverse things in order to show their loyalty. If they have dirt on their new cronies, they can use that dirt to keep them loyal. The dirt can be sex, fraud, corruption, or any kind of perversion or depravity.
2) Powerful elites have access to the best medical technology, and they think that harvesting blood and other things from children can help extend their lifespans, or improve their health.
3) Elites have everything, and where do people who have everything get their thrills? Some of them delve into taboo and perverse activity. What do they do when they know they have huge power and influence, and think nobody can stop them?
4) The CIA is corrupt and has seriously overstepped its power. The CIA funds itself using criminal activity, such as the drug trade, and sex trafficking – yes, even of children!

When we talk about the actions of the alt-right — and in particular, the actions of the troll-y, conspiracy-obsessed sect of the alt-right — there’s this tendency to simply attribute their motivations to the frenetic energy of a mob mentality. Yet, posts like these offer a look into the inner workings of these seemingly shapeless masses of online outrage, and reveal that the forces driving them are anything but random. The believers of this absolutely insane theory are not only manipulative and obsessed with hawking their snake oil to anyone and everyone, but also completely aware of how crazy it all sounds. Within this post alone there are a number of hyperlinks to more detailed guides, meme depositories, and other resources for potential redpillers, all of which include countless hyperlinks to still more propaganda.

Every message “sent” by “Q” conveys the direst of straits: there are 25,000 indictments of the Clinton Cabal just waiting to be released; our Lord and Savior Donald J Trump will be declaring a state of temporary military control any minute now; and the end times are just around the corner — just wait! It’s like a spy novel come to life, with the believers as the main character.

These tactics aren’t new — they’ve been the staples of disinformation mongers for years now — and are primarily derived from core psychological truths. Confirmation bias, proportionality bias, projection, we, as a species, are practically designed to fall for these sort of crackpot theories. All we need is a little push.

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