What if modern conspiracy theorists are altogether too media literate?

When faced with a book-length onslaught of brain-breaking conspiracies like “Revolution Q,” and the Qanon movement behind it, we might start asking if we're getting things exactly backwards.

What if modern conspiracy theorists are altogether too media literate?

When faced with a book-length onslaught of brain-breaking conspiracies like “Revolution Q,” and the Qanon movement behind it, we might start asking if we're getting things exactly backwards.

Unless you fancy yourself a connoisseur of extremely online conspiracies, there is no good reason for you to read, let alone purchase, Revolution Q: The Story of Qanon and the Second American Revolution, a new book by the pseudonymous writer Neon Revolt. (I won’t be linking to the book for reasons that are hopefully clear, but, for the truly curious, it’s easy enough to find for yourself).

If you are still blissfully unfamiliar with Qanon, you can think of it as the final boss of far-right conspiracies. Beginning in late 2017, “Q,” an anonymous user who claims to be a Trump administration insider, started making posts, or “drops,” on the image board 4chan before switching to its Nazi-adjacent cousin, 8chan. Q drops are intentionally cryptic, made up of obscure “crumbs” of information and leading questions about current events. Curious users, (“bakers”) are invited to put the pieces together (“baking”) and discover the “real” meaning of each drop (“bread”), as if every news story and Q drop has always been a logic puzzle in disguise. And in coming up with interdependent proofs for each of Q’s (as of publication) 3,774 drops, the Qanon community has put together a hilariously convoluted narrative in which President Trump and military intelligence are waging a mostly-hidden war against the “deep state” to bring down a global conspiracy of elite, child-eating pedophiles, including and especially Hillary Clinton. It’s funny, in a way, up until you begin reading the stories of threats of violence, attempted kidnappings, and ruined relationships that Qanon has left in its wake.

Pro-Qanon books have been knocking around the underbelly of Amazon for a while, but Revolution Q is a special release. For one, Mr. Revolt is something of a celebrity in the Qanon community, which helps explain why he was able to raise around $150,000 on IndieGoGo to fund Revolution Q. The small fortune that went into Revolution Q also explains the other thing that makes it distinct: its considerable heft and, in a strictly physical sense, its quality as a book. Revolution Q’s Dickensian word count — upwards of 500 pages of small text — speaks to the book’s ambitions, as do the hundreds of color images on glossy, high-weight paper. (Neon Revolt, who isn’t one for subtlety, likens his book to the Allegory of the Cave at one point). Unlike a lot of the cash-grabs excreted by Amazon’s vanity press, Revolution Q bears signs of enormous and earnest effort, albeit by someone with far too much time (and crowdfunding) on their hands.

So Revolution Q exists. What now?

The socially acceptable response when faced with a book-length onslaught of brain-breaking conspiracies is to renew calls for media literacy, traditionally defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate messages in a variety of forms. The idea of media literacy emerged in the mid-twentieth century in response to the growing sense that the media was having a significant impact on how people were seeing the world. Back then, that mostly meant television and radio, but media literacy has been renewed with particular urgency as a result of the internet. At a moment when our minds are adrift on an endless sea of information, surely it’s more important than ever to empower individuals with the tools to navigate these waters. If only Qanon’s strongest adherents had a better teacher somewhere along the line, one who showed them how to do their own research, validate their sources, check facts, read critically, and account for ideological bias (etc.), we could get back to having a good time together on the internet. Find a way, somehow, to make conspiracy theorists into critical thinkers, and they’ll throw away the InfoWars merch and get back to reading The New York Times.

It’s a noble ideal, and very hard to challenge — who, exactly, wants to go to bat for media illiteracy? Even so, media literacy has come under fire in recent years if only because, amid the ongoing panics over fake news and false flags and flat earthers, media literacy hasn’t seemed to, well … work.

In fact, some have gone so far as to argue that what we mean by media literacy might actually be complicit in creating the very problems it’s trying to solve.

“Media literacy is imagined to be empowering, enabling individuals to have agency and giving them the tools to help create a democratic society,” as internet researcher danah boyd argued in her keynote at SXSWedu in 2018. “But, fundamentally, it is a form of critical thinking that asks people to doubt what they see. And that makes me nervous.”

The Qanon history of the present is bullshit, but a considerable portion of the facts it trades in are not.

The wager of this critique is that skepticism can be just as corrosive to society as naïvite. If this is true, then we’ve been looking at the issues media literacy purports to address backwards. What if the problem is not that people don’t check their sources, consult with a friend, or read critically, but precisely that they do? This inversion implies something disquieting about the project of media literacy as it’s currently conceived: that where it leads us is not towards the democractic ideal of well-informed public sphere but books like Revolution Q. And that requires taking the book — though not its claims — a little more seriously in order to to see where, and how, media literacy went wrong.

One of the more surprising things you notice when you spend a lot of time hanging out in Qanon groups is that its biggest enthusiasts are not, strictly speaking, uninformed. If anything, they are seriously over-informed, and Qanon’s very existence might be read as an attempt to impose coherence on the infoglut of contemporary life. The Qanon history of the present is bullshit, but a considerable portion of the facts it trades in are not. Revolution Q spends quite a bit of time pointing out the personal linkages that bind elite political and media institutions. In a frequently used example, NBC host Mika Brzezinski’s father, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor. This is in no way wrong, even if the child trafficking conspiracy Revolution Q feeds it into is. So while the Brzezinskis probably aren’t drinking toddler blood to grant them immortality (if only because old Zbigniew is, uh, dead), Revolution Q’s underlying point is perfectly defensible: that political and media elites are profoundly intertwined, raising real concerns about the latter’s supposed objectivity.

Scholars who study this kind of stuff generally agree that one way conspiracy theories take root is by sowing doubt in knowledge-making institutions. Cigarette companies, climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, after all, have all been dealing in skepticism for decades, “just asking questions” in order to pick away at the foundations of scientific consensuses. Surprisingly few anti-vaxxers, as it turns out, will go so far as to say they know what the real truth about vaccines is. Rather, what they tend to argue is that no one knows the truth and that’s exactly why parents ought to be able to make their own choices. Not only is this argument more politically palatable, but it puts the ball in the court of unknowing rather than knowing, giving conspiracy theorists an epistemic home field advantage. It is always easier to get someone to doubt than it is to get them to trust.

It’s tempting, at first, to tuck Revolution Q onto the shelf next to these kinds of conspiracies. The book has, after all, long diatribes about the JFK assassination and a range of other standard issue conspiracy fare. But Revolution Q, like Qanon as a whole, doesn’t really fit that mold. There’s nothing doubtful about a book like Revolution Q, which strips facts of context, fashions them into coincidence, and weaves those into tapestries of truth. In doing so, Qanon points beyond doubt and towards something substantially more confident in its worldview. What is different about Qanon is not its skepticism (though that’s certainly part of it), but how it builds an institution out of that skepticism capable of engendering a worldview, a way of knowing, that is more amenable to the most lurid of right-wing beliefs.

What does that have to do with media literacy? In recent years, educators have updated the standard definition to account for the spread of social media and tools it gives us not just for accessing, but also making content. At a moment in which the boundaries of media production and consumption have collapsed, being literate isn’t just about decoding messages. It’s also knowing how to use search engines, participate in Facebook groups, browse by hashtag, root around in online databases, make YouTube videos, edit Wikipedia, write blogs, post to Twitter, understand hyperlinking, etc. It’s about knowing how, in Twitter’s famous phrase, to “join the conversation.”

Qanon’s particular kind of literacy is as much about making and sharing content as it is consuming it.

Despite early hopes that Web 2.0 would empower democracies across the globe, it’s become clear these new forms of (social) media literacy don’t guarantee progressive ends. This includes not only the alternative, right-wing media establishment that has found sanctuary on YouTube, but also all the tools, from search engines to public archives, that were meant to make the world a little closer. In one of the few articles that really understands Qanon, media researcher Ethan Zuckerman writes that “the participatory advocacy that QAnons are engaged in is a phenomenon that’s grown increasingly common as news media and participatory social media have become inextricably linked.” In other words, Qanon’s particular kind of literacy is as much about making and sharing content as it is consuming it.

It’s easy to see Qanon’s researchers as bumbling boomers in need of some online supervision, but many bakers are highly skilled at using internet tools to turn “crumbs” into “bread.” (That breadcrumbs are a product, not an ingredient, of actual bread-making hasn’t dimmed anyone’s enthusiasm for the metaphor). Nearly every /qresearch/ hub has links to extensive resources about how to conduct research online, guides that are as detailed as any one you’ll find at university libraries. These hubs also contains links to the public archives of the organizations like Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, and online court records — all sites that I, despite considering myself reasonably well-informed, have certainly never bothered to search.

Digging through databases to create coincidence — say, by matching small plane accident to a criminal indictment on the same day — is a vital part of how Qanon’s worldview holds together. Qanon researchers aren’t in the business of doubt, but of constructing alternative facts. And, as historians of science have long observed, what we call “facts” do not stand on their own. They require supporting institutions (especially the academy) to maintain their facticity, regardless of these facts’ ability to accurately describe and predict the world.

For all the absurdity of their outcomes, Qanon bakers can be widely scientific in how they go about baking, sharing their findings with each other, and archiving them for future researchers. They make choices about what counts as evidence, collect relevant data, apply interpretive frames and tools, resolve controversies through a (highly informal) version of peer review, and maintain a canon of what’s considered “true.” Then the Bakers make all that data, and the “proofs” they support, accessible via public archives like the QMAP, all in the name of transparency. And when the experiments are over, controversies resolved, and a contribution to human knowledge is made, what is left to do but write a book? Call it Revolution Q.

Comforting though it may be to dismiss Qanon as dupes (or worse), ask yourself this: what is all of this if not media literacy, civic engagement, and citizen science in a terribly perverse form? Some might respond by saying Qanon baking isn’t real media literacy, since, if the bakers were actually media literate, they wouldn’t be bakers in the first place. But this tautology gives the game away. Here, media literacy becomes a matter of outcomes, not methods, and you are “literate” only if you find the “right” answer. Under this light, media literacy looks a lot less like empowerment than the imposition of power. It was only a matter of time until someone called bullshit.

Too often, then, media literacy is little more than a modern twist on Emmanuel Kant’s worst take, that any rational person would eventually realize that that Fredrick the Great’s enlightened absolutism was the ideal form of government. (“Argue as much as you please, but obey!,” as Kant infamously put it). From this perspective, media literacy begins to look a lot more sinister, an indirect way of maintaining a particular kind of center-left consensus, marked, regrettably, by the ideological contours of the New York Times’ op-ed board. And perhaps that’s what we want, or, at least, are resigned to — it’s surely more appealing than whatever world Neon Revolt has in mind. But we still might reflect on what we are really asking for when we call for media literacy, and whether or not that can build a future we want to live in.

Fortunately for us, there’s at least some evidence that Qanon is on its way out — its biggest celebrities have (thankfully) been deplatformed and many of its biggest hubs have moved onto to more banal (if equally odious) right-wing schlock. And, of course, “Q” himself was pushed to the deep web after 8chan was taken offline, making it significantly more difficult to access drops.

At the same time, if Qanon is media literacy gone off the rails, then the conspiracy has always been as much a way of knowing as what it came to know. The ways of reading, researching, and disseminating that Qanon adherents have developed are likely to outlast the Qanon conspiracy, when and if Q is exposed as the fraud that he is. Case and point: Though “Q” stopped posting for around three months following the takedown of 8chan, the hundreds of Facebook groups dedicated to Qanon have remained alive in part because they started applying the same methods of decryption to Tweets by Donald Trump. How you read always outlives what you read — and, as always, the results are never guaranteed.

Will Partin is a freelance writer and doctoral student. He is a research affiliate at University of North Carolina's Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life.