Plus, a larger question: What the heck is QAnon? Almost surely, many people who watched Meet the Press this Sunday remain completely unsure.
As we noted yesterday, the program ended with a full segment about The Creature With the Strange Name. But what the Sam Hill is QAnon? This is the way it was described in two attempts by Chuck Todd:
TODD (8/16/20): When we come back, those fringe believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory: Are they really on the fringe anymore?According to Todd, "this QAnon thing" is a conspiracy theory—perhaps the mother of all conspiracy theories.
TODD: Welcome back. This week, we saw the rise of something called QAnon. If you're not familiar with it, for viewers, it is a really fringey conspiracy theory that sort of lumps all conspiracy theories together, claims some one weird "Deep State" thing, one person's pulling the levers.
It's very popular on the extreme right these days. And an adherent named Marjorie Taylor Greene won a Republican runoff in a Georgia congressional district. She is likely to end up in Congress as the first sort of known conspiracy theorist of this QAnon thing.
One Republican adherent will soon be serving in the House, Todd said. Her Republican opponent had said she was "crazy," we learned later in the segment.
Todd gave an extremely vague account of what this particular theory maintains. Aside from Todd, three pundits delivered their thoughts about QAnon, but no one made any real attempt to describe the tenets of this theory.
We don't know why Todd and his panelists didn't try to define the beliefs which constitute this conspiracy theory. Othersare sometimesless bashful.
In this morning's New York Times, Peter Baker offers an analysis of President Trump's recent behavior. At one point, he offers a capsule account of what QAnon maintains:
BAKER (8/18/20): Five years after he originally kicked off his quest for the presidency, Mr. Trump has said and done so many things once considered out of bounds that his critics no longer even know whether to raise alarms or ignore another palpable bid for attention.Baker was referring to Greene, the congressional candidate Todd had cited. According to Baker, Greene believes that the world is controlled by a “global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles."
When the president recently promoted a “very impressive” doctor who blames various ailments on demon sperm and says treatments are being developed from alien DNA, it was barely a one-day story. When he endorsed a QAnon adherent running for Congress who warns that the world is controlled by a “global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles,” it did not last that long.
Is that what QAnon believers believe? Is that the stuff of this theory?
Those are very good questions. But as we ask those basic question, a much more fundamental question arises:
How could someone believe such things, which do indeed seem "crazy?" Also, how could a person espousing such crazy beliefs possibly get elected to Congress?
As best we can tell, journalists have been trying to describe QAnon since at least December 2017. In a recent column for the New York Times, Charlie Warzel linked to the "first explainer [of QAnon] for a national news outlet," but not before he described some recent problems connected to the movement—and an account of its reach:
WARZEL (8/16/20): For almost three years, I’ve wondered when the QAnon tipping point would arrive— the time when a critical mass of Americans would come to regard the sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory not merely as a sideshow, but as a legitimate threat to safety and even democracy.Whatever it is that these people believe, quite a few people seem to believe it. And it seems that some adherents do, or at least attempt to, the crazy darnedest things.
There have been plenty of potential wake-up calls. Among them: a 2018 standoff at the Hoover Dam with a QAnon believer, the 2019 murder of a Gambino crime family boss by a QAnon supporter who believed the boss was part of a deep-state cabal, an August 2019 F.B.I. report that warned that QAnon could spur domestic terrorism, a West Point report calling the movement “a security threat in the making,” and the April arrest of a QAnon follower who was found with a dozen knives while driving to “take out” Joe Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
But it seems the true tipping point came this week. First was the report from Ari Sen and Brandy Zadrozny at NBC News about an internal Facebook investigation that gives the first real glimpse into the size of QAnon’s online footprint. The investigation found millions of members across thousands of QAnon groups and pages.
This was followed by a Guardian investigation that found “more than 170 QAnon groups, pages and accounts across Facebook and Instagram with more than 4.5 million aggregate followers.”
Like others, Warzel made no major attempt to explain what adherents believe. He did go beyond Todd in one major way—he said that QAnon is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory.
Eventually, he linked to a December 2017 report at New York magazine, that aforementioned "first explainer." At the time, the conspiracy theory was apparently called The Storm.
Paris Martineau started like this:
MARTINEAU (12/19/17): A new conspiracy theory called “The Storm” has taken the grimiest parts of the internet by, well, storm. Like Pizzagate, the Storm conspiracy features secret cabals, a child sex-trafficking ring led (in part) by the satanic Democratic Party, and of course, countless logical leaps and paranoid assumptions that fail to hold up under the slightest fact-based scrutiny. However, unlike Pizzagate, the Storm isn’t focused on a single block of shops in D.C., or John Podesta’s emails. It’s much, much bigger than that."It was, in short, absolutely insane," with very strong echoes of the lunatic Pizzagate episode.
As most terrible things do, this story begins with a post on /pol/, a sub-board of the more-or-less-anonymous, anything-goes website 4chan....It’s the sort of place where neo-Nazis and people who believe women shouldn’t have basic human rights used to meet before we started verifying them on Twitter and electing them to public office. And as of late, it’s expanded its ranks to include fringe members of all shapes and sizes.
On October 28, someone calling themselves Q began posting a series of cryptic messages in a /pol/ thread titled “Calm Before the Storm” (assumedly in reference to that creepy Trump quote from early October). Q claimed to be a high-level government insider with Q clearance (hence the name) tasked with posting intel drops...straight to 4chan in order to covertly inform the public about POTUS’s master plan to stage a countercoup against members of the deep state. It was, in short, absolutely insane. However, thanks to some rather forced coincidences—like Q kind of, sort of guessing that Trump would tweet the word “small” on Small Business Saturday, and this one time the internet decided that Q was “totally on Air Force One” because he posted a blurry picture of some islands while Trump was on his trip to Asia—and a whole heck of a lot of wishful thinking, people believed he was the real deal.
It was, in short, insane, but its reach was apparently growing. Martineau closed his essay like this:
MARTINEAU: It’s been a little over a year since Edgar Welch, military-style assault rifle in hand, walked into a D.C. pizza parlor, convinced it was part of a child sex-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton, and the internet hasn’t gotten better. If anything, it’s worse.Was it true? Had Hillary Clinton been running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza joint?
Sure, in the wake of Pizzagate’s brief encounter with reality, a lot of changes were made: Reddit shut down the conspiracy’s designated sub, Twitter suspended some of the movement’s most vocal supporters, and the whole thing was debunked time and time again by the press. But it’s more evident now than ever that this was merely a Band-Aid, not a cure. And now, here we are a year later with the same thing. Sure, it’s a bit bigger and a whole lot less focused, but at its core, it’s the same. What is there even left to try? We know that stopping the conversation doesn’t work. Neither do the facts. How can we even begin to argue with hundreds of thousands of people who choose to believe that a top government agent is speaking to them through 4chan, that Trump has been playing a game of 4-D mind chess this whole time, and that the Las Vegas massacre was an inside job? Is the next Edgar Welch already out there, scrolling through the Calm Before the Storm thread, and if so, is it even possible to stop him?
By conventional reckoning, the idea was insane. But Edgar Welch, age 29, believed the crazy claim was true and drove up from North Carolina to stop it with the felp of his assault rifle.
Welch was later sentenced to four years in prison. But an expanded version of the craziness he believed now seems to have millions of adherents, at least one of whom is on her way to the House.
If you search, you can find fuller accounts of the body of beliefs held by QAnon adherents. That said, many journalists seem to prefer to focus on the way these crazy ideas are spread, tending to avoid description of the crazy ideas themselves.
In the process, these journalists are avoiding the larger questions we've already floated. What explains the fact that millions of people can believe such crazy ideas, and are willing to act on those beliefs?
Also, an anthropological question: what does this tell us about the true nature of our highly tribal, war-inclined floundering species?
Due to the rise in certain technologies, we the people are now exposed to crazy ideas on a widespread, round-the-clock basis. It used to be hard to hear crazy ideas. Now, the promulgation of The Crazy is a major big business.
From this experience, a surprising fact has emerged:
As a species, we simply aren't especially good at separating gact from fiction. Indeed, there's almost nothing so transparetly crazy that many folk won't believe it.
QAnon seems to be a movement of the crackpot, undiscerning "right." We end today with that same nagging question:
To what extent might something resembling this behavior be going on Over here? If QAnon typesare involved in The Crazy, might our own baldly self-impressed be sunk, perhaps, in The Wrong?
Tomorrow: Instant claims about Candidate Harris