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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

QAnon and the Fragility of Truth

How can people fervently believe in something so transparently flimsy, and how do we preserve our connection to reality in a world of informational chaos?

I am visiting my parents in Florida at the moment, and a few doors down there is a house with a lovely garden. It has a fountain and some metallic butterfly sculptures and there are currently Christmas reindeer scattered across it. But since the last time I visited in the spring, something else has popped up amid the flowers: a pair of TRUMP 2020 flags (one red, one blue) as well as a large handwritten sign that says the following: 


I knew immediately that this was some kind of QAnon thing, though some bits (NESARA!, WWG1WGA) were mysterious.* I haven’t investigated this stuff much before now—for me, politics are about healthcare, climate change, and such, and this seemed obvious nonsense best ignored. But there has been some polling suggesting that most Republicans may believe some or all of the QAnon theory, and its supporters are heading to Congress. I don’t like to operate in ignorance of what others are thinking. If QAnon has come this close to home, I want to know what causes people to believe in it and how to deal with it productively. 

My general approach to things labeled “conspiracy theories” is not to wave them away as “crazy.” I do not want beliefs considered outlandish to be dismissed without consideration, because I hold beliefs that some people consider outlandish, and I do not want to be treated as a kook myself. I want people to evaluate my actual arguments and determine for themselves whether what I am saying is reasonable. I know that one of my intellectual heroes, Noam Chomsky, is often treated as a “crank” and “conspiracy theorist.” I don’t see him that way, because I have spent a lot of time reading his work carefully and examining his arguments. But if I had listened to what people said about what he said, instead of diving into the original material, I would never have given him a fair hearing.

Does that mean I want to give QAnon a fair hearing? Yes. Yes it does. Because, and you may laugh, what if the QAnon theory is true? The first QAnon book I opened, QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening,** which calls itself a “field guide to an important chunk of reality that’s been carefully hidden and wrongly discredited by the media,” begins by asking:

Have you ever wondered why we go to war or why you never seem to be able to get out of debt? Why there is poverty, division, and crime? What if I told you there was a reason for it all? What if I told you it was done on purpose? What if I told you that those corrupting the world, poisoning our food and igniting conflict were themselves about to be permanently eradicated from the earth? You might think that is an idealistic fantasy. Well, let me tell you a story. 

Your first reaction to this might be: oh, boy. Here comes a conspiracy theory. But I actually try to keep myself from rolling my eyes. If someone comes to me with this kind of story, I want to give them a chance to lay out their case, because I don’t know what their story is and I don’t know everything about the world, and on the off chance that they’re right and I’m wrong, I kind of want to find out about the reasons for war and poverty and the coming eradication of those causing it! 

Interestingly, the QAnon material I have read contains many exhortations to exercise critical thinking skills and look at the proof that QAnon is true rather than taking it on faith.  They don’t like that the mainstream media calls their beliefs a “conspiracy theory” without actually showing that they are false. QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening tells us that it will show, rather than tell, us that QAnon is true:

    [A] proof is an argument for the validity of a fact. Claims require evidence to back them up, that necessary cogency of evidence which can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, mathematically or philosophically, the establishment of those statements as fact. In the scope of research, in order to establish what is true, validation is everything. On this subject in particular, the weight of these posts and the power they hold, literally pertain to our very freedom. The claims we make and the implications therein require bodies of evidence which support those claims as legitimate.

The starting point of the QAnon set of beliefs is that there is an insider in Donald Trump’s administration who posts cryptic messages on the online message board 8chan, and that these messages, once decoded, tell of a secret power struggle unfolding without the public’s knowledge. There have been thousands of these “Q drops.” A QAnon book called A User’s Guide to the Great Awakening by Curtis Rock, Andre van Delft, and Alan Lovejoy explains their version of it: 

Q is a military intelligence team in the Trump administration (itself part of a global positive “Alliance”). They are opening up a backchannel with the public, bypassing the compromised mass media… A key purpose of the #QAnon operation is to facilitate a public “Great Awakening.”… Q is delivering a “soft disclosure” of the end game of a “shadow war” that has been silently raging around us for years. The “drops” expose the present and past crimes and large-scale conspiracies of a transnational negative “Deep State Cabal.” It is a matter bigger than politics itself, since presidents and administrations of both main [U.S.] parties stand accused of profound corruption and war crimes… Once full disclosure happens, the Western public’s trust in their governing institutions will be severely shaken. Q is preparing a small slice of the population to share the load of restoring faith in the rule of law in a post-media age.”

But why do believers in QAnon accept that this entity is indeed an administration insider, or a team of them? I know that there are a bunch of cryptic posts. Do they just believe it because someone told them? What persuaded them to take it seriously? QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening says that it treats these questions seriously and accepts the burden of proof. In fact, it’s how they distinguish themselves from the rest of us—we listen to what the mainstream media says while they want facts to be validated. They admit that the argument that they are making sounds difficult to accept, but believe we are compelled to accept it once we shed our preconceptions about “conspiracy theories” and open our eyes. I quote:

The validity of Q can be difficult to explain to the average person in brief terms. Try telling your average normie that a faceless, unnamed poster on an Internet research board (known primarily among the public for trash talk and politically incorrect language) is dropping crumbs for us Anons to decipher, what is essentially direct communication from the President. Then tell them that the end goal of these communications is to free ourselves from the Deep State. Unless you were lucky enough to have been watching from the beginning, this claim would be easy to dismiss. However, after more than a year of such posts, replete with messages that do indeed seem to come directly from the President himself, coupled with seemingly precognitive statements predicting world events, the fact has been established: Q is real, and we can prove it. This is why proofs are so important. 

This is an interesting passage, because note that while you may think QAnon is “crazy,” nothing about the passage itself is crazy. The writer says they accept reason and evidence as important, but believe the evidence has directed them to accept—even though it might sound crazy—that “Q is real.” 

    At this point, don’t you want to see the evidence, then? I sure do. Because based on this, it sounds like they’ve got a slam-dunk case.

The Kind of Evidence That We Are Dealing With Here

What is this slam-dunk proof, then? Let us go through the first examples QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening uses to persuade us. 

For myself, the first proof took place on Oct. 5, 2017, before the Q posts even began. The President and First Lady were hosting a dinner at the White House for military leaders and their wives. During the photo op with the press prior to the dinner, president Trump asked cryptically, “Do you guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm. Could be. The calm, the calm before the storm.” 

    The book comments that the press had no idea what Trump was talking about and Trump didn’t say. But:

On Nov. 2, 2017, Q posted a message that for the first time echoed the exact same phrase by ending the post with “The calm before the storm.” For those fortunate enough to have heard the president on that day and then see the post that followed, the fact that something truly great was happening was evident. 

 Was it? I would perhaps have been impressed if Q had posted the phrase “the calm before the storm” before Trump said it. But, and it feels almost an insult to your intelligence to point this out, anyone could post it after Trump said it. How does this lend credence to the claim that Q is authentic? It certainly shows us that Trump said something cryptic, but we are talking here about reasons to believe Q’s claims to insider knowledge.

But the book does claim that Q has not just “echoed” Trump but has predicted things Trump would say in ways that are spooky and cannot be explained by coincidence. Here are four of the supposedly strongest examples:

  1. [O]n June 17th, 2018, Father’s Day, Q posted Happy Father’s Day at 12:48 p.m. Exactly 7 minutes later at 12:55 p.m. President Donald Trump retweeted the White House’s Happy Father’s Day Tweet. Since then, Q and the President have shared the same message within short time spans a number of times. These instances are Q’s little ways of letting us know that he is working hand-in-hand with Donald Trump.
  2. Another impossible coincidence was from post 521 on January 13th, 2018 in which Q posted “Do you TRUST the chain of command” Two days later, on January 15th, the US Department of Defense @DeptofDefense, tweeted a post regarding a program airing that night on The National Geographic Channel, using the hashtag #chainofcommand. When the program aired, there was a scene with a coffee mug with a big letter Q emblazoned on it. Again, some may suggest this is merely a coincidence, but what are the chances, really?
  3. On April 24th, 2018, post 1254, Q posted… “Bigger problems than ever before.” Sig to Iran? … Well coincidentally, approximately two weeks later on May 8, 2018, President Trump gave remarks on the joint comprehensive plan of action regarding Iran and in that speech he says “It will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” 
  4. We admit this one is a little bit ridiculous, but if anything it increases the likelihood of its validity. An Anon on 8chan asked “maybe Q can work the phrase ‘tip top’ into the SOTU (State of the Union speech) as the State of the Union address was scheduled for Jan 30th…” However this request came only the night before… A tall order in any event, but fitting a phrase like “tip top” into the State of the Union when given less than a day’s notice would have been pretty difficult regardless of the time. In our opinion, the State of the Union address was most likely already well completed at that point. Fast forward to April 2nd, 2018 when Q was responding to an Anon on the board who said “tip top tippy-top shape” and ‘Q answered “It was requested, did you listen today?”… President Trump used the requested phrase while thanking Melania for getting the White House into great shape saying, “we keep it in tip-top shape, we sometimes call it tippy-top shape.” The use of this phrase was so strange, and the repetition was seen by Anons as being done to match the request phrase. What are the odds that a President of the United States would ever use the words, tip-top tippy-top in a sentence naturally? How many times in your life have you heard anyone use that phrase? Even those of us who were on the fence about Q saw that one as a clear sign that President Trump was talking directly to us. 

    Shall we reflect on these examples for just half a second? Whether you believe the first is of interest depends on whether you think that Q predicting Trump would wish people a happy Father’s Day on Father’s Day is remarkable. The second I will return to in a moment. The third is only impressive until you realize that Trump actually said Iran would have “bigger problems than ever before” immediately before the Q post on April 24th, before repeating it two weeks later. 

The fourth example, similarly, is just oblivious to the fact that “tippy top shape” has long just been a peculiar thing Trump says, well before Q showed up. (The Washington Post has a profile of a former QAnon believer who says that his “world came crashing down” when he realized the “tippy top shape” thing was bogus.) In An Invitation to the Great Awakening, a woman named Lori Collier has a section called “The Day I Knew Q Wasn’t A Hoax” saying that her “moment of truth” was the tip-top shape thing, saying they were “magic words that rocked my world.” 

    I think if you are an average person who does not yet believe in QAnon you will have been very unimpressed with these “proofs.” In fact, it is striking to me going through QAnon material just how unpersuasive it is. Are you amazed that Q once made a post that contained “58 consecutive empty spaces within square brackets, and the next day [Donald Trump in a tweet] puts 18 consecutive empty spaces right after two sentences containing 40 spaces between words, for a total of 58 spaces”? At one point in QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening, I am told that it is an extremely improbable coincidence that Trump once appeared next to a fire truck with the letters Q-74 printed on the side:

Due to all the push back we have received since this movement began, we did due diligence every single time Q’s validity was in question, with the Q74 being no exception. In order to verify the probability that a fire truck would be labeled as Q-74, hours were spent poring over images of fire trucks and yet we were unable to find any fire trucks at all that had one letter and two digits [printed on the side.]

    When I read this, I thought: “I bet if I Google image search this I will find a fire truck with a letter and two digits printed on the side printed on the side,” and immediately I did

Advocates of QAnon, then, insist that there is solid proof on their side. But the very second you look at it, it collapses. I have to say: it’s one of the least compelling theories I’ve ever heard. And that’s just when we’re at the first step, the question of whether there has been an insider in the White House close to Trump sending out secret messages for followers to decipher. That part I could even believe, since it could conceivably happen that a Trump ally at the Defense Department was posting weird shit on an online forum, and yet the evidence for it is nonexistent. We’re not even at the stage of looking at their case for a gang of satanist pedophiles controlling the world, we’re just looking at the basic core of the Q thing that they say doubters will have to be persuaded of when they look at the evidence. 

    By the time I got to the part where I was told that in a photo of Donald Trump and his flunkies, the subjects’ hands are arranged in the shape of a Q, I had moved from the question of “What are the arguments made by QAnon and are they compelling?” to the more interesting and difficult question of “How could something that requires two seconds’ thought to see through have spread to so many people?” The Invitation to the Great Awakening has thousands of positive Amazon reviews that seem to be from real people. A person who says they spent their life distrusting conspiracy theories say that QAnon is so persuasive that they had to believe it:

Once I put the mainstream media to one side and began to research for myself – being careful to concentrate on actual events with an evidence trail rather than more outlandish claims yet to be proven – then a whole new world view opens up. It really does feel like red pill over blue pill. 

Think for yourself, concentrate on evidence. And yet somehow it leads us here: 

You can make anything look like a Q if you literally draw a Q on it. 

How Can Anyone Possibly Believe This for Even a Second? 

What is going on here? Part of the answer is indeed to be found in that photo of Donald Trump on Air Force One. Consider how the hands are arranged before you draw a Q on them:

It doesn’t actually look like a Q. Not until you draw a circle and a line that touches every point. Then you see the Q, because you’ve made one. But I could draw an S through it instead. Or I could draw a Q through lots of other photos of small groups of people holding their hands up. (The letter Q lends itself to this more than other letters because you can distend the circle and play around with the length and angle of the line.) We see things that are not there for lots of reasons. If someone suggests a cloud looks like the shape of Britain and you look for it, you may well see it, even if it looks almost nothing like Britain, because you will be trying to find the parts of the cloud that correspond to bits of the British coast. Always ask yourself if you are tracing a pre-existing Q, or drawing a Q of your own. 

I wish every young child was trained to understand a bit about how magic works and the secrets of mentalists, because it’s harder for anyone who grasps the mechanics of manipulation to fall for the cheap stuff. There’s the “rainbow ruse,” which is where a fortune teller tells you that you have both a quality and its opposite, so that they will always be right and you’ll pay attention to the part that seems right. (E.g., “You can be a spontaneous person, but in your private life you tend to stick to a routine that works.”) This also works if you want to be a celebrated public intellectual—Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek use versions of it, saying many different things that could mean something or could mean nothing or could mean everything at once. When I saw Proof #2 (Q mentioned a “chain of command”) above, I thought back to some of the basic ways in which mentalists “force a card” (i.e., make you choose the card they want you to choose). For example, if there are two piles of cards, and you want someone to take pile A, you say, “Touch a pile.” If they touch pile A, you say, “Okay, take pile A.” If they touch pile B, you say, “Okay, we’ll take away B.” (The key is to say touch rather than choose, so that you’re leaving open what the touching means.) These little manipulations seem like they should be see-through, but mentalists are also using stories and patter and misdirection to keep you from noticing stuff that you’d otherwise realize was going on. 

    So, Proof #2 asks us to believe in Q’s authenticity because the Department of Defense tweeted “Chain of Command” a few days after Q, in its tweet about a show called Chain of Command (that presumably Q could have looked up in the TV Guide like anybody else). But let’s say Q is a hoaxer who posts a bunch of cryptic stuff that might or might not line up with something that happens later. Can’t you just pick the stuff that corresponds to something and ignore all the stuff that doesn’t, and create the illusion of prescience? If you mine the tweets of U.S. government departments, the speeches and interviews of Donald Trump, you can surely find something each day that matches up to some interpretation of something Q said. 

    Mind readers and fortune tellers do this extremely well, trying to get you to believe that what you see could not possibly be a coincidence. (A question Q poses quite often is “How many coincidences before mathematically impossible?”) Q doesn’t even do it impressively! A good magician can shock even other magicians, skeptics who think they know all the tricks in the book. This is not that. 

In fact, to me, one of the scariest things about studying QAnon is realizing how pathetically unconvincing it is. Because if it can be that poorly put together and take in so many people, a really sophisticated operator could probably succeed even further. “Q” has made countless prophecies that have failed, so that An Invitation to the Great Awakening acknowledges “it wasn’t always easy to keep the faith” because of Q’s “frustrating” promises that “THIS WOULD BE THE WEEK” which inevitably were followed by a perfectly normal week of news. A more devious deceiver could have littered far more compelling non-evidence, though QAnon seems a bit to me like those obviously fraudulent robocalls you get, which are obvious in order to weed out skeptics and hook only those who don’t know blatant fraud when they see it. 

    But things that are obviously false still offer us good reasons for believing in them. Those reasons have nothing to do with the truth, and are instead about what believing does. 

The Power of a Story That Seems to Explain Things Previously Unexplained

“The world didn’t seem like a dark place. It seemed like a simple place. It felt like everyone else was living in a dream world, and I wasn’t. Even though it was the other way around.”  — an ex-QAnoner

What if I told you that beneath all of the ordinary, depressing, mundane stuff of your life lay something fantastical? Something that nobody else could see? What if I told you that I could give you secret knowledge that only a few people have access to and that it would explain everything that puzzles you and show you how things really are, like a real-life version of taking the “red pill” in The Matrix? What if I told you that it won’t be easy to understand the truth, though, that it will take work and if you succeed it will show you are intelligent and perceptive? What if I told you that there is an impending cataclysm and that if you stick with me, I can prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt? What if I told you that you can take part in the struggle against evil yourself, in a way that would give your life meaning and make you special? What if I told you that just by sitting at your desk solving puzzles you could be part of an army fighting against pedophiles and satanists who hurt children, and that by coming along you may be saving the lives of these children?

When the QAnon writer delivers his “What if I told you…” passage to readers, he is not dealing with facts. Instead, he is telling the above story. And I am sure you see how compelling the story might be, how much someone might end up wanting to believe it, even if it were a scary tale about cannibals lurking around every corner. “Pascal’s wager” suggests that you should believe in God because, on the off-chance that God exists, believing in him will carry rewards, while doubt gets you nothing. We can formulate a variation called “Q’s wager”: even if the evidence for Q’s authenticity and the QAnon theory is flimsy, once examined systematically and dispassionately, it offers people something so incredible and empowering that they have compelling reasons to suppress their doubts.

 Consider some passages from the literature: 

  • “Something epic is in progress that affects us all. It will profoundly change how we see each other and the society we live in. For it appears that we have been living under ‘soft totalitarianism,’ complete with a shadow government and power structure, while it is falsely sold to us as freedom and democracy. If you want to get away with war-for-profit and mass murder, it is relatively easy if you (surreptitiously) control the mass media. While the media’s role is supposed to be to hold power to account, it has instead become a way for those in power to control the public narrative—in a coordinated fashion. The mass media now manufactures distractions and deceptions, being an agent of a vilely corrupt establishment. Fixing this psychologically abusive system of social control is where Q comes in, with an immaculately designed double-bind. How do you go about undoing decades of manipulation and lies by a media and celebrity class that is compromised to its core? You construct an alternative channel to communicate with the public. Then you work with ‘volunteer propagandists’ of good standing (i.e. people like me) to legitimize and publicize it—denuding the incumbent rival of its power to set the narrative.
  • “Following Q is like working a 50,000-piece puzzle. It’s slow, but intriguing and fun—as we wait for clues and put the pieces together. I’ve also loved watching Trump poke the other side… The elite cabal fills the DC swamp. They are wicked, sick, and stupid people who never thought Hillary would lose. They’ve made too many critical mistakes, and very soon the hammer will drop. There will be nowhere for them to hide.” 

It’s got everything, doesn’t it? You get (1) a full understanding of why the world is the way it is (2) to participate in a fun activity where you decode cryptic information (3) to be on the right side of a life-and death struggle against sick, evil people that implicates the entire future of the human race. 

Some QAnon material emphasizes its prophetic aspects while others seem more taken with the puzzle-solving. A book called QAnon and 1000 Years of Peace by a woman who goes by Melissa Redpill TheWorld links the QAnon theory of an impending struggle between the patriots and the elite cabal with apocalyptic Christianity. The book’s dust jacket summary is absolutely wild:

What we are all experiencing worldwide is not just another political event. As Qanon post 2937 says (, “This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we, the people, reclaim control over our government.” – POTUS. He’s not just talking about the U.S. Government, or any single nation’s government. He means Reclaim Control Over the Governing of the World from the worldwide criminal mafia. This will transform the world for 1000 years! Literally. Where do I get that? From the Bible is all…. This is the Great Awakening. We are fighting the New World Order in this epic Battle of Armageddon. Good versus Evil. We are embarking on 1000 years of peace and health and wealth for all of humanity! The Bible calls this the Millennial Kingdom of Christ as in- “His Kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” The Kingdom of Christ is when: • Christ assumes His authority as King on earth, • Christ removes those who have usurped His throne, • The “Good Guys” finally rule the earth with Him, straightening out this whole mess the DS criminals have made! No matter what the enemy tries, there’s nothing he can do to stop this! As Q said from the beginning, Big. Bigger! BIGGEST!!! This truly is the BIGGEST! That sounds Impossible! Outrageous! Too good to be true! But the Bible is chock-full of this promise. Sadly most “Bible scholars” don’t recognize it yet. Just like so-called “scholars” have missed what the LORD was doing from time immemorial! Just like we have been under mass deception by “experts” for years! You are welcome to simply believe what religious pundits, and political pundits, and media pundits, and every other pundit says, OR You are invited to join the white hats in the fight to take back our world, and have your eyes opened to what the LORD has promised over and over in His Word, and how He is fulfilling those promises in our Day! You will be very glad  you found this book.

The book’s 1,000+ Amazon reviewers are very positive. (“Very enlightening. Things make sense now.”) 

Contrast that with Dave Hayes’ multi-volume Q Chronicles, which focus on fine-grained analysis of the contents of Q posts, helping people decode the “crumbs” left for “anons.” Hayes’ book (a reviewer: “thoroughly presents the data and facts”) reads more like it’s a puzzle-solving guide for crosswords or riddles than a doom prophecy. Hayes (who says that he became a QAnon believer after he had a dream, sent to him by God, in which a Q-like man asked him questions) goes through endless Q posts and helps you figure out how to understand what they mean. There is ample fodder to spend a lifetime doing this considering that a portion of a single Q post could look like this: 

Who controls the narrative?
Who really controls the narrative? 
Who guards the narrative?
Does the MSM shelter and protect select “party” members? 
Does this protection insulate these “party” members?
Who controls the narrative? 
What laws were put in place to protect the MSM from lawsuits?
Who specifically passed this law?
What is immunity? 
What prevents a news organization from simply “making up sources & stories”?
What previous SC ruling provided protection to reporters from having to reveal their “confidential” source(s)?
How many people are unaware of the “truth” due to the stranglehold?
How must people be made aware of an alternate reality? 
What are crumbs (think H-wood/DC)
Define “lead-in” (think play)?
What has been occurring recently? 
The stage must be set.
Crumbs are easy to swallow.
What if Hugh Hefner was /a Clown In America?
What is a honeypot? 
Define blackmail. 
How could this be applied?
Fantasy land.
No Such Agency.
The hunter becomes the hunted.
Operations underway.
Operators active. 
Disinformation is real.
Disinformation is necessary.
Silent war (some gets out).
The Great Awakening.
Iron Eagle.
Godfather III.
The Hunt for Red October.

Here’s another thing good pseudointellectuals (like Dr. Peterson) do as well, which is saying so many confusing things in a row that people will be so preoccupied trying to figure out what you’re trying to say that they will not even have time for the question of whether it’s true. 

And boy, does it get silly at certain points. An Invitation to the Great Awakening cites a Q post that ran:

HRC = Alice
SA = Wonderland

I confess: as a normie, this sort of stuff makes me snort milk out of my nose with laughter. They all believe they’ve taken the “red pill,” but it seems like whatever is in that pill is little more than a powerful psychedelic. (It even gets you echoing Jefferson Airplane lyrics!) But this post leads An Invitation to the Great Awakening to reflect:

Before we answer [the question of who the white rabbits are], let’s explore the identities of the other characters in Q’s posts. Godfather III, Snow White, and Wizards & Warlocks. So far, we’ve been told that the Wizards and Warlocks are in the intelligence agencies, and Snow White may refer to the computer system they use—or it may be something else entirely. 

But you know what: it does seem like it would be engrossing to spend time figuring this stuff out, especially if I thought there was world-historic import to it all. 

QAnon is offering people something: it is offering explanations for why things are as they are. Recall the passage that promised that the sources of war and poverty would be shown. All of the sources of crime and evil in the world will be explained to you. If “see the Q in the photo?” is being offered not just in isolation, but as part of a terrifying story promising to open your eyes about the world, one that has you shitting yourself in fear about the cannibalistic child-traffickers secretly ruling everything and the noble rebel, Donald Trump, trying to save you from them, well, you might not be thinking too clearly about what shape the dots actually look like or the fact that it is very easy to draw lines between random sets of dots and then think the lines are real.

Dealing With Stuff Like QAnon

The Washington Post’s ex-QAnoner suggests that trying to reason with people is not the answer, and that instead it’s best to ask questions like “but how does that change the fact that you’ve been staring at your computer without getting up for two weeks straight?” I don’t agree with him there, in part because of his own story of how his worldview crumbled. He was shown that one of the core reasons for his believing in the theory, one of the things that had made him go “Well, but that can’t just be chance, there must be something to it,” was bogus. He was shown this persuasively and definitively.

    There is often an assumption that people who fall for what we call cults and hoaxes and conspiracy theories do not think. This assumption is wrong. Often, they think far more than you do. Consider that classic 9/11 conspiracy claim: jet fuel can’t melt steel beams. Why did it have such sticking power? Because people who heard it were thinking, and trying to reconcile two facts in their heads: the planes supposedly took down the towers, but the fires weren’t hot enough to melt the structures holding the towers in place. How can this be, then? One of the two cannot be true, and since the melting point of steel is a fact, the planes cannot have taken down the towers. If the planes did not take down the towers, something else must have, and someone must know and be lying about it. Etc.

Of course, the fact is that it doesn’t matter whether burning jet fuel can melt steel beams, because all it needs to do is weaken them. But the people who found the claim compelling were actually falling for the conspiracy theory in part because they were trying to think logically and to reconcile seemingly conflicting facts. A third fact, which they did not know, turned out to better reconcile them than the conspiracy—just as, with a magic show, a hidden fact will turn out to offer a much simpler explanation than the idea that the magician is a miracle-worker. But they were not unthinking.

I do not think people who believe in QAnon are stupid. In fact, I think it’s a huge mistake to assume that. I do think that anyone who believes in this theory hasn’t thought very critically about the kinds of cognitive biases we are subject to, and the ways that we can be manipulated into thinking we are discovering truth when we are actually drifting further and further away from it. The Washington Post’s ex-QAnoner was a perfectly normal and intelligent guy who was frightened when he realized how far he’d gone toward believing something he now realized to be obviously untrue. He still didn’t quite understand how it had happened. It is important to accept that ordinary people, even well-educated and otherwise-sensible ones, can end up believing totally bonkers falsehoods.

Getting them to shed those false beliefs and come back to reality can be an extremely difficult process. I know that I have successfully helped some people come to doubt their right-wing political beliefs before, because I have gotten emails from them about it. And I think one of the core reasons I’ve had that modest effect on a small number of people is that I did not treat them as crazy or stupid for believing things that Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson said. I see Shapiro and Peterson as extremely skilled at what they do, and I think they produce arguments that can seem persuasive until you know the reason they aren’t, just as a magic trick seems impressive until you see the secret of how it’s done.

With the magic trick, the moment you see how it’s done, the illusion collapses. It’s rather incredible. This is why magicians never reveal their secrets, because it would put them out of a job immediately. You cannot unknow what you know, and the trick depends on you not knowing something. Likewise, the moment you see why a right-wing talking point fails, it’s hard to go back to believing in it. (E.g., when you grasp that people who insist “men are men and women are women” are misunderstanding that the debate is about language rather than biology, it is hard to ever see conservative critics of transgender people as anything other than bigots who do not know what they are talking about). People make fun of “wokeness,” but there’s a good reason it’s called that, because many of the critics simply have not undergone the process of waking themselves up and thinking and studying and looking at the world that would allow them to understand what the people they are so annoyed by are actually saying. 

    I still believe in the power of evidence and reason, even though I have long thought that simply “fact checking” people to death is an ineffective way to change their minds. But “evidence” and “reason” are not just magic words you can say. Reasoning is something you do, evidence is something you either have or don’t have. Like many others on the right, the QAnon propagandists use the rhetoric of evidence without the reality of it. They wear a doctor’s coat and a stethoscope, but if you asked them to perform surgery you’d quickly find out the difference between pretending to know what’s real and actually knowing.

So we have to put QAnon evangelists to the test. If we just ignore them, we play into their hands, because part of the story being told to new adherents is that they will be ignored and scoffed at and treated as crazy conspiracy theorists. I do not intend to treat them that way. Instead I intend to treat them as intelligent human beings who, if they are going to say that the thing they believe is true, need to put up or shut up when it comes to defending the belief system. Socrates showed that one of the most devastating things you can say to someone is not “You’re crazy” but “how do you know?” Because usually it will turn out that the answer is “Er, someone told me” or “I… I don’t know.”

Everyone needs to learn to be a true skeptic. Many QAnon people are actually trying to be skeptics. They question what the media tells them. If someone else comes along with a theory that sounds crazy but offers a coherent story and has a bunch of facts they don’t know how to explain away, they listen. The problem is that they need to think harder and do some serious scrutiny of the kinds of things they have started to find persuasive. 

The Truth Is Fragile 

Part of the problem is that very little of our knowledge is based on examining evidence and weighing arguments to begin with. We often believe things because someone we trust to tell us the truth has told us a thing is true. And yes, that goes for liberals and leftists just as much as QAnon people. How do you know Russia interfered in the 2016 election? Did you scrutinize the evidence or did you listen to a news report? How do you know it’s snowing in Boston, if you don’t live there? How do you know how many people are unemployed? How do you know what the moon is made of? Some people have a better grasp of the reasons why things are true than others—you can think climate change is real just because climate scientists say so, or also because you have spent a little time understanding why the claims of climate change deniers don’t hold up. But every one of us has knowledge that is based on trusting the people we consider authorities not to be lying to us. When we read a book with endnotes, we don’t follow every endnote to verify it, because we assume the source says what the person says it says. 

    The fact that everyone’s knowledge depends on trust as well as arguments makes it difficult to live in a world where there are fake authorities as well as real ones. Imagine two doctors, each one saying the other is a dangerous quack whose advice is deadly. You didn’t go to medical school, so you don’t know who is right. How do you tell who to listen to?

One way that we do this in practice is through evaluating the markers of professionalism. If Doctor A operates out of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Doctor B operates out of the back of a 1976 “shaggin’ wagon,” you may think the relative difference in institutional backing is a point in Doctor A’s favor. The QAnon books are self-published, riddled with typos, and the design work is atrocious. They look like the work of amateurs, and indeed mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.

And yet: does that really tell us anything? Personally, I think overvaluing these superficial markers is a tendency we need to try to get away from as much as possible, for two reasons: (1) surface professionalism doesn’t actually tell you whether the professional is right, and indeed experts are often wrong (2) it is quite easy for the quacks to respond by becoming better at faking professionalism. Part of the conservative project over the last decades has involved trying to imitate the look of intellectual discourse and serious academic research without the substance—propaganda factories like the Cato Institute churn out pseudo-scholarship that is supposed to fool you into thinking it’s the work of serious intellectuals rather than hacks whose beliefs about the world can be reduced to Neanderthal grunts of “market good, government bad.” (I realize this is unfair to Neanderthals, who never came up with anything as barbaric as contemporary capitalism.) I’ve written before about how PragerU uses slickly-produced “explainer” videos hosted by seemingly-neutral fake experts to make right-wing misinformation look like Pure Reason. 

    As a leftist, I am also aware that people on the fringes are not always wrong. I run an independent magazine. I have self-published books. There have been typos, because quality copy-editing is expensive. Affiliation with a prestigious institution does not make your arguments correct, and people who lack access to “mainstream” channels for disseminating their views can have a far better understanding of reality than the New York Times or NPR. So I cannot wave away QAnon material just because its writers have bad grammar and can’t get a major publisher to put out their work. That tells us nothing. If you’re going to tell lies apart from the truth, there is no substitute for independent critical reasoning. You’ve got to think about what the claims are, whether they make sense, and whether there is good reason to believe them. I don’t think you should dismiss QAnon until you’re familiar with what it’s actually saying, because when I am on the fringes I want people to listen to me before they dismiss me. And I don’t think it helps to dismiss them with pejoratives, because the literature is full of things like this: 

  • “Q has managed to convince anons of his legitimacy, but mainstream media outlets haven’t bothered to explain this to their readers. In the many articles they’ve written trying to discredit Q, reporters tend to portray anons as violent and gullible extremists. […] This has not been my experience; I’ve found them highly intelligent and analytic.” 
  • “The more they ridicule the conspiracy, the more they prove the point. Why make a ruckus about something that isn’t real? If the Q movement… is a hoax, it will die on its own.”

The logician in me wants to note that the latter argument requires us to assume that nothing untrue can ever be believed for long, and that ridiculing something does not actually prove anything about its claims. But I think it is correct that mere ridicule contributes little. It also makes it harder for people to abandon their beliefs, by making it humiliating to confess error. One thing you quickly learn about the art of persuasion is that if people’s pride and identity is wrapped up in a belief they hold, they’re going to surrender it very, very reluctantly, and it’s important to offer them a way to preserve their pride and identity so that they are not destroyed by the revelation that the thing they believed is not true. If someone has spent years carefully decoding a puzzle they believe will unlock the secrets of the world, and they are shown that it is all based on a series of small reasoning errors, they are going to want to find a story that will allow them to avoid concluding that they have been wasting their life on something delusional. 

Good arguments are not enough to stop bad ideas from spreading. They will never be enough. We also need to build trust. If someone thinks that I am part of the Satanic pedophile conspiracy to control the world, they aren’t going to be able to hear my arguments. If nobody trusts the media, it doesn’t matter how much they fact-check claims, they will simply be ignored, hence the need to build widely-trusted media organizations that aren’t perceived to be hiding something or serving the interests of elites.*** We also need alternate narratives that help people make better sense of the world around them and see what’s going on. Personally, I think leftist politics offers a far more sensible and evidence-based guide to what is going on and what ought to be done about it, and I believe people who worry about the malevolence of elites and the prospects for the human future ought to come and join the left. 

It’s incredibly difficult to find the truth in this world, and everyone probably believes a number of things that aren’t the case. The very definition of truth, and the possibility of finding it out absolutely, are highly contested. We do the best we can and sometimes we go down blind alleys. QAnon is a real serious blind alley. We can see why people end up going down it, though. It tells a powerful tale that offers people a motivation for avoiding critical questions they might otherwise ask.

*    *    *    *

Given that no thinking person could possibly believe the QAnon theory after examining it for more than two seconds, what explains the fact that there is now a sign on my parents’ street telling everyone that Q is real? Why is this happening? Every explanation I can offer is speculative, but there are a number of ways in which it makes sense. First, what QAnon lacks in plausibility it more than makes up for in how compelling the story it tells is. You’re part of a secret army fighting against pedophiles and cannibals. The noble impulses that lead people to want to save the children and save the whales are preyed upon. Not only that, but part of the fight for the future of humanity consists of sitting at your desk solving little brain teasers. It’s got a comprehensive explanation of how all the evils in the world are caused and how they will be eliminated. And it uses the rhetoric of evidence, proof, research, and critical thought to obscure the fact that there’s nothing beneath it all. Add to that the fact that, like many conspiracy theories, it’s sort of right in some respects. Well-connected pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein committed crimes with impunity because we do live in a society where a small number of people wield excess power. 

It should also be noted that people on the mainstream right already believe large parts of the QAnon worldview to begin with—Republicans have said for decades that leftists are a sinister decadent elitist cabal and the enemies of human freedom. I think it might actually be letting the Republican Party off the hook to treat QAnon as far crazier than them, when I’m a lot more concerned about climate change denialism among non-QAnon Republicans than I am about any of the stuff I have seen on the QAnon pages. 

Is it harmless, then? I see repeated insistences in QAnon literature that movement adherents are not violent. But it’s always dangerous to become detached from reality; the Post’s ex-QAnoner says he was alarmed when he realized he would have been excited to watch Hillary Clinton be executed. Anyone who truly believes this stuff does not grasp the basic issues in politics and economics in the world today. They might be perfectly capable of it, but their present understanding of reality is warped. That is extremely worrisome, especially because in a democracy, such people vote and can affect the world. So long as they’re just scouring 8chan looking to translate Lewis Carroll references into socio-political commentary, QAnon people are not doing much harm, but having a large portion of the populace genuinely believing that some of the rest of us are satanic globalist pedophiles is a recipe for social catastrophe. Anyone who truly did believe that might consider taking up arms.

But I actually think QAnon itself is not terribly threatening at the moment, because much of it is focused on figuring out what “Q” and Donald Trump are doing, and what the Rothschilds are doing. Though QAnon predicts a day of reckoning in which Trump will round up the evil cabal, it’s dependent on Donald Trump to act, and Donald Trump will soon be out of office. The whole Q theory cannot really last beyond Trump’s last day in office. I think many of these people are soon going to discover that they need a new theory once the Great Awakening doesn’t happen. 

The bigger problem here is that QAnon is “proof of concept” for greater mass delusions in the future. It shows how fragile the truth is and how easy it can be to get something utterly ridiculous to be taken very seriously by scarily large numbers of people. The tendencies that lead people to be sucked into these kinds of psychological black holes are still going to be present next year and the year after. I am reassured to know they are easy to combat intellectually. I am discomforted to know that this may not matter in the least. 

* NESARA stands for “National Economic Stabilization and Recovery Act,” a proposed reform of the monetary system dreamed up by a Mississippi consultant named Harvey Francis Barnard in the 1980s. Barnard wanted to end the income tax, forgive credit card and mortgage debt, and introduce metal-backed currency. He detailed his plan to fix the economy in a 1996 book called Draining the Swamp (the title is a coincidence). Barnard’s “NESARA” was never introduced or considered in Congress, and he died in 2005. But it became the source of a bizarre theory: a small group of people began insisting that Congress had secretly passed “NESARA.” Here, for example, is a letter to the editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune by a believer who suggests that the government is suppressing the fact that NESARA is a real law. The conspiracy theory was pushed by a woman who called herself the “Dove of Oneness.” Poor Barnard spent the final years of his life trying to fight the NESARA conspiracists, insisting that his proposal was not in fact the law yet, but merely ought to be. As far as I can tell, the NESARA conspiracy is not directly related to QAnon, but QAnon has a tendency to absorb elements of other preexisting conspiracies

** The book is written by a group of QAnoners and credited to “WWG1WGA,” which it turns out stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All.”  

*** At Current Affairs, we’re trying to do this, and in doing so, we pull some of the classic tricks that are used to create the illusion of trustworthiness and respectability. I wear a tie and have a quasi-British accent, the name of our publication connotes neutrality, we use venerable serif typefaces. But we’re like Harry Houdini or James Randi—the magicians who taught people how to see through trickery and fraud. My hope is that by showing my work I can convince you that I am not trying to hide the ball. 

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