QAnon Research: December 5th, 2022
In which we pitch the newsletter to Y Combinator as a Twitter alternative
Editor’s Note: Apologies for the delay on this newsletter. Due to travel, holidays, and a lot of work piling up, the newsletter will be on hiatus until February. However, before then, be on the lookout for an announcement. Also, feel free to send any events, and we’ll disseminate those. Thanks!
QAnon and its intellectual allies return to Twitter, Trump continues to signal his support, questions are raised about a post-Trump QAnon (will they go for DeSanctimonious?), and Ye once again demonstrates the anti-Semitism latent to conspiratorial thinking. This week’s newsletter is research-focused and lengthy. Here are some of the questions posed and answered:
What violence lies behind “Let’s Go Brandon”?
How does QAnon break into the mainstream?
How can we think of QAnon in terms of religion?
What is the relationship between populism and conspiracy?
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“‘Let’s Go Brandon’ On the Mutable Power of Semiotic Peekaboo” in Anthropology News [Link]
Article by Janet McIntosh, Brandeis University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Teaser: The “Let’s Go Brandon” (Fuck Joe Biden) slogan suggests gleeful resentment toward the very idea that one might have to mince words. Meanwhile, its barely-there veneer of decorum can be exploited to let the speaker off the hook. The American right wing has specialized, lately, in thinly veiled provocations and cryptic signaling, from Trump’s dog whistles to Q’s breadcrumbs. In all these cases of what I call “alt-signaling,” the gap between signifier and signified is exploited, hinting at imminent right-wing power and violence while attempting to skirt charges of hate speech or incitement. While “Let’s Go Brandon” often poses a playful and fun, it has a sinister side connected to intimations of violence.
“How a peripheral ideology becomes mainstream: Strategic performance, audience reaction, and news media amplification in the case of QAnon Twitter accounts” in New Media & Society [Link]
Yini Zhang, Zhiying Yue, Xiyu Yang, Fan Chen, and Nojin Kwak
Abstract: Social media platforms have been used by various actors to bypass traditional media gatekeepers to share messages, draw attention, and accumulate influence. We study how actors from peripheral groups gain influence on social media and how their social media behaviors evolve over time. Integrating online strategic performance and hybrid media literature, we hypothesize that peripheral groups perform group identities to spur social media audience reaction and news media amplification, to which they further adapt their performance. By analyzing 242 QAnon Twitter accounts using topic modeling and time series modeling, we find that their in-group solidarity and out-group animosity tweets boost retweets, but not followers; increased retweets and followers drive news media amplification largely undertaken by right-wing outlets and motivate future performance of group identity, particularly of out-group animosity. The implications of social media and news media for the growth of peripheral actors and ideologies are discussed.
“The Affective Algorithms of Conspiracy TikTok” in The Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media [Link]
Justin Grandinetti and Jeffrey Bruinsma
Abstract: The initial optimism about the embedded and everyday integration of social media has, over time, given way to pessimism via the acknowledgment of these platforms’ role in the spread of mis(dis)information and the erosion of democratic ideals. Inspired by emergent accounts of how users encounter, experience, and make sense of algorithms in their everyday lives, we offer an ethnographic investigation into Conspiracy TikTok, tracing the affective flows of mis(dis)information on the platform. Specifically, we highlight our observations on reverse engineering TikTok’s algorithm, the affective pull of conspiracy content, and the critical element of algorithmic personalization.
“Misinformation or activism?: analyzing networked moral panic through an exploration of #SaveTheChildren” in Information, Communication & Society [Link]
Rachel E. Moran and Stephen Prochaska
Abstract: Central to the growth and visibility of conspiracy theory QAnon is the #SaveTheChildren movement – a digital social movement aimed to bring awareness to and end child trafficking. This paper analyzes the #SaveTheChildren movement on image-sharing platform Instagram, where the hashtag (and related others) had to be shielded by the platform because of its association with QAnon. A thematic analysis of #SaveTheChildren posts examines the motivations, tactics, and desired outcomes of the movement. Emergent themes highlight the pervasive spread of misinformation regarding human trafficking and the ideological, political, and social motivations of posters. Drawing on shared reality theory and social identity theory, we argue that the movement represents a ‘networked moral panic’ and explore the structural limitations of digital social movements in an era of information disorder.
“Qvangelicalism: QAnon as a Hyper-Real Religion” chapter in Religious Dimensions of Conspiracy Theories [Link]
Abstract: Since 2017, when QAnon first appeared, practically no effort has been made to obtain any interpretive framework of what QAnon is, since the media has been concentrated on the movement’s worldview linked to conspiracy theories and the violence its adherents have perpetrated. Nonetheless, there is a critical need to go beyond this singular understanding of the movement, to better understand why individuals believe in the QAnon ideology, and how it mobilises them offline. For many, the initial response to the QAnon conspiracy theory is to dismiss or belittle it and its believers. It is crucial to emphasise, however, that the movement’s supporters sincerely believe in the theories – even if it means jeopardising their families and communities. This study will argue that the present incarnation of QAnon should be seen as a ‘hyper-real religion’. Using the concept of hyper-real religions allows researchers to go beyond the conspiracy theory parts of QAnon and understand why its supporters absorbed QAnon into their worldview and online/offline actions. This implies that technology and the marketplace of ideas have flipped the traditional relationship between religious purveyors and religious customers. As a result, popular culture creates religious doctrinal authority (those who can contribute to the religion’s teaching). This chapter will explain what QAnon is, how it is a hyper-real religion, and present case studies from QAnon influencers as well as what I call the QAnon Ekklesia.
“(Dis)Belief in QAnon: Competing Hermeneutics in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election” in WiderScreen [Link]
Albion M. Butters
Abstract: Among many disruptive events in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, the meta-conspiracy theory known as QAnon surged, intertwining politics and (quasi-)religious belief in ways that have yet to be fully understood. This article explores the power of deep memetic frames—namely, how we ideologically see the world and communicate that worldview—as a means used by certain individuals and amplified by politicians, including President Trump, to mobilize the voting public across party lines. It also reveals how representations of QAnon by the mainstream media played into the movement’s success. For QAnon followers, the election became a crossroads moment, a “Great Awakening” whereby one could identify as part of a collective insider movement. Examining the epistemological de/construction of truth in a media context and diverging hermeneutical approaches—faith and suspicion, respectively—the article argues for the importance of religion as a lens to better understand QAnon in a deeply polarized United States.
“How Anti-Social Personality Traits and Anti-Establishment Views Promote Beliefs in Election Fraud, QAnon, and COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation” in American Politics Research [Link]
Adam Enders, Casey Klofstad, Justin Stoler, and Joseph E. Uscinski
Abstract: Conspiracy theories and misinformation (CTM) became a salient feature of the Trump era. However, traditional explanations of political attitudes and behaviors inadequately account for beliefs in CTM or the deleterious behaviors they are associated with. Here, we integrate disparate literatures to explain beliefs in CTM regarding COVID-19, QAnon, and voter fraud. We aim to provide a more holistic accounting, and to determine which political, psychological, and social factors are most associated with such beliefs. Using a unique national survey, we find that anti-social personality traits, anti-establishment orientations, and support for Donald Trump are more strongly related to beliefs in CTM than traditional left-right orientations or other frequently posited factors, such as education, science literacy, and social media use. Our findings encourage researchers to move beyond the traditional correlates of political behavior when examining beliefs that express anti-social tendencies or a deep skepticism of social and political institutions.
“The Spectre of Populist Leadership: QAnon, Emergent Formations, and Digital Community” in Media and Communication [Link]
Rob Cover, Daniel Thompson, and Ashleigh Haw
Abstract: QAnon is an online conspiracy movement centred on cryptic posts published by an unknown figure referred to as “Q.” Its anti-hierarchical framework and deployment of an unknown leader can be understood as a substantial departure from other 21st-century populisms that are sustained by the celebrity relationship between a leader (often aspiring to or gaining political office) and its followers (constituted in community through consumption of the leaders’ social media posts). Reflecting on contemporary debates and insights within cultural studies and digital communication literature, this article investigates some of the ways in which the spectral leadership of Q presents challenges for understanding and apprehending populist movements. In light of QAnon, there is an emerging need to make sense of populisms that are built on mythical or anonymous characters rather than on identifiable human actors in leadership roles. We begin by discussing the role of key practices of contemporary populist leadership and contrast these with justice-based populisms that are community-led without the figure of an identifiable leader. We argue that, as a populist movement, QAnon fits neither of these frameworks and, instead, has drawn on the affordances of digital media and its intersections with postmodern hyperreality to produce a new formation of populist movement today. Arguing that Q is the simulacra of a leader, we theorise the ways in which QAnon fosters affiliation and action from its adherents who, themselves, take on the role of saviour-leader.
“Individual, intergroup and nation-level influences on belief in conspiracy theories” in Nature Reviews Psychology [Link]
Matthew J. Hornsey, Kinga Bierwiaczonek, Kai Sassenberg, and Karen M. Douglas
Abstract: Conspiracy theories are part of mainstream public life, with the potential to undermine governments, promote racism, ignite extremism and threaten public health efforts. Psychological research on conspiracy theories is booming, with more than half of the academic articles on the topic published since 2019. In this Review, we synthesize the literature with an eye to understanding the psychological factors that shape willingness to believe conspiracy theories. We begin at the individual level, examining the cognitive, clinical, motivational, personality and developmental factors that predispose people to believe conspiracy theories. Drawing on insights from social and evolutionary psychology, we then review research examining conspiracy theories as an intergroup phenomenon that reflects and reinforces societal fault lines. Finally, we examine how conspiracy theories are shaped by the economic, political, cultural and socio-historical contexts at the national level. This multilevel approach offers a deep and broad insight into conspiracist thinking that increases understanding of the problem and offers potential solutions.
Book: Conspiracy Theory Discourses [Link]
Edited by Massimiliano Demata, Virginia Zorzi, and Angela Zottola
Conspiracy Theory Discourses addresses a crucial phenomenon in the current political and communicative context: conspiracy theories. The social impact of conspiracy theories is wide-ranging and their influence on the political life of many nations is increasing. Conspiracy Theory Discourses bridges an important gap by bringing discourse-based insights to existing knowledge about conspiracy theories, which has so far developed in research areas other than Linguistics and Discourse Studies. The chapters in this volume call attention to conspiracist discourses as deeply ingrained ways to interpret reality and construct social identities. They are based on multiple, partly overlapping analytical frameworks, including Critical Discourse Analysis, rhetoric, metaphor studies, multimodality, and corpus-based, quali-quantitative approaches. These approaches are an entry point to further explore the environments which enable the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the paramount role of discourse in furthering conspiracist interpretations of reality.
Book: Red Pilled - The Allure of Digital Hate [Link]
Hate is being reinvented. Over the last two decades, online platforms have been used to repackage racist, sexist and xenophobic ideologies into new sociotechnical forms. Digital hate is ancient but novel, deploying the Internet to boost its allure and broaden its appeal. To understand the logic of hate, Luke Munn investigates four objects: 8chan, the cesspool of the Internet, QAnon, the popular meta-conspiracy, Parler, a social media site, and Gab, the »platform for the people.« Drawing together powerful human stories with insights from media studies, psychology, political science, and race and cultural studies, he portrays how digital hate infiltrates hearts and minds.