Dozens of crimes and criminal plots have been associated with the QAnon movement over the last four years in the United States and abroad. Its adherents– initially engaged by the baseless pro-Trump conspiracy that a cabal of global elites were running a child sex ring that former President Trump intended to expose– were well represented in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. And despite Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, the purge of QAnon groups and accounts from major social media platforms, and the silence of Q, the anonymous account that spurred it, the movement remains active and continues to pose a national security threat. Indeed, its political legacy continues to grow, as dozens of candidates associated with QAnon seek office across the country.
A new preprint paper from researchers Alice E. Marwick and William Partin, both at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC CITAP), explores the participatory culture of the QAnon movement, looking closely at behaviors and motivations of the individuals who perpetuate the narratives and theories that sustain it.
Using qualitative methods, the researchers situate their effort in an attempt to understand the “populist expertise” on display in the movement– not positing that the participants in QAnon are producing facts (they are not), but that they are nevertheless engaged in the development of “home-grown” expertise forged in “the rejection of legacy media accounts, scientific consensus or elite knowledge” among the disenfranchised. Past research and theory positioned populist, participatory culture as democratic. But are some forms of participatory behavior, powerfully incentivized by social media and internet platforms, ultimately anathema to democracy?
As liberal democracies are forced to contend with forms of political participation that seek to curtail voting rights, diminish the rights of minoritized communities, and establish authoritarian forms of government, critically examining such participation is increasingly necessary.
The critical examination in this case involved observation of “20 Facebook groups dedicated to QAnon, 9 public and 11 private, ranging from 276 to 22,186 members,” as well as QAnon forums on the websites 8kun, o-chan and Endchan, including “extensive archives” generated by the Bakers that included “message board discussions, analyses of Q’s posts, and community-produced media such as videos and instructions for new participants.” While “generally silent” in the groups, the researchers did utilize “a pseudonymous Facebook account to ask about specific practices, interpretations, and meanings of posts.” The dataset represents a snapshot of a subset of the QAnon movement in time.
“Many of the claims that QAnon supporters make are also present in mainstream conservative politics,” said Marwick, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and a Principal Researcher at UNC CITAP. “QAnon is a pro-Trump movement, after all. QAnon is deeply tied to Evangelical Protestantism and it repeats much of the good vs. evil, apocalyptic rhetoric found in these communities. What QAnon supporters really want is Christian nationalism. They believe that Democrats are, quite literally, in league with Satan.”
The researchers describe a variety of behaviors intended to substantiate such beliefs, from the generation of “proofs” that decode Q’s various message “drops”, connecting them to real-world events and other information gathered by the Bakers, to “baking,” the process of interpreting the meaning of proofs and drops. And, they observed the process of “interpretive closure,” whereby the process of “wild speculation” ultimately coalesces into a “cohesive narrative.”
A close look at these behaviors may confound some popular ideas about QAnon and its adherents:
While conspiracy theorists are often imagined as gullible people who will accept anything, our findings complicate this assessment. Rather, Q adherents demonstrated wide-ranging knowledge about current and past events, questioned the legitimacy of sources or the conclusions that other participants came to, and, above all, admonished others to “do the research” or “think critically”—messages that frequently appear in appeals to media literacy.
Indeed, Bakers are “fastidious in their citational approach,” methodical and meticulous in their production of media assets, and incredibly resourceful in their approach to “creating searchable and accessible databases of information deemed to be relevant.” They engage in “complex forms of source evaluation on primary and secondary texts,” building their own form of “populist expertise that is more amenable to the sensational conspiracies the group is known for,” suggesting the movement is not, as some argue, “anti-expertise,” but rather that the recognition of expertise itself is “negotiated ideologically.” In short, QAnon adherents have their own experts.
Ultimately, the researchers note, “QAnon can be understood as a participatory culture that demonstrates the creative and supportive aspects of participatory communities while espousing anti-democratic and anti-institutional ideals,” calling into question the “unerringly positive” notion of participation itself.
I asked Alice Marwick about the implications of this research for social media firms and other internet platforms that are premised on driving and facilitating ever more ‘participation’ and engagement.
“This research reaffirms what scholars and critics already knew– that online engagement and participation are not necessarily positive,” said Marwick. “Think of Facebook prioritizing content that receives the ‘angry’ react. That’s great for Facebook, but not for building online community. Discord was used to organize the Unite the Right rally; much January 6 organizing took place on Facebook and Telegram. So rather than just looking to increase interaction, if social platforms truly care about democracy, they’re going to have to prioritize different things than simple engagement. What does a successful online community look like? This is a question that, I suspect, the research teams at social platforms already know the answer to – it’s just whether or not platforms will focus on that over making money.”
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Read the full preprint paper, Constructing Alternative Facts: Populist Expertise and the QAnon Conspiracy, here.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.