The media's dilemma: How to cover conspiracy theorists

A T-shirt with the words "We Are Q" being held up before the start of US President Donald Trump's rally last Thursday in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The news cycle about QAnon, sparked by its believers' visibility, is the best thing to ever happen to
A T-shirt with the words "We Are Q" being held up before the start of US President Donald Trump's rally last Thursday in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The news cycle about QAnon, sparked by its believers' visibility, is the best thing to ever happen to them as they now have an audience of, potentially, the entire country, according to the writer.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

For months, a man calling himself Bill Smith obsessed over the YouTube search rankings for QAnon, where his conspiracy-fuelled videos competed with those made by other believers for the top few slots on the list of results.

Last Wednesday, Mr Smith was dethroned by a rush of mainstream outlets, which each produced their own videos explaining the conspiracy theory after its existence suddenly went viral. In a livestream to 45,000 YouTube subscribers, Mr Smith looked at his diminished status - and sounded ecstatic. "I haven't been this happy in a very long time," he said. "CNN, NBC News, MSNBC, PBS News Hour, Washington Post, MSNBC, those are our new QAnon reporters!"

He burst into laughter. "This is the moment!" Finally, QAnon was mainstream.

QAnon is a complicated conspiracy theory stemming from the cryptic 4chan and 8chan posts of a figure named "Q", as countless articles have explained over the past week.

(Q refers to themselves as "we", and the name appears to be alluding to someone with "Q" clearance, with access to classified material. A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, Q claims to be fighting the "deep state".)

Whoever Q is - the "anon" portion is a reference to 4chan users referring to anonymous users as "anon" - QAnon is one of the most overtly ambitious ones to emerge in recent memory, in that its adherents and amplifiers intentionally seek to bring its existence to bigger and bigger audiences.

As reported in The Washington Post, QAnon is the conspiracy theory that gives conspiracy theorists hope: Q's horoscope-like posts promise that a reckoning for their enemies - Democrats, liberals, and especially the Clintons - is coming at any moment.

A T-shirt with the words
A T-shirt with the words "We Are Q" being held up before the start of US President Donald Trump's rally last Thursday in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The news cycle about QAnon, sparked by its believers' visibility, is the best thing to ever happen to them as they now have an audience of, potentially, the entire country, according to the writer. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

So you can understand why an entire news cycle about QAnon - sparked by believers' visibility, with Q signs and T-shirts, at a Tuesday Trump rally in Florida - is the best thing to ever happen to its believers.

What was once circulated on hashtags, YouTube keywords and fringey message boards now has an audience of, potentially, the entire country.

It doesn't take six-dimensional chess to figure out that the Internet is the perfect setting for a conspiracy theory like QAnon. A social media platform's algorithms are designed to show its users things that they want to engage with and share, and what better for that than a single theory that seems to neatly explain the entire world, no matter how wild and unproven?

Ms Paris Martineau, a writer at The Outline who was one of the first to identify and explain QAnon, also known as The Storm, has been warning about the inevitable spike in interest for months.

"The spread of QAnon is planned, with an assist from the polarisation-prone algorithms of every major social media app," she wrote in April. "QAnon followers spend hours upon hours online debating the best way to 'redpill the normies', and created countless guides and cheat sheets in order to bring new members into the fold as quickly as possible. Of late, it seems to be working."

(In June, an armed man used an armoured truck to block traffic at the Hoover Dam to demand the release of a secret government report that Q claimed existed. He was arrested. Others under similar influence have gone searching for supposed child sex camps in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.)

It doesn't take six-dimensional chess to figure out that the Internet is the perfect setting for a conspiracy theory like QAnon. A social media platform's algorithms are designed to show its users things that they want to engage with and share, and what better for that than a single theory that seems to neatly explain the entire world, no matter how wild and unproven? And, there's the added bonus of hate-sharing. The thing about sharing something online in outrage is that it's still a share.

Journalists cover conspiracy theories because their job is to tell the truth about the world around them, and things like QAnon beg for a sane fact check.

But in doing so, said Ms Whitney Phillips, an incoming assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, they're also doing work for the people who want to make QAnon visible.

"The problem is that the information is exactly what the evangelists want. It risks bringing more people into the story who can be converted," she added. "These reports, they are serving an important function even as they are doing the worst possible thing they could do."

In QAnon land, this amplification is talked of in terms of war, one that they have been expecting on their march to victory. "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then we win," Mr Smith told his livestream audience.

For him, the media blitz last week meant that the media had moved on to fighting against them. Since QAnon can explain everything, according to its believers, the media coverage just becomes part of the plan.

On the Reddit board devoted to QAnon called - no joke - the Great Awakening, one post thanked the mainstream media for its coverage. "Your coordinated attack just launched Q into the mainstream and has strengthened the resolve of the believers," it read.

When people show up at a Trump rally carrying signs and wearing T-shirts about Q, explaining why that's happening is part of the media's job. For those who have been watching the conspiracy Internet for a long time, the question is less whether to cover a conspiracy, but how.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2018, with the headline 'The media's dilemma: How to cover conspiracy theorists'. Subscribe