A Digital Army in a Multidimensional Infowar: the QAnon hyperconspiracy, platform tribalism and beyond the reality principle

On: September 28, 2020
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About Marcantonio Bracale Syrnikov


   
TheStorm — u2h graph of 48,241 tweets from April 27 to May 17
#QAnon network visualizations by Erin Gallagher

“Reality itself is as fragile and fleeting as any cultural value,
its cyclical collapse and rebirth is the archetypal catastrophe”
F. Campagna, Technics and Magic

Abduction: Captured by the Truth

In September 2020 Der Spiegel wrote that QAnon is “the most dangerous cult of our time […] the first ideology that originated in the digital space and has worked its way from a niche on the internet to real life”. FBI has designated QAnon as domestic terror threat[1], while the President of the United States declared that QAnon followers “Love Our Country[2]”. What’s happening, why are there two narratives? Why are mothers and grandmothers radicalizing[3]? The story goes like this: a pseudonymous user called Q appears on an anonymous imageboard and starts posting which dots to connect and how to connect them, encouraging community-building and participation. 5000 posts later, QAnon is the transnational metanarrative of populist and/or nationalist discourse and a cross-platform imaginary that connects secretive imageboards and mainstream beauty influencers[4] through a logic of reputational warfare.

Operating cryptically in the center of imageboard culture – whose “hegemony of the culture of transgression[5]” turned prude and conservative – Q’s voice is disseminated and amplified by a weaponized digital influence machine[6] operated by conspiracy entrepreneurs and opaque non-state actors. This participatory and inflammatory fan-fiction is then circulated in a digital advertisement infrastructure that monitors, micro-targets and has the capacity to automate and “optimize tactical elements of influence campaigns[7]”. In our media ecosystems, feeds are generated by “advertising algorithms, not by information algorithms[8]”, and if the engagement metrics that drive social media reward “activating emotions” such as fear and anger[9], it’s unsurprising that, captured by algorithmic rabbit holes, communities polarize and galvanize antagonistically[10].

If “consistent pseudonymity creates one degree of disembodiment; varying pseudonymity and anonymity create infinite disembodiment[11]”, then QAnon is better described as a sociotechnical assemblage that produces a systematic counternarrative and that has been recruited by US ex-military figureheads as a “digital army[12]” to deploy in the information war for reactionary hegemony.

Mark Lombardi, “BCCI, ICIC and First American Bankshares c.1972-92”, 3rd Version, 1996

A Kabbalah in the Cannibal Cabal

What happens after platform tribalization has formed disjointed affective communities, what do they do? QAnon is a hyper-religion, a digitally mediated religion that aggregates and spiritualizes pop-cultural materials[13], creating and maintaining in-group identity and cohesion, attributing evil, and separating natural from unnatural[14]. A temporality of messianic millennialism pervades the movement, a temporality that needs to be continually reproduced by networks of practices[15] of escalating commitment, radicalization and “dark participation[16]”. These micro-hegemonies  are characterized by the “seizing of the means of cognition[17]”: to consolidate its counter-knowledge and to enhance its propagation, persistence and impact, QAnon sets up a complex ecosystem of “epistemological machines”, ways of retrieving and ordering information that generate “potential collision space for alternative accounts of reality[18]”. Reflecting the parallel ways in “which knowledge, history, and agency are constructed in conspiracism and esotericism[19]”, the QAnon machine enacts an interface implosion, a crippled media critique that adopts a half-paranoid half-esoteric interpretation scheme in which “everything is a sign; everything conceals and exudes mystery; every object hides a secret[20]”. The Qresearch board on 8kun, “a political research board, a war room[21]”, lists a series of tools: a qclock for numerological fantasies of deep-event synchronizations[22], a searchable database of judicial records[23], an updated list of resignations, indictments, arrests, deaths to be captured and absorbed by the QAnon interpretation scheme[24].

These tools are supposed to verify Q’s predictions and, being already integral to the narrative, they always will. As Q wrote: “future proves past[25]”. Through these “technologies of divination[26]”, the epistemological machines of conspiracy intersect with the mythological machines of religion to form the core operation of hyperconspiracy. Even though Qanon propaganda is “high-volume and multichannel, rapid, continuous, lacks commitment to objective reality and consistency[27]” it still produces identifications and political orientation. How? Jesi’s concept of mythological machine can model a sound solution: as an “apparatus that produces epiphanies of myth[28]”, a mythological machine operates in the intersection between knowledge and power to “allow mythologies to appear as if they were unquestionable truths[29]”. The mythological machine pretends to contain “myth,” but it could just as well be empty[30]. And such is Qanon, an ever-evolving, open-ended signifying chain of endless connections, inversions and permutations of a traumatic and dehumanizing core imaginary, a memetic template to aggregate more material, and a myth that interprets, arranges, stabilizes, and constructs reality in the context of a crisis of sociopolitical imagination[31]”. Becoming a Qanon follower means to experience an epiphany, to rework epistemic strategies through “audience labor[32]”, to co-opt arguments about media literacy and critical thinking (e.g. the news industry is about narratives and interest, not ‘truth’) [33], and to socially reproduce a paranoid horizon of generic suspicion in a complex media ecosystem of human and non-human actors.

“Q: The Basics. All credit belongs to the Anons of The Board and Q.
QAnon is the greatest intelligence operation of our time, the most censored and attacked world phenomenon of all time.”
From Q’s board on 8kun. Full image here.

Beyond the Reality Principle

With algorithmic polarization and platform tribalism we enter an era in which the molecularization of the public sphere leaves space to a “plurality of discursive subsets, or bubbles, that slide away from a centralized and elite-steered consensus to engender diasporic and alternative spaces for political aggregation and mobilization[34]”. This media ecology continually co-evolves with new regimes of post-truth in which “power exploits new freedoms to participate/produce/express[35]”, mobilizing and recruiting the general intellect to co-produce its own deception. Competing realities in a competing truth-markets equals to a perpetual state of information warfare[36].

While conspiratorial belief is not an inherently far-right phenomenon, the ideological frameworks prevalent within the far right may be “uniquely receptive”[37] to conspiracies, enabling their emergence as the movement’s “lingua franca[38]”. The leading ethno-nationalism theorist Guillaume Faye wrote: “politics is the occupation of a territory, metapolitics is the occupation of culture”. Qanon’s success as a right-wing conspiracy is a symptom of how the affordances of social media are inherently exploitable for a “metapolitical battle 2.0 […] a battle for the circulation and the normalization of ideas[39]”. In conclusion, let’s try to define hyperconspiracy: produced by the concatenation of epistemological and mythological machines, a hyperconspiracy is an emergent structure of the algorithmic optimization of engagement, an emergent and distributed sociotechnical structure predisposed to function as a governmentality in a regime of post-truth; its constitutive paradox is a peculiar folding of the topology of culture: the fringe is now the center[40]. As an ultimate justification of absolute power, a hyperconspiracy is above all a political technology, as manifested by the fact that the most prominent conspiracy proponent is the world’s most powerful person.

QAnon’s pedophile cosmology and its labyrinth of interconnected plots obfuscate the legibility of the interconnected mechanisms of oppression and exploitation that sustain the technocapitalist mode of production, hijacking attentional and emotional investment and distorting the meaning of the consequent compression of political agency. When nothing is possible, everything is true. The QAnon hyperconspiracy is prospected to accelerate and intensify in the following months, and to function as a “choreography of assembly”, setting the “scene for people coming together in public space[41]”. Unfortunately, Balk’s Third Law still goes like this: “if you think the internet is terrible now, just wait a while”.

Recommendations flows from conspiracy channels.
From Mark Ledwich and Anna Zaitsev. “Algorithmic extremism: Examining YouTube’s rabbit hole of radicalization.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1912.11211 (2019).

[1] https://news.yahoo.com/fbi-documents-conspiracy-theories-terrorism-160000507.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/us/politics/trump-qanon-conspiracy-theories.html

[3] https://www.snopes.com/news/2020/09/25/grannies-are-spreading-qanon-conspiracy-theory-memes-on-facebook/

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/08/how-instagram-aesthetics-repackage-qanon/615364/

[5] Nagle, Angela. Kill all normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. John Hunt Publishing, 2017.

[6] Nadler, Anthony, Matthew Crain, and Joan Donovan. “Weaponizing the digital influence machine.” Data & Society (2018).

[7] Crain, Matthew, and Anthony Nadler. “Political Manipulation and Internet Advertising Infrastructure.” Journal of Information Policy 9 (2019): 370-410.

[8] Safiya Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 38.

[9] Marantz, Andrew. Antisocial: Online extremists, techno-utopians, and the hijacking of the American conversation. Viking, 2019.

[10] https://www.ctrl-verlust.net/digital-tribalism-the-real-story-about-fake-news/

[11] https://web.archive.org/web/20150725054324/http://iasc-culture.org:80/THR/channels/Infernal_Machine/2015/03/

[12] General Flynn declarations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VZuaC8cpHI

[13] https://baudrillardstudies.ubishops.ca/hyper-real-religion/

[14] Cusack, Carole M., and Pavol Kosnáč, eds. Fiction, Invention and Hyper-reality: From popular culture to religion. Taylor & Francis, 2016.

[15] Woolgar, Steve, and Bruno Latour. Laboratory life: the construction of scientific facts. Princeton University Press, 1986.

[16] Quandt, Thorsten. “Dark participation.” Media and Communication 6.4 (2018): 36-48.

[17] Robertson, David G. UFOs, conspiracy theories and the new age: Millennial conspiracism. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

[18] Rogers, Richard. Digital methods. MIT press, 2013: 19.

[19] Dyrendal A. 2013. “Hidden Knowledge, Hidden Powers. Esotericism and Conspiracy Culture.” In E. Asprem and K. Granholm (eds), Contemporary Esotericism, London: Equinox, 200–225

[20] Faivre, Antoine. Access to Western esotericism. Suny Press, 1994, 10.

[21] https://8kun.top/qresearch/welcome.html

[22] https://www.q-clock.com/

[23] Federal Judicial Court dataset from 93 Federal Districts – Searchable db: https://bad-boys.us/

[24] https://qresear.ch

[25] https://archive.4plebs.org/pol/thread/150693391/#q150698662

[26] https://deconstructingyourself.com/paranoia-conspiracy-and-covid-with-erik-davis.html

[27] Paul, C., and M. Matthews. “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation).” (2016):

[28] Furio Jesi, Mito (Milan: Enciclopedia Isedi, 1973), 105.

[29] Manera, Enrico. “Myth and Right-wing Culture in Furio Jesi.” Theory & Event 22.4 (2019): 1070.

[30] Furio Jesi, Lettura del “Bateau Ivre” di Rimbaud (Macerata: Quodlibet, 1996), 28.

[31] Manera, Enrico. “Myth and Right-wing Culture in Furio Jesi.” Theory & Event 22.4 (2019): 1069-1081

[32] Fisher, Eran. “Audience labour on social media: learning from sponsored stories.” Reconsidering value and labour in the digital age. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015. 115-132.

[33] https://medium.com/hci-design-at-uw/information-wars-a-window-into-the-alternative-media-ecosystem-a1347f32fd8f

[34] Cosentino, Gabriele. “The Post-truth World Order.” Social Media and the Post-Truth World Order. Palgrave Pivot, Cham, 2020. 2-5.

[35] Harsin, Jayson. “Regimes of posttruth, postpolitics, and attention economies.” Communication, culture & critique 8.2 (2015): 327-333.

[36] Waltzman, Rand, The Weaponization of Information: The Need for Cognitive Security. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017. https://www.rand.org/pubs/testimonies/CT473.html.

[37] Andrew Woods, “The Hydra of Suspicion: Conspiracy Theories and the Radical Right,” Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, June 17, 2019.

[38] Andrew Wilson, “Fear-Filled Apocalypses: The Far-Right’s Use of Conspiracy Theories,” Oxford Research Group, March 27, 2020.

[39] Maly, Ico. “New right metapolitics and the algorithmic activism of Schild & Vrienden.” Social Media+ Society 5.2 (2019): 4.

[40] Davey, Jacob, and Julia Ebner. “The Fringe Insurgency. Connectivity, Convergence and Mainstreaming of the Extreme Right.” Institute for Strategic Dialogue (http://www. isdglobal. org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/The-Fringe-Insurgency-221017. pdf) (2017).

[41] Gerbaudo, P. (2014). Tweets and the Streets. Social Media and contemporary activism. PlutoPress.

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