Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Stocks and bonds may be weak, but we’re still in a raging bull market for one commodity, and that is disinformation, thanks in large part to the fact that President Donald Trump creates and distributes so much of it himself, both through his Twitter account but also in his official statements and his increasingly rare briefings from the White House. Trump’s promotion of fringe conspiracy theories—like the one he repeatedly tweeted about involving former Congressional candidate Joe Scarborough and the death of a former campaign worker, or a video about a supposed cure for COVID-19 from a doctor who believes that some diseases are caused by demons—and similar behavior by Trump supporters and advisors, including his son Donald Jr., has arguably helped to fuel the continued growth of a digital disinformation ecosystem. It ties together “dark web” sites like 4chan and right-wing outlets like Breitbart, but also relies on giant digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and mainstream news outlets like Fox News, as engines of dissemination.
One sign of how large and potentially influential this ecosystem has become in just the last four years is the growth of the so-called QAnon conspiracy theory cult, something that seemed like a bad joke not that long ago—an often bizarre hodge-podge of beliefs involving a plan by the “deep state” to take down some or all of the government, Satanic child sex-abuse rings run by the rich and powerful in Washington, and even the existence of space aliens who walk among us. The idea that an anonymous government operative known only as Q would leave coded messages posted on 4chan discussion boards or in Reddit threads, containing details about the government’s plans to foil a supposed coup, might have been laughable just a few years ago, but now there are candidates for Congress who openly share some of these beliefs, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won a Republican primary runoff in Georgia’s 14th district this week, and was congratulated by the president. “There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it,” Greene said in a YouTube video.
This week, NBC News reported that an internal Facebook investigation found thousands of groups and pages devoted to QAnon conspiracy theories, with millions of members and followers, according to internal company documents that were obtained by the network. The ten largest of these groups identified by Facebook reportedly contain more than one million members, and the total from all of the QAnon groups is about three million. It’s not clear how much overlap there is among membership of the groups, according to NBC, because most of them are private. Two unnamed Facebook staffers told the network that the company is considering a platform-wide crackdown on QAnon content that would be similar to the way it handles anti-vaccination content, which is to reject advertising from such groups, and exclude them from search results and recommendations (Twitter recently did something similar). A report by The Guardian says the paper found one hundred and seventy QAnon groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram with more than four and a half million followers.
Facebook has had a significant disinformation problem for some time, one that some believe helped tip the scales during the last election, but the company’s ability (or desire) to fight this problem has become even more of an unknown over the past year, as the social network has focused increasingly on private groups and encrypted messaging through WhatsApp, part of a vision for the future promoted by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive. And as NBC pointed out, it has aggressively promoted QAnon groups and content, both via its all-powerful recommendation algorithm and through its advertising network. According to the network, an internal Facebook team found that the company had accepted one hundred and eighty-five ads “praising, supporting, or representing” QAnon, ads that generated about four million impressions over the last month alone (Facebook has also banned QAnon groups in the past for breaching its rules on harassment and hate speech).
Facebook hasn’t been the only one helping QAnon to grow. As Washington Post reporter Tony Romm noted on Twitter, journalists can also help fuel the movement when they write credulous stories about it (and yes, I’m aware that I am writing about it right now). “With these QAnon candidates now apparently mainstream, the real test now involves journalists, which so often tend to treat the absurd as objects of fascination,” said Romm. “The risk is inadvertently normalizing conspiracy theory behavior through profiles and other stories,” something that has also happened with the white supremacist movement. As Parker Molloy and Alex Kaplan pointed out in a recent piece at Media Matters, stories about candidates like Greene and other Q supporters that don’t explicitly address their fringe beliefs—including some in high-profile outlets like the New York Times—risk mainstreaming those beliefs. I’ll be talking about this and other aspects of the disinformation ecosystem with researcher Whitney Phillips on CJR’s Galley discussion platform this week.
Here’s more on QAnon:
Like a religion: Former CJR staffer Sam Thielman took a look at the QAnon movement in a recent piece for the magazine, and said it is very similar in many ways to “a news-obsessed strain of Christian theology called premillennial dispensationalism, which takes metaphorical passages in the Bible and tries to decode them into both individual prophecies that refer directly to current events, as well as a larger meta-prophecy ending in the Rapture of believers to heaven, the coming of the Antichrist, and the battle of Armageddon.”
Clogging hotlines: A report in the New York Times says that QAnon believers, who claim they are trying to dismantle a global cabal of Satanic child molesters and sex traffickers, are making it more difficult for actual child-welfare activists to do their work. “The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, issued a news release saying its hotline had been overwhelmed with false reports. It later published a blog post warning that ‘unsubstantiated claims and accusations about child sex trafficking can spin out of control and mislead well-meaning people into doing more harm than good.’”
Alternate reality: The QAnon conspiracy cult may have aspects that are similar to a religion, but it also shares many features with what are called “alternate-reality games” or ARGs, according to a Times interview with ARG expert Adrian Hon, the chief executive of a gaming company called Six to Start. “Unlike video games, alternate reality games aren’t played on a console — they use the world as their storytelling platform. There’s no one particular medium. The story takes place in real time and seems to exist in the world. So game designers hide clues and puzzles in websites, apps and even newspaper advertisements. It’s a bit like a networked treasure hunt that turns the world around you into a game.”
Other notable stories:
Tribune Publishing said on Wednesday that The Daily News, once the largest-circulation newspaper in the country, is permanently closing its physical newsroom in Manhattan, and it is unknown whether it will open a future office elsewhere. “We have determined that we do not need to reopen this office in order to maintain our current operations,” Toni Martinez, a human resources executive at Tribune Publishing, wrote in an email to the staff that was reviewed by the New York Times. “With this announcement, we are also beginning to look at strategic opportunities and alternatives for future occupancy.” The Chicago newspaper chain also told employees that it is closing four of its other newspapers’ offices, including The Morning Call in Allentown and the Orlando Sentinel.
CJR editor and publisher Kyle Pope has some advice for journalists covering the 2020 election and the Biden campaign after the announcement of Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. The choice of Harris, “a thrillingly historic choice, no matter your politics—has delivered a restart of the 2020 campaign cycle. Since March, election reporters have mostly been sitting on their hands, watching the pandemic subsume their beat. Now their instinct is to pick up where they left off—to wallow in the trivia of the candidates’ personalities and polls. My advice: don’t do it.”
Sumner Redstone, who turned his family’s movie-theater company into a global media empire that included Viacom and CBS, and who famously proclaimed that “content is king,” has died. Redstone’s death was announced on Wednesday by his family’s holding company, National Amusements Inc. He was 97. Much of the media mogul’s final years were spent fighting with his daughter, who later took control of Viacom and CBS, as well as with several girlfriends, caregivers, senior executives, and other members of his circle with whom he disagreed either about his own future or that of his media empire.
The new head of Voice of America and its parent organization, the US Agency for Global Media—a man appointed recently by Donald Trump—has made sweeping staff changes this week in response to a pro-Joe Biden video and a review of possible security violations in foreign worker hiring, according to a report by the New York Post. Michael Pack, who took the helm of the agency in June, previously fired a group of broadcasting heads, and has put another on leave as a result of the pro-Biden video. Four contractors involved with the video were reportedly informed Wednesday that their contracts will be terminated.
The National Review took a shot at what it said was a close relationship between Twitter and the Harris campaign in an article entitled “Kamala Harris’s Former Press Secretary Is the Face of Twitter Censorship,” accusing her former staffer of being the one who removes or labels inaccurate tweets by Donald Trump and others. But as a Twitter employee quickly pointed out, Harris’s former press secretary is on Twitter’s communications team, not its enforcement team, and therefore has nothing to do with what tweets get labeled or removed. The story now has a line through the word “deciding” and a note appended at the bottom in which the author says “I should have been more careful.”
Former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier is launching a new quarterly magazine of arts and culture called Liberties, according to an interview he gave to Air Mail, the website recently launched by former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Wieseltier, who lost his job as a fellow at the Brookings Institution and as a contributing editor to The Atlantic after reports emerged that he had sexually harassed a number of female staffers and contributors to the New Republic. Wieseltier says the first issue of his new quarterly is 420 pages of text with no images, and contains twenty essays, each several thousand words long. Among the authors are a number of writers who signed the recent Harper’s letter about “cancel culture.”
Nafeesa Syeed, a former national security reporter and Middle East reporter at Bloomberg, is suing the company in local New York court for discrimination based on her sex and her race as a South Asian-American, according to a report from Women’s Wear Daily. She filed the suit as a proposed class-action, in the hopes of being able to include “other similarly situated employees.” She also named Bloomberg’s all-male editorial leaders as defendants, including editor in chief emeritus Matthew Winkler, current editor in chief John Micklethwait, chief content officer Marty Schenker and deputy editor in chief Reto Gregori.