What should we do about QAnon now that it is mainstream?

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Not that long ago, the jumble of conspiracy theories and magical thinking known as QAnon was seen by many—if they even knew of it at all—as a sideshow confined to the darker corners of the internet, alternative communities like 4chan and 8chan, where people with a screw loose muttered to each other about the “deep state” and other cryptic phrases. Fast forward just a few years and there are more than a dozen people running for Congress who have expressed some form of support for QAnon theories, and the president and members of his family have retweeted accounts on Twitter that are part of the QAnon ecosystem. How did we get here, and what if anything should we be doing about this dangerous ideology? Do journalists help or harm those efforts when they cover QAnon, and if so how should they be treating it? To answer these and other related questions, we’ve been using CJR’s Galley discussion platform to talk with a number of journalists and other experts who specialize in QAnon and the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation online.

“Am I surprised by QAnon’s rise? No,” said Parker Molloy, editor-at-large at Media Matters for America. “Anyone who’s been following media’s overly credulous coverage of right-wing conspiracies for the past several years could see this coming. Media cannot lift people with fringe beliefs into the mainstream, reward them, and then shake their heads wondering how those fringe beliefs became mainstream.” Molloy and others warn that the Q movement is adept at using media tactics to recruit new members. “Over the weekend there were a number of ‘Save The Children’ rallies that were essentially QAnon rallies, ostensibly about fighting child trafficking,” Molloy said. But many local news outlets “were more than happy to take their stated motivations at face value and without much scrutiny at all. Responsible reporting would have identified these rallies as QAnon-inspired, would have clearly stated that movement’s ties to terrorism, murder, and a number of other crimes.”

One risk as Q becomes more mainstream, says New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel, is that Q “will become a shiny object in the press and a lot of people who haven’t been paying attention to the movement will cover it poorly and sand down the edges of what is really a dangerous and fringe set of beliefs.” Warzel said he hasn’t written much on QAnon in part because “I was trying to be mindful about giving oxygen to this movement,” but that his feelings changed when NBC reported on the number of Facebook groups devoted to Q. “I’d been feeling that the movement had long-since reached critical mass but this felt like proof.” Will Sommer of the Daily Beast said that when he is thinking about reporting on a QAnon story, “I like to consider how much a real-world effect this is having. If it’s just a dumb internet belief, it’s not worth my time, my readers’ time, or the possibility that I’d be amplifying it. But once things start having an effect in the real world, I think it’s worth writing about.”

Kevin Roose of the Times says he had a bad feeling about how quickly the QAnon movement was growing after seeing the size of the groups devoted to it on Facebook and YouTube, and that it seems to have started to appeal to “normals” instead of just those who belong to shadowy internet discussion forums. “I define “normie tipping point” as the point when my non-journalism friends, family members, people I went to school with, etc. start texting me to ask: So, what’s up with this QAnon thing?” he says. Alice Marwick, a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that a study she and a colleague recently did on QAnon showed that believers are people who “reject expert knowledge, especially institutional expert knowledge, in favor of what we’re calling populist expertise. Crowd-sourced, bottom-up creation of knowledge that often explicitly critiques what scientists, academics, journalists, or mainstream politicians think.” Marwick says this helps explain why people enjoy participating in things like Qanon, and why it’s so hard to get people out of the Q mentality once they’re in.

Anna Merlan of Vice said that QAnon’s rise is not surprising in part because most people in the US already believe in at least one conspiracy theory. “And people in the really deep end of the pool, as it were, tend to be people experiencing some form of instability (or perceived instability). Conspiracy theories can be a way to respond to feelings of disaffection, loss, threat, and isolation.” Julia Carrie-Wong, a technology writer with The Guardian, says that while Facebook has recently taken some steps to block QAnon groups on the platform, the company is clearly to blame for having increased the profile of the movement and driven more people towards it. “Facebook’s algorithms appear to have driven vulnerable people toward extremism and conspiracism,” she says. “That’s why I would argue that Facebook’s role in QAnon’s growth during the pandemic goes beyond negligence. It’s malfeasance.”

Here’s more on QAnon and disinformation:

A hydra: Ben Collins of NBC News says Q is “a hydra of all of the loose ends of conspiracy theories from talk radio, comments sections, and even physical, pre-Internet newsletters over the last three decades.” He describes it as “an elaborate revenge plot for all of the mythical, explosive, just-around-the-corner promises of Democratic indictments since the Clinton era. The only thing that’s changed is that the severity of the crime went from bureaucratic malfeasance (Whitewater, Benghazi) to actually eating children on behalf of Satan himself.” Q allows people who were waiting for this moment to finally receive it, Collins says. “They weren’t being captured by baseless fear, strung along for ratings and a false sense of identity. No no! They were saving the world! All along!”

Fact-free: Molloy says journalists covering Q “need to understand that they’re not dealing with people who can be swayed by facts. There’s a real tendency in media to ignore problems that originate on the internet until they become too much to handle. Gamergate was a great example of this. QAnon is another.” When toxic movements are allowed to exist unchecked, she says, “they build to a point of being near-unstoppable. If news organizations want to handle these movements better in the future, it would serve them well to invest more time and energy monitoring and reporting on the underbelly of the internet, working with misinformation experts, and most importantly, understanding that in interviews, many of these movements will not be upfront about their actual goals.”

Fan fiction: Adi Robertson of The Verge says QAnon plays to the strengths of the internet. “The internet is fundamentally designed to help people draw connections between things, so it’s easy to find and fun to link up (Tim Hwang described conspiracy theories as “fan-fiction about reality,” which seems incredibly apt). And you can get all of it by clicking a hashtag. I think a lot of new media was built on the idea that rational debate and exposure were the key to a better world, and that the internet was supposed to be a font of information compared to something like cable news or talk radio. That left people, including me, really unequipped to deal with the weaponization of rationalism — which is sort of what QAnon’s ‘do the research’ ethos is all about.”

Other notable stories:

The White House said in a story published by the Washington Post on Thursday that it is compiling a “very large” dossier on Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Fahrenthold and others who a White House spokesman described as “a disgrace to journalism and the American people.” The statement came when the Post requested comment for a story that Fahrenthold wrote about how Donald Trump’s company charged the U.S. government more than $900,000″ for hotel room fees and other services at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House, accused the Post of “blatantly interfering with the business relationships of the Trump Organization” and demanded “it must stop.”

Matt Gertz of Media Matters writes about recent comments from Politico that suggested voters probably wouldn’t care about the fact that the Republican convention may have violated the Hatch Act. “The scope and brazenness of Trump’s use of government resources to prop up his political campaign is unprecedented, and it could be a major scandal — if reporters decided to treat it as one,” he writes. “But some political journalists are shrugging off Tuesday’s events, arguing that while the administration’s actions were unethical, they probably won’t matter to voters. This does not seem to be true. But moreover, there’s an odd passivity here that ignores the reality that the extent to which voters care about such stories is linked to the amount of time and attention cable and broadcast news producers and print and online news editors are willing to devote to them.”

Condé Nast has named publishing industry executive Dawn Davis the next editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit. The appointment follows the resignation of editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport over accusations of bias and a discriminatory culture. His departure was followed by an apology letter from the magazine, in which said Bon Appétit would prioritize people of color when filling the editor-in-chief position. During more than 25 years in the publishing industry, Davis has helped publish a number of stories from marginalized voices, work that includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones. In 2013, she launched 37 Ink, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, where she serves as vice president and publisher. She starts at Bon Appétit on November 2.

The Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research entities including the Stanford Internet Observatory and the DFRLab Twitter, studied the effect of Twitter putting a warning label on a Donald Trump tweet and disabling retweets of it, because it contained misleading information about mail-in voting and ballot drop-off boxes. The group says its research shows that the restrictions on on the tweet “had a clear effect on its propagation,” but after retweeting was disabled, Trump’s supporters shifted from simply retweeting to quote tweeting (retweeting-with-comment). This suggested that the problematic information will continue to spread, the researchers said. The sentiment of tweets also shifted from criticizing the Trump tweet to overwhelming support of Trump and criticism of Twitter.

Belarusian police detained dozens of protesters and journalists working for local and foreign media in the country’s capital, Minsk, as demonstrations and strikes challenging the results of this month’s presidential election continued for a 19th day, according to a report by Radio Free Liberty. A total of sixteen journalists were detained in the central Freedom Square on the evening of August 27, according to the human rights center Vyasna, as they prepared to cover a demonstration calling for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s resignation and demanding new elections be carried out in a free and fair manner.

An investigation by BuzzFeed News comparing China’s digital mapping data—which removes imagery of prisons used for detaining Uighur Muslims— to publicly available satellite imagery revealed what the site says is evidence of 428 locations in Xinjiang that appear to be prisons and detention centers. This represents what BuzzFeed says is a dramatic escalation of the country’s repression of the Uighur people, contradicting claims by the Chinese government that it has released some or all of the detainees.

Clarity Media Group, owner of Colorado Politics in Denver and The Gazette in Colorado Springs, is launching an online daily newspaper in Denver that the company says will provide Mile High City residents with “more hard-hitting news, investigative journalism and thought-provoking local opinions than any other publication in the city.” The Denver Gazette, as the new paper will be called, begins publication September 14. “We see ourselves as presenting a news alternative for all consumers in Denver,” Chris Reen, publisher of the Colorado Springs Gazette, told Colorado Politics. “We’re focused on fact-based, straight, balanced, non-agenda driven news, which is more important now than ever.”

Despite reassurances that Beijing’s new national security law would not affect Hong Kong’s free press, the government has denied a visa to local media outlet, the Hong Kong Free Press, according to a report in The Guardian. The English-language outlet had wanted to hire a new editor, Aaron Mc Nicholas, an Irish journalist already based in Hong Kong, but the immigration department rejected an application to transfer his work visa after an almost six-month wait, the report said, without giving an official reason. It’s believed to be the first time Hong Kong immigration has rejected a journalist’s work visa for a local publication.

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