The embrace of apocalyptic memes is a symptom of hyperconnected societies in distress.
We live in strange times, and they grew stranger still in August, when the President of the United States publicly supported the fringe political ideology known as QAnon. Trump then doubled down during an interview with Laura Ingraham, on Fox News, repeating QAnon talking points, such as how “rich people” were bankrolling protests in American cities and how his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, was being controlled by “people that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.” Even Ingraham, normally an unflappable supporter of the President, seemed taken aback. “What does that mean?” she interjected. “That sounds like a conspiracy theory.”
QAnon is a conspiracy theory, but it is many other things as well, by turns an online troll campaign, a Messianic world view, a form of interactive role-playing, and a way to sell T-shirts. For its critics, QAnon is a hoax spun dangerously out of control; for true believers, it is an all-encompassing life style. The theory holds, among an ever-evolving collage of tenets, that a satanic cabal of high-ranking Democratic politicians and members of the media élite is running a child sex-trafficking ring while plotting to take control of American government and society. According to QAnon lore, the only thing standing between this ongoing deep-state scheme and God-fearing citizens is the singular presence of Donald Trump, whose every tweet and political stunt is actually cover for a top-secret shadow campaign against the forces of evil.
QAnon sounds like the plot of a Z-grade horror movie, but it is a product of the Internet and, more specifically, of social-media networks. Its origins can be traced to late October, 2017, when an anonymous post appeared during the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Posted on the “politically incorrect” forum of the Web site 4chan, the text read, in part, “HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated.” With its fixation on Hillary Clinton, its obsession with civil unrest, and its hopes for the military to intervene in the nation’s culture wars, the missive virtually disappeared into the background noise of a forum already buzzing with other self-described insiders dispensing similar conservative talking points.
Yet over the next few weeks, a strange narrative emerged from this particular word salad. In a series of equally cryptic follow-up posts, the originator hinted that they were a government insider with top-secret “Q clearance,” supposedly feeding information from inside the deep state to patriots online. “Many in our govt worship Satan,” one dispatch claimed; others included snippets of Bible verses. None of the outrageous predictions came true, nor did any evidence for the poster’s credentials ever materialize. Nevertheless, the posts were amplified by right-wing YouTube personalities hungry for new content, and “QAnon” exploded as a meme among the conspiratorially inclined. Threads dedicated to the topic emerged on 4chan, moved to 8chan, then crept into the mainstream via Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter.
To date, there have been more than forty-seven hundred Q drops, as aficionados call the posts. Devotees continue to match Q’s puzzling dispatches to news headlines and scan Trump’s remarks for references to what they call the Storm: a civil war in which the scheming élites will get their richly deserved comeuppance and America will be made great again. Thanks in part to the power of suggestion algorithms on YouTube and Facebook, this paranoid perspective has snowballed from a fringe fantasy into what could legitimately be described as a movement.
In his 1957 treatise on eschatological belief systems, “The Pursuit of the Millennium,” the late British historian Norman Cohn examined “millennialism”—the conviction that a savior will arrive to punish evil and refashion the world into a paradise for the faithful. Focussing mainly on medieval Europe, he was one of the first academics to quantify how populations beset by social change and economic inequality are uniquely susceptible to end-of-times conspiracy theories. Powerlessness begets rage; rage seeks a scapegoat; and, when facts prove too inconvenient or the situation too complicated to parse, fantasy bridges the gap between what is real and what is imaginary. Doomsayers promising apocalyptic deliverance have always been with us, Cohn wrote, but “if the threat was sufficiently overwhelming, the disorientation sufficiently widespread and acute, there could arise a mass delusion of the most explosive kind.” It is such delusions, Cohn believed, that paved the way for dark episodes in human history, ranging from the Crusades to Nazism.
You might suppose that, with all the information now available to us, millennialist thinking would be in decline rather than running rampant online. But the warning signs were present from the early years of the Internet: a conspiracy similar to QAnon emerged in Japan in the nineties, offering a prescient glimpse of how the “information superhighway” would not lead to the rational utopia that its supporters had prophesied. After a decade of growth in the eighties, Japan unexpectedly plummeted into a prolonged economic recession and stagnation that lasted for the entirety of the nineties and two-thousands. That dark period, known as the Lost Decades, mirrors the state of affairs in post-Great Recession America: an economic superpower brought to its knees through the venality of C.E.O.s, bankers, and politicians; a lost generation of young people unable to leave the nest, deprived of careers or fulfilling employment; a profound ambivalence about what the future might hold. It was during the Lost Decades that a doomsday cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) flourished in Japan. Its conspiratorial outlook, influenced in equal measure by anime, Far Eastern philosophy, video games, and dystopian science fiction, was tailored to appeal to intellectually curious, socially alienated young citizens. By early 1995, Aum had managed to amass enough true believers to engineer a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system. Eager to hasten the advent of Armageddon, which they imagined would scour the planet of all but the faithful, cult members boarded trains and released a nerve gas during the morning rush hour. It killed thirteen people and injured thousands more.
Another breed of intellectually curious and socially alienated young citizens would emerge on a platform that could be considered Japan’s last megahit of the twentieth century: the Web site 2channel. A college student named Hiroyuki Nishimura created the anonymous online bulletin-board site during a transformative moment in Japanese society. The telecom DoCoMo had launched the world’s first truly popular mobile Internet service in early 1999, fast-tracking Web access for millions of Japanese youth via cell phones. As a result, Japan—and Japanese women in particular—pioneered new forms of communication that the world now takes for granted, from non-stop texting and selfie-taking to the use of emojis. But Japan’s rapid Internet-ization would also have negative consequences, as became clear on 2channel.
Nishimura took the name for the site from channel 2: the empty television band to which video-game consoles had been connected in the analog era, an instantly recognizable in-joke to the geeks who were the site’s earliest adopters. Deliberately crude-looking, entirely text-based, and utterly impenetrable to grownups, 2channel was designed as a place to find one’s tribe. It quickly emerged as an alternative to traditional mass media: a space where teen-agers and twentysomethings who were spending increasing amounts of their free time online could swap information and vent frustrations without fear of reprisal. By 2002, 2channel was also home to an increasingly vocal minority of users who funnelled their anger at society into expressions of militaristic patriotism and racial superiority, gleefully denying wartime atrocities while troll-brigading anyone who disagreed with their conspiratorial paranoia. In their eyes, the blame for their nation’s troubles fell squarely on liberal politicians and the politically correct mainstream media, who they believed had deliberately minimized Japan’s greatness to curry favor with the newly ascendant Korea and China. This perpetually aggrieved cyber community came to be known as the netto-uyoku (the “net-right”).
It is no coincidence that QAnon emerged on 4chan, an anonymous online bulletin board that is a direct descendant of Japan’s 2channel. (Launched in 2003, 4chan was based on the code used by a 2channel spinoff called Futaba Channel.) The earliest 4chan participants gathered out of a love for Japanese fantasy, as exhibited in video games, cartoons, and pornography. But, in the years after the site’s founding, its anonymous users unwittingly retraced the steps of their predecessors on 2channel. What had begun as a cross-cultural celebration devolved into homophobia, nationalism, anti-feminism, and white supremacy. By 2015, 4chan had its own version of Japan’s net-right—the alt-right—and its own breed of conspiracy theory, in the form of the misogynist troll campaign known as Gamergate. This was quickly followed by Pizzagate, in 2016, a dark fantasy spun out of the dump, by WikiLeaks, of the hacked e-mails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. From those missives, believers wove a horror story: high-ranking Democratic officials were running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. The alt-right, and Trump supporters ranging from Alex Jones to the transition-team member Michael Flynn, Jr., amplified the tale. Jones later recanted, and Flynn was quickly forced out, but even the brief whiff of an official imprimatur helped spur Pizzagate’s further evolution into the QAnon movement.
QAnon may seem to represent a uniquely American expression of rage, shaped by this peculiar moment in our history. But the first pages of its playbook were written in Japan, a product of the platforms forged by Japanese youths in a period of socio-political dislocation. In today’s troubled times, that nation’s history seems to be repeating itself: during the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in 2011, net trolls falsely claimed that Chinese looters were descending upon the abandoned homes of evacuees, inspiring a rush of right-wing vigilantes to defend what turned out to be empty towns. A comparable scene played out in the U.S., this summer, when social-media rumors prompted residents of small towns to take up arms against purported busloads of Antifa protesters that never arrived. So, too, in September, when Facebook-fuelled rumors of nonexistent Antifa arsonists led a number of Oregon residents to defy evacuation orders amid raging wildfires.
Conspiracy theories blossom in trying times, but today they are supercharged by the tools of our hyperconnected communities—the Internet, ever-present in our homes and smartphones; massive social-media networks; and algorithmic recommendation systems that connect us in ways both empowering and toxic. Indeed, these technologies promote strife in ways that even their creators seem hard-pressed to confront: witness Facebook’s ongoing failure to rein in extremist groups across all its services. QAnon may be the first online conspiracy to become a near-religion—with a surprising pull that extends from the dark fringes of the Web to neighborhood groups for moms—but it certainly won’t be the last. As illustrated by the recurring struggles of post-industrial information societies as disparate as Japan and America, human nature virtually guarantees it.
All Rights Reserved for Matt Alt