Not that long ago, the jumble of conspiracy theories and magical thinking known as QAnon was seen by many—if they knew of it at all—as a sideshow confined to the dark corners of the internet, alternative communities like 4chan and 8chan, where people with a screw loose muttered to one another about the deep state. Fast-forward a few years and there are more than a dozen people running for Congress who have expressed some form of support for QAnon theories. The president and members of his family have retweeted Twitter accounts that are part of the QAnon ecosystem. How did we get here, and what should journalism be doing? Do we help or harm when we cover QAnon? To answer these and other questions, we’ve been using CJR’s Galley discussion platform to talk with journalists and QAnon experts.
“Am I surprised by QAnon’s rise? No,” Parker Molloy, editor-at-large at Media Matters for America, said. “Anyone who’s been following the 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 manipulating the media to recruit new members. That could be seen in the days leading up to the Republican National Convention: “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.”
As QAnon becomes more mainstream, New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel said, there is a risk that QAnon “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 hasn’t written much on QAnon, in part because “I was trying to be mindful about giving oxygen to this movement.” But 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.”
ICYMI: Journalism’s Gates keepers
Kevin Roose, of the Times, had a bad feeling about how quickly the QAnon movement was growing when he saw the size of the groups devoted to it on Facebook and YouTube. Now, he said, QAnon has expanded its 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 said. Alice Marwick, a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, said that she and a colleague conducted a study recently showing that QAnon believers are people who “reject expert knowledge, especially institutional expert knowledge, in favor of what we’re calling populist expertise.” Populist expertise, Marwick explained, is “Crowd-sourced, bottom-up creation of knowledge that often explicitly critiques what scientists, academics, journalists, or mainstream politicians think.” People enjoy participating in conspiracy groups like QAnon, she said, and once they’re in, it’s really hard to get people out of the Q mentality.
Anna Merlan, of Vice, said that QAnon’s rise is not all that surprising—most people in the United States already believe 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, said that even though Facebook has recently taken some steps to block QAnon groups on its platform, the company is clearly to blame for having increased QAnon’s profile. “Facebook’s algorithms appear to have driven vulnerable people toward extremism and conspiracism,” she said. “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, called Q “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 also described QAnon 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.”
- Fact-free: Molloy said that journalists covering Q “need to understand that they’re not dealing with people who can be swayed by facts.” She added, “There’s a real tendency in the 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 online movements are allowed to exist unchecked, she said, “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, said that 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,” she said. She cited Tim Hwang, of Harvard’s Berkman-Klein Center and the MIT Media Lab, who has described conspiracy theories as “fan-fiction about reality.” That can be disorienting to journalists, Robertson went on. “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:
- In a story published by the Washington Post on Thursday, Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said that the administration is compiling a “very large” dossier on David Fahrenthold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and others Deere described as “a disgrace to journalism and the American people.” The statement came when the Post requested comment for a story that Fahrenthold co-wrote about Donald Trump’s company charging the US government more than $900,000 for hotel room fees and other services at his Mar-a-Lago estate, in Florida. Deere accused the Post of “blatantly interfering with the business relationships of the Trump Organization” and demanded that “it must stop.”
- Matt Gertz, of Media Matters, writes about recent comments from Politico suggesting that voters probably don’t care 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,” Gertz argues. “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.” That, Gertz writes, “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 Dawn Davis, a publishing industry executive, as the next editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit. Her appointment follows the resignation of Adam Rapoport over accusations of bias and a discriminatory culture during his tenure as editor, and more complaints about unfair pay, which prompted some journalists of color to withdraw from the magazine’s popular video series. In Davis, Bon Appétit will be getting a book world veteran known for publishing the work of marginalized voices, including The Known World by Edward P. Jones, which won the Pulitzer Prize. In 2013, Davis launched 37 Ink, an imprint of Simon & Schuster focused on representing a diverse array of writers; its books have included The Butler, by Wil Haygood; Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires; and The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae. Davis starts at Bon Appétit on November 2.
- The Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research entities including the Stanford Internet Observatory and the DFRLab, studied how effective it was when Twitter put a warning label on a fallacious Donald Trump tweet, disabling retweets. The restrictions on the tweet, the group found, “had a clear effect on its propagation,” but after retweeting was disabled, Trump’s supporters simply shifted from retweeting to quote-tweeting. That suggests that misinformation will continue to spread, the researchers believe, and other tweets will keep on chiming in to offer Trump their support.
- According to a report by Radio Free Liberty, Belarusian police detained dozens of protesters and journalists working for local and foreign media in Minsk, the capital, amid demonstrations and strikes challenging the results of the recent presidential election. Yesterday evening, sixteen journalists were detained in the central Freedom Square, according to Vyasna, a human rights center, as they prepared to cover a demonstration calling for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s resignation and demanding that new elections be carried out in a free and fair manner.
- An investigation by BuzzFeed News comparing China’s digital maps—which remove images of prisons used for detaining Uighur Muslims—to publicly available satellite imagery revealed evidence of 428 sites in Xinjiang that appear to be prisons and detention centers. According to BuzzFeed, that represents a dramatic escalation of the country’s abuse of the Uighur people and contradicts claims by the Chinese government that it has released some or all of its detainees.
- Clarity Media Group, the owner of Colorado Politics in Denver and The Gazette in Colorado Springs, is starting an online daily newspaper in Denver that will aim to provide “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, the publisher of the Colorado Springs Gazette, said. “We’re focused on fact-based, straight, balanced, non-agenda driven news, which is more important now than ever.”
- Despite assurances that Beijing’s new national security law would not affect Hong Kong’s free press, the Guardian reports that the Chinese government has denied a visa to a local outlet. The Hong Kong Free Press, an English-language publication, had wanted to hire a new editor, Aaron McNicholas, an Irish journalist already based in Hong Kong; after an almost six-month wait, Chinese immigration officials rejected his work visa application. No official reason was given, and it’s believed to be the first time Hong Kong immigration has rejected a journalist’s work visa for a local publication.
ICYMI: Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and the arbitrariness of the police-shooting news cycleMathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.