Aug 08 2019

QAnon – A New Kind of Conspiracy

The details of the conspiracy theory itself are not the most interesting thing about QAnon. The core of this particular conspiracy is that Trump is secretly very competent, that he is investigating a world-wide sex-trafficking, demonic pedophilia ring run by the Democrats, and that Robert Mueller is secretly working with him and the whole Russia investigation is just a cover for this. Further, JFK Jr. faked his death in order to join Trump’s efforts, and is now the real person behind Q, the insider who is leaking information to the public in order to summon the faithful in this epic struggle.

This is all transparent nonsense, but it is no more nonsensical than the notion that the entire Apollo program was faked, that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the Earth is actually flat.

Some have argued that what is different about QAnon is that the deep state faction secretly running the government is this fantasy are the good guy, when is most conspiracies they are the bad guys. But this, I think, is a superficial narrative point. In grand conspiracies the conspiracy theorists are part of a small “woke” army of light trying to expose an even deeper malevolence, and QAnon fits that mold perfectly.

What’s different about QAnon is that it appears to be an evolution of the conspiracy theory into a new kind of phenomenon, one that combines elements from social media, video games, and live-action role playing. Like all conspiracy theories, QAnon offers an alternate version of reality. But in this case believers are more actively engaged. They are just reading and talking about the conspiracy, they are actively engaging in it. The mysterious person Q (not sure if it is actually one person at this point) will drop hints to followers about what is going on or what is about to happen. The Q conspiracy theorists then have to decode these secret messages. But further, Q will give tasks to its followers. These are usually small tasks, such as posting something on Facebook or Tweeting a message. But they could be bigger. They could involve action in meat-space, and even involve violence.

This is part of a more general phenomenon, called internet role-play. This is just another form of fantasy role-playing using a new medium. In the 1970s and 80s table-top roleplaying became popular, with five or so people sitting around a table rolling dice. Then live-action roleplaying took off, with tens to hundreds of people gathering at a camp site or other venue, dressed as their characters, for a weekend of immersive roleplaying. Now, you can engage in a roleplaying game without leaving your computer chair.

These games involve either making a fake profile on social media, or mixing in the roleplaying elements into your real profile (some outlets, like Facebook, don’t allow fake profiles). In this way, the roleplayers are mixing in with the crowd, blurring the lines between their real selves and their roleplaying character, and engaging in roleplay out in the open. You can be any character with any history, and engage with others as if it is real. It is a shared fiction.

These kinds of games can be obsessively fun. They can be a source of drama and intrigue that most people lack in their daily lives. There can be puzzles to be solved, and if nothing else interesting fiction to be told. It can be just another form of writing – an author, instead of writing a story about a character, assumes the role of that character and tells their story tweet by tweet, for example. Roleplaying can also be therapeutic, and a great learning experience – practice of social interactions, public speaking, and other skills that you can bring into the real world, when you are essentially roleplaying yourself.

The potential problem, however, is the blurring of fiction and reality. Some may think this is a feature not a bug, but it can cause issues. Gilberto Valle, for example, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sent to prison. His conviction was overturned, however, when a judge ruled that he was merely roleplaying a character online, not actually planning to murder and eat women.

This is where QAnon comes in. In many ways it is a conspiracy internet roleplaying game. Although its adherents insist they are not roleplaying (I do wonder, however, if some are just for entertainment). Again – the lines between fantasy and reality have been obliterated. The Q conspiracy is a fantasy, presenting itself online as real, and engaging in what could be ordinary internet roleplaying activity, except that many followers think it’s real, and they are taking their actions into meat space. When you think about it, it’s brilliant, the perfect marriage of the conspiracy theory with roleplaying using the power of social media.

Of course, I find it concerning anytime the boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred. Knowing what’s really real is an important life skill, and extremely important for any society. I have long said, what conspiracy theorists need is to take up roleplaying games. Get their fantasy fix in a safe and non-destructive way – in a context where it is 100% clear where the line is between reality and fantasy.

In fact, one potential solution, or at least mitigating factor, to the potential downside of internet roleplaying is to not fight against it, but embrace it. Social media outlets, like Facebook, could easily create a type of profile that is fiction. They can be easily identified in some way, so there is no question – this profile is a roleplaying character. But it can have all the features of a real profile, can engage with others, and do whatever is necessary to play the game. Other Facebook users can easily choose to block fictional profiles, or can be open to them for their own fun, or have other limiting features or mechanisms of transparency.

Bottom line – enjoy your fantasy, just have a clear bright line between fantasy and reality. Your fantasy can still be immersive, can have all the fun and excitement of feeling real, and you can engage with others who willingly share in the fiction and maintain the illusion. Think of it like going to an historic recreation, where actors play roles of contemporary characters, but you are playing such a character as well. Everyone agrees to stay in character and maintain the illusion, but it’s all with a wink and a nod. No one actually thinks they are living in colonial times.

The current problem with the virtual reality of the internet is that everything online is just a construct anyway. This has been the great leveler – anyone can have a slick website, and look as legitimate as anyone else. The same is true for fantasy roleplay – it can look as real as anything else online. So really, the potential problem of things like QAnon is a generic problem of our modern age of the internet and social media – how do we know what’s real and what is legitimate? It’s all just electrons.

But at least when fantasy is for fun, and not meant to deceive, it can be properly labeled as such so there is no confusion. This won’t solve the problem of QAnon, which seems to deliberate deceive. I also suspect that there will be many cases of presenting fantasy as reality as part of performance art, satire, or something similar. This may be legitimate, but you have to be careful, because it does contribute to the blurring of lines.

Separating fantasy from reality may be the real challenge of our generation, and perhaps generations to come.


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