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Pattern Matching

Why Facebook Can’t Quash QAnon

The problem isn’t moderation. It’s the basic structure of social media.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

QAnon has become impossible to ignore. The bizarre, sprawling, right-wing conspiracy theory, which holds that a pseudonymous Trump ally known as Q is involved in a secret battle against a powerful globalist “deep state” linked to pedophilia and Satan worship, has been gathering adherents for years. Supercharged by the paranoia of a pandemic, it is now stoking real-world crimes, rallies, anti-mask movements, and even Congressional candidacies.

At a time when the nation’s future depends on our ability to act collectively in the face of a deadly virus, not to mention a president who peddles conspiracy theories of his own, QAnon can no longer be dismissed as a fringe curiosity. It’s a threat to public health, safety, and livelihoods. And it’s being fueled by, among others, Facebook and YouTube.

But what if there were no Facebook and YouTube, no social media? Could there still be a QAnon? Would it get this big? In other words, to what extent are Facebook and other online platforms responsible for facilitating QAnon’s rise, as opposed to simply being the conduit for a conspiracy that could have just as easily spread by other means? The answer matters because it would tell us to what extent technology is part of the problem — and to what extent reforms of social platforms might be part of the solution.

The Pattern

An internet conspiracy cracks mainstream politics.

  • If you’re looking for a QAnon explainer, you are in luck. In a barometer of just how influential the movement has become, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC News, the BBC, and numerous other outlets all published “What is QAnon?” stories this week. And while this isn’t always the case, the Wikipedia entry for QAnon is both well-written and well-sourced, making for a useful primer. The surge of attention comes as QAnon followers have been holding protests in cities across the country, committing real-world violence, flipping out over mask requirements, winning Republican primaries, and gaining the president’s tacit approval.
  • On August 10, NBC News reported on an internal Facebook study that showed just how pervasive Q-related groups have become on the platform, with upwards of 3 million members. That came on the heels of recent reports from the New York Times and The Atlantic that trace its growing influence among young people on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. This week, Facebook announced it was taking down hundreds of Q-related groups, and restricting thousands more, following through on a promise it had made last month. (Twitter also cracked down recently.) In classically Facebookian fashion, the company also announced a matching crackdown on groups claiming affiliation with the far-left antifa movement.
  • There is no question that social media has fanned QAnon’s spread. The person or people claiming to be Q originally communicated via posts on the online message board 4chan. In 2018, NBC News chronicled how it spread from there to YouTube, Reddit, and eventually Facebook, as a small cadre of promoters pumped up a niche subculture into a mass movement. The New York Times’ Charlie Warzel makes the case that Facebook and YouTube’s recommendation algorithms played a key role in QAnon’s dramatic growth in recent months, steering users to QAnon groups and content if they showed even the slightest interest or susceptibility to conspiracy thinking. “While the social media platforms didn’t create QAnon, they created the conditions for it to thrive,” he writes.
  • Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, of course; the “Satanic panics,” the blood libel, and many others long predate today’s chaotic media environment. It’s worth asking, then, how a movement such as QAnon might have spread in the pre-social media era. For insight, I spoke with Syracuse professor Whitney Phillips, co-author of a new book about conspiracy theories and “information pollution,” called You Are Here. The book traces the origins of the “deep memetic frames” behind conspiracies such as QAnon as far back as Ephesians 6:12, which teaches that Christians are locked in battle with “spiritual wickedness in high places.” In particular, evangelical networks in the United States spread conspiracies about Satanism, which they often linked to Communism, on a gradually widening scale beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Early on, the stories relied on word of mouth, newsletters, recorded sermons, and direct mailers, flourishing mostly in rural communities. The leap from niche to mass movement was the result of what Phillips and co-author Ryan Milner call “network climate change.” The information environment evolved rapidly in the second half of the 20th Century, they explain, with the advent of “read/write media” such as home video cameras, audio recorders, and photocopiers that allowed individuals to become producers and publishers of content. The advent of VHS tapes, grassroots radio networks, and eventually cable TV allowed for targeted media on a national scale. The Satanic panics finally made their way to daytime network TV shows like Geraldo in the 1980s.
  • Social media, in that context, marks the culmination of a decades-long trend toward the democratization of content, which has had both salutary and disconcerting effects. We’re now living through a “full-blown network crisis,” Phillips and Milner argue, as automated recommendation systems feed on people’s biases and insecurities to keep them engaged. The rise of Facebook and YouTube as mainstream news sources in their own right has enabled conspiracies to spread farther, faster, and obliterated the barriers that used to keep them siloed from mainstream audiences. “As much as those conspiracy theories were circulating” in the 1960s and 1970s, Phillips told me, “they were confined to people who were actually seeking them out. The difference now is that conspiracy theories come to you even if you’re not looking for them.”
  • After the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand last year, the Verge’s Casey Newton drew a distinction between “platform problems” and “internet problems.” Platform problems are those that stem from the peculiar dynamics of a given site or network: the types of messages its constraints and algorithms incentivize and amplify. Internet problems arise simply by virtue of the ability for people around the world to connect instantaneously, and would persist in some form no matter what a given platform does. Diagnosing the category of problem is essential for addressing it, because you can’t solve an internet problem at the level of a given platform.
  • The long history of conspiracy theories suggests the need for a third category: human problems. These are problems that might well manifest on social media in the social media age, but would have just as easily manifested on radio, in pamphlets, or around campfires in earlier eras. That’s part of what internet culture writer Brian Feldman was driving at in his (quite good) newsletter Bnet last week, when he distanced himself from the hand-wringing coverage of conspiracy theories that he finds de rigeur on the tech beat. “I don’t really care about stuff like fake news and QAnon, which is just the latest in a long history of right-wing fanaticism,” he wrote. (He acknowledged that was “painting with a very broad brush.”)
  • QAnon is a human problem, no doubt. But as Phillips argues, it’s one that is heavily modulated by the structure of our communication systems. The more personalized, the more democratized, the more optimized for engagement and agnostic to truth value our mass media become, the more we can expect wild conspiracies to infiltrate mainstream politics and culture. There will always be people susceptible to believe that shadowy cabals of Satanists (or whatever) are to blame for the complex problems of a changing world, which would otherwise be hard to understand. Whether society’s most influential information sources are calibrated to dissuade people of these notions, or to utterly convince them and endlessly reinforce this conviction, helps to determine just how influential those ideas will become.
  • This implies that Facebook and Twitter belatedly rooting out QAnon accounts and pages, while perhaps welcome in some respects, is unlikely to solve much in the long run. The problem is not the existence of the pages or the hashtags, but the underlying design of the algorithmic feeds and recommendation engines that amplify them. Even if the platforms manage to suppress QAnon, which seems unlikely, the memetic frame behind it — the same frame that drove the earlier PizzaGate, Seth Rich, and Satanic ritual abuse conspiracies — will eventually manifest in some new form.

Undercurrents

Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time

  • Big Tech is the biggest it’s ever been. If that sentence sounds familiar, it’s because it has been true at pretty much every moment of the past decade. Yet the constancy of the largest tech companies’ growth shouldn’t be a reason to overlook it, and it has accelerated dramatically during the pandemic. This week, Apple became the first company to reach a market capitalization of $2 trillion. The New York Times used the milestone as an excuse to take a step back and look at just how powerful tech’s largest players have become, and why it matters. I explored similar themes, focusing on Amazon, in Pattern Matching last month.
  • Flight Simulator 2020 is hyperrealistic — except when it isn’t. The latest title to strike a chord with gamers in the pandemic, Microsoft’s newest flight simulator uses 3D mapping data to deliver “uncanny escapism,” giving homebound gamers the feeling of exploring the world, Wired’s Cecilia D’Anastasio explains. What’s so uncanny about it? Well, for one thing, the otherwise hyperrealistically rendered landscape of suburban Melbourne, Australia is pierced by a pencil-thin 212-story skyscraper, apparently due to a university student’s two-year-old typo in OpenStreetMap data.
  • A police network of license-plate readers is going national, Cnet’s Alfred Ng reports. For all of the justified attention that the tech press has paid to the way private internet companies track us online, the ability of law enforcement to track every vehicle in the country automatically, wherever it goes, is a momentous shift in the privacy landscape that has probably not received as much attention as it deserves.

Headlines of the Week

Wait, How Much Microplastic Is Swirling in the Atlantic?
— Matt Simon, Wired

Hulu Deepfaked Its New Ad. It Won’t Be the Last.

— Janko Roettgers, Protocol

An Influencer House Wouldn’t Stop Partying. So L.A. Cut Its Power

— Taylor Lorenz, New York Times

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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