So, sometime between 2016 and 2020 we went insane.
I’m not talking about the relentless stream of misinformation and deception propagated by the cult of personality currently wielding power. Yes, the absence of government in a pandemic and climate apocalypse is troubling, and yes, the number of formerly responsible legislators mindlessly kowtowing to craven corruption is appalling, but beyond even that formerly unthinkable expanse of brain death is the screwball conspiracy hot line working around the clock to warn entirely unregulated militias of the threat of the Satanic child eating deep state, demonic possession made flesh in Joe Biden, the Clintons, Tom Hanks, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Remember Pepe, the frog meme that wandered from comic slacker on My Page to emblem of white supremicist neo-Nazi alt right bullies? From a distance, the flap about Pepe seems far less significant than the observation that we’re talking about Nazis, but the hijacking of a goofy image is connected with a reality I can barely understand. I’m a dinosaur, barely able to manage the complexities of my phone, stymied by the concept of cloud storage, dependent on print journalists to bring me any sense of what is happening around me. I wrote a college guide back in the ‘90s emphasising work being done at Redlands University in Geographic Information Science, developing applications of the then highly protected Global Positioning System, available to civilians but scrambled so that enemies might not use GPS with precision. Just to drive the point home, we’ve had unscrambled GPS for ten years. Seems like it’s been around forever, right?
In those same early 1990’s we paid an ungodly amount to grab an hour on Gopher, the system developed by the University of Minnesota at the same time as the World Wide Web, less sophisticated but easier at the start to use. By 1995 Microsoft, Ebay, Yahoo, and Amazon were magically providing services I had not imagined, and smartphones and cat videos were on the horizon.
In the next decade, as I was still fumbling with Google Maps, the digital snake pit opened wide. Like Alice, I tumbled down rabbit holes, following one compressed snippet of information to the next, and the next, until the dawn’s early light. What I had not realized and even now cannot fully appreciate are insulating algorithms, filter bubbles, echo chambers. I get “click bait”, slightly misleading or tempting links that pull the undiscerning clicker into websites shilling one dubious product or another – maybe more than one, as there at least five sites eager to tell me what Amazon doesn’t want me to know. Fool me once, and so on.
The insulating algorithm, however, is the device that drives a user into a self defined universe of information or opinion. Once filtered, once trapped in an echo chamber, the user’s world shrinks to a complement of sources sharing the same political, social, or cultural views. Identified as likely to follow accounts of conspiracy foisted on an unprotected nation by a cabal of liberal elitist sex-predators, the user is directed to every post dropped by an anonymous source such as “Q” first at a website such as 4chan, then by more accessible social media – Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and TikTok. The anonymous “Q” purports to be an insider in the Trump administration who not only reveals the depth of depravation practiced by the pedophilic Satanists operating within the deep state, but promises the culmination of Trump’s secret war in a Great Awakening or The Storm. When the storm arrives, Trump will snag the filthy conspirators and jam them in cells at Guantanamo Bay. The danger to Trump is constant, as reports of the attempt to shoot down his plane attest. Anonymity allows “Q” or any who take the handle to create a tent big enough for a plethora of conspiracies, contrived horror stories about vaccination and alien landings.
QAnon, the movement spawned in these isolated algorithmic echo chambers, is estimated to have grown by more than 120% in the last year, although movements operating with such ferocity defy quantification. I’m not one to argue against the reality of conspiracies; we’ve got a dandy unfolding as we learn just how deliberately agents of the administration conspired to politicize the pandemic. There are and will be reasons to question events in our midst. On the other hand, conspiracy has long been a favored pastime of the untethered mind, and in a time of real cultural upheaval, as the isolating algorithms of social media operate at peak efficiency, as dangerously irresponsible thrill seekers spread fear and hatred because they can, as Russian troll farms pump out misinformation to drive the nation toward civil unrest, as the rabbit holes serve racism, misogyny, anti semitism, nativism, and homophobia, the impact of baseless, contorted conspiracy has become a significant factor in determining the future of democratic institutions.
Aside from the basic and bizarre battiness of the Qscape though, here’s the observation about the QAnon phenomenon that is most puzzling to me: The absurd allegations directed at those outside Trumpville are vile, but with the exception of the “Save The Children” activists, the “Q” t shirts, “Q” rallies, “Q” memes, “Q” slogan (“Where we go one, we go all”, compressed as wwg1wga), present quasi merriment, folky horseplay, jollity as fists are raised. These are not townspeople with pitchforks; they’re having a great time roiling in their conspiratorial miniverse. Some conspiracy theorists think the current groundswell of enthusiasm most closely reflects Live Action Role Playing (LARPING), hunting for clues to the coming of the storm like squirrels looking for acorns.
I’m not having much fun as QAnon finds a place in Congress and in the political mainstream. This movement is no joke, and it’s hardly likely that true believers will reconcile themselves to an election outcome that does not serve the storm.
Fire is consuming much of the West, Miami and New Orleans will soon need scuba gear to direct traffic, the administration’s best idea in facing covid is to let millions catch it and die, and I’m worried about a few hundred thousand people who think I’m keen on drinking the blood of children?
Yup, I am.