Making sense of #QAnon and #TheStorm

Social media is now a clear and active part of the political process and power game. How can we make proper sense of it as citizens and participants?

A bolt of lightning taken from my apartment balcony in 2002, when I lived in Kansas City. I think the deities were aiming at the Sprint campus (but were off by ½ mile).

This isn’t a newsletter about politics, but about communications in all its forms. There is a new social media phenomenon out there right now that I believe is both noteworthy and deserving of comment.

Before I delve into it, I would like to offer you a framing for this discussion, since it is dangerously close to topics that generate enormous contention and extremely strong feelings. I would like you to consider for a moment the following book:


This is not a book about UFOs. That would be contentious, and also irrelevant to the subject of inquiry. It is a book about how governments have engaged with the issues surrounding UFOs, such as reported sightings by the public. It captures information from official documents and real people about questions of historical fact and national policy. Everyone can agree that both governments and reported sightings exist, whether or not extraterrestrial UFOs do.

In the same manner, there is an objective phenomenon of large numbers of people on social media who have a strong belief in a specific narrative. Whether that narrative is supported by external reality is, for this moment, not relevant. I have an opinion, and this isn’t the place to share it. What matters is that a sizeable body of public opinion is dynamically forming based on the “hypermessaging” feature of hashtags.

To capture the basics:

  • In October, President Trump enigmatically referred at a White House dinner to the “calm before the storm”.
  • This has spawned an online movement around the #CBTS and #TheStorm hashtags. The implied message is a major historical event or shift is due to take place.
  • This movement is broadly aligned to the conservative/alt-right part of the political spectrum. The converse is not true: many conservatives would not identify with this online movement.

In parallel, we are seeing a crossover of “chan” and “anon” culture into the mainstream. For those who don’t speak fluent autist, this refers to denizens of the anarchistic (and NSFW) 4chan and 8chan communities, and the army of “anons” who comment on every possible matter of (in)significance. This hacktivist collective has even been the subject of a stage play (that I went to see).

The essence of chan culture is a high-IQ game of one-upmanship, a kind of constant cybersniping to fool others (“trolling” and “LARPing“), and avoid being fooled. To get a taste of what it’s all about, I can recommend this article (NSFW) on actor Shia Lebeouf’s attempts to hide the location of a single flag shown on a webcam, and how channers kept tracking it down using aircraft contrails, star alignments, and social graph research.

Which brings us to #QAnon. Since last October, a poster going by the name “Q” has been putting “crumbs” of information onto the chan hideouts. These often implicitly link to utterances and tweets of President Trump. Their format is often cryptic and with multiple simultaneous meanings and interpretations. A complete archive of them, without their direct context, is here.

There are essentially two interpretations of the QAnon phenomenon:

  • This is “white hat” military intelligence making the greatest drop of insider information to the public ever released, in order to prepare people for #TheStorm.
  • You must be out of your mind to pay the slightest attention to any of this. It’s a total fraud and only the gullible and naive would ever fall for it.

These would appear to be mutually exclusive. Hence there is a great polarisation of opinion as to how to make sense of this matter. It isn’t a simple “R vs D” issue; many serious commentators on the right reject Q as being a hoax, whilst others are positive in their endorsement. It’s an epistemological puzzle of the toughest kind for the most hardened conspiracy philosophers to unpick.

Nonetheless, I suggest you do pay attention to this phenomenon, at four levels:

  • The first is the concrete level of the subject matter, since ultimately it is important. If it is true — as Q posits — that there is treason and high-level corruption about to be revealed and resolved, then everyone will be affected.
  • The second is the meta level of how our political beliefs and affinity groups are formed. Social media is having an enormous influence. As citizens, each of us has a duty to consider if we are locked into a delusional filter bubble, or need to expose ourselves to alternative views and paradigms.
  • The third is how the state and its citizens interact and how information is shared. Is it possible that insider intelligence could be passed on this way, in an approved manner? Is this right and proper in its context? What does that mean for our society?
  • The last is more at the mechanistic level of how social media is “changing the game”, for example allowing people to find others who share their views (via the hashtags) and to follow them. This has the positive effect of expanding the scale of their inputs, but possibly a negative one of restricting their scope.

Together with the unfolding stories of (alleged or actual) censorship at Twitter and YouTube, the interaction of social media and public policy is now hot news. The demand to regulate “Public Switched Social Messaging” is rising with the #InternetBillOfRights campaign. This is the counterpart to “net neutrality”, holding Silicon Valley to the standards of impartiality they have forcefully been foisting on ISPs and telcos.

As Hillary Clinton herself tweeted…

Whether this statement will be her exoneration or epitaph only time (and Q) will tell.


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