“I did the research”: A must-read column about QAnon and its believers

Eagerly, I clicked on Charlie Warzel’s New York Times column today, “Is QAnon the Most Dangerous Conspiracy Theory of the 21st Century? ‘It’s a collaborative fiction built on wild speculation that hardens into reality.'”

Immediately I was drawn in, because my knowledge about QAnon is hazy, and I certainly don’t understand its influence or the people who are hooked into it. Or why they’re hooked into it. The whole business of belief in conspiracy nonsense bewilders me. And this is the best piece I’ve read about the whole disturbing thing.

In his column, Warzel asks incisive questions of…

Adrian Hon, the chief executive of the gaming company Six to Start and a designer of alternate reality games or ARGs. Unlike video games, alternate reality games aren’t played on a console — they use the world as their storytelling platform. There’s no one particular medium. The story takes place in real time and seems to exist in the world. So game designers hide clues and puzzles in websites, apps and even newspaper advertisements. It’s a bit like a networked treasure hunt that turns the world around you into a game.

Well, I’ve certainly missed out on that treasure hunt. But then I’ve never played a video game and knew nothing about alternate reality games. It seems that they grab people’s attention so powerfully, they in effect brainwash anyone who follows them.

This is a semi-rebuke of something I’ve written in How I Learned The Facts of Life, in which I ask the question, “Can you be brainwashed by opinions?” Then I answer it:

Of course not. Are you nuts even to ask?

Oh, sorry. You didn’t ask. I asked on your behalf. And there is an impetus: I’ve been picking up on a general fear that written articles and oral opinions can sneak into our brains and alter the way we think. (And vote.)

The fear is understandable, even if irrational. We’ve been experiencing attacks of propaganda, dark money political attacks, fake news, hacking, hack dumps and even wholly invented political attack campaigns and rallies, and we worry that some of the fakes have influenced the way many people think.

Sure, most of us have faced a friend or relative whose obsessive devotion to fake news sites has been alarming and distressing. But how many of those people actually believe all this stuff is true? And how many of them altered their world views (and votes) because of it?

I think it was their heretofore inchoate beliefs that drew them to follow false news as a way of having their own rages and prejudices articulated and validated.
If they’ve been brainwashed, it was a do-it-yourself project.

I’m trying really hard not to come to the conclusion that people can be brainwashed by games. But now I’m not so sure. Here are a few excerpts from the column with my bolding of what I think are key points:

…almost everyone who discovers QAnon uses a phrase like, “I did my research.” I kept hearing that and I couldn’t get it out of my head. This research is, basically, typing things into Google but when they do, they go down the rabbit hole. They open a fascinating fantasy world of secret wars and cabals and Hillary Clinton controlling things…

So these people believe they know things — the “truth” — that we don’t. And the way they “know” it is because they’ve “done the research” which we haven’t done. They’re smarter than us; they “did the research.”

Many people feel alienated and left behind by the world. There’s something about QAnon like ARGs that reward and involve people for being who they are. They create a community that lets people show off their “research” skills…

These QAnon followers are led not to trust facts, or to trust the media where actual facts are obtained because the facts are too complex for them to consider. They feel left out. And QAnon let’s them in. I guess they feel sort of like they pledged a secret society and were accepted.

…if you look at the roots of why people are drawn to conspiratorial thinking, it’s because people have reason to believe there is a conspiracy behind how the world works. They feel lost. That lots of information is hidden from them or that important decisions have been made in ways they don’t understand. They’ll prefer to believe something from a forum that caters toward their biases and is easier to read and consume than news coverage or from reading a dull 1,000 page pdf from a government website explaining complex policy decisions.

The first couple of sentences up there are a pretty good definition of paranoia, a psychopathology.

Warzel: …because so many people have access to unbelievable amounts of information online, there’s an expectation that all information ought to be discoverable, if you just search hard enough?

Exactly. A lot of it is about a lack of trust. But also a lack of comfort with ambiguity. In reality, the answer to most hard questions is, ‘It’s complicated.’ But people want definitive answers. Many of these theories provide that feeling for people. When really everyone needs to be a bit more comfortable with ambiguity.

I semi-disagree here. It isn’t a lack of comfort with “ambiguity.” It’s an incapacity or intellectual laziness at absorbing real life complexity.

So now I have to revive the question “Can people be brainwashed?” I really, really do not like the logical answer.

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