Leaping Down the Weasel Hole

It's lazy thinking and, well, kind of fun! Why would we ever be surprised that the "alt-right" has fully embraced the likes of QAnon?

Much has been written of the game theory aspects of conspiracy theories like QAnon (that modest Democrats-and-Hollywood-Celebrities-Are-Satanic-Cannibalistic-Pedophiles-Who-Must-Be-Defeated-by-a-Savior-Who-Has-Himself-Been-Charged-With-Sexual-Predation-by-Dozens-of-Women-Some-Quite-Young-but-Nevermind-That-Part theory), how they are insidious largely because they have been created by people who understand key aspects of human nature and how the mind works.

In a fascinating article posted on Medium, game designer Reed Berkowitz writes that when he first looked at QAnon he knew exactly what it was. It was like an alternate reality game, but inverted: "It was gaming's evil twin. A game that played people."

 As Berkowitz notes, people tend to find patterns where none exist (something called apophenia). They like to think they are finding things out for themselves and can be easily led to certain conclusions so long as they feel they have done their own research. There is pleasure to be had—in the dopamine hit that comes at the ah-ha moment of discovery; in the sense of community in solving clues (the "drops" of the anonymous Q); in the reflexive, self-reinforcing turning away from the skeptics or deeply concerned friends and family:

"QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe ‘guided apophenia’ is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you ‘figure it out yourself’ you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to ‘connect the dots yourself’ you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at."

This falling in with a conspiracy theory is often referred to, in allusion to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," as falling down the rabbit hole. Given that the phrase is used for merely poking around on the internet and getting distracted (like this), and considering that QAnon is very dark stuff (and, moreover, with rabbits being so kindly and cute seeming—until they get into your garden), perhaps it is better ascribed to the hole of a weasel or a snake. Let's go with weasel hole.

In an interview with Seward Darby, also from Medium, former white supremacist Shannon Foley Martinez, who mentors people who are ready to leave violent ideologies, emphatically says that one should not talk about a person "falling down" a rabbit (or weasel) hole because that is denying the agency the QAnon or white supremacist member has:

"A lot of stories we hear about white supremacy and QAnon is people falling down rabbit holes. This language strips agency from a person—it’s all the algorithm’s fault.

I think this an enormous mistake because I know I had agency in what I was doing. I made hundreds, thousands of choices along the way, continuing to give my assent. Each person that is part of QAnon, they have made a choice again and again to consume this material and to give their assent."

I get it. Of my generation, beyond the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK, anyone of a certain age will remember the “Paul McCartney Is Dead” hoax.

And when I was eleven years old, I was hooked to this pre-internet age alternate reality game about the untimely 1966 demise of "the cute Beatle" in a car crash, his replacement with a lookalike, and a subsequent coverup. It had all the elements we see with QAnon—the call to "do your own research"; the many, evolving clues; the ah-ha moments when you found another clue (like slowly turned a record backward with the erasure end of a pencil and heard the frightening likes of Paul is dead…miss him, miss him!).

I even felt a sense of community, hanging out with my friend Lisa Williams, who was as smitten as I was with finding the clues. The whole conspiracy thing was fab, and it was even better to know that we still had the real Paul McCartney around to coax John Lennon to focus by writing tons of songs and "ringing him up" to say he had his ten songs and let's get into the studio to record.

I didn't buy the hoax, but I had a lot of fun with the clues.

McCartney, who in 1970 actually was hiding away, grieving the end of the Beatles, was eventually tracked down by a reporter for Life magazine on his farm in Scotland, and he noted that he wasn't dead. But by that time even that wasn't enough to convince the convinced.

Which is a shame, because these people could never properly enjoy the songs he (sorry, fake Paul, or "Faul") wrote after 1966. Imagine smirking to yourself, knowingly, while hearing the likes of "Getting Better," "Hey Jude," "Let It Be," "Maybe I'm Amazed," or, say, "How Kind of You" or "New," or "I Don't Know"? Likely the conspiracy folks haven't even heard those last few, but they might have troubled themselves to hear some of the terrific music he has produced more recently, had they not actively jumped down that Billy Shears conspiracy hole.

The point is, you pay a price for believing in things that are just not true. No big deal that you may have skipped on McCartney's excellent late albums because you still think he's not who he pretends to be, but when you believe in something like QAnon, when you believe that a fair election was rigged, and you act on these false beliefs, you affect people beyond yourself in very dangerous ways.

As Voltaire apparently really did write: "Truly, whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

People who willingly clamber down the QAnon weasel hole, and lose their way, must do so out of some level of desiring to join in. When you have been trained by your leaders, by right-wing talk radio, by Fox News to stand against so many things that democracy depends upon—voting rights, the press, factual information provided by science, civil rights, women’s rights—it must cause a high degree of cognitive dissonance that can be remedied only by removing the ongoing irritation caused by constantly running up against all that pesky reality.

And people are disappointed with how the promise of the American Dream has let them down, and is letting their children down. Technology and outsourcing continue to take jobs; the costs of education are out of reach even for what's left of a withering middle class; the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else continues to grow to absurd levels; and compared with 10 other high-income countries in 2017, healthcare in the United States ranked last. Even life expectancy in the United States has decreased since 2015.

No doubt it is a simple thing to sell people on the false idea that the election was rigged when they see so much else in their lives that is clearly rigged—the tax, justice, and political systems. People with money get special treatment, special access. Now we see them cutting line for the vaccine—many after downplaying the severity of the pandemic all along.

But leaders are supposed to lead, not incite the mob.

If your leaders no longer play by the rules of political comity or behave with even a shred of decency—not wearing masks during the pandemic, circumventing metal detectors in the Capitol, not holding their own members accountable—why should you? By their behavior, they are actively telling you not to. In any case, the game is supposed to be fun—until you, say, storm the Capitol and your leader abandons you.

The United States is uncomfortably like the village depicted in the buddy cop parody/homage film Hot Fuzz, where a group of elders has formed a secret society to ensure they continue to win "The Best Village Award." They are heavily armed and willing to commit murder to ensure certain "bad elements" do not blow their chances. They are willing to kill even police, if that's what it takes. As I re-watched the film recently, I thought of the "America First" retro-fantasy and the siege of the Capitol. The analogy holds up reasonably well, except this middle film in the "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy" is a comedy. During the lengthy insurrection at the Capitol, real people died and some 140 of the police were seriously injured, some with life-altering wounds, physical and psychological. Two have since committed suicide.

And though many Republicans want to shrug it all off as an act of overzealous patriots, a coup was planned, funded, and attempted on the world’s oldest democracy. The President played a prominent role in this, as did Rudy Giuliani and members of Congress. They worked on it for months, lying endlessly about voter fraud to prime the rage of their followers.

Everyone involved must be held to account. The MAGA rioters, yes, but especially the former President and those in Congress who encouraged it—and who still are. The calls by Republicans for unity now are beyond absurd. The country stands, or falls, on the rule of law.

We have an alternate reality game called religion that once earned its keep partly by teaching good values. But that doesn't obtain so much in these times of evangelistic religious zealotry. As Ibram X. Kendi wrote in Stamped From the Beginning, his National Book Award–winning history of racism in America, even enlightened Christianity has at best a troubled history with civil rights.

What we desperately need is a democratic reality game that leads people to "discover for themselves" the principles of civics and public service, the responsibilities inherent in having the freedom to speak their minds, the essential role a free press plays, and the importance of protecting the vote for every citizen.

Can someone code that one up, please?