Skip to main content

QAnon Reveals How Poorly Equipped We Are for the Era of Political Trolling

We spoke with a communications professor about the relationship between trolls and the media.
A man holds a large Q sign, referencing the Qanon conspiracy theory, at a rally for President Donald Trump on August 2nd, 2018, in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

A man holds a large Q sign at a rally for President Donald Trump on August 2nd, 2018, in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

President Donald Trump is waging a campaign against a global network of elite pedophiles. A "storm" of revelations about the nefarious role of Democrats and deep state operatives in undermining the United States is on the horizon. And all of this is becoming public knowledge thanks to the hard work of a gaggle of keyboard detectives following the "bread crumbs" of intel from "Q," an anonymous poster who claims high-level security clearance and prophetic insights into America's coming apocalypse.

Or it could just be a joke.

This is the long and short of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that's bubbled to the top of the mainstream media's consciousness after sightings of its adherents decked out in Q gear at recent Trump rallies. It's a real-world phenomenon, one that prompted a man to block the bridge spanning the Hoover Dam with an armored vehicle last month and even garnered public elevation by the likes of Roseanne Barr.

But, according to research by BuzzFeed News' Ryan Broderick, QAnon is simply another troll by the Internet anarchists at 4chan, designed to exploit the gullibility of those feeling enfeebled by the country's progressive wing.

And, in all likelihood, QAnon has the same source to thank for its fame as the alt-right does for its rise to prominence: the media. For more on the broader context of QAnon, Pacific Standard caught up with Whitney Phillips, an incoming communications professor at Syracuse University and a long-time observer of the relationship between trolls and the media.


Your contention for years has been that movements like the alt-right or QAnon only exist because the media gives them oxygen. Tell me about this amplification cycle.

It allows small numbers of participants to launder problematic information into the media ecosystem.

My favorite example from the pre-Trump era (its good to historically situate this) was when Ryan Broderick wrote a story for BuzzFeed immediately following the 2012 Aurora shooting perpetrated by James Holmes. There were six assholes on Tumblr who then proceeded to make James Holmes fan art. They refer to themselves as "Holmies," which itself is situated in a long tradition of Americans being interested in killers. But it was a very small group of people who were employing this aesthetic of irony to playfully engage with his murderous actions.

It was bad, but Broderick descended on the story and did not explain that it was six people. He took the worst examples and created a listicle. Initially, the participant group was so small, reporting on it ensured that "Holmies" would actually become a thing because a mainstream journalist had shed light on their behavior. A small group of people do something sensationalist and they are then taken into the mainstream through reporting. That's a tenet of traditional trolling practice: "How do we trick a reporter into telling this story?" That was around long before the alt-right and Trump, but now that's a mainstream tactic for white nationalists.

What's the tipping point for this, to leap from a few jokes online to people blockading bridges?

There's a concept floated by [media researcher] Claire Wardle, called "the tipping point criterion." For a reporter, regardless of what your intentions are, simply by reporting on something that at the moment is only relevant to participants within the community, you ensure the story will become bigger than what it would have been organically. It's when you surface online content before that content has actually peaked out of the water level. Her recommendation is that reporters not report on things if it's only relevant to members of that community—it doesn't matter if you engage to debunk.

The thing about QAnon that is taking people by surprise is that it's been bubbling along for many months. For a long period of time, it was simple and specific: It spilled over into embodied behaviors, but it is not a newsworthy story. But because things are happening in embodied spaces, you kind of have to report on it now, even though all that reporting did was ensure that it would become something larger.

In fact, trolls bank on it, right?

Media manipulators have honed these rhetorical strategies, these behavioral tactics. Manipulators know exactly how to hijack existing media systems to their own benefit. In the case of QAnon—and this is where things get confusing—it's unclear which participants genuinely believe this is true and what percentage are just fucking with journalists.

Is this manner of trolling unique to the Trump era?

It's really important to recognize that spin has always existed, political reporters have been trained to sniff our spin and various public relations strategies. The difference now is that, in previous eras, if someone was trying to make a cynical point or proclamation at the very least reporters could take for granted and trust that these claims were actually what they believed. A claim could be taken at face value. You really can't trust [now] that anyone's making a statement without a nudge and a wink. This makes it very difficult to determine what the potential impact of reporting could be.

How can we protect against this sort of media manipulation?

When you have conspiracy theories like this, you get reporters assigned to the story who aren't on the Internet culture beat. I'm not imputing their strengths, it's just that the Internet is its own hellscape that comes with its own contours; you can't talk about it without being versed in those norms.

It's really a media literacy issue too. There are dangers of journalists being too well versed, so far that they can't recognize bigotry and horror. That's what happened with alt-right reporting: Reporters claimed that the neo-Nazi stuff was for the lulz. Actually, no, sorry ... [they were] white supremacists!

It's clear that the QAnon story is being filed by people in many cases who just don't have that conceptual framework for it. They take it completely seriously. Nothing validates media manipulators more than to see a white 60-something reporter repeat their version of the narrative they find funniest.

How do you fight this without completely blowing up the current media ecosystem?

You have to blow up the system. As long as you have basic metrics to determine business decisions, you'll have trolls who exploit the need to constantly create content, to keep up with the New York Times and the Washington Post. As long as you have iterative reporting, trolls will only thrive. The problems are embedded in our capitalist system, and until we can figure out a way to address those weaknesses, that manipulation will be a fundamental component. It can't go on. It's a danger to democracy and civil discourse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.