Research conducted in collaboration with Guilherme Appolinario, Melis Bas, Andrea Benedetti, Sal Hagen, Freja Kir, Peter Knight, and Pihla Toivanen.
By this point, many are familiar with QAnon, the deep state conspiracy theory that has developed into a thriving industry, including a book appearing at the top of Amazon’s best-seller lists. As the 2020 US presidential election rapidly approaches, QAnon is increasingly moving into the mainstream of American conservatism, with Trump himself retweeting QAnon accounts and actively promoting his own version of the conspiracy theory called Obamagate. A global explosion of coronavirus-related conspiracy theorizing has also helped QAnon to take root internationally. In addition to spreading via conspiracy theory subreddits (many of which are now banned), there is now an entire industry of QAnon “conspiracy entrepreneurship” (Merlan 2019). In this blog post we will go back to examining the mechanics of how QAnon was invented on 4chan, before it was subsequently promoted elsewhere online by several of the site’s moderators (see: Zadrozny & Collins 2018). Before doing so, however, the first half of the post offers readers an extensive introduction on how the vernacular affordances of this notorious imageboard contribute to its reputation as the birthplace of memes and viral bullshit.
While many other conspiracy theories have since faded into obscurity—including most recently Obamagate—QAnon continues to attract new adherents, maintaining a grassroots appeal in spite of its callous mass-marketing. Deeply mistrustful of “the official narrative”, amateur Q researchers construct their own alternative interpretations of US domestic and foreign policy. They do so by weaving connections from a tissue of clues found scattered across the further reaches of the “Deep Vernacular Web” of imageboards – first 4chan, then 8chan, and now 8kun. Considered to offer insights into the secret plans of the Trump administration, these clues, often referred to as “drops” or “breadcrumbs”, are supposedly planted by a mysterious figure known as “Q”, in reference to a level of security clearance at the upper echelons of the US government. Using complex visualizations to weave connections between these clues, QAnon is beginning to take on the appearance of a new religious movement, with devotees involved in exegetical interpretations of the divine eschatology of Q. While much has been written on QAnon’s diffusion, quite little research has looked closely at the origins of the conspiracy theory. As this post explores, it was on the notorious extreme-right political discussion forum 4chan/pol/ that the Q breadcrumbs first appeared in the fall of 2017. This far-right, white supremacism-oriented subforum of 4chan is to this day extremely popular, even double the size of the infamous pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald in its heyday (Lagorio-Chafin 2018, Wendling 2018).
This post draws on methods developed in previous research concerning the birth of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory also on 4chan/pol/ (Tuters et al.l 2018), in which we visualized the process by which a series of (initially) anonymous posts would come to form the foundational a conspiractorial belief system. For the current research we similarly gathered a dataset of “general threads” whose opening posts mostly began with “Calm Before The Storm” or “CBTS”, in which Q breadcrumbs initially appeared and were discussed. The dataset consists of 764 threads, with up to 482 comments in each, from a one-month period in the autumn of 2017, after which point Q posts no longer appeared on 4chan (although they do continue to appear to this day on other imageboards).
Imageboards’ Vernacular Affordances
Before discussing the detailed origins of QAnon on 4chan, we begin by outlining the medium specificity of the online environments in which it first flourished. While the mysterious Q has long since departed 4chan, Q’s posts continue to regularly appear on other imageboards. Following the conspiracy theory’s incubation period on 4chan’s, as visualized in Figure 2 above, Q breadcrumbs started to appear on 8chan, which features even less moderation than 4chan. After 8chan had its hosting terminated following its associations with the Christchurch mass murderer, Q posts started to appear a few months later on 8chan’s successor 8kun, where they continue to be posted (see figure 9). QAnon’s popularity on more mainstream discussion forums (such as The_Donald) likely brought a new audience to these extreme-right political discussion forums where the presence of these outsiders, or “normies” in the vernacular, was often disparaged by the boards’ regular posters, or “anons”.
New media theorists posit that “every platform has a vernacular specific to it that has developed over time, through design, appropriation, and use.” (Gibbs et al. 2014). What we see in the case of imageboards is that these platform vernaculars can constitute barriers of entry to outsiders. This has to do with a combination of factors, not least of which being the unfamiliar user-interface design (and corresponding “affordances”). From a usability perspective, visitors accustomed to the glossy interfaces of corporate social media may find these forums confusing, even chaotic, despite their barebones infrastructure. Featuring multiple simultaneous conversations, a new comment to a given thread will affect the arrangement of threads on the board. In the case of a popular discussion board like /pol/, the effect of these constant comment “bumps” is that the front page shows a different thread upon each browser refresh.
Beyond these and other unfamiliar socio-technical affordances, the tone of discussions on imagboards often is characterised by the use of high-concept “memes”, vernacular expressions and extremely low-brow humour, which in the case of a board like /pol/ often manifests as racist, mysognist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise bigoted content. While 4chan has more recently become synonymous with the alt-right (Wendling 2018), imageboards have a long history associated with the trolling subculture (Phillips 2015). Out of this subcultural history, imageboards’ users have developed rather arcane accounts about the technologies that they use. Referred to in the literature as “vernacular affordances” (Bucher & Helmond 2018), within imageboards these accounts often explicitly address questions of an epistemological nature. Exemplary here is “Poe’s Law”, an axiom of discussion forums, which basically states that “authentic” expressions of any ideological belief system are anathema to vernacular affordances of the community.
While, in certain contexts, anonymity can also have prosocial effects, the so-called “disinhibition effect”, which refers to the relative lack of restraint online as opposed to in-person communication, can also lead to extremely anti-social behaviour (Suler 2004). As Freud noted, humour affords “saying the unsayable”, while “laughing at the same jokes is evidence of a far-reaching psychical conformity” (1960). Observers have correctly remarked how the alt-right exploited the “folk ambivalence” of Poe’s Law by disingenuously arguing that their targets simply don’t get the joke (Phillips & Milner 2017). By this process, the countercultural breaking of taboos is “weaponized” in the service of promoting serious extremist ideologies (Wilson 2017), with imageboards having become zones of recruitment and mobilization for organized extreme right political movements such as neo-Nazis who have, as of late, learned to adapt their message to the vernacular affordances of imageboards (Davey & Ebner 2017). An example of this is the use of triple parentheses on 4chan/pol/, used to identify an antagonist, e.g. “the (((media)))”. While the triple parentheses is typically used in a nebulous way, it usually has a clear anti-Semitic valence (Tuters & Hagen 2019).
While 4chan/pol/ is part of the Web indexed by search engines, and in this sense is technically much more accessible than most social media platforms, culturally it can be conceptualized as part of a “Deep Vernacular Web” (de Zeeuw & Tuters 2020). The combination of challenging socio-technical affordances with high-concept memes and often highly offensive slang have tended to help “keep out the normies”. As the numbers of Q acolytes grows, this becomes an issue, as the Q breadcrumbs continue to appear on politically extreme imageboards like 8kun. For those who might otherwise be daunted or put-off by its scatalogical and extreme subculture (see: de Zeeuw 2019), a network of intermediaries have emerged to sift the golden nuggets of Q posts from the chaos and excreta of the imageboards.
Since early on in the story of QAnon, it has not been necessary for those interested in the conspiracy theory to necessarily dive into the quagmire of the imageboards. In compiling our corpus, for example, we were served by Q researchers who had come before us (in particular one who had compiled a compendia of canonical Q posts). These Q research compedia extract posts from the context of these imageboards in order to make them palpable to a more general audience. As Q continues to actively post, there are also sites that collect all the Q drops in one place formatting them to appear more as Tweets rather than as imageboard posts.
While the curious can click through to the original imageboard post—and down the (proverbial) rabbithole—those who are less motivated can engage with the many interpreters of Q’s prophecies. Recently, for example, the ranks of these Q interpreters have been joined by a host of Instagram lifestyle influencers. A video entitled Q Drops Explained by one such lifestyle influencer is intended for those who “have a hard time understanding the Q drops, how they all connect, what they mean”. The tone of this conspiracy entrepreneurship seems to markedly diverge from other current competing conspiracy theories that also have their roots in the imageboards, for example the paramilitary Boogaloo movement.
An argument here is that when one encounters references to QAnon on social media such as the one above, they have largely been expunged of their deep vernacular origins, and taken out of the context of the extreme-right bigotry that is so characteristic of the imageboards on which they first appeared. This fact is worth pausing over: not only have the boards on which Q posts been associated with far-right recruitment but they have also been connected to various acts of extreme violence (Hankes and Amend 2018). With this in mind, the active erasure of the vernacular affordances of the imageboards in the creation of QAnon can be conceptualized as one part of a process of laundering the conspiracy theory of some of its more disreputable associations—in reference to the cross-platform dissemination of QAnon, we also referred to this process as “normiefication”.
We tend to think of the cross-platform movement of various “trending topics” online through the metaphor of the meme. A concept from sociobiology, referring to a self-copying message system akin to an evolutionary algorithm, arguably, the metaphor of the meme is ill-suited to media studies. The reason for this has to do with how the meme overlooks the materiality of media — as Tony Sampson observes, in the field of memetic “the medium in which an idea is transmitted is typically dismissed as an inert channel through which the determining fitness algorithm is transmitted” (2012). By contrast an axiom of the science studies sub-field of actor-network theory is that “there is no transportation without translation”. This latter approach—while also not without its detractors—is characterized by its “flat” approach to social ontology, which does not view agency as a unique property of humans alone instead treating social order as the shared accomplishment of “socio-technical” “assemblages” (Pinch et al 2008). As we are stuck with the term “meme”, whether we like it or not, the latter approach prompts us to be more attentive to how the medium shapes the meme.
Following on from this science studies approach to materialism—and in distinction to our prior line of research concerning the normiefication of Q—the objective of the empirical research discussed below is to reconnect QAnon to material affordances of the 4chan milieu that Q’s translators have obscured. To that end, the approach is to empirically re-describe the practices out of which QAnon was initially built on 4chan/pol/, specifically the so-called “general thread” which in turn affords processes of citation and of black boxing, that will also in their turn be explored below. Thematically organized on any number of topics, general threads allow for participants on /pol/ to continue discussions on sub-topics despite 4chan’s auto-deletion of content. The prevalence of generals has even led to entire boards dedicated to them, like “/vg/ Video Game Generals”. On /pol/, however, generals and non-general thread mix. The discussion topics range from being pro-Trump, to dedicated to the politcs of specific countries (Jokubauskaite & Peeters. 2020). Posts to 4chan are “threaded” in a discussion that begins with an opening post. No matter how popular a given discussion might be, it can only reach a fixed number of posts before it will be “purged”. Purging refers to the process by which a discussion becomes inactive so that one can no longer post a comment. After this point discussions threads are then archived and eventually deleted (although permanent archives exist, the most popular being 4plebs).
Another obvious affordance is that 4chan posts are anonymous. As is well known, the loose “hacktivist” movement Anonymous took its name from this affordance, which emerged from 4chan in the late 2010s. The self-image of those using the site was of 4chan users as an undifferentiated mass, in the words of Gabriella Coleman, having written an important ethnographic account on the movement: “The only thing you are able to judge a post by is its content and nothing else. This elimination of the persona, and by extension everything associated with it, such as leadership, representation, and status, is the primary ideal of Anonymous.” (Coleman 2014, 47). We have previously called this the blob theory of 4chan. More recent ethnographic research has sought to expose the idea of 4chan as a collective bottom-up enterprise as being essentially fallacious, by re-describing the role of in-group elites in the management and coordination of 4chan collective action on the site (Uitermarkt 2017). While the latter research focused on the use of third-party chat apps, as discussed below, general threads also demonstrate how certain discussions of 4chan are coordinated by small, dedicated groups.
In spite of a relatively narrow ideological range of discussion, general threads do allow us to distinguish distinct issue spaces on 4chan. By focusing on general threads, we can thus somewhat disentangle different constituencies on 4chan.. In chan vernacular, the author of a new thread is sometimes referred to as a “baker” whose curation of previous threaded discussions is referred to as a “baking bread” (bread being a pun on thread). Although in many cases, the opening post (OP) of the thread serves more to indicate the general thread’s presence than actually determine the conversation topic—as many anons attest, “nobody reads the OP”—in other cases, the OP can serve as a repository for important links. As we noted in our earlier research in the emergence of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory on /pol/, the decision of what to include and what to exclude from an OP can serve as a technique by which to accumulate “evidence”, and thereby to construct a conspiracy theory (Tuters et al. 2018).
As an existing popular (topical) discussion thread reaches its upper “bump limit” of 300 posts on /pol/, a baker will create a new general thread usually with the same name as a previous thread, as well as a suffix (e.g. “/ptg/ – President Trump General Midterms Edition” or “CBTS #200”). Since a popular thread can rapidly reach its maximum number of posts, new general thread can have a turnover rate of an hour. The baker of the next general thread’s opening post (e.g. CBTS #201), will typically summarize key points from the previous discussion often by copying and pasting the text of the previous opening post, and adding or removing a few links. Still, the overall proportion of general threads on 4chan/pol/ actually appears to be relatively small (on average only about 5% of the entire corpus). This relative scarcity only accentuates their significance as an object of study.
The Birth of QAnon
The QAnon conspiracy theory initially developed on 4chan/pol/ in November of 2017 with a series of anonymous posts. Although the name “QAnon” was not used yet, these would later be seen as the first “Q drops”. However, Q’s first posts did not appear out of a vacuum, as many 4chan-posters claiming to have governmental access had preceded Q, from “FBIAnon” to “HLIAnon” to “CIAAnon” (Zadrozny & Collins 2018). Still, Q’s caught on. Its very first posts predict the exact moment of Hillary Clinton’s arrest—which needless to say did not come to pass. Having received only minor engagement, the post was followed by another, written about an hour later in the same vague style, adding some more details and referred back to the first post using 4chan’s reply feature (appearing as e.g. “>>1234567” in the body of a post). An hour after this supposed first Q post came a longer post featuring a lengthy list of questions, a type of post whose style would become typical of a Q breadcrumb.
On November 1, an opening post appeared entitled Bread Crumbs – Q Clearance Patriot that sought to collect all the heretofore posted breadcrumbs, attributing them to a single author with “Q clearance”. Following this, some bakers began entitling their opening posts “Calm Before The Storm” or “CBTS”—a phrase that referred to a photo opportunity with senior military staff a month earlier in which Trump made a cryptic statement that had prompted widespread speculation including on 4chan— and sequentially numbering them, thereby effectively creating a QAnon general thread. These general threads would become /pol/’s main site for discussing and analysing Q’s breadcrumbs. Moreover, comments written in the Q breadcrumb style would also appear in these general threads. This would imply that “Q” was helpfully playing along with the general thread structure.
When posting on 4chan, leaving the “name” field empty will result in the default name “Anonymous”. Inserting something else is rare and frowned upon, repudiated in anons’ vernacular as “namefagging” (Beyer 2014). In contrast, the discussion within the Calm Before The Storm generals revolved around Q’s reluctance to play along with this convention. To signify identity across threads beyond the name and odd rhetoric style, at a certain point Q would start to use the function of adding a “tripcode” to a post, a code generated by a local string only known to the poster. While much discussion would remain critical of Q and typically irreverent in tone, in the course of time a pattern would nevertheless emerge across the Calm Before The Storm generals primarily focussed on the Q posts.
Figure 7 below, shows how a pattern of discussions referencing Q posts emerged in Calm Before The Storm generals with red nodes representing breadcrumbs and edges representing citations, their colour shifting over the course of a month. Looking more closely we see a density of breadcrumbs posted at the start of the generals, tapering off in early November and then returning again toward the end of the month. When comparing this visualization against figure 2 we see that, while this pattern of citation somewhat fades at points it tends to grow over time, especially in the opening posts. By first identifying a set of otherwise random anonymous posts as having been authored by “Q”, these discussion threads effectively valorized these posts into a corpus that Q’s adherents and social media influencers now consider canon. It is through this bibliometric process of citing and compiling that a group of 4chan anons appear to have invented QAnon.
Why were these breadcrumb posts of such interest to the 4chan community? Besides /pol/’s longstanding preoccupation with conspiracy theories, another likely reason is some members’ ongoing fondness for President Trump—who had entranced much of /pol/ in 2015-16, often colloquially referred to as /ourguy/—whose administration was now in relative disarray. Q’s breadcrumbs suggest an alternative reality in which Trump was in fact secretly in control of the situation, playing a multi-dimensional chess game that most could not perceive.
As an example of Trump’s supposed secret plan, one early breadcrumb on November 2nd concerns foreign affairs in the Middle East. Following a series of open-ended questions, written on each line as though in the style of poem, the post states that the “flow of information is no longer controlled by the MSM but by you”, and enjoins its readers to “[c]ombine all posts and analyze”. When dramatic events would occur in Saudi Arabia several days later, this breadcrumb would retrospectively be cited twelve times in a process that would build the myth of QAnon’s prophetic insight. Significantly, the aforementioned breadcrumb would also conclude with the line “Alice & Wonderland”, a pop cultural reference that would likely be understood to refer to redpilling, a concept of political epiphany popular on the post-libertarian right, and which would become folded into the developing narrative of Q in the phrase “The Great Awakening”.
Earlier in this post, we discussed how a set of vernacular axioms such as Poe’s Law have historically fed into a nihilistic epistemology that tend to prevent anons from taking things seriously. How is it then that such a deeply suspicious community could become so seemingly credulous as to believe in this conspiracy theory? One answer has to do with the extremely antagonistic tone of nearly all discussion on 4chan, which uses the same use us/them framework undergirding many conspiracy theories, in which an “elite establishment” are seeking to undermine the “general will” of the people, also common to the rhetoric of populists and anti-semites (Tuters & Hagen 2019). In his cultural history of 4chan, Dale Beran (2019) claims however that something significant shifted in 4chan with the emergence of QAnon. Beran offers a symptomatic reading of QAnon on /pol/ as offering a fundamental insight into the birth of a new kind of nonsensical political belief system in which
‘belief’ wasn’t really the correct term anymore. There was no word for this new sort of naiveté, in which the distinction between reality and fiction, trolling and trolled, identity and anon erased itself as people made a sport out of their politics and the discontents it bred.” (Beran 2019, 221)
From the beginning a significant number of commenters would dismiss Q’s breadcrumbs as “LARPing” (referring to live action role playing). Nevertheless, for about a month’s time, the “Calm Before The Storm” general threads would create a relatively “safe space” for both the discussion and the interpretation of Q’s breadcrumbs. During this period, all the basic coordinates of the current theory were developed and discussed on a network of sites of which /pol/ was only one. Nevertheless, Q would continue to post exclusively to /pol/ using its unique tripcode (!ITPb.qbhqo, first used on November 9th). The criticism of Q as a LARP, however, never went away, with anons writing posts that copied Q’s unique signature while subtly lampooning Q’s breadcrumb writing style. By the end of the month Q would begin to post on the even less moderated 8chan. The reasons for this move remain somewhat unclear. Some Q-acolytes say that “He left 4chan because it was infiltrated with enemies.” It appears however that 4chan anons may have simply had enough of Q. By early December anons had found a way to crack Q’s tripcode (#Matlock) and they started to use it to mock Q. At this point the irreverence so typical of 4chan once again took over and Q’s signal to noise ratio, forced Q to search out a more receptive audience elsewhere.
4chan as Fake Fact Fabricator
The story of the birth and initial growth of Q on 4chan corresponds to larger questions on knowledge production. The common sense understanding is that it is a linear process of new discoveries building on each other, and “cold hard facts” are thought to correspond with an underlying material reality that the hard-nosed empiricist is thought to progressively reveal. Apart from its refusal to accept falsifications and a loose relation to factual truths, this above epistemology is actually not far-off as a description for the average Q researcher. Before it went on to become a successful conspiracy theory, QAnon, as with Pizzagate before it, was fabricated by the users of 4chan. The outlines of the conspiracy theory were shaped by the vernacular affordances of this part of the Deep Vernacular Web.
The consideration of 4chan’s production of conspiracy theories outlined in this text resembles the social constructionist view on knowledge production initially developed by sociologists of science Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979). Performing an ethnography of scientific research practice via a site-specific study of the laboratories that enabled the transformation of raw data into fact, Latour and Woolgar rejected the then–dominant explanation that natural scientists were above all motivated by professional norms, rewards and recognition in favour of a view of scientific practice as more of a literary exercise in which actors engaged in the construction of texts. Uninterested in scientists’ theoretical problems, Latour and Woolgar argued that scientists engaged in networks of practice, the outcome of which was the stabilization of otherwise contingent realities into cold hard facts. Simply put, scientists were in the business of fabricated facts.
If the myth of QAnon, like that of Pizzagate before it, can be understood to have emerged from its discussion within general threads, we can likewise consider 4chan as a kind of factory for the fabrication of fake facts. Central to this process is Latour’s concept of “black boxing” which refers to the process by which initially experimental claims become perceived as settled facts–the more a claim is cited the more its underlying evidence would become taken for granted (Latour 1987). With new general threads appearing on an hourly basis in November 2017, the process of accumulating “evidence” would take on tremendous momentum, such that even the authors of general thread’s opening posts could no longer manage to keep up with the sheer volume of information. Heretofore, an increasing number of posts and comments alike would merely compile lists of other posts featuring breadcrumbs and discussions thereof.
If they chose to do so, a curious “researcher” could open these black boxes and follow the links back to a breadcrumb. When we do so, collecting together all of breadcrumbs from this one month period on 4chan into a single corpus, and then visualize the text as a word tree to include all sentences beginning with questions like “who”, “what” or “why” we see an interesting pattern. Even in this relatively small corpus many ofQ’s breadcrumbs include seemingly bizarre open-ended questions: Who controls the narrative? Who are the puppet masters? Who has ALL THE INFORMATION? etc., etc, etc. In their conspiratorial mania, it is as though these breadcrumbs ventriloquise the metaphysical dreams and nightmares that have been a consistent undercurrent throughout adolescent youth culture for well over a century (Savage 2008).
According to one currently influential thesis, conspiracy theories can be thought of as a “degenerating research program” that has the capacity to explain away all contradictions and which may be understood as the unfortunate effect of “crippled epistemology” that is the effect of communities of individuals being trapped in echo chambers (Sunstein & Vermeule 2009). One of the problems with this theory however is that new empirical research into how people use new media argues persuasively that echo chambers don’t actually exist (Bruns 2019). Another problem with this theory comes from recent ethnographic analyses of the practices of conspiracy theorists, which counterintuitively finds that “the arguments of conspiracy theorists resonate with those in the social studies of science” in terms of how they both seek to “contest the epistemic authority of science” (Harambam & Aupers 2016). In resonance with this latter ethnographic perspective one can take the methods of conspiracy theorists seriously without necessarily giving credence to their claims. As an example of this, in observing the discussions out of which the Pizzagate conspiracy theory previously arose on 4chan/pol, we broke these techniques down into the following categories and subcategories: researching, including linking to primary sources, linking to secondary sources, discussing sources; interpreting, including critique and using tools; soliciting, including calls for expertise and calls for action; archiving, including archiving information and compiling information; and publishing, including visualizing as well as publishing to other platforms.
In both the case of Pizzagate and QAnon, the opening posts of general threads were used to accumulate an inventory of prior research, a process that we referred to in the aforementioned research as bullshit accumulation (Tuters et al. 2018). Here bullshit refers to a concept in epistemology as developed by the analytic philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who defines it as a “mode of creativity” that “differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent” (2005 54). Although the term may appear to be glib, Frankfurter offers a relatively dry normative assessment of bullshit as a form of political communication, concluding that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”, in large part because of the very creativity of the enterprise of the “bullshit artist” (61). While Dale Beran claims that “the evolution of Pizzagate into QAnon represented a new low for both the chans and post-truth political discourse” (2019, 220), we can also acknowledge how the techniques used to create these conspiracy theories were highly effective as a form of knowledge production, even if that knowledge is, by Frankfurt’s definition, complete bullshit. However, in contrast to Frankfurter’s normative epistemology, the objective here has not so much been to “call out bullshit” on QAnon conspiracy theorists, as it has been a plea to redirect attention back to the source, away from the network of conspiracy entrepreneurs who work so assiduously to translate Q’s out of the morass of extremist ideology from which it arises.
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