QAnon is such a weird theory that it's tempting to think humanity is getting dumber. But it's better seen as a highly sophisticated way of manipulating people. QAnon may one day be considered a masterpiece of propaganda.
This cult-like belief revolves around a conspiracy theory in which prominent Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are systematically victimizing children in order to extract something called adrenochrome from their blood. They consume this substance, so the story goes, as both a youth elixir and a recreational drug.
People may believe the theory, or parts of it, are true, even if they don't know that it's called QAnon. In a December 2020 NPR/Ipsos poll, 17% of Americans said that they thought it was true that "a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media," and another 37% said they weren't sure.
Why would anyone believe this, let alone so many people?
One reason is that believers discover the details of this conspiracy theory for themselves by solving puzzles and finding clues called "drops." Game designer Reed Berkowitz says he quickly recognized QAnon as a kind of a game known as an alternate reality game. These are fictional stories that send people out into the real world to gather clues. On the way, players encounter others who are engaged in the same hunt.
Berkowitz doesn't just think QAnon is like a game — he thinks it is a game, though he says it was intended to fool people into thinking it's real. When people get find drops, they are mean to look like valuable, high-level leaks.
The drops are designed to make people feel a sense of discovery, something believers find highly rewarding. In a piece he wrote for Medium, Berkowitz argues that when people think they've found an idea themselves, they become attached to it. And they get pleasure from it.
When I talked to him by phone, he said alternate reality games use something called rabbit holes to send people in search of clues. The games can lead to phone calls and real meetings between players. Reality and fantasy blend, but the players recognize they are taking part in a game.
QAnon, he says, looks like something created with a purpose in mind. "I absolutely think that somebody is designing it and promoting it," he says. The purpose is propaganda. The game leads people to distrust mainstream media, politicians and medicine, including Covid-19 vaccination campaigns. It also leads them to antisemitic and racist beliefs. Players may or may not believe the literal truth of the blood-draining story, but they tend to be bonded by ideology and feelings of distrust.
The community reinforces those ties, says Berkowitz. "If you're suddenly involved in this community of people who supports you and believes that you're valuable ... this keeps you coming back." The game is designed to reward people with social credit when they figure out the "correct" answer, which is the answer the QAnon designer or designers had planned all along.
And of course, we're more isolated than we've been in recent history — missing the diversity of social interactions that in normal life keeps us from falling into ideological rabbit holes.
Simon DeDeo, a social scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, says people too easily dismiss believers in conspiracy theories as stupid. And that makes it hard to understand why these explanations draw people in.
In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Science, he and a colleague explore the different factors that make explanations valuable. One that applies particularly well to conspiracy theories such as QAnon is called co-explanation, an ability to link seemingly disparate phenomena with a single explanation. The world's great scientific theories do it, too — from Darwin's evolution to the theory of electromagnetism to quantum mechanics tying together matter and light.
Conspiracy theories also tie up lots of little loose threads this way, just like a satisfying whodunit. "What something like QAnon does is hijack that source of joy we get from solving a murder mystery," DeDeo says. But conspiracy believers tend to put too much weight on co-explanation. "Fundamentally, they have the right values … These values are virtues mostly, except when the value is overemphasized," he says.
Facebook, Reddit, YouTube and Twitter are the perfect soil for this sort of thing to bloom, bringing together users seduced by the lure of discovery. If people are engaged in QAnon, social media gives them more, until people are storming the U.S. Capitol.
Now that social media is becoming many people's only social outlet, we can expect more conspiracy theories to spread.
There is no new normal without real-world social interactions. There's only a new abnormal.
The author is an award-winning science journalist and a journalism critic for the Knight Foundation.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement