Across the southeastern United States and the Caribbean isles, monsters rise up from the sea. As summer creeps into fall, we wait, warily, for the deluge these monsters will bring. We give them proper names—Hugo, Andrew, Katrina, Maria—and chart their paths as they spin toward our homes, lashing us with rain, blasting us with winds, and raising the sea itself to our front doors. We reverse our highways and evacuate our cities as mayors and governors and people on the news chronicle the damage.
We’re afraid of these monsters, yet we keep making them stronger. We’re warming our oceans, so when the monsters form off the coast, they have that much more energy to grow that much larger and stay that much longer. We’re filling in marshes for condos and laundromats, so when the monsters reach land, their natural barriers are gone. What they have instead is a playground, extra blocks to flood, extra buildings to smash. We furrow our brows and batten our hatches as these monsters, these menacing blobs on the radar, lumber toward our shores in greater numbers each year, giving us more chances to look back and say, “Now that was a big one.”
Yet “one” isn’t quite right. Hurricanes might be big, but they aren’t really one thing. They are, instead, the sum of many parts. They’re the temperature of the water. They’re the descending and ascending air. They’re the spin of the earth’s axis. They’re how all these things interact. As their causes aren’t singular, neither are their effects. If the winds miss you, the storm surge might not. If you dodge the storm surge, you still have to worry about flooding rivers. Exactly what happens, exactly what’s destroyed, is the result, of course, of the hurricane itself. But it’s also the result of a whole host of other less obvious factors, like coastal development, population density, and details like whether metric tons of manure from your friendly neighborhood hog farm spill out into the tributary. No matter how singular and self-contained the angry red blob looks on the radar screen, hurricanes are not singular and they’re certainly not self-contained. They’re a process, more verb than noun.
That people still refer to hurricanes as singular, self-contained things makes perfect sense. Singular, self-contained things are the things you can see. Singular, self-contained things are the things you can evacuate from. It’s simply easier to warn people about nouns, not verbs. Even so, locking a hurricane into singularity and self-containment, as if the hurricane begins and ends with the angry red radar blob, undercuts the ability to tell more holistic, more revealing, and more instructive stories about what the storm is, where it came from, and how we should respond.
By actively verbing the nouns being studied, hurricane analysis tells exactly these kinds of stories.1 This approach is especially helpful when trying to make sense of conspiracy theories, which number among the most menacing storms on the internet. Because they loom so large, have traveled so far, and have lingered so long after making landfall, this chapter focuses on Deep State conspiracy theories: the reactionary pro-Trump narratives purporting that Democrats are, among other horrors, engaged in a secret plot to destroy the Trump administration from within. Prominent Deep State theories include Pizzagate, which maintains that Hillary Clinton ran a satanic child-sex-trafficking ring out of the back of a Washington, DC, pizza shop, as well as the Seth Rich assassination theory, which asserts that a Democratic National Committee staffer was killed for attempting to expose the shadow government’s schemes. One Deep State theory, however, towers above all the rest. Launched by a self-proclaimed whistleblower within the Trump administration known as Q, the QAnon conspiracy theory claims that Trump and his allies are quietly planning a counteroffensive against the globalists, Satanists, and child molesters embedded within the government.
Each of these theories emerged as a storm unto itself. Over time, however, they began to replicate a rare meteorological phenomenon known as the Fujiwhara effect, in which multiple storms churning in the same region impact each other. When these storms are equivalent in size and strength, one storm will alter the course of another. When one of the storms is much stronger, it will lasso the smaller storm into its orbit. The latter is what happened with Deep State theories. Pizzagate and the Seth Rich assassination theory, both destructive in their own right, were ultimately absorbed by QAnon, creating a Deep State bomb cyclone so enormous and all-encompassing that it roared to the center of Donald Trump’s impeachment. To even greater and more deadly effect, Deep State theories whipped up the winds around another kind of storm altogether: the COVID-19 pandemic, which many in the MAGA orbit denied as another media hoax until the gale was bearing down on their own homes.
To explain how Fujiwhara-fueled hurricanes engulfed US politics, it’s not enough to chronicle when each storm emerged. Nor is it enough to lay out their conspiratorial claims and debunk them one by one. To understand Deep State superstorms, we must analyze how overlapping historical, technological, and economic forces have strengthened the winds; how asymmetric polarization has warmed the informational waters; and how efforts to contain the storms have instead pushed them into whole new areas on the map. Conducting such an analysis doesn’t just assess the causes, effects, and risks of conspiratorial storms. It gives the people on shore time to prepare and preempt the worst impacts when the next storm arrives. The long-term goal, however, is much more ambitious than that: it’s to prevent these storms from forming in the first place.
Conspiracy theories postulate how and why some hidden, usually underhanded, group is working toward some hidden, usually nefarious, agenda. These theories take many different forms and emerge from many different communities for many different reasons. The term conspiracy theory doesn’t hinge on truth or falsehood; an objectively false conspiracy theory and one that turns out to be fact are both conspiracy theories while they’re being theorized.2 In terms of demographics, white communities advance conspiracy theories at extremely high rates, but so do communities of color.3 No one single characteristic makes someone more inclined toward belief in conspiracy.
The pervasiveness of conspiracy theories undercuts the widespread assumption that such theories are fringe phenomena. It also undercuts the stereotype of the isolated, wide-eyed true believer wearing a tinfoil hat and rummaging around what looks like a set from season 3 of the X-Files. Conspiracy theories can thrive on the margins, but they also thrive within the highest seats of power.4 They emerge during times of extreme strife and during times of relative stability.5 Some have understandable, even outright rational, origins, while some do not. For example, many of the theories that spread through Black communities have verified historical precedent, stemming from the persistent, structural, all-too-real efforts by those in power to poison, experiment on, and murder Black people.6 Other theories, like white nationalist fears that people of color are conspiring to eliminate the white race, are irrational and the opposite of precedented. In short, conspiracy theories come in as many flavors as the people who amplify them. The world of conspiracy theories is large and contains multitudes.
This isn’t to say that conspiracy theories have nothing in common. American Studies scholar Peter Knight argues that conspiratorial thinking demonstrates a “pervading sense of uncontrollable forces taking over our lives, our minds, and even our bodies.”7 Richard Hofstadter, one of the most oft-cited commentators on American conspiracy theory, made a similar point in 1964, arguing that, across the political spectrum, true believers are marked by a distinctly paranoid rhetorical pattern and overall “style of mind.”8
This style underscores another commonality between conspiracy theories: their abiding preoccupation with some subversive them, the personification of everything we hate.9 Chapter 1 outlines the evil them of the Satanic Panics. As is the case with all subversion myths, the thing the Satanic Panics was about—Satan, of course—wasn’t the only thing it was about. Fear of the devil incarnate reflected a generations-old deep memetic frame that maintained who the us was, who the them was, and what hung in the balance if they successfully destroyed our way of life.
Similar kinds of subversion myths, and all the deep memetic baggage they carry, are central to many conspiracy theories. As historian Kathryn Olmsted explains, alien subversion myths—which zero in on nonwhite or non-Christian immigrants deemed threatening to “real” Americans—are especially common within the United States; they were, according to Olmsted, the dominant conspiratorial frame in the US throughout the nineteenth century.10 Hofstadter devotes particular energy, and particular ire, to myths of this ilk, which remained prominent within right-wing circles through the twentieth century. The animating premise of these theories, Hofstadter argues, is the fear that “America has been largely taken away” from these so-called real Americans.11 Even if nothing had, in fact, been robbed from this us, the belief was that we have been victimized by them, and further, that America had been great—until all these different others came along and ruined it.
A second conspiratorial frame that emerged during the 1960s was deep suspicion about the federal government. Olmsted argues that this suspicion developed with good reason; it was a response to the United States’ growing surveillance apparatus and willingness to use that apparatus to stick its nose, and of course its weaponry, where it didn’t belong.12 Conspiratorial side-eyes were also cast for the very simple reason that the government engaged in actual conspiracies, at times floating disinformation to deflect attention away from damaging truths. When these plots came to light—about the FBI slandering and spying on Black activists, about the Kennedy assassination, about Vietnam, about Watergate, about the Iran-Contra arms deal—people had ample reason to doubt official explanations of later events. As a result, government credibility plummeted. That establishment news media tended to repeat official talking points verbatim, often while denigrating alternative explanations, similarly damaged trust in journalism and, more broadly, trust in institutions—including the very notion of professional expertise.13
Although public trust in the government took an across-the-board nosedive during the second half of the twentieth century, the nature of that mistrust could vary greatly depending on one’s experience and one’s frames. For progressives, particularly those who had been caught up in the Red Scare, or civil rights activists who had been targeted by the FBI, or any number of people who objected to the United States’ bloody colonialist interventions, the government was run by right-wing fascists. For conservatives, particularly in the South, the federal government’s desegregation efforts during the 1960s, along with other pushes for equality, were the offensive encroachments.14 In their minds, those white southerners were the real victims of an oppressive state; their reaction, as the historian Jason Sokol explains, was to cast the government as the far-left fascist them.15
Add one part alien subversion myth to one part antigovernment suspicion, filter through Hofstadter’s paranoid style, and you’ve brewed yourself a Deep State storm.16 The continuity between Deep State narratives and midcentury antigovernment frames is as straightforward as it is clichéd (certainly by X-Files standards): there exists, these theories go, a villainous bureaucratic shadow government that sets the nation’s foreign and domestic agenda based on its own self-interested globalist whims, “real” Americans be damned. Trump, running as a Washington DC outsider, rode precisely those antigovernment, antiglobalist suspicions into office.
But antigovernment suspicion is complicated when your party runs the government. The Deep State theory is essentially a work-around, allowing Trump and his supporters to keep their cake and eat it too; the federal government can be full of nefarious shadow agents, and the head of that government can be the hero. That contortion satisfies antigovernment frames, but it creates consequential tensions. While it may be the case that the US government has long disseminated conspiracy theories, or merely created the conditions for conspiracy theories to thrive, the conspiracy theories now disseminated (or merely tolerated) by the government are directed at that same government. Every time Trump phones into Fox News, the antigovernment call is coming from inside the White House.
Alien subversion is the second frame animating Deep State narratives. In the 1960s, when Hofstadter was writing, the un-American alien them were the communists (often synonymous with Jews, even if not stated outright) and any progressive social causes that could be tethered to Communism, including civil rights and feminism. By the time Arlie Russell Hochschild was studying Tea Party conservatives in the 2010s, the alien subversion dog whistle had redirected to the “line cutters” absconding with the opportunities and benefits that conservatives believed “traditional” (as always, “white”) Americans should be receiving.17
In Trump’s America, the valiant us beset by alien subversion follows a similar pattern, uniting white, patriarchal, Christian Americans behind a Reagan-era campaign slogan with deep memetic roots: Make America Great Again. Carol Anderson, an African American Studies scholar, zeros in on the white rage at Trump’s MAGA core.18 What Trump warned throughout his campaign, Anderson explains, was that people of color would continue getting more than what they deserved, while “real” Americans would continue getting less (a statement itself implying that people of color were already getting all they needed and more). Trump pulled from and fed into these concerns, implicitly and explicitly promising to return America to the halcyon days of the 1950s, an era when white dominance remained firmly entrenched, when white folks didn’t need to share resources, and when beleaguered white men didn’t have to worry about “political correctness.”
It should go without saying: the 1950s were a brutal, violent era for the tens of millions of Americans who happened to be any color other than white, and especially brutal and violent for those who also happened to be any gender other than male. And yet this idea is what Trump publicly and unrepentantly stood for: the government should be serving the interests of those “traditional” Americans, not the invading horde of immigrants that the leftists were trying to coax across the border. The enemy—them—included anyone who stood on the other side of that potent, xenophobic frame.
The demonization of the anti-MAGA them was on full, and indeed literal, display on June 19, 2019, at Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection kickoff rally. The event opened with a prayer from televangelist Paula White, Trump’s spiritual adviser. Midprayer, White pivoted to the anti-Trump them. “Right now,” she declared, “let every demonic network who has aligned itself against the purpose, against the calling of President Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus!”19 Later she promised the rapt crowd that “President Trump will overcome every strategy from hell and every strategy from the enemy—every strategy—and he will fulfill his calling and his destiny.”
A white nationalist America is the America Trump champions. That is the “calling” and “destiny” Paula White asked Trump’s supporters to pray for, and that is the vision that conspiracy theorists endorse when they rail against the Deep State getting in Trump’s way.
Deep State conspiracy theories are, in other words, much older than Donald Trump. At the same time, when they emerged in 2016, they were the unique products of the contemporary weather system. That historical specificity is key to understanding how the theories emerged, how they became central to Trump’s impeachment, and how they endangered millions of lives during the COVID-19 crisis.
One of the first Deep State catalysts was Trump’s incessant calls during the 2016 election to “lock up” democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for her involvement in a laundry list of alleged criminal activities. Another was Trump’s declaration that, as president, he would drain Washington’s “swamp” of corrupt bureaucrats. Trump’s bellowings fired up his base, which emboldened Trump, which fired up his base, which emboldened Trump—a cycle supercharged by the news media at every turn.
Conservative media played a crucial role in this process, epitomizing the asymmetric polarization Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts mapped during the 2016 election cycle.20 This polarization is asymmetric because, while media on the Right have grown increasingly insular and reactionary, center-left mainstream media have remained traditionalist and entrenched in norms from previous media eras.
On the Right, these shifts are often attributed to the rise of Fox News, which was founded in 1996 just as the network climate crisis was gaining strength. As Anne Nelson’s history of the American right-wing influence network shows, however, asymmetric polarization began long before that.21 Indeed, the Right’s baked-in ideological resistance to the Left was a central message of 1970s Evangelical media networks. The reach of these networks grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with vast right-wing radio empires playing an especially pivotal role. By the time local journalism began collapsing under the weight of technological and policy shifts in the 1990s and 2000s, far-right media were perfectly poised to swoop into the resulting “media deserts” devoid of local media coverage, filling them with reactionary, verging on extremist, content.22
Meanwhile, center-left publications remained loyal to the Fairness Doctrine, or at least the spirit behind it, as the actual policy was abolished by Ronald Reagan’s FCC in 1987. Good faith commitment to both-sides fairness is easily gamed by propagandists who have no interest in the truth, yet still want to see their lies given equal billing. Or, more simply, who want to “win”—measured through ratings or getting out the vote or waging a holy war. Or all three at once. This is a fight the center-left has always been set up to lose, as the both sides impulse simply doesn’t fit within a right-wing, holy us vs. demonic them worldview.
Enter 2016. The swirling collision of asymmetric polarization on the Right and knee-jerk both-sides-ism on the center-left ensured that Trump’s claims would be widely amplified across the political spectrum. Even mainstream coverage that condemned Trump, called out his lies, and countered them with facts spread his claims. And that’s not all it did. Coverage critical of Trump—and of Trump supporters—also played into long-standing hostilities on the Right toward center-left media. For Evangelicals in particular, the assertion that the mainstream news media were in cahoots with the same criminal incompetents inhabiting “the swamp” was an easy sell; they’d been hearing how fake and terrible and downright satanic the liberal establishment was for decades. The more the establishment tried to counter Trump’s accusations with facts, the more it triggered reactionary pushback against the perceived elitist them trying to tell us what to think.
Trump carried this antiestablishment grievance into the first moments of his presidency. The theme of his inauguration speech was “American carnage,” and the newly sworn-in president spent the occasion decrying how low the country had fallen (“That was some weird shit,” former president George W. Bush reportedly said after Trump’s remarks).23 It’s no surprise that even as Trump and his party took power in January 2017, he and his supporters were still searching for enemies within the government.
Deep State theories didn’t emerge solely from what Trump said, of course. As the Fujiwhara effect would predict, each new theory drew considerable energy from existing theories. One of the earliest centered on the July 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Proponents of the theory claimed that Rich had been killed by some combination of Clinton goons and the Democratic National Committee after he allegedly leaked the DNC’s stolen emails to WikiLeaks (a claim WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange himself strongly suggested). Rich had done no such thing; police concluded that his death was the result of a botched robbery.
In 2019, Michael Isikoff of Yahoo! News chronicled how the Seth Rich assassination theory was in fact seeded as part of the Russian government’s sweeping 2016 election interference efforts.24 These efforts paid off handsomely, as Rich’s already traumatized family was incessantly retraumatized by the onslaught of increasingly bizarre accusations, which, after bubbling up through Russian propaganda channels, filtered through forums like 4chan and Reddit before spreading into the right-wing media ecosystem.
The Seth Rich story laid the groundwork for another prominent pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. This theory emerged in October 2016 and amassed enormous social media visibility thanks to the same DNC email leak that falsely placed John Podesta at the not actually demonic spirit-cooking dinner discussed in chapter 1. This theory, cobbled together from stolen DNC emails, held that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were running a satanic child sex ring out of the back of a Washington DC pizza shop. The Far Right—and without doubt the Russian government—was enthralled.
The 2016 election marked a turning point for both theories. Suddenly Trump’s own administration became the hidey-hole for enemies within the government. The FBI, which had for months been investigating Russia’s election interference, along with its possible ties to the Trump campaign, was at the top of Trump’s conspiratorial shit list. Within months of his inauguration, Trump publicly accused the agency of wiretapping his phones as part of its inquiry, which by that point Trump was already calling a “ruse,” a “hoax,” and “non-sense.”25
These suspicions went thermonuclear in May 2017. First, Trump fired FBI director James Comey. His reason, Trump explained in a taped interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, was that “this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia, is a made-up story” (Trump later denied having made this admission). Days later, in response to Comey’s firing, the Department of Justice appointed Robert Mueller to oversee a special counsel investigation into possible ties between Russian disinformation efforts and the Trump campaign—in essence, to continue the FBI’s work. Not coincidentally, Anna Merlan notes, May 2017 was when the term Deep State experienced its first uptick on Google Trends.26
The Mueller investigation first elevated the Deep State enemy to national prominence; the accusation within far-right circles was that “Obama holdovers” were conspiring to undermine Trump from within the Justice Department. Deep State conspiracy theories were, in turn, supercharged by the narrative energies already fueling the Seth Rich and Pizzagate theories. Though both theories emerged before the 2016 election, they were each retroactively absorbed into the Deep State storm after May 2017. The ever-present influence of Fox News all but ensured this outcome. In the same week that the DOJ opened its special counsel investigation, Fox News published an article pushing the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. Ultimately the network was forced to retract the story, because it was nonsense. That didn’t stop prime-time host Sean Hannity from doubling down; he continued doing nightly backflips to publicize the connections between the Deep State, Clinton, and the DNC.27
From May 2017 onward, a steady stream of reactionary videos, memes, and manifestos dedicated to the Deep State pinged back and forth across pro-Trump media. The chans, MAGA corners of Reddit, and other far-right forums served the younger demographic, while Fox News breathlessly covered a variety of Deep State plots for its older viewers. High-profile figures within the Trump orbit also pushed the theory, including two—former national security adviser Michael Flynn and longtime Trump adviser Rodger Stone—who used the Deep State as a legal defense after being indicted as part of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation.28 Twitter played a crucial role in linking each of these networks, ensuring that the energies of one would feed into all the others.
The frenetic cross-posting between right-wing networks was not restricted to the MAGAsphere. Center-left news media covered the Deep State story with equivalent energy, often as more of a Trump circus sideshow. Progressives on social media also joined in to fling their own hot takes, ensuring that Deep State theories traveled well beyond the us pushing the narrative. These reactions, in turn, helped the conspiracy entrepreneurs who built an entire brand on top of the Deep State parlay all that free publicity into merch sales and monetized YouTube channels.29
And then there was the president, who professed to dislike the term Deep State—because, as he explained in an interview, it “sounds so conspiratorial”30—yet spent years decrying the Mueller investigation as a “phony witch hunt” invented by the Democrats and their allies within the “fake news” media. The latter, Trump argued, were, first, enemies of the people and, second, just mad because Hillary Clinton lost the election—a default line of attack wielded by people defending the Deep State theory and denouncing anyone who challenged Trump. Through his incessant protestations and invectives and tweeted obstructions of justice, Trump thus posited a false conspiracy theory to obscure a true conspiracy undertaken by the Russian government, which, as Mueller’s report revealed, did in fact interfere with the election to benefit Trump—help that the Trump campaign may not have initiated, but was certainly aware of and more than happy to accept.31
Fueled by Seth Rich’s murder and Pizzagate, the Deep State conspiracy theory roared forward, absorbing as much energy as it generated. The bombshell arrest in July 2019 of Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy financier indicted for an actual underage sex-trafficking conspiracy, churned the waters even more. The fact that Epstein had links to Bill Clinton and other high-profile liberals, coupled with the troubling detail that Epstein had been cut an unusually generous plea deal for similar charges in 2008 by US Attorney Alex Acosta, spun off a slew of Deep State accusations. Same with accusations of Satanism. As anthropologist Jessica A. Johnson highlights, when YouTube conspiracy theorists first got wind of Epstein’s sweetheart plea deal, they zeroed in on his Clinton connections and in their videos included fictionalized “ritual sacrifice montages” featuring masked perpetrators.32
As Pizzagate’s falsehoods collided with Epstein’s very real crimes, right-wing conspiracy theorists were inundated with what, to them, provided the ultimate proof of their claims—proof that remained unshaken by Trump’s own ties to Epstein, like Trump making Alex Acosta his Secretary of Labor, Trump praising Epstein’s exploits with women “on the younger side,” and 1992 news footage of Trump and Epstein leering at women together during a party.33 Inconvenient truths aside, the Epstein-Pizzagate connection became even more compelling for believers in August 2019, when Epstein died by suicide in his jail cell. Almost immediately, Epstein didn’t kill himself became a meme, as did accusations that the Clintons were the real killers.34
The arrest and death of Jeffrey Epstein strengthened the Deep State surge; it was a powerful force. But it wasn’t the most powerful. The Epstein story was so easily roped into the Deep State superstorm because that storm was already a monster, having recently absorbed a bomb cyclone known as the QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon marked the mainstream tipping point; it powered the Deep State superstorm out of the Fox News orbit, through the Epstein scandal, into the eye of impeachment, and forward to the COVID-19 crisis. It was a perfect conspiracy storm.
It all began, as it so often does, with a tweet. On March 27, 2018, actor Roseanne Barr accused David Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, of giving a Nazi salute at a gun control rally. This was false. Hogg, who had emerged as a prominent gun control activist after a mass shooting at his school, was raising his fist in protest.
As out of left field as the claim seemed, Barr wasn’t posting a random attack. Nazi David Hogg was already a meme, at least in some reactionary circles. This was the profound insult added to the indescribable injury of the shootings themselves, which claimed the lives of seventeen Stoneman Douglas students and staff members. The false Nazi connection wasn’t the only accusation, either. In the wake of the tragedy, many Stoneman Douglas students were subjected to a series of harmful, patently false conspiracy theories. Most prominent were assertions that they were paid crisis actors, a term reactionaries use to suggest that mass shootings are hoaxes and survivors are only pretending to be victims. Fox News dutifully helped publicize this indignity.35
For her part, Barr had been pushing a laundry list of right-wing conspiracy theories for years. Not only was she a proponent of the Seth Rich assassination theory, she also claimed in February 2017 that Democrats were blocking Jeff Sessions’s Attorney General nomination because he promised to start making arrests over Pizzagate (which she called #PedoGate).
After her Nazi David Hogg tweet, however, Barr recanted and quickly deleted the post. But not quickly enough; the tweet lived on through screen grabs shared widely by outlets like BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, and Newsweek.36 The day after deleting her tweet, Barr responded to the controversy. She claimed that she had reacted to a photoshopped image and only later realized her error. Many weren’t convinced, noting that the apparent source image she was responding to was in fact not photoshopped; it was Hogg raising his fist in protest, plain as day. More damningly, Barr’s critics noted that the highly anticipated reboot of her show Roseanne had premiered that same night on ABC; they speculated that the network had forced her to remove the tweet.
Despite—or maybe aided by—this controversy, the sitcom enjoyed massive first-night ratings, even prompting Trump to call and congratulate Barr. The show also, unsurprisingly, precipitated a great deal of news coverage. Stories focused, first, on the politics of the show itself, as Roseanne was one of the few network programs to sympathetically portray Trump voters. Stories also focused on the politics of Roseanne’s star, specifically the extent to which Roseanne Barr, the offscreen woman, could or should be separated from Roseanne Conner, the onscreen character. These stories often addressed growing calls to boycott the show based on Barr’s conspiratorial and often explicitly racist tweets. Barr was a media storm in and of herself. Those conspiratorial energies were primed to collide with the clouds already gathered on the horizon.
Such was the backdrop for Barr’s maelstrom of tweets on March 30, 2018, posted the week after she’d called David Hogg a Nazi. Her tweets on March 30 covered a favorite subject: the QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon maintains that Donald Trump is waging—and winning—a war against the Deep State. Conspiracy theorists know this because an individual, or group of individuals, called Q knows this. Q knows this because they claim to be embedded within the Trump administration and have “Q-level” security clearance. In addition to the overarching assertion that Trump is valiantly fighting the Deep State, Q maintained (at least initially) that Robert Mueller was actually in secret league with Trump and was using the Russia investigation as a ruse to take down the Deep State and expose its satanic child sex ring.
Q first appeared in late October 2017, when they posted a series of cryptic messages to 4chan’s /pol/ board. Q’s initial flurry included several vague prognostications, some of which appeared to come true, or at least could be contorted toward confirmation. Perhaps because participants sincerely believed, or wanted to believe, Q’s story, perhaps because they recognized its potential for media manipulation and conspiracy entrepreneurship, perhaps because they simply thought the meme was funny, Q’s posts catalyzed ceaseless storytelling, speculation, and play on 4chan. Technology researcher Benjamin Decker followed the story as it traveled.37 First, participation spread from 4chan to 8chan in early December 2017. Then it jumped to the Calm before the Storm subreddit several weeks later, and a Discord server after that, in January 2018. The Great Awakening, another subreddit devoted to QAnon, became a hotbed in early summer 2018. By this time, QAnon had evolved into its own distinct conspiracy brand, complete with the slogan “Where We Go One, We Go All,” or, more economically, WWG1WGA.
Barr was tracking QAnon’s evolution from the very start. All the way back in November 2017, she expressed interest in the theory and asked if it would be possible to meet the individual or individuals posting as Q. She was also caught up in her own microconspiracy about QAnon: soon after she sent those November tweets, her account was briefly suspended. As Kelly Weill of the Daily Beast chronicles, conspiracy-inclined followers speculated that Barr had somehow been replaced or otherwise “taken care of” by the Deep State.38 Barr wasn’t gone for long, and upon her return to Twitter, she continued pursuing her interest in Q. In her round of tweets on March 30, 2018, she zeroed in on the Pizzagate-inflected elements of the theory, praising Trump for having broken up pedophile rings “in high places everywhere” and freeing children from sexual bondage, Barr claimed, at a rate of hundreds per month.39
Harnessing the attention generated by Barr’s David Hogg tweet, the premiere of her show, and her long-standing interest in QAnon, journalists dove headfirst into the MAGA Roseanne story. “Roseanne Keeps Promoting QAnon, the Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory That Makes Pizzagate Look Tame,” the Daily Beast proclaimed; “Roseanne Tweets Support of Trump Conspiracy Theory, Confuses Twitter,” echoed CNN; “The Conspiracy Theory behind a Curious Roseanne Barr Tweet, Explained,” wrote the Washington Post.40 Reporters covering Barr’s March tweets summarized the QAnon theory and linked out to existing coverage of the saga—explanations that often took half an article just to lay out the basics. Many also addressed Barr’s November 2017 tweets and her fondness for conspiracy theories more broadly.
These news articles, to be sure, chronicled things that were actually happening in the world. Countless proponents, detractors, and onlookers besides Barr clamored for information about QAnon. For many of them, “The Storm,” as the theory came to be called, was all too real; allegedly just around the corner, as reporter Paris Martineau explained, were “arrests, political turmoil, and Republican vindication.”41 At the very least, the story was something fun to speculate about on the chans. As active as these participants might have been, however, QAnon didn’t become international news solely because of their social media presence. Like so many far-right activities, QAnon was supercharged by center-left journalists.
Roseanne Barr was, unwittingly, vital to this process. As had been the case in 2017, but much more prominently in 2018, the gravitational pull of Barr’s celebrity directed a great deal of interest, and therefore a great deal of energy, to the story. These energies were compounded by Roseanne’s Trump connections. All those stories about Barr’s QAnon tweets, in turn, propelled the theory well beyond Barr’s personal reach—indeed, beyond any proponents’ personal reach. Same with stories designed to explain or debunk QAnon. All of it furthered the QAnon narrative and its associated claims about satanic Deep State pedophiles.
Consequently, people who had no knowledge of or interest in QAnon but did have knowledge of or interest in Barr or Trump were exposed to the theory. Not because they spent any time on 4chan, or because they followed Barr on Twitter, or because they followed anyone on Twitter. They didn’t have to go to the conspiracy theory to encounter the conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory came to them. It then filtered back into the information landscape when the same people responded with social media likes or commentary or simply clicked through to an article, feeding ever more data into the mouths of waiting algorithms. The end result was to grant widespread, often deeply serious, cultural traction to a theory that may very well have started as what Know Your Meme calls “a live action roleplaying game.”42
News coverage helped amplify QAnon even when it wasn’t the direct focus of an article. For example, on May 29, 2018—two months after her QAnon-meets-Pizzagate tweet—Barr tweeted a racist epithet about Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman who served as senior adviser to President Obama. Almost as quickly as the tweet was posted, Roseanne was canceled. A great deal of the subsequent coverage tethered Barr’s hateful comment to her historically outlandish social media presence. To provide readers with context, fresh articles about Barr hyperlinked to the compendium of Barr-focused conspiracy explainers and debunkers already in existence—in the process, adding a whole new gust of wind to the storm. For example, in the postcancelation article “Roseanne Barr’s Tweets Didn’t Come from Nowhere,” New York Times author Sopan Deb begins discussing QAnon by the third paragraph.43 Roseanne may have been canceled, but Barr wasn’t deterred: “we r the army of truth,” she tweeted on June 20, 2018, “wwg1wga.”44
The feedback loop between news coverage and cultural visibility wasn’t lost on QAnon’s most active proponents. Regardless of their specific motives—Phillips notes the difficulty of determining who was participating sincerely, who was in it for the media manipulation, who was a live-action role player, and who was some combination of all three45—all worked to amplify the theory. Indeed, attention was the goal from the very beginning of the QAnon saga, when two 4chan moderators and a YouTube vlogger came across Q’s initial posts on /pol/, saw potential in the story, and decided to spread it across social media.46
Benjamin Decker’s research provides even more insight into proponents’ highly coordinated propaganda efforts, which were firmly in place by November 2017.47 Armed with cheat sheets full of time-tested manipulation strategies—including ironic humor, zippy memes, and canned talking points—QAnon proponents began working across platforms to push the story as far as possible. They also discussed how to maximize Q exposure at Trump rallies; in one June 2018 thread on the Great Awakening subreddit, posters compared notes on how to make Q shirts and signs for an upcoming rally in South Carolina. One poster said they would pass out Q business cards.
All this work paid off at a rally in Tampa, Florida, on July 31, 2018. Members of the Great Awakening subreddit had coordinated in advance to wear matching Q shirts and brandish Q signs—all the better to bait reporters with.48 The paraphernalia was an immediate news sensation, thanks in part to the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s recent policy of separating immigrant families at the US-Mexico border. Whether or not QAnon proponents knew it, the backlash against Trump’s inhumane order meant more cameras trained on the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall. Trump might say something new, or something worse, about the policy. Instead, journalists saw a whole lot of Q signs, and there was something novel to cover. Decker chronicles how proponents reacted to the resulting panic. “You are now mainstream,” one 8chan poster declared. “Handle w/ care.”
For the next several days—indeed, for the next several weeks—more and more news outlets published more and more articles detailing the ins and outs of the theory, many of which referred back to Barr’s initial involvement and subsequent unemployment. Articles from Vox, the New York Times, GQ, and the Guardian, among many others, included the words “explained,” “explaining,” or “guide to” in the headlines.49 Other articles focused on how the online conspiracy had gained traction offline, evidenced by headlines like NBC’s “What Is QAnon? A Guide to the Conspiracy Theory Taking Hold among Trump Supporters,” NPR’s “What Is QAnon? The Conspiracy Theory Tiptoeing into Trump World,” and Rolling Stone’s “As QAnon Goes Mainstream, Trump’s Rallies Are Turning Darker.”50
Still others took aim at the nature of the conspiracy itself, headlining QAnon stories with terms like the Independent’s “bizarre,” PBS’s “false, fringe,” and the Washington Post’s “bonkers” and “deranged conspiracy cult.”51 No matter how condescending and snarky the headlines, no matter how negative the coverage, QAnon proponents basked in the attention. This was perfect; this was exactly what they wanted for their “great awakening.”52 As noted by the Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser, one YouTuber who streams conspiratorial musings to his forty-five thousand subscribers perfectly captured this giddiness.53 “I haven’t been this happy in a very long time,” he said. “CNN, NBC News, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, Washington Post, MSNBC, those are our new QAnon reporters!” The man paused, then burst out laughing.
The Tampa Trump rally did not mark the end of the QAnon story. Not by a long shot. Articles about the conspiracy spiked in the coming months following additional Q-specific developments. For example, in December 2018, Vice President Mike Pence retweeted (and later deleted) a picture of himself standing with several Broward County, Florida, SWAT team officers, one of whom had affixed a Q patch onto his uniform. In the same month, a city councilperson in California, stepping down after losing an election, proclaimed “God bless Q” in her farewell address. This was, as Daily Beast reporter Will Sommer notes, the first known case of an elected official referencing the conspiracy theory during official business.54 Reporters also continued covering the QAnon contingent at Trump rallies. “Write off the sheer prevalence of the QAnon cult at your own risk,” NBC reporter Ben Collins tweeted in March 2019, responding to a YouTube video of Trump rally attendees brandishing Q paraphernalia.55
And then, again, there was the president. In late July 2019, Trump retweeted a QAnon promoter who had previously claimed, among other conspiratorial musings, that Democrats murder children so they can harvest their “pineal glands,” and that the Clintons torture children in order to extract a drug from inside their skulls.56 The retweet capped off twenty other instances in which Trump had retweeted QAnon supporters.57 Then, in early August 2019, one of the opening speakers at a Trump rally in Cincinnati declared onstage, “We are all in this together. Where we go one, we go all.”58 After the 2019 jailhouse suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, Trump pushed the limits of the Deep State myth even further by retweeting the accusation that Epstein was actually murdered by the Clintons.59 The hashtag #ClintonBodyCount immediately trended.
As the president’s tweets illustrate, the QAnon story is much bigger than QAnon. The story is predicated, instead, on all the overlapping storms, and all the overlapping energies, that fuel its metanarrative. Pizzagate. Seth Rich. The Satanic Panics. Older energies than even that. These energies, in turn, have helped fuel entirely new storms. As 2019 gave way to 2020, the most politically consequential was the category 5 hurricane known as impeachment—which, unsurprisingly, Evangelical leaders immediately began describing as “a Satanic scheme to upend God’s plan for America.”60
It was not the actual Deep State, but rather a conspiracy theory about the Deep State, that triggered impeachment. During a July 2019 call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump dangled the promise of foreign aid in exchange for two sets of investigations: one of Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter and another of the conspiratorial fever dream known as CrowdsStrike, which claims that the Deep State had secretly been working with Ukraine since 2016 to frame Russia for US election interference.
Trump didn’t explicitly say the words “Deep State” in his call with Zelensky (though he did refer to CrowdStrike by name), opting instead for his usual euphemistic hints. By then, Trump wouldn’t have needed to say the actual words to transmit the Deep State wink to his supporters. Vast swaths of the population were already convinced—by the president, by Fox News, by social media, by figures like Trump’s lawyer, bagman, and constant cable surrogate Rudy Giuliani, who right up to impeachment worked with reactionary conspiracy theorists to boost Trump’s defense—that the Democrats were trying to stage a secret coup.61 Their first attempt was the Mueller investigation, this widely accepted argument went, and next was the sham impeachment—all because Hillary Clinton lost the election in 2016.
As evidenced by Giuliani’s dubious on-air defenses, the disconnect between the Left and the Right during impeachment was immense. The millions of Americans not standing behind reactionary frames, whose worldviews had not been shaped by wraparound right-wing narratives, had no earthly idea what Republican congresspeople were talking about (Ukraine framing Russia? The server? What?). Conversely, the millions of Americans who were standing behind reactionary frames, whose worldviews were confirmed by everything they saw and read, had no earthly idea what Democratic congresspeople were talking about (Quid pro quo? Unconstitutional overreach? What?). The proceedings, Ryan Broderick of BuzzFeed News explains, were thus cleaved into two separate impeachments, one focused on the facts of the Ukraine scandal, and one raining down from a Deep State superstorm energized for decades by far-right influence networks.62 Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, perfectly embodied the collision of these energies. In response to the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, Gosar wrote a series of twenty-two tweets whose first letters spelled out “Epstein didn’t kill himself.”63
Here things become meta. When we submitted the draft of this book to the MIT Press production team in January 2020, we ended this section on the above Epstein line. Then, as it goes with books, time passed. As the weeks clicked by, the global COVID-19 crisis intensified. By the time we received copyedits back in March 2020, there was an entirely new chapter of the QAnon story to tell, and somehow, astonishingly, an even larger storm than impeachment to track.
The first connection between QAnon and COVID-19 is straightforward. Starting in January 2020, QAnon proponents teamed up with anti-vaccination activists to claim that former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates had, in consort with the usual Deep State suspects, created COVID-19 to profit from its eventual vaccine. During this window, Trump continued retweeting QAnon boosters and even a QAnon catchphrase (“Nothing can stop what’s coming”) captioned over a Photoshopped image of himself fiddling (“As Rome burned?” many critics asked).64
The second connection between QAnon and the pandemic is much less straightforward. It’s also much more insidious. Months and months, even years and years, of drum beating within far-right circles about the evils of the Deep State and their efforts to destroy Trump’s presidency all but ensured that, when the COVID-19 winds began picking up in the US, the virus would be dismissed as another Deep State plot. And that’s exactly what happened. More extreme narratives outright blamed the Deep State for the COVID-19 outbreak. Other narratives, particularly those amplified by Fox News, claimed that the fake news media, working in lockstep with the Democrats, was overhyping COVID-19 to hurt the economy and thereby Trump’s reelection chances.
Trump fixated on this narrative, and for weeks tweeted bitterly about the effect COVID-19 was having on the stock market. At one of his final campaign rallies before he too was forced to respect social distancing guidelines, Trump even claimed that the virus was a hoax. Trump’s defenders insisted that he wasn’t saying the virus itself was a hoax, but rather that the panic was a hoax the way that impeachment had been a hoax. This defense may have been semantically true, but conveniently sidestepped the fact that when Trump said impeachment was a hoax, he meant that everything about it was made up by the Democrats.
We finalize this latest round of edits—our last chance to add new content to the book—in mid April 2020. The Trump administration had months to prepare the country for COVID-19, yet chose instead to dismiss and downplay the threats, ensuring an utterly bungled federal response that threatened the health of hundreds of millions. Eventually, Trump acknowledged that COVID-19—which, true to xenophobic form, he’d taken to calling the “Chinese virus”—was in fact a public health emergency. With a gaslighting blitz that was breathtaking even by 2020 standards, Fox News likewise pivoted to emphasizing the seriousness of the virus, praising Trump’s amazing response, and raining down hellfire on anyone who dared criticize him during a national crisis.65 We’re at war with this virus, Fox News insisted; and that makes Trump a wartime president—a designation that Trump tweeted about with great masculine vigor.
Trump kept tweeting, of course, but it wasn’t long before the narrative shifted back to conspiratorial rumbling; soon Fox News was again questioning the wisdom of the quarantine, and Trump was bellowing in all caps about how people needed to be “LIBERATED” from states with Democratic governors who insisted on not reopening the economy before it was safe to do so.
The US death toll just hit thirty-five thousand. It’s unclear how many more will die because so many, for so long, refused—and in many cases, are still refusing—to take the appropriate protective measures on the grounds that the Deep State, the fake news media, and the wily Democratic establishment (it’s all the same evil internal enemy) was at it again. Trump broke with his tradition of conspiratorial euphemism to emphasize this point during a March 20, 2020 press briefing. During the briefing, he stood on stage flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. A rarity within the Trump administration, Fauci was known for giving straight answers and actual facts during press briefings. Reporters asked Pompeo a question, but Trump interjected. “I’d like him to go back to the State Department,” Trump said. “Or as they call it, the Deep State Department.” Fauci blinked and tried not to laugh. After a moment, he covered his face with his hand.
None of this happened by accident. Yes, some of the energies fueling Deep State conspiracy theories are generations old. But such extreme media events, and such suffused, out-of-control pollution, are only possible in this specific climate at this specific moment in time. Analyzing how the network crisis helped manifest the Deep State superstorm is the first step toward preventing future hurricanes. And, very possibly, saving lives. As the COVID-19 catastrophe illustrates, conspiracy theories can kill.
Three points of divergence between contemporary conspiracy theories and theories of generations past highlight how and why our networks have been pushed into crisis.
First, while conspiracy theories have spread through all kinds of everyday networks since the 1960s—from Kennedy assassination truthers trading self-published speculations to the paranoid separatists that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh hobnobbed with at gun shows66—conspiratorial frames can now cascade into the feeds of millions of nonbelievers in a matter of seconds. As a result, being a believer in a particular theory is no longer the primary precondition for learning more about it—or for helping propagate it. Deep State theories provide a striking case in point, but they’re hardly anomalous. People can encounter all kinds of theories without even trying, and can send someone else scurrying down the rabbit hole to find more information with a single retweet. Even if they’re sharing with an eye roll, because the story is just too bizarre.
Second, although the United States has incubated a robust, increasingly polarized right-wing media apparatus since the 1950s, this apparatus has been turbocharged by network climate change. One of the contributing factors is what computer scientist Kate Starbird and her team call an “echo-system.”67 When people ensconced within their echo-system see information, they have good reason to trust that it is correct; it has been corroborated here and there and everywhere they look. This corroboration, however, is an illusion of source diversity, not actual source diversity. As Anna Merlan argues, right-wing media, encompassing everything from 8chan to reactionary YouTube channels to Fox News to fundamentalist radio to Donald Trump and back again, is nothing if not an echo-system.68
The Left, of course, has its own ideological silos—but not with the same insularity, and not emerging from decades of ideological intensification. Ironically, the powerful signal boosting afforded by the center-left is a primary catalyst for far-right intensification. Recall, for instance, how little attention mainstream journalists paid to the extraordinary popularity of televangelists in the 1970s and 1980s. Tens of millions of Americans’ lives were shaped by televangelism. For mainstream journalists, though, fundamentalist stalwarts like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were a passing joke, if they had heard the names at all.69 Over time, slowly and steadily, network climate change rendered the barriers between the Left and the Right increasingly permeable. The Left is now well aware of far-right goings-on. What they do isn’t just newsworthy. It’s clickbait.
The most immediate consequence is that far-right messages—conspiracy theories very much included—that never would have traveled beyond reactionary circles are catapulted across the ecosystem. This creates new audiences for reactionary claims. Some are taken in. Others have their perspectives muddied by how incompatible far-right claims are with center-left accounts of the same events—to the delight of media manipulators, who succeed when people take in all the noise, throw up their hands because “nobody really knows the truth,” and stop paying attention entirely.70
A less obvious but just as consequential effect of center-left signal boosting is to trigger a full-on Galapagos response. People further to the left, who have long been separated from those further to the right, are for the first time seeing what to them feels like a whole new species. And they don’t like it—because what in the hell kind of alternative-fact bullshit are they talking about? People on the far right have long harbored, and indeed have long publicized, similar antipathies—unbeknownst to the liberals they’ve been railing against for decades. Back then, the Right was fighting a holy war only they knew was happening. Now, center-left media comment on the far right’s every maneuver, mocking them, approaching them like malformed birds—only reinforcing right-wing beliefs about the elitist, biased, fake-news mainstream.
This disconnect is devastating for democracy. It’s bad enough that folks on the Left and Right see each other as actual monsters; that makes consensus-building, not to mention policymaking, next to impossible. It’s worse that one side has evolved to mistrust facts, science, and institutional knowledge, including the boring but crucial role establishment bureaucracy plays in keeping the world running; the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the sweeping public health consequences of the impulse to trust no leftie, a designation equated with anyone who can claim expertise based on training and experience. The disconnect between the Left and Right has also ratcheted up the heat in an already-warming informational climate, ensuring that the most outrageous reactionary claims can spool up into raging storms very quickly with very little coordinated effort.
These informational consequences speak to the final historical divergence between conspiracy theories past and present. Ever since the 1960s, when trust in government began to plummet and antigovernment conspiracy theories became something of a national pastime, everyday citizens have clamored to “get to the bottom of things.”71 The same impulse has, for just as long, inspired conspiracy entrepreneurs to cash in on America’s increasingly paranoid style. Social media certainly didn’t create either impulse, but they have changed the alchemy of both. Everyday people—and, increasingly, politicians—looking to “get to the bottom of things” have more access to more information, more opportunities to mine more networks, and more incentive to parlay those investigations into a personal brand. Donald Trump is a classic example. He launched his political career in 2011 by propagating the racist Birther conspiracy theory, which maintains that President Barack Obama wasn’t really born in the United States. In speech after speech and interview after interview, Trump wouldn’t let questions about Obama’s birth certificate go. As they would continue doing for years about lie after lie, reality TV spectacle after reality TV spectacle, the center-left news media rewarded him for his efforts.
As Trump’s political genesis demonstrates, citizen sleuthing and conspiracy entrepreneurship have fundamentally fused. More than that, conspiracy theories have become for many a full-time job. And not just any job; the kind of job that can get you invited to the White House. On July 11, 2019, for example, Trump hosted a who’s who of far-right conspiracy entrepreneurs at a “social media summit.” During the event, Trump praised attendees for their ability to spread reactionary pollution. “The crap you think of is unbelievable,” Trump fawned. “I mean it’s genius—but it’s bad.”72
Peddling conspiracy theories and courting conspiracy theorists have become, in short, good business and good politics.73 The extent of these financial and political benefits isn’t just supported but often outright encouraged by the contemporary media climate. Enter the new normal of extreme weather events. After all, peddling conspiracies creates visibility, and visibility creates votes, or money, or both. So that’s what politicians, particularly on the Right, do—because they benefit. That’s also what everyday citizens, particularly on the Right, do—because they benefit. In many cases, it’s all just a presidential retweet away.
Just as it’s tempting to cordon a particular conspiracy theory off as a singular, self-contained narrative, it’s tempting to presume that we somehow stand outside the information storms we observe. Both impulses are a mistake, but the second is particularly dangerous. As hurricane analysis insists, a storm isn’t some singular “out there” thing. Instead it comprises everything we use, read, and interact with—our own social media accounts very much included. Increasingly extreme and increasingly frequent, informational superstorms draw their energy from the technological, the social, and all their points of connection.
A major—if easy to overlook—energy source for emerging storms is platform design, and the powerful but subtle ways that design decisions influence user behavior. Online platforms guide their users through algorithmic docenting, which steers users via trending topics, search rankings, and other suggested content. These influences and the design decisions behind them do not unfold in a vacuum; they emerge, instead, from the collision of the liberal assumption that information should be free from censorship and the neoliberal assumption that markets should be free from regulation. Polluted information is the consequence of both.
In her study of Google search results, Safia Noble highlights this confluence, arguing that the hate, abuse, and conspiracy theories floating to the top of the search page aren’t a surprise; they’re baked into the company’s business model.74 Google’s results are far from straightforward, of course; they’re influenced by a number of factors, including page rankings,75 search histories, and search engine optimization purchased from third-party companies or Google itself. No matter the specific algorithmic formula, when pollution spreads, Google benefits. As an advertising platform first and foremost, Google makes money when citizen sleuths use the internet to “get to the bottom of things” and when conspiracy entrepreneurs produce content for alternative media echo-systems. The company has every financial incentive to serve up as much of that pollution as possible.
Similarly, Tarleton Gillespie attributes the roar of polluted information—particularly hate and harassment—across social media to the corporate monetization of views, likes, clicks, and shares.76 Like the hate and harassment Gillespie chronicles, like anything that generates interest online, conspiracy theories are, very simply, valuable to social media companies. And when content—whatever that content might be—is valuable to a platform, it’s further promoted through recommendations, trending topics, and algorithmically weighted feeds. The content might be damaging. It might be harmful. It might be outright false. But it’s good for business—which is precisely why, Gillespie notes, social media companies enforce the weakest possible moderation policies with the weakest possible consequences for abusers. The result might be devastating for the people who are abused, but for platforms it makes financial sense not to intervene; Danielle Citron highlights that, within their own corporate ethos, these platforms act rationally—even responsibly to their shareholders—when they stand idly by as their most vulnerable users are subjected to relentless attacks.77
Relatedly, Becca Lewis zeros in on how YouTube’s algorithms reward, and in the process spread, bigoted conspiracy theories.78 Not only do YouTube’s algorithms initially expose users to pollution through video recommendations, they ensure that once users click a recommended video, they are continually fed videos that are more and more extreme. Lewis’s argument is corroborated by a large-scale data analysis conducted by Manoel Horta Ribeiro’s research team; they found that users who started clicking and commenting on more moderate right-leaning content were soon clicking and commenting on outright extremist content.79 It’s not that YouTube—or its parent company Google—actively loves and supports conspiracy theories. It’s that these videos keep people on-site, clicking their hours away.
The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz chronicles a similar problem on Instagram.80 Despite its reputation for inspirational quotes and stylized images of well-lit millennials, Instagram serves a more exploratory and informational function for Gen-Z users. Just following a few conspiracy-focused accounts, Lorenz explains, sends users “spiraling down a path toward even more extremist views and conspiracies.” After following a single reactionary account, Lorenz herself was inundated with suggestions to follow other reactionary meme pages and far-right media figures. Once she followed these pages, she received even more recommendations for conspiracy accounts. Most leaned heavily on conspiracy theory hashtags, making it even easier for users to find related content with a single click.
Given all this, when the falsehoods at the core of QAnon swirl across social media, when “evidence” of conspiracy creeps into search results, when increasingly unhinged Deep State videos are served up with each new click, it’s not because the system is broken. It’s because the system was designed to maximize speed, spread, and profits.
Platforms are not our only problem, however, and are far from the only energy sources for our most destructive storms. Everyday people do just as much damage. During the 2016 presidential election, for instance, journalists filed an enormous number of stories about reactionary chaos agents and bigots and conspiracy theorists. They did this, in large part, because audiences read an enormous number of stories about reactionary chaos agents and bigots and conspiracy theorists. People loved those stories; they wanted to read them.
Similarly, stories about QAnon or Pizzagate or Seth Rich didn’t spread solely because algorithms pushed readers to the stories. QAnon, Pizzagate, and Seth Rich made for good clickbait because the stories themselves compelled people to click. These narratives resonated with audiences. The why of this resonance could vary: maybe it was true belief, furrowed skepticism, or an ironic chuckle. Whatever the reason, even in a sea of algorithmic recommendations, people make choices. The attention economy might lead people to content, but it can’t make them click.
Audience affinities, and the choices fueled by these affinities, broaden the blame for radicalization well beyond algorithms. Algorithms are certainly a concern. They splash pollution into corners of the internet that would never have been tainted by it otherwise. They reflect deep memetic frames that privilege unchecked spread over thoughtful restraint. They reinforce ignorance, bigotry, and paranoia, often making those impulses worse, more concentrated, more actionable. Algorithms do not, however, create any of those problems. Polluted information is a social problem, not a strictly algorithmic one.
Becca Lewis charts the complex interplay of the social and the algorithmic.81 YouTube audiences, she argues, are exposed to reactionary views—and at times are outright radicalized—by conspiracy entrepreneurs. Algorithms, which direct audiences to increasingly fringe content, play a clear role in this process. But that relationship goes both ways. Conspiracy entrepreneurs are also radicalized by their audiences, whose appetites for all that increasingly reactionary content are both whetted and sated by algorithms. Content that meets the audience’s growing need for conspiratorial content is rewarded by clicks and likes and comments and shares and subscriptions, generating revenue for the content creator. Like the platforms themselves, conspiracy entrepreneurs have every economic reason to keep ratcheting up the pollution.
As danah boyd chronicles, media manipulators have mastered the art of weaponizing these audience-algorithm feedback loops.82 First, manipulators use social media to trigger news coverage, typically through some outrageous, destructive, or over-the-top behavior that journalists can’t not report on—like wearing match-to-match QAnon shirts to a Trump rally. Second, manipulators frame the resulting controversy with terms that are unfamiliar to new audiences, prompting them to search for those terms online—terms like “the great awakening,” “the storm,” or “where we go one, we go all” (“WWG1WGA” is even less scrutable and therefore even more provocative). Ideally, for the manipulators anyway, these searches will send audiences down precisely the reactionary rabbit holes that social media economics incentivize. Third, manipulators either pretend to cry hot, indignant tears in response to the coverage, laugh so hard they actually do start crying, or simply lash about in the spotlight, giving reporters even more to write about. The QAnon boosters who took to their YouTube channels and subreddits to crow about how much they love all the QAnon news coverage, hoping reporters would see this and write stories about that too (they did), provide textbook examples. The goal is to keep the story alive, ensuring that audiences will keep asking the algorithms to feed them poison. Journalists, audiences, and algorithms unwittingly work together in destructive harmony.
And so, stories about QAnon or Pizzagate or Seth Rich, stories about any pollution on any subject, must be understood—indeed, can only be understood—as an entire hurricane, top to bottom, front to back, land to sky. The storm isn’t a single news report, or a single influencer, or a single tweet, not even from the president of the United States. The storm is, instead, all those things all at once. Journalists write articles about a thing because algorithms surface the thing because audiences are interested in the thing because the thing reinforces deep memetic frames because journalists write articles about the thing because algorithms surface the thing because audiences are interested in the thing because the thing reinforces deep memetic frames. Around and around, until the storm fills the sky.
Other people do a lot of environmental damage. We, ourselves, do too. The center-left journalists who covered and covered and covered the QAnon story illustrate how we all, every single one of us, fit within the storms we track. This is the final lesson of the Deep State.
To be clear: center-left QAnon reporting wasn’t bad. Many of these articles—whether explainers, debunks, or denunciations—were quite good, or at least interesting in a rubbernecky sort of way. They provided critical contextualizing information about QAnon, its proponents, and its relationship to the paranoid style of Donald Trump’s presidency. However, on the whole, these articles missed as much as they illuminated. Notably, with very few exceptions, they sidestepped the role the articles themselves played in amplifying QAnon. Reporters instead presented the conspiracy theory as a wholly organic phenomenon gurgling up from the Trumpian swamp. The theory certainly gurgled up from somewhere. But the QAnon ooze was flung into the clouds and entered the water cycle thanks to a considerable assist from the howling winds of journalism.
First and foremost, journalistic winds spread the Deep State superstorm far outside the right-wing echo-system—a basic hallmark of network climate change. This happened even when articles debunked the theory point by point, illustrating one of the most vexing consequences of the debunking impulse itself. Indeed, for all the explainers and fact checks published between 2017 and 2019, the QAnon theory didn’t just fail to dissipate; its surge grew stronger, until the Deep State became a common talking point for members of Congress and served as the backbone for Republican impeachment defenses of Trump. It also became grounds to reject medical expertise about a global pandemic on the grounds that I’ll never let the Deep State tell me what to do.
Reflecting another hallmark of network climate change, journalistic attention drove an even deeper ideological wedge between the Left and the Right, particularly via eye-rolled declarations that of course Trump supporters would believe in QAnon, because they’re stupid. Even if people on the Right weren’t Deep State truthers, condemnation and mockery from establishment journalists further justified (for people standing behind that frame, anyway) the Right’s visceral disgust for progressives. Relatedly, the deluge of hot takes and tweets and articles on the Left gave right-wing chaos agents, professional propagandists, and lest anyone forget, Russian disinformation agents all the more reason to keep pushing the Deep State story. It was working. It was working for audiences on the Right and for critics on the Left, who couldn’t stop talking about the Deep State, allowing cynics and state agents and Deep State believers alike to play up that discord to maximum personal benefit.
By not considering how they themselves were helping spread the story, by not considering how they themselves were making the story worse, or at least making the jobs of far-right agitators and manipulators that much easier, center-left reporters were unable to tell the biggest and most important truths about the gathering storm. More than that, they helped feed it. Journalists weren’t the only storm chargers, of course; this is the fate we all tempt, particularly when we position ourselves outside the story we’re writing about or commenting on or laughing at.
And that, right there, is the consequence of a fully realized network crisis. None of us are ever outside anything. The inability—or outright unwillingness—to see how or why all but ensures that we will ourselves become part of the problem, even if we’re desperate to help. As we generate more and more extreme weather events, we churn up more and more pollution, obscuring our shared land and our shared purpose. All we can do is grope for something steady while the winds whip and debris flies. There can be no functioning democracy or civil society or individual vibrancy when we can’t see three feet in front of our faces. We’re certainly not equipped to navigate a public health catastrophe when information about a threat is as dangerous as the threat itself.
It is here that the network map transforms from discussion aid to navigational tool, from “you are here” to “now how do we make our way through?” The question is not an idle one. Understanding how polluted information seeps through our networks, how our everyday decisions help spread that pollution, and how overlapping energies fuel media storms forward, allows us to better protect the online environment from those who seek to contaminate it. It also allows us to better protect the health and safety of the communities who inhabit it. As we venture into uncharted territory, network maps in hand, we must keep our eyes on those guiding stars—stars that remain as bright as ever, even as the storms howl overhead.