Six years or a lifetime ago, outgoing Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart began mocking Fox News with the nickname “bullshit mountain.” It was an appropriate epithet at the time — and given the channel’s embrace of a baseless conspiracy theory last year about the death of Democratic staffer Seth Rich, the mountain has grown into a veritable Everest of bullshit since Stewart left the scene.
But compared to the conspiracies that have grown tall in the fertile soil of the internet, Fox News is a bullshit molehill. The largest of today’s bovine towers burst out of dank 4Chan chat rooms and into the sunlight of the mainstream this week, via its appearance on shirts and signs at a Trump rally in Tampa: the QAnon conspiracy theory.
If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid it so far, here’s the whole Q worldview in a paragraph. Special counsel Robert Mueller isn’t really looking into the shady Russian connections of the Donald Trump campaign; it’s a front for an investigation into a child sex ring supposedly conducted at the highest levels of government for decades.
According to an anonymous online poster called Q (whose followers believe has high-level government security clearance), thousands of indictments will shortly be announced — it’s always shortly — in an event called “the Storm.” In the past month, QAnon has moved in ever more insane directions; a second anonymous source (RAnon) has arrived, claiming that JFK Jr. faked his death in 1999 in order to lead the anti-pedophile effort behind the scenes.
QAnon would just be another batshit conspiracy theory without the enhancement of the internet. The fact that it’s being worked out in real-time in forums like the “great awakening” subreddit provides constant reinforcement: you can’t be crazy, because look at all these other people digging for clues! Amateur sleuths can share clues; trolls, who may not even believe all the details, have somewhere to belong. (Trump, a fan of distracting and divisive conspiracies since his birther days, appears to be encouraging this one too.)
For Trump supporters especially, Q conveniently explains every irrational tweet and self-contradictory statement from their leader — even his misspellings are said to be clues. It diverts attention from actual pedophilia convictions and accusations in GOP ranks — Dennis Hastert, Roy Moore, the alleged enabler Rep. Jim Jordan. Most importantly, it postpones their reckoning with the fact that Trump in office has done little but enrich himself, his cronies, and the 1%.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. What we should be surprised by is the extent to which Silicon Valley luminaries laid the groundwork for QAnon and other bullshit towers such as Pizzagate — which led to a gunman bursting into a pizza joint in Washington D.C. — on their platforms. Pizzagate and QAnon may have been born in the fever swamps of 4Chan and Reddit, but they both grew with the assistance of a whole online ecosystem of podcasts, documentaries, videos, tweets, and posts you can share with your family.
For years, the leaders of Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Reddit, and YouTube have treated this kind of nonsense with the same reverence as rational reports and good-faith analysis. They run modern media platforms but still won’t admit it, rarely discussing until recently their responsibility to fact-check the content. If the internet is a crowded theater, these are the people who allow the shouts of “fire” to keep spreading.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has become the poster child for this kind of dangerous cluelessness in recent weeks. Asked whether Facebook was going to boot Alex Jones’ InfoWars from its platform — InfoWars, you’ll recall, being the batshit conspiracy-driven site that claimed the murder of children at Sandy Hook was faked — Zuck suddenly found himself defending even Holocaust deniers because “I don’t think they’re intentionally getting it wrong.” (Jones was later banned from Facebook for 30 days).
Holocaust deniers are, of course, intentionally getting it wrong; that’s the whole point of their decades-long effort to muddy the historical waters and dispute the purpose of Auschwitz. If Zuck hasn’t watched it already, the 2016 movie Denial — about a real-life libel trial brought by Holocaust denier David Irving — is an excellent summary of how this intention works in practice.
But Zuck isn’t the only tech founder to turn a blind eye to the dangers of bullshit. Over at Twitter, founder Jack Dorsey has similarly specialized in spinelessness. He may have belatedly booted millions of troll and bot accounts from the platform, and he may have a point when he says he can’t ban Trump himself for his newsworthy lies. But he still gives free rein to people like Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theorist and Gamergater who promoted Pizzagate to his 430,000 followers (and has a long and troubling history of statements about rape.)
Then there’s YouTube, where study after study shows the algorithm spinning out of control. We saw this in the 2016 election; out of 643 videos that were recommended to people watching politics content in 2016, 551 were conspiracy-filled videos favoring Trump while 92 favored Clinton, according to the Guardian. We saw it again after the Parkland shootings in February, where the site unintentionally promoted videos labeling the victims “crisis actors.”
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki makes occasional apologies and vague noises about using human editors — but again, she won’t boot people like Jones, who has more than 2 million followers on her platform. Belatedly, YouTube did remove four of Jones’ videos this week for violating its guidelines.
But it hasn’t solved the central problem that led to the rise of Jones and copycat crazies like him. Search for QAnon, and the 10 videos with the largest number of views are all promoting the bullshit theory. The most popular, “Q — the plan to save the world,” has 750,000 views at time of writing — and a comments section full of people enthusing about how they’ve shown it to friends and family members who are “now in the Q movement.”
The greater the bullshit in a conspiracy video, it seems, the more likely YouTube will push it into your “up next” queue. Depending on your political leanings, you’ll greet them with credulity or outrage — either way, you’ll watch.
The same seems to be true on Amazon Prime, which promotes “documentaries” by Jones and that relatively small-time bullshit artist Dinesh D’Souza. Even Spotify hosts Jones’ podcast, though it did pull a handful of episodes Wednesday. Reddit, the fourth largest service on the internet by views, pulled the Pizzagate conspiracy subreddit just prior to the 2016 election, but allows QAnon theorists to flourish.
Until now, this has seemed the wisest choice for tech CEOs trying to keep their heads above the fray and appeal to both pro- and anti-Trump forces. Talk airily about free speech, remove a handful of examples of the most egregious, evil nonsense, and hope that the problem goes away without you having to hire more human editors or imposing a system of fact-checking on the content you publish.
But QAnon is proof that the crazy isn’t going away. Quite the opposite. It’s accelerating. The more Trump unravels in public, the more eager his fans are for a conspiracy theory that explains why they weren’t wrong to support him.
The only question is how long the gurus of the internet will continue to provide the ground where these dangerous ideas grow, unchecked, for the sake of their profits.