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Memetic Warfare: How the Targeted Propaganda of QAnon Weaponised COVID-19

Daniel Morrison looks at the Trump campaign origins of the ‘gamified’ global conspiracy theory which has now evolved into active Coronavirus denialism

A woman waves an American flag adapted to reflect QAnon out of the window of a car at the “Reopen Virginia” protest. Photo: Matthew Rodier/SIPA USA/PA Images

Memetic WarfareHow the Targeted Propaganda of QAnon Weaponised COVID-19

Daniel Morrison looks at the Trump campaign origins of the ‘gamified’ global conspiracy theory which has now evolved into active Coronavirus denialism

The influence of perception is one of the defining features of modern life. Ever since Thomas Barratt used a nice painting to make Pears Soap more appealing, people have competed to change our minds about things. De Beers created the idea that diamonds had something to do with marriage. Edward Bernays put cigarettes in the hands of marching suffragettes to make them “Torches of Freedom”.

Political campaigns also employ agencies to influence public perception of their clients. Take the case of Donald Trump, who prior to announcing he was running for President has a chequered reputation nepotistic, a history of bankruptcies, allegations of tax fraud and openly bragged about sexual assault. His campaign would require the creation of a completely Alternative Reality. One where he was a strong, powerful, righteous hero, on a selfless mission to save the world from the clutches of an evil democratic cabal of deep state operatives. 

Step forward curious character called “Q”, who claimed to be from military intelligence, with inside information on how it was all going to go down.

The 2016 Trump Campaign

Let’s start by going back to 2016. Roger Stone had finally succeeded in making Donald Trump the Republican candidate for President. Stone’s whole career (and partnership with Trump’s campaign manageer Paul Manafort) had been a long list of dirty tricks, and this job was going to be no exception. And in an election, political propaganda isn’t just about building your guy up. Taking the other side down is just as effective. And so he set his sights on the democratic candidate: Hillary Clinton.

Again, with a candidate as qualified as her, it was going to take the creation of an Alternative Reality. And with the advent of the internet, that was easier than ever.

Jeff Giesea was a digital businessman, pro-Trump agitator, and associate of Peter Thiel who, drawing on the ideas of Chuck Johnson, published a paper called “It’s time to embrace memetic warfare”. In context, it was pitched as a way to fight ISIS. In practice, it would become a key part of the Trump campaign’s strategy.

There is now an entire industry serving this spacePsy Group is an Israeli company founded by Joel Zamel, which specialised in online perception management, through social media manipulation, influence campaigns, opposition research, honey traps, as well as clandestine on-the-ground activities.

In April 2016, during the Republican primaries, Trump Campaign offical Rick Gates asked Psy Group for a proposal. They responded with a quote for $3,125,000 plus media costs, and promised to make it virtually untraceable.

Three months later, Erik Prince arranged a meeting between Zamel, Donald Trump Jr., and George Nader (an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes) in Trump Tower.

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The “Deep Web” that the brochure above refers to, likely refers to Anonymous message boards like 4chan. 4chan is a place with basically no rules. It’s a fascinating environment that gives people a chance to express themselves in a way they never could, for better or worse. The tradition that we will focus on here is known as LARPing. The term comes from Live Action Role Playing, which is where people dress up as characters from a film, book, game or series that they like, and go out and enact the storylines.

Online, however, you don’t have to sew a costume and go outside. You just need a keyboard and an internet connection. People would pose as anyone they wanted, including people purporting to be from inside government agencies. 

FBIAnon – the Precursor

On 2 July 2016, when the FBI was conducting their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server, a character appeared, who will come to be known as FBIanon.

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Over hundreds of posts from July to October 2016, FBIanon systematically created and nurtured the idea that there was actually far more going on with the Democratic candidate — including occult rituals, and abusing trafficked children. If it had stopped there, perhaps we could consider it to be a LARP/prank. But it didn’t stop there. Because a handful of people on 4chan isn’t going to be able to make a difference in an election, FBIanon gave the following instructions (over many posts which are edited together here):

“The task is this: unleash every meme, image, and horrible story about HRC that you can muster… In order to be effective, you must proselytize… For example: Start a website aggregating the images/facts and then try to get it linked to Drudge. Shove the images down every news anchor/journalists throat. Push out to people who you normally would have nothing to do with… Why don’t you invade their circles? … We should be spreading memes to subs on Reddit.… blitz Twitter, Tumblr, and all social media with memes on the Clinton Foundation tonight, the last night of the DNC… We need TrumpGen with us, and the meme division blasting the Tumblr tags. Bring up the old methods that /b/ used to use during their Tumblr raids… We’re going to war tonight …Repeat something often enough and it becomes the truth. Repeat after me: ‘Hillary is evil and will destroy the planet.’…”

It’s possible that a passionate volunteer had the same singular devotion to getting Trump in office as Roger Stone. But they also intimated:

“More leaks will come. The time is not right yet. Expect an October Surprise.”

And when the second leaks did come, they added:

When you are reading Podesta’s e-mails, remember that the Clintons deal in weapons, drugs, and people. Some terminology in use is far more nefarious than many of you suspect.”

This indicated that whoever was posting as FBIanon was working with Wikileaks and/or Roger Stone. Russia had hacked into the DNC, and given the contents to Wikileaks, who told the Trump team. Sure enough, a few weeks later, right before the election, Wikileaks released 20,000 of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails.

While it was handy for the Republicans to have the other side’s material, there was literally nothing incriminating in there.

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But if you change some of the words, and tell people it’s sinister, an Alternative Reality begins to emerge, in which ultimately people are less likely to vote for Clinton.

‘Pizzagate’ wasn’t their only trick. They also created the story that Seth Rich was assassinated and a story that other key people in the campaign had an illegitimate child. It’s important to keep an eye on the people at the centre of creating these narratives such as Erik PrinceEd ButowskyMatt CouchSean HannitySteve PieczenikJerome Corsi, and Julian Assange.

The influence campaign obviously didn’t stop after the election. There was an administration to sustain, and eventual re-election to run for, amid mounting investigations into allegations of corruption.

In late October 2017, the day after Manafort and his associate Rick Gates were indicted, another character appeared on 4chan, who would come to be known as “Q”.

The Gamification of Conspiracy Theories

There are a few things that set QAnon apart from other Live Action Role Playing on 4chan. The first is that, like FBIanon, it is so dedicated in driving support for a candidate it is functionally indistinguishable from a professional campaign.

The second is that instead of answering questions, it asked them. This pointed the narrative outward, into the world.

The third is that it had an oddly specific policy agenda at the outset: attacking the Global Engagement Center – a new body devoted to fighting Russian meddling in elections. (It doesn’t have to be a “Russian Psy-Op” for the people responsible to be sympathetic to Russian interests.)

The fourth is how staggeringly effective it has gone on to be. Despite having a protagonist as terrible as Trump, it has convinced millions of people that he is quite literally God’s Gift, and broken countless families in the process.

In light of this, it’s important to examine this and try to understand what’s happened. We need to analyse some of the mechanics involved. And what we find when we look under the hood, is essentially an elaborate game. A lot of it seems to boil down to the fact that puzzles are fun.

Over the last 30 years, story telling has taken on a new dimension – interactivity. Plots that involve the reader, sending them on a treasure hunt, or asking them to solve riddles to advance the narrative. They bridge a gap between the fantasy world and the real world, using multiple forms of media to create a Game in an Alternative Reality. So they are known as Alternative Reality Games, or ARGs. They have a relatively brief but fascinatingly rich history: I Love Bees, The Art of the Heist, Last Call Poker, Perplex City, etc.

This is not an accident, it is not a coincidence, and it is not a joke. This is a ARG-based propaganda campaign in full flight, created by people using sophisticated psychological manipulation techniques. The foundation of a very similar strategy was explicitly articulated in a pitch deck from Wikistrat, another digital influence company founded by Joel Zamel:

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A campaign like this is powerful of course, but it’s not much use if it doesn’t reach the right people. And this is where companies like Cambridge Analytica (or Emerdata, or whatever else has succeeded SCL, and Gloo) come into the picture. As well as creating campaigns, they use unprecedented volumes of Big Data to aim content at the right market with surgical precision for maximum impact. And at the end of 2016, CA signed a memorandum of understanding with Psy Group

From QAnon to the Plandemic

Now we’re about to understand one of the biggest mysteries of all: how a bunch of hippies in the “wellness community” came to support Donald Trump. Because remember, this is about building political capital. The right-wing activist Proud Boys and Boogaloos groups are easy, they were already there. The next step is reaching a new audience, who otherwise would have been unlikely to vote for him, and converting them. The ones who do yoga, wear linen, and talk about aligning chakras and crystals. Who believe the world is ripe for spiritual ascension.

They watch documentaries like Thrive and Gaia Latest. They are people who are prepared to challenge what they’ve been told, and like to think for themselves; who don’t trust the government, who think banks do have too much power, that the media does lie to us; who are ready to go with one and with all, towards a great awakening.

In other words, this is a platform primed for Q content. And that’s exactly what’s happened.

Amongst those icons is the International Tribunal for Human Justice. It’s a faux court set up in 2015 which functions as a platform for the propagation of various conspiracy theories, including 5G, coronavirus, and the idea that children are being tortured for their adrenochrome — otherwise known as Blood Libel.

There was one important step in between though. People don’t usually go from zero to Blood Libel in so short a time. They need some sort of a gateway. And on the 4 May 2020, a man called Miki Willis released the infamous film Plandemic which threw the world into chaos and primed the pump for the outbreak of the Conspiracy Narrative Virus. That infected enough people to be able to go on and believe the #savethechildren conspiracy, and then the rest of the Satanic Cabal of Qanon.

It was promoted heavily, and almost exclusively by Breitbart. The idea that the virus was man-made came from a paper published by a think-tank called the ‘Rule of Law Institute’. Which was also funded by… Steve Bannon.

And thus we now have all the pieces in place for this to wreak absolute havoc with the shared notions of truth and reality we need for society to function. QAnon content was pumped through these channels, and with everyone locked inside it spread like wildfire through these networks.

On top of all that, Russia amplifies it in ways both big and small. Either by hosting the infrastructure of 8kun, amplifying content with bot networks, creating fake spiritual facebook pages to pepper with propaganda, or broadcasting the Lockdown/QAnon crossover protests. There doesn’t have to be collusion for this to have an impact. When the goals align, the effect is the same.

The disinformation machine is a dangerous threat to our democracy. If and when Q goes away, the power to create this phenomenon will remain. We must be prepared.

QAnon is propaganda. And we know who’s responsible.

A longer and more detailed version of this analysis by Daniel Morrison first appeared on Medium

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