I’ve been a writer and producer of television and movies working in Hollywood for over 30 years. One of my recent jobs was on the TV series Homeland, where I was involved in creating the season just concluded. The season was about information warfare. It’s a little-discussed subject, and it took a lot of research to find out exactly what this protean form of conflict is all about. The past season of Homeland offers a pretty good primer in some of the basic techniques and counter techniques.
In the course of my duties I happened to be loitering in a corner of the net frequented by cyber mercenaries, some of whom were likely also associated with state intelligence agencies, as well as a good number of neo-Nazis and anonymous individuals who post pictures of their genitals. That’s how you win Emmys.
Last October, I was in this anonymous digital casbah when something entirely ordinary happened. A poster dropped some “bombshell” intelligence. This anonymous entity called himself “Q” short for Q clearance patriot, and became known as Qanon, or Q-anon. A Q clearance is the highest security clearance issued by the Department of Energy. It’s basically a go-anywhere, talk to anyone, look at anything pass.
“Anons,” as the anonymous contributors to these forums are called, are often misfits. Some are autistic, or identify as such. These autists pride themselves on their ability to discriminate, to see things normal people miss, and on never being deceived. So there was no way they were buying Q.
On the chans, the cluster of websites known as 4chan and 8chan, there’s something called a LARP, which stands for Live Action Role Play. Anonymous imposters are common as dirt, and the autists thrive on ripping their pretense to shreds. So they set on Q like termites on fresh pine.
Q was supposedly a Trump confidant, working inside the administration. He had access to the man himself and to the most sensitive intelligence on key fronts. His posts were framed as dispatches from the shadow war between the establishment and Trump, the intended audience for which was the weird, huge pro-Trump digital community which definitely does not get its news from ThinkProgress, or the New York Times, or even Fox News. You might think of it as Twitter for the great unwashed.
Yet where Twitter is a single “micro-blogging” advertising platform controlled by a man named Jack Dorsey who presents himself as having left-leaning celebrity-friendly politics, the underground community that Q was targeting does not have a single, shiny, brand-name home. Instead, it lives on a variety of bulletin boards, Facebook pages, etc. which host long forensic chains, and serve as assembly and distribution points for photo-hieroglyphic memes, which help knit this community together.
For some, this new form of information—or misinformation, or propaganda, or distributed reality-building, or whatever you want to call it—functions as the expression of a counter-aesthetic to the self-flattering collective reality that is manufactured for and by liberal arts college graduates on websites like Vox. For others, it is a political technology that allows for bottom-up distributed participation in building out story-lines, whose direct purpose is often to counter the story-lines that are broadcast by digital news organizations, often at the behest of professional political operatives, whether government or ex-government officials or hired guns like Fusion GPS. For others, perhaps many millions of them, it is a worm-hole into an X Files-like counter-truth which they believe to be real, which includes phenomena like Pizzagate or warnings about secret pedophile rape camps in the Arizona desert.
Q-anon’s appearance caused considerable debate among the autists, and many “sperged out” before the matter was settled. Now, nine months and hundreds of proofs later, many believe that Q anon was exactly who he (or she) claimed.
Q started dropping “truth bombs” sometimes two and three times a day. The autists would go crazy spotting connections and digging up evidence publicly available on the Internet. They were building a parallel construction, following Q’s crumbs to uncover rich lodes of evidence, which they processed and assembled into distributable forms, some of which were posted on 4chan. The individuals, institutions, and shadowy nation state actors being targeted by these memes, many of them heavily researched, struck back. Automated computer processes started posting child pornography, pictures of corpses, intermingled with user posts filled with hateful filth, turning the forum into a garbage dump. Q then led the autists out of 4 chan like a latter-day Brigham Young to another website called “the Great Awakening.”
When this second location was compromised, Q led another exodus, this one to a site protected from hostiles (how, and by whom, are surely fascinating questions to contemplate). The website is still populated with misfits and infested with whatever kinds of political operatives and spies, or people posing as such, but the collective research goes on, and the computerized attacks have been neutralized.
Do you know about predictive modelling in computers? I didn’t. I’m a writer, a generalist, not a scientist, but I watched a few training videos on the subject. Large technology companies and government intelligence agencies do predictive modeling using the machine learning language R with ‘caret’ (CLassification and REgression Training.) In the same way autistic people easily spot connections that normal people miss, machine learning sees causality that even autistic people are not able to process. Q and his colleagues appear to have used these techniques to model contingencies and to guide the development of their plan, while providing their followers with tactical guidance and updated predictions with data continually updated from reality.
To build such a machine, Q needed services unavailable on the market at any price. He needed a few hundred intelligent, autistically-inclined people of disparate talents to network together. Try hiring those, and if you have 20 million you’re prepared to spend, how are you going to manage them?
I believe that Q had this figured out, too. You can’t bully an autist, and they are not primarily motivated by money. The same way an autist can’t stand something like magazines left in disorder on a coffee table, they can’t stand living with obvious contradictions and lies. So, they are highly motivated truth-seekers. I think most of us are, to the degree that we have time; but where do you find it? The truth is a needle and out there are a thousand haystacks. Q knew that if he could convince the autists he was who he claimed, they would work night and day for him.
When the president made his trip to Singapore, Q had a special present for the autists. It was a photograph taken from the window of a plane, below clouds, with a bit of a mountain poking through. So what? Autistic photo analysts geo-located the photograph in an hour. It was taken on ascent out of Pyongyang airport, and suggested Air Force One had made and unscheduled stop. The president met the little rocket man and closed the deal, last November.
Skeptical? I don’t blame you. Q says they have done the same deal with Iran. That there is going to be peace there too. Peace throughout the Mideast. So let’s wait and see. The world today is full of lies, which we politely call disinformation.
There’s a lot more to the Q anon story, but you’d never believe me if I told you now. Think of it as a dream. A world without war, a world of tremendous abundance powered by non-linear technology, a cure for cancer, the restoration of civility, kindness and humor to the long-suffering peoples of the earth, God only knows.
Ted Mann is an Emmy award-winning writer who worked on NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Hatfield McCoy, and Homeland.