Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Public Address Ethan Stoneman argues the Qanon movement was so popular due to its use of hidden messages in his recent article for “Cultural Politics.”
“Where We Produce One, We Produce All: The Platform Conspiracism of QAnon,” co-authored by Associate Professor of Communication and Dramatic Arts at Central Michigan University Joseph Packer, was the lead article in the journal’s November 2021 edition.
Q is the pseudonym of an anonymous person, or group of people, who began posting cryptic messages on the internet in October 2018. Q alleged that a group of high-level individuals, including former President Donald Trump, were carrying out a strategic plan to bring down the Satanic global elite.
“He was not the only ‘anon’ account, but it was the one that somehow able to gain a lot more traction,” Stoneman said, “and I think one of the reasons why that anon account was able to do so was because it encouraged other people to read Q’s messages esoterically and then also to start reading President Trump’s messages esoterically.”
The concept of esoteric interpretation — looking for hidden meanings in communication — was first articulated by political philosopher Leo Strauss, who applied it to classical philosophers.
“Strauss talks about multiple reasons for writing in esoteric ways,” Hillsdale Professor of Politics Thomas West said. “Protection is one of them.”
Stoneman used Strauss’s framework to analyze Q’s method of communication, arguing conservatives embraced Q’s coded messaging partly because they feel their views are being persecuted.
“If people feel their views are going to result in some kind of sanction or retribution, then they’re going to try to keep things cryptic,” Stoneman said. “They’re going to try to encode things so that other people outside that group don’t understand them.”
Coded communication had another effect as well, Stoneman said: it required decoding.
“Making people decode messages is a way to get them to continue to produce messages, because when they decode a message they have to produce that interpretation,” Stoneman said.
Stoneman argues that Q’s instruction to read President Trump’s communications esoterically set Q apart from other anon accounts. This way of connecting Trump with Q’s narrative caused the movement to “spread like wildfire,” Stoneman said, something that would not have been possible without digital networking made possible by modern technology. Stoneman attributed Q’s popularity in part to a cultural shift as well.
“One of the contextual reasons as to why Qanon became so popular is that we’re losing what used to be called mainstream culture,” Stoneman said. “It’s going to be harder and harder to agree on what’s a conspiracy theory when you don’t have consensus on the right or appropriate interpretation. Everything is becoming more and more fragmented.”
Kirstin Kiledal, professor of Rhetoric and Public Address, said these divisions come as people have different narratives through which they make sense of the world.
“They’re looking for not just a kind of strict, formal logical rationality,” Kiledal said.
She said people who follow Q look for internal rationality or cohesiveness of their narrative as well as evidence this narrative “rings true in the real world.”
Kiledal said this search is characteristic of any narrative worldview, even the mainstream one. Stoneman said it is important to consider unstated assumptions in one’s own worldview as well as in the worldviews one encounters.
“I think it’s good to do a system check every now and then and ask yourself, ‘Okay, why do I believe the things I say that I believe?” Stoneman said. “And so before we start yelling across the aisle at what you think is stupid, I think it’s always good to do this bit of self-reflection and ask oneself, ‘Well, where do my beliefs come from, how are they conditioned, and what’s going on with me and how I’m seeing the world?’ ”