A Digital Rhetoric Analysis of QAnon
As student editor of The Ellen Reeder this semester — a role she’s been fantastic in! — Asia Merrill has also been tasked with studying Digital Rhetoric, a field of inquiry best theorized by Douglas Eyman. Her semester-long project has been choosing and analyzing a digital text for a final 3000 word essay to be published to this site. What follows is her analysis of the “QDrop,” a type of core digital text for the QAnon conspiracy.
~Prof. Nic Helms
Featured image courtesy of CBS News.
Table of Contents:
Thousands of American citizens swarmed the U.S Capitol on January 6th, 2021. The insurrection, borne of false allegations of election fraud, was led by followers of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that has spiraled into a cult that both supports and violently opposes its own government. Its central beliefs involve Donald Trump leading a massive campaign to arrest and execute the Satan-worshiping, pedophilic Democrats and Hollywood elite (and anyone who happens to be so associated), the “cabal”. Much like a doomsday cult, they have named and renamed the day that “The Storm” would occur, when in one fell swoop all of the evildoers would be locked away and a new era of American patriotism would be ushered in. As of yet, though many Q followers are hopeful, Hillary Clinton has not been delivered capital punishment on national television.
QAnon has discovered a fascinating and insidious method of recruitment. It is, in many ways, a black hole for a small percentage of Americans who recognize injustice, but feel alienated from progressive movements, thus defaulting to an extreme but communal alternative. As concerning as it is, not many Americans– less than 10%- believe some of the more outlandish claims about child sex trafficking, and only 2% have a positive view of QAnon in general. However, according to a CNN article from February of this year, “This isn’t like the false belief that President Joe Biden didn’t win the election fair and square. Polls indicate that about one-third of Americans overall and around three-quarters of Republicans believe that lie,” (Enten). Additionally, and more frighteningly, 23 candidates for state legislature showed support for it. Four of them made it into public office.
QAnon may not have a ton of direct supporters, but it does generate and promote false and dangerous ideas. These lighter conspiracy theories tend to be more palatable and believable to the general public, and through association often lead people to have a more favorable opinion of the movement and its more fundamental beliefs. It is essential to deeply understand how anonymous figures on the internet- and especially Q themself- can persuasively present shocking ideas. I want to investigate the ways that information and rhetoric are weaponized, as classical methods of persuasion are combined with digital systems to create a compelling and addictive dogma. I’ll be using a Q Drop as an example of how compositions work with systems and environments to spread and interpret information. This will largely be an analysis of QAnon through Eyman’s overview of digital rhetoric as a network, an economy and ecology of circulation.
As this is an issue stemming from the spread and redistribution of false information, it’s vital to consider the ways that persuasion in online communities- digital rhetoric- plays a role. Douglas Eyman, author of Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice approaches a comprehensive definition of the subject by beginning with Zappen’s (2005) definition: “The use of rhetorical strategies in production and analysis of digital text; identifying characteristics, affordances, and constraints of new media; formation of digital identities; and potential for building social communities,” (qtd. in Eyman, 44). He then adds his own features, which include,
“Inquiry and development of rhetorics of technology; the use of rhetorical methods for uncovering and interrogating ideologies and cultural formation in digital work; an examination of the rhetorical function of networks; and the theorization of agency when interlocutors are as likely to be software agents (or “spimes”) as they are human actors,”(Eyman, 44).
In essence, while classical rhetorical theory still applies well in a digital space, there is a demand for investigation into how digital systems and culture influence persuasion and social subgroups. Eyman (2015) addresses this as well: “Networks, particularly the digital networks in which digital texts circulate, are also systems, and in this way they can be similarly seen as elements in a digitally networked ecology of overlapping (and networked) ecosystems,” (130). He goes on to say that a network, “… Continuously reproduces its relationships and changes forms and contents over time,” (Zappen, 130). Digital rhetoric is not necessarily distinct from the field of rhetorical analysis, but does present a more specialized lens through which to view digital phenomena by considering artificial presences in discussion (or “spimes”), the algorithms of social media sites and search engines, and the ways that these factors affect popular culture.
Digital Rhetoric differs from classical rhetoric in the ways that any reader can be an active participant in authoring the reception of a piece. Words and information can be digested, interpreted, and redistributed instantaneously. Sometimes this is a great equalizer, but mostly it creates a reactive environment rather than a responsive one. As Joshua Gunn puts it, “What’s different in our time is the media infrastructure and speed of communication, which makes the space and time for reflection harder.” Gunn is, in the context of the book, not making a general statement about the internet, but instead comparing QAnon to a traditional “blood-libel fantasy” used to directly harm Jewish people. Eyman asserts that, “Ecology is also a useful framework for a theory of rhetorical circulation because it provides a systems-based view of both the environments and relationships that take place through digital circulation mechanisms,” (85). The digital nature of this iteration of anti-semitic narrative is what creates an observable ecology (see: QMap).
Born from forums on famously uncensored sites (namely 4Chan, 8Chan, and 8Kun), QAnon’s structure is not as entirely unique as it is simply hostile. “Q” is thought by followers to be a member of high-ranking military personnel, which is a source of their ethos. They drop cryptic and unpredictable posts on the boards they call home, and leave it to their dedicated followers to decipher them. Theories that catch on garner attention from Q. These are the theories considered to be true, regardless of how unsubstantiated they are. This is partially Q selectively interacting, but partly just how digital communities function. If social media is a network and a system, then the environment- the ecosystem- reproduces the content that you interact with the most. The stuff that becomes the most popular is the stuff that plays into “the algorithm” the best, and therefore unpopular or more mundane ideas, in an almost Darwinian sense, don’t survive. While this applies widely to most sites, more isolated communities like Q forums amplify this phenomenon.
The Source of the Ethos of Q
In classical rhetoric, the word “Ethos” is used to refer to the speaker’s character or credibility. This authority may be asserted through covert or subconscious means, like adding a title to their name, or more overtly by sharing experience or credentials. Within the context of QAnon, it’s important to understand how a totally anonymous source has any credibility. I believe their following is indeed based on character, although it’s a totally fictional one.
In this game designer’s analysis of QAnon, Reed Berkowitz pits Q’s behavior against his experience as a game master of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). There are a few striking similarities, including what I consider to be the most important: “Guided Apophenia”. According to this source, “Apophenia is: ‘The tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas).’” In Berkowitz’s words, “You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to ‘connect the dots yourself’ you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at.” Q seems like the figure with all of the answers, and though the reality looks complete to followers- or players- Q is a game master character in charge. Objective credibility doesn’t matter when the character seems to already know a conclusion you’ve only just drawn.
There is another element to Q’s mystery that looks like necessity. In the intelligence community, “Q Clearance” is someone who has access to the most restricted documents in the United States’ Government. The use of the alias “Q” suggests that this person is someone at the very top secretly trying to communicate with the outside world. Of course this person has to operate in secret, because if the character were compromised, they’d probably be killed. From a digital rhetoric standpoint, this is a fascinating use of digital space- if this were published in another time, it would probably be assumed to be fiction, but the immediacy and anonymity of the internet makes it look, to some, pretty plausible. It’s also led to some theories about Q’s real identity by their fans which, depending on the identity, gives the voice even more weight. Non-supporters theorize that the identity of Q is not a government official, and is instead a few members of the Watkins family, who ran 8Chan. Some others in favor of Q suspect that their real identity is the hero himself: Donald Trump.
There is one method of rhetorical study that is unique to both Trump and QAnon himself, which is, “Occultatio: introducing a topic by announcing you will not discuss it,” as Joshua Gunn defines it in his essay, Political Perversion: Rhetorical Aberration in the Time of Trumpeteering. This may be a contributing factor to Trump being central to their belief system. A massive component of Q’s credibility and intrigue is the mystery; Donald Trump’s most well known characteristic is his boldness- his ability to say anything and let people interpret what he means is a contributing factor to the very existence of QAnon, namely his famous comment about “The calm before the storm”.
Analysis of a Q Drop
In a somewhat convoluted explanation, Friedrich Recknagel in his 1989 book Applied Systems Ecology illustrates the complex relationships that compositions consist of:
“The composition denotes the set of system components, the environment denotes the set of environment components which influence the system components. The definition of the composition and environment in turn implies the marking of the system boundary. The structure denotes the set of relations between composition and environment as well as within composition.”(Recknagel, 13-14, as cited by Eyman, 85).
This is a very complicated way of detailing the fact that a digital composition which effectively utilizes these relationships ensures some degree of rhetorical success. These relationships are so integral to digital media that they must be present in the Q Drops themselves. This particular message was posted to a forum apparently warning followers about a supposed coup against Donald Trump:
In this context, the Q Drop itself is the composition. It’s influenced by two systems: social and technological. It was composed, intentionally or not, within these systems to maximize its audience. In my experience as a reader, I notice that there’s a technological aspect to the platform’s interface; Q is operating likely through a VPN, which assigns their IP address to a series of random numbers and letters. It’s almost intimidating. Between this, the vague, repetitive composition of the drop, and the use of buzzwords like “ANTIFA” and “playbook”, it gives the effect of seeing something you are not supposed to see. This fear, and technical jargon giving it the appearance of legitimacy, plays to the site algorithm to garner attention. To refer back to Recknagel, we can see how the composition does denote the set of system components.
There’s also a rhetorical and social balancing act occurring here, simultaneously considering the audience, the existing narrative, and how to seem vague enough to apply to any events that may occur. Its audience, likely consisting of already-devoted Q followers, requires an emotional component. These emotional components are the environment; it’s a kind of ecosystem with complex functions in action. That ecosystem looks like this:
This image, which circulates widely online, illustrates that the environment is largely emotional, because these connections are not logical or factual. Emotional or social systems are not dangerous on their own, but misrepresenting real events and having a large following investing emotional energy in their reality is what generates a problem. As we know from Recknagel, the environmental components influence system components, and the nature of the environment is what creates the necessity for the fear-mongering, jargony language of the composition, which is a component of its system.
Conspiracy theories can be, in my view, important tools for a population to be continuously critical of its government, and helps people practice examination of oppressive systems. They can be interesting to entertain in a casual way. But it should never distract from what’s truly affecting America, which is pervasive racism, classism, and ableism; these are disturbing enough without Donald Trump stopping the league of baby-eating Satanists. The visible steps being taken in legislation to prevent sustainable equity are horrifying on their own. Conspiracy theories are evidence of a need of purpose; some sort of easy evil plot with a hero at the center during a time of international crisis, and a small movement on his side.
Understanding the systems at play that aid in people’s indoctrination is the first step in learning how to undermine Q’s popularity. The rhetorical strategy here is convincing people they have come to their own conclusion, and to deny the validity of Q is to deny the validity of themselves. The major concern is absolutely national security, but it should also be supporting those who have been instilled with a distrust in reliable sources that is very difficult to shake. People have been consumed by this conspiracy theory, and have lost connections with family members, money, and more, in some cases. As outrageous as some of their claims may be, I think the people who have been consumed by this are absolutely victims. A phenomenon like this should never be divorced from the conditions that birthed it, or from the leadership responsible for feeding into it.
Apophenia. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, N.D, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apophenia. Accessed 3 May 2021.
The Associated Press. “Trump: This is ‘the Calm Before the Storm.’” The New York Times, 6 October 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000005482570/trump-calm-before-the-storm.html. Accessed 23 April 2021.
Berkowitz, Reed. “A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon.” Curiouser Institute, 30 September 2020, https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5. Accessed 2 May 2021.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Ethos.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1999, https://www.britannica.com/art/ethos. Accessed 5 May 2021.
Enten, Harry. “Less than 10% of Americans like QAnon.” CNN Politics, CNN, 7 February 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/07/politics/qanon-americans-analysis/index.html. Accessed 25 April 2021.
Eyman, Douglas. Digital Rhetoric : Theory, Method, Practice. University of Michigan Press, 2015.
Forrest, Brett. “What Is QAnon? What We Know About the Conspiracy-Theory Group.” The Wall Street Journal, 4 February 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-is-qanon-what-we-know-about-the-conspiracy-theory-11597694801. Accessed 20 April 2021.
Garrett, Major. “”It was a drug”: Capitol riot exposes reach of QAnon disinformation.” CBS News, 31 January 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/qanon-capitol-riot-reach/. Accessed 20 April 2021.
Gonzalez, Oscar. “8chan, 8kun, 4chan, Endchan: What you need to know.” CNet, 7 November 2019, https://www.cnet.com/news/8chan-8kun-4chan-endchan-what-you-need-to-know-internet-forums/. Accessed 27 April 2021.
Hassan, Steven. “I was a member of a cult. Here’s how to bring QAnon believers back to reality.” CNN Business, 4 February 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/04/perspectives/qanon-cult-truth/index.html. Accessed 20 April 2021.
Kaplan, Alex. “Here are the QAnon supporters running for state legislatures in 2020.” Media Matters for America, 27 July 2020, https://www.mediamatters.org/qanon-conspiracy-theory/here-are-qanon-supporters-running-state-legislatures-2020. Accessed 25 April 2021.
McCarthy, Niall. “How Widespread Is Belief In QAnon?” Statista, 10 February 2021, https://www.statista.com/chart/24146/belief-in-the-ideas-of-qanon/. Accessed 27 April 2021.
Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Majority Support Trump Impeachment.” Monmouth University, 25 January 2021, https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/monmouthpoll_us_012521/. Accessed 25 April 2021.
Naughtie, Andrew. “QAnon: Mysterious conspiracy leader points followers to Tucker Carlson interview warning of ‘coup’ against Trump.” The Independent, 18 September 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election/qanon-tucker-carlson-fox-news-election-violence-coup-b468768.html. Accessed 29 April 2021.
“Q Clearance.” Wikipedia, 2006, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_clearance. Accessed 3 May 2021.
Zappen, James P. (2005). Digital rhetoric: Toward an integrated theory. Technical Com-munication Quarterly, 14(3): 319–25.