Here’s a neat partisan hat trick: present your power-enhancing ideology as the default, while portraying anyone who questions you critically as a dangerous political extremist by default.
On August 10, 2018, C-SPAN featured a segment in which host Pedro Echeverría interviewed Ohio State University Assistant Professor Thomas Wood about the so-called “‘QAnon conspiracy theory and what drives some supporters of President Trump to believe in it.” (Click here for the link.)
For those who are not familiar with this phenomenon, QAnon, or Q, is an anonymous provider of news and opinion using an Internet forum to deliver an ongoing series of questions and statements. The posts, which focus on an effort to rid the United States of pervasive corruption, started roughly at the beginning of November 2017 and continue to the present time.
Sociologists of knowledge can find utility in a close read of this interview. It is a case study in the social production of knowledge, specifically the ways in which established institutions maintain their hold on power. Everything about the setup is aligned in such a way as to shame and marginalize the person who would profess to find Q credible.
If it is true that power elites use the process of developing knowledge to perpetuate their social standing, and Q challenges the power status of the Establishment across the board, then one should expect that this phenomenon cannot be examined objectively by any Establishment news source.
To see if such a statement is true, one must leave aside questions as to whether Q is “accurate” or not. Rather, one must confine oneself to examining the “how,” the process of authoritative communication around Q. In this case, we will examine how the C-SPAN segment, while purporting to be an objective, fact-based exercise, is in fact deeply biased.
The first thing to notice is the title: “Thomas Wood on Conspiracy Theories.” Right from the beginning, QAnon is disparaged as a provider of incorrect information. As a thought experiment, imagine a more neutral segment title, like this: “Thomas Wood on Citizen Investigators.
We move on to the subtitle of the segment, which acts to “lump in” QAnon followers with supporters of President Trump, literally: “Ohio State University professor Thomas Wood talked about the ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theory and what drives some supporters of President Trump to believe in it.”
The words “some supporters of President Trump” have a twofold effect.
First, they establish an “us versus them” relationship between the presumed C-SPAN viewer and the person who would be a supporter of the President.
Second, it establishes an equation between the believer in Q and the believer in the President. Yet no data is offered to support such a claim. As Wood himself states, during the segment, there is no national survey data on this phenomenon — your guess is as good as mine; the data is anecdotal.
As an assistant professor at a large state university (Ohio State), as a White male, with his British accent, and occupying a singular podium (not a panel) on a highly respected channel reputed to be politically neutral, Professor Wood’s words are socially privileged. No other panelist is offered as a counterweight; the viewers’ questions do not appear in the transcript.
How does Wood use this power?
Right from the outset, this professor — who studies conspiracy theories for a living, but who seems curiously willing to accept establishment views as axiomatic — denigrates Q without offering any factual analysis of it, stating:
“We have to stipulate this QAnon theory is wildly sort of peculative and broadly implausible on its face.”
Somewhat ashamedly, Wood apologizes for impugning the honor of C-SPAN and the “trained journalists” who presumably cover “real news” as well, stating:
“We have to be a little bit careful when we’re talking about these things…enjoying the imprimatur of C-SPAN, insofar as your regular viewers probably hear about accounts from trained journalists…and they expect to invest in those accounts some degree of factual representativeness.”
In his description of what Q is (the host is so befuddled he can’t figure out whether to call Q a person or something else) Wood uses the term “shadowy,” as in “a person who profess to have a shadowy influence in American government,” a term which is not only disparaging but also flatly incorrect. Exaggerating for effect, Wood summarizes Q’s basic premise thus:
“In the coming days and weeks after the prediction was made, cataclysmic events would transpire. And shadowy networks of people who had abused the public trust and abused innocents would be exposed and the American system of government would be revealed to be the plaything of a shadowy network of secret actors.”
Again, there’s that word “shadowy,” and another word, taunting: “plaything.” Wood jumps in and out of his own claims, at once a disinterested student of the theory he studies and a kind of fascinated, but disgusted voyeur into the world they portray.
It’s such a fantastic (meaning out-there) story, says Wood, that it “sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood film.”
You see, Q followers are the type who don’t read much — but they can and do get excited by movies.
Later in the segment, Wood again essentially calls them stupid, noting that he is co-writing a book (as an author, he occupies a privileged place in the conversation) and has classified conspiracy believers as “intuitivist” (as opposed to rationally thinking people), as well as less educated and “more religious.”
Get it? People who believe that Q could be telling the truth aren’t as smart or well-read as those who deride it.
Q followers “enjoy the intuitive appeal of these stories.” Wood compares them to sports viewers to “go to the special corner of their living room and close their eyes” hoping for their chosen team to win.
The professor summarizes Q as a prediction factory, spinning tales that never seem to materialize.
“And amazingly when the prophecies fail, the adherents don’t abandon the theory. They almost cling to it more closely.”
The host asks him about the popularity of this phenomenon, noting the shirts people wore at recent rallies, and Wood’s response is to denigrate the people who attend such events.
“Well I guess first off it suggests something that’s maybe true about the strange people who attend rallies, you know, during midterm elections.”
Yet Wood admits:
“We have no really good nationally representative survey data on the prevalence of this conspiracy theory.”
If he has no survey data, and he hasn’t really read the text closely, then what is the source of Wood’s authority to speak?
As to Q’s perceived popularity, Wood blames the “mere exposure effect,” meaning that since the media is talking about it, people find Q credible.
The only problem with that is, Q went largely underground for about five or six months, gaining popularity without any media attention whatsoever.
Wood offers another explanation for the interest in Q, and that is simple boredom:
“If I had to guess, and this is speculation of course, it’s more a function of the fact that we’re in sort of the dog days of baseball, and football hasn’t started back again, and we’re casting about for things to talk about.”
When a voice of authority speculates, people take the speculation as significant.
Part of the Q phenomenon is a focus on the number 17, as Q is the 17th number of the alphabet and the President has been seen emphasizing this number. To this, Wood scoffs:
“Folks look for any time the word 17 as mentioned. They think that is subtle signaling of insiders that they are adherents or proponents of this narrative…I would invite your more dispassionate audience to think about how wildly implausible numerology is between the American government and the American public.”
What he is saying here is that passionate audience members, meaning people who care a lot, are not to be believed. And dispassionate audience members, meaning people who trust the mainstream media and large-scale numeric surveys, will by default agree with him that all so-called “conspiracy theories” are reflexively inaccurate.
Referring to so-called conspiracy theories, Wood says:
“I study them but I do not mean to disparage anyone that share them.”
Yet most of his interview is spent disparaging both the people and the concepts. He also makes the assumption that people willing to think critically about the news they are given are unwilling to do so if its content does not honor their chosen politician.
Again, those who populate the community of Q followers tend to identify themselves as “Truthers” or “members of the truth community,” and frequently allude to their desire to know truth regardless of where it comes from.
Wood seems not to be aware of how wedded he is to the social order. He uncritically vaunts journalists as “rigorous,” despite the increasing and well-known trend away from editorial independence and toward symbiotic media-journalistic or political-journalistic pairings (e.g. severe partisanship in one direction).
His method of dismissing a charge is simply to restate it without context, e.g. regarding healthcare, that “large numbers of Americans are suspicious of natural cures or chronic diseases are being suppressed by drug companies for financial interests.”
It is almost as if Wood does not think corruption can possibly exist, which would be a surprising conclusion for a political scientist — one who studies the dynamics of power — to make.
But what of the actual content of Q’s claims? Wood is quick to dismiss them:
“Qanon is only one of these conspiracy narratives that gets trialed in online forums, and most of them fizzle quickly.”
For a devotee of numbers, Wood is oddly unable to provide any examples of either predictions or narratives that have not panned out.
As to journalists investigating the claims? Why waste the time?
“The audience would agree that it is not the responsibility or a good use of time to hang out on these forums and take every wildly, fanciful claim at face value. It is a matter of professional judgment. They have to wait until they observe some circumstantial evidence that large numbers of people are adhering to these stories and their exposure effect is offset by a correction effect.”
The claim and its response are circular: It can’t be true because it’s a conspiracy theory. It’s a conspiracy theory because it can’t be true.
At one point the host shows Wood a video related to Q, and he has to admit that he is impressed:
“Very effective videographers and narratives in this community.”
But at the same time, it cannot be true unless a “real” journalist blesses it — he advises people to go to “news media outlets and inform yourself.”
Otherwise, he advises:
“There’s online communities where you can enjoy describing the conspiracy theory to your heart’s content.”
Presented with a concrete claim that has nothing to do with partisanship, but rather the possibility that government is operating in a way that’s non-accountable to citizens, the host interrupts the person asking the question multiple times as if to “clarify.”
Finally, forced to respond to the question of why an agency might drag its feet in producing requested documents, Wood can only say:
“I am sort of a little bit skeptical about the extent to which conspiracy theorists connect the happenings of American government and use them for the factual support for these conspiracy theories.”
His justification for this attitude is that many pieces of paper are requested and delivered without any fanfare.
Is there anything positive to say about Q? Well, says Wood, maybe the ignorant people who believe it will actually learn something:
“Americans are becoming more interested in government and hopefully, as folks seeks out information about their preferred theory, we can improve the public awareness of how a federal government works.”
Overall, watching the segment, it is quickly apparent that Wood, a celebrated professional student of conspiracy theories, is not very familiar at all with the nuances of what Q has said. In fact, his skill lies in reducing individuals to psychological archetypes, based on their willingness to think critically about the socially produced facts handed to them by the authorities.
The reaction to this phenomenon has indeed been fierce. And informally, it does seem that all agree its message is widely resonating, even if people have a difficult time naming a specific reason why.
Is Q a psychological operation, a mind control game played well to control the susceptible masses easily? Or does it represent a genuinely effective revolution against the standard class-preservation tactics of mainstream social institutions?
Only time will tell. But from a sociological perspective, at the end of the day, the Q phenomenon may be more important for the reaction to it than for the content it conveys.
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. Not written to promote any political party or perspective. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Creative Commons photo via Pixabay.