Here’s my confession: During my freshman year at college, my roommate and I discovered the 9/11 Truther documentary Loose Change. And we were taken with it. In the way that supposedly rational beings would be, mostly chiming in to say, “Wow. Now that’s a good point. What about that?” I remember showing it to my dad, and the skeptical smirk that played as his lips as he indulged me. It was unstated but just barely so: “This is not worth my time.”
As I think back on why I watched it and felt the pull of its faulty logic, I wondered: What was it that drew me to this film? It contained numerous news clips from that fateful day in September, and they never got any easier to watch. They were still terrible. It was still upsetting and transportive to a day that most of us would prefer to forget.
And then I landed on it: It was the narrative that the conspiracy imposed on it. It read like a geopolitical thriller, like something from the pen of David Baldacci or Vince Flynn, and those things are weak spots for me when it comes to genre fiction. Which made a lot of sense, when I came across this 2017 interview with the filmmaker in The Outline:
The project began as a script for a fictional thriller written by Dylan Avery, an 18-year-old aspiring filmmaker. But as he began researching, Avery became convinced that powerful shadowy figures were pulling the wool over the American public’s eyes. He translated his research, which was unfortunately mostly pseudoscience, into a documentary-style video essay that builds the case that Flight 93 didn't crash in a Pennsylvania field and that the World Trade Center fell in a controlled demolition. Loose Change doesn’t offer answers so much as it poses questions. According to Avery Flight 93 may have been shot down by a missile, re-routed to an airport and the passengers killed, or something else; Avery doesn’t claim to know what happened, just that the accepted narrative doesn’t add up.
Let me say this unequivocally: There is nothing remotely entertaining about the reality of 9/11; it was one of the darkest days in American history that resulted in countless innocent deaths (murders actually), brought America to its knees and shattered a facade of invincibility, and forever changed our world.
But, and I say this gingerly, there was something compulsively addictive and, dare I say, fun about trying to solve a mystery that the conspiracy theory posited. It stimulated the same parts of the brain as reading those spy novels. It also served as an outlet to process something – the attacks – that made no sense in the first place. Anybody who’s ever enjoyed Oliver Stone’s 1991 film J.F.K. understands what I’m talking about.
But the same Internet that brought me Loose Change on YouTube back in 2006 has changed our world, and conspiracy theories are no longer quite so relegated to the fringes of American discourse. The Atlantic just released a stunning project on America’s fascination with conspiracy theories. Online, it’s under the title of Shadowland and is a feat of digital storytelling and feature packaging. In print, its cover story is Adrienne LaFrance’s deep-dive into the followers of the shadowy figure known as QAnon.
LaFrance’s conspiracy theories as religious movement thesis is so compelling, and she does a masterful job of not only defending the thesis but also showing the futility of combatting those conspiratorial beliefs. I’ve been interested in the nonsensical logic of those followers, but I’ve never sought it out on my computer for fear of forever reducing my targeted ads to Alex Jones’s products. I’ve listened to numerous podcasts about QAnon, but the part of LaFrance’s article that hit me hardest was the first posts by Q back in 2017. I’d never actually seen them written down, and as I read them, I wondered who could find these words so captivating, structured in the this particular order, without the benefit of an orator to capture you with charisma and magnetism. Because to me, they read like gibberish. Consider LaFrance’s reporting on their emergence online:
On October 28, 2017, the anonymous user now widely referred to as “Q” appeared for the first time on 4chan, a so-called image board that is known for its grotesque memes, sickening photographs, and brutal teardown culture. Q predicted the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton and a violent uprising nationwide, posting this:
HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.
And then this:
Mockingbird HRC detained, not arrested (yet). Where is Huma? Follow Huma. This has nothing to do w/ Russia (yet). Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals? What is military intelligence? Why go around the 3 letter agencies? What Supreme Court case allows for the use of MI v Congressional assembled and approved agencies? Who has ultimate authority over our branches of military w/o approval conditions unless 90+ in wartime conditions? What is the military code? Where is AW being held? Why? POTUS will not go on tv to address nation. POTUS must isolate himself to prevent negative optics. POTUS knew removing criminal rogue elements as a first step was essential to free and pass legislation. Who has access to everything classified? Do you believe HRC, Soros, Obama etc have more power than Trump? Fantasy. Whoever controls the office of the Presidency controls this great land. They never believed for a moment they (Democrats and Republicans) would lose control. This is not a R v D battle. Why did Soros donate all his money recently? Why would he place all his funds in a RC? Mockingbird 10.30.17 God bless fellow Patriots.
Clinton was not arrested on October 30, but that didn’t deter Q, who continued posting ominous predictions and cryptic riddles—with prompts like “Find the reflection inside the castle”—often written in the form of tantalizing fragments and rhetorical questions. Q made it clear that he wanted people to believe he was an intelligence officer or military official with Q clearance, a level of access to classified information that includes nuclear-weapons design and other highly sensitive material. (I’m using he because many Q followers do, though Q remains anonymous—hence “QAnon.”) Q’s tone is conspiratorial to the point of cliché: “I’ve said too much,” and “Follow the money,” and “Some things must remain classified to the very end.”
Beyond ominous predictions like these, doled out in a language that begs more interpretation than the Book of Revelation, there are believers that these ramblings are matters of objective truth. Except when they’re not. Because then they are a deception, which is part of Q’s master plan all along. Check out this exchange that LaFrance documented at a Trump campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio:
Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Q frequently rails against legitimate sources of information as fake. Shock and Harger rely on information they encounter on Facebook rather than news outlets run by journalists. They don’t read the local paper or watch any of the major television networks. “You can’t watch the news,” Shock said. “Your news channel ain’t gonna tell us shit.” Harger says he likes One America News Network. Not so long ago, he used to watch CNN, and couldn’t get enough of Wolf Blitzer. “We were glued to that; we always have been,” he said. “Until this man, Trump, really opened our eyes to what’s happening. And Q. Q is telling us beforehand the stuff that’s going to happen.” I asked Harger and Shock for examples of predictions that had come true. They could not provide specifics and instead encouraged me to do the research myself. When I asked them how they explained the events Q had predicted that never happened, such as Clinton’s arrest, they said that deception is part of Q’s plan. Shock added, “I think there were more things that were predicted that did happen.” Her tone was gentle rather than indignant.
LaFrance continues to document her impromptu interview with these Qanon followers in Toledo:
Harger wanted me to know that he’d voted for Obama the first time around. He grew up in a family of Democrats. His dad was a union guy. But that was before Trump appeared and convinced Harger that he shouldn’t trust the institutions he always thought he could. Shock nodded alongside him. “The reason I feel like I can trust Trump more is, he’s not part of the establishment,” she said. At one point, Harger told me I should look into what happened to John F. Kennedy Jr.—who died in 1999, when his airplane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard—suggesting that Hillary Clinton had had him assassinated. (Alternatively, a contingent of QAnon believers say that JFK Jr. faked his death and that he’s a behind-the-scenes Trump supporter, and possibly even Q himself. Some anticipate his dramatic public return so that he can serve as Trump’s running mate in 2020.) When I asked Harger whether there’s any evidence to support the assassination claim, he flipped my question around: “Is there any evidence not to?”
It sounds like every political debate these days, where points are not met with counterpoints per se but rather faith-based arguments that sound a lot like a believer defending his or her position to an atheist. It’s just one example in favor of LaFrance’s thesis; the essay is full of them.
But I’ve said too much. It’s up to you to find the truth now:
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