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Response: "QAnon and the Emergence of the Unreal"

danah boyd responds to Ethan Zuckerman's article on the community surrounding QAnon.
Response: "QAnon and the Emergence of the Unreal"
Contributors (1)
Published
Jul 18, 2019

"Apophenia" refers to the idea of making connections between previously unconnected ideas. Unlike the concept of learning, apophenia suggests a cognitive disorder because the connections made are not real. They are imaginary. People see patterns that don't exist and devise elaborate internally coherent explanations for non-sensical notions.

Like the cognitive process of apophenia, the social mechanisms of conspiratorial thinking are rooted in reality. It's the pattern that's non-existent. But the pattern gets written into collective consciousness through repetition. The more that it is repeated, the more people feel the need to self-investigate. And once you are looking for patterns, it's not hard for the collective hive mind to think that they exist. While schizophrenia may be an individual cognitive disorder, networks of people can also produce collective delusions with devastating effects.

The power of QAnon is not in its factual evidence, but in participants' desperate desire to find meaning and power in society. While teenagers are embracing Escape Rooms to feel the rush of piecing together clues, a subset of adults are scouring social media to build a coherent framework around contemporary politics that connects the dots in a fashion that is legible to them. From the outside, it looks completely unreal, but on the inside, it feels quite real. This is not because any single piece of information is real, but because the process of doubt and discovery is invigorating. It feels like gambling based on lucky numbers or going all-in on a grand theory of life, the universe, and everything.

There is little doubt that many powerful interests benefit from unreality, conspiracy, and apophenia. But we also have to recognize that those who are caught up in unreality also benefit. Some find meaning and purpose. Many find community. As we seek to combat the problematic outcomes of unreality, we must also wrestle with how to replace the personal and social benefits that participants gain. After all, history is replete with mystical beliefs.

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