QAnon, Slender Man, and Our Paranoid Surveillance Society
What do internet-born urban legends tell us about deep-rooted societal anxieties?
Donald Trump was supposed to be the main event at his rally in Tampa, Florida, in early August. Instead, thanks to a number of people in the crowd sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the letter ‘Q,’ and others who held cardboard ‘Q’ cutouts aloft during Trump’s speech, the focus quickly shifted away from the president and toward the meaning of the ubiquitous letter.
The story behind the Q, or QAnon, has been in the works for nearly a year. It started with a cryptic post on 4Chan in October, 2017, and has since blossomed into a sprawling, full-blown alternative theory of everything.
QAnon is a tale woven by an anonymous person (or group of people) posting under the codename “Q” and purportedly holding high-level security clearance. They claim to know the “real” story of Donald Trump’s administration. Q posts cryptic clues — “crumbs” — for his followers to dissect, so they can unravel the truth together on Reddit, YouTube, and Facebook.
The “truth” Q alludes to? That Donald Trump is fighting the “deep state,” a corrupt conglomerate of institutions and elite individuals that looks out for its own interests to the detriment of regular Americans. The “deep state” cabal includes the Clintons, the Obamas, and the Bush family, George Soros, members of the intelligence community and mainstream journalists (who are are often portrayed as CIA informants). Q’s revelations about Trump’s war with the “deep state,” some believe, will spark a second revolution.
“QAnon is the people that believe in what Trump is trying to do to change our country,” one Q follower told CNN’s Gary Tuchman outside the Florida rally.
The details of the war Trump is allegedly conducting are now sprawling. Q’s clues have revealed, for example, that Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign is really a front for Trump’s own investigation into systemic corruption and the “deep state.” Some even believe there’s an international pedophile ring at the center of it all.
“QAnon is the people that believe in what Trump is trying to do to change our country.”
Others have taken the Q story to extreme lengths. In June, a QAnon follower named Matthew Wright armed himself with a shotgun and blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam, demanding the release of an internal report by the U.S. Justice Department into its handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe. The report had already been released to the public. Wright was arrested. In another case, QAnon adherents convinced themselves that a homeless encampment in Tuscon was actually a stop-off station in a child-trafficking ring. Police investigated, and found no evidence to suggest that was the case.
Q’s followers have adopted a rallying slogan, which they wore on T-shirts at his Tampa rally: WWG1WGA, or “Where we go one, we go all.”
Most Americans, if they know anything about Q, likely think it’s just a weird theory cooked up online, one of many conspiracies that float around in dark corners of the internet. Maybe they think Trump supporters are buying it because of a sunk-cost fallacy — they’ve spent so much energy backing Trump that they’ll believe anything justifies that support.
QAnon is about that. It’s about Americans who believe in something that turns out to be a sham. But it’s about more than that, too. It’s about coming to terms with life in a world where we’re under constant surveillance.
The story of QAnon is, in many ways, created and perpetuated by an electorate who were told all the anxieties they’ve built up in the last decade — about a world slipping beyond their comprehension, and in which they are constantly monitored and manipulated by unseen forces — would end. They were meant to feel like Americans again, together in a common cause, with a certainty of purpose.
Instead, they still feel helpless and alone, stalked by a faceless power with an endless reach into the most private details of their lives. They call it the “deep state.” A few years ago, in a different online legend, that faceless all-seeing power was called the Slender Man.
Nearly a decade before Q’s followers showed up at the Trump rally in Florida, a different kind of story haunted internet forums.
The story started on a site called SomethingAwful.com, in a thread about creating paranormal photos. A user going by the name Victor Surge uploaded two doctored images, each featuring schoolchildren in the foreground, with a tall, creepy figure looming somewhere in the background. The shadowy figure had disproportionately long arms and no face. He was quickly dubbed the Slender Man.
The Slender Man, so the story goes, is an entity of unknown origin who stalks its victims — sometimes for years — before finally attacking them “using fear and paranoia to drive them to insanity.” As the conspiracy goes, Slender Man is rumored to make some people his mental slaves in order to do his bidding — these are called his “proxies.” Despite his appearance as a human-like figure, Slender Man is not fully recognizable, and beyond accurate description. In some tellings of the Slender Man story, he causes electronic interference.
Slender Man drains all hope from its victims, and “is an ‘omnipresent force,’” says Abigail Curlew, a PhD candidate at Carleton University, whose 2017 paper — The legend of the Slender Man: The boogieman of surveillance culture — suggests a connection between the legend and our general anxiety about mass surveillance technology. “Even while the characters in these stories can’t visibly see the Slender Man, they still feel that the Slender Man is watching.”
As the Slender Man’s legend spread, conjecture and analysis spread along with it. The legend took on a life of its own wherever it landed, whether on Facebook, Reddit, or YouTube. Like Qanon, Slender Man prompted ostension, a term that describes how urban legends are enacted in real life. Andrew Peck, an assistant professor in strategic communication at Miami University who has written extensively on the Slender Man legend, explained this in a forthcoming essay within Slender Man is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet.
Ostension is usually benign, or even fun, like wearing a Halloween costume. But, as with QAnon, some took it too far. In the most high-profile Slender Man case, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, two 11 year-old girls in Wisconsin, stabbed a classmate multiple times, nearly killing her in 2014. Geyser and Weier believed Slender Man was real, and wanted to become his proxies, which they believed would prove his existence. To do all that, they decided, they would kill someone. Earlier this year, the two girls were found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The boogeymen of QAnon’s story (the “deep state”) and that of Slender Man share something, too. They are entities of which we’re supposedly unaware until it’s nearly too late. By the time the Slender Man’s victims catch a glimpse of him, there is little they can do to stop him. QAnon followers believe in a similarly revelatory moment. They call it the “great awakening” — a process begun by Q to clue people in to what’s supposedly really been going on in the shadows.
In her analysis of the Slender Man story, Shira Chess, a professor of Mass Media Arts at the University of Georgia, suggested that it spoke to people’s feelings of helplessness — and more, to their anxiety. “What I see it being is a [sic] anxiety about anonymity and people being afraid of power differentials that are happening and occurring increasingly,” she told NPR in 2014.
Why do these stories gain so much traction?
Significant changes have occurred to our perception of society in the last decade or so, driven by the nearly simultaneous rise of new personal electronic communication platforms (Facebook, the iPhone, etc.), and the economic upheavals that began in 2008. This confluence of events has resulted in a scenario where people are technically more connected socially, yet at the same time completely disconnected from one another, confused and anxious, and suspicious of the the traditional power structures that hold society together.
“When that tide pulled back in 2008 to reveal the ruins underneath, the country got an indelible picture of just how much inequality had been banked by the top one percent over decades, how many false promises to the other 99 percent had been broken, and how many central American institutions, whether governmental, financial, or corporate, had betrayed the trust the public had placed in them,” Frank Rich wrote in New York magazine. “The Wall Street bandits escaped punishment, as did most of the banking houses where they thrived. Everyone else was stuck with the bill.”
After the Great Recession, many began to feel that power and politics were no longer necessarily intertwined. Most of the information at our fingertips describes a world that feels increasingly remote and unfamiliar. It’s a world the “deep state” narrative tries to explain.
“I have genuinely solved Q’s posts. The stock market ties it all together…The power to manipulate the market represents the power to manipulate culture,” a Q follower wrote in July. “Think of the Great Depression, the recession, and any other time around a large market downturn.”
“Without the Fed, we probably would never have a recession. They bail out their own corporations. If you haven’t heard, 4 companies own everything so if one of them goes down, they either let it die or they bail it out use tax dollars,” another wrote, echoing anti-Federal Reserve language made popular post-recession. “The fact that they own all the Corporations and run the Government means we are living in a Fascist country btw.”
Even without buying into the QAnon legend, most would likely agree that the state of global politics and finance since 2008 has been unsettling. This feeling has intensified with the creeping realization that the more we try to figure out what’s going on, the more we are being watched, stalked by an unseen and inhuman force hell-bent on manipulating us.
In August, the Associated Press revealed that Google has been tracking people (even if those who thought they’d restricted the company’s ability to do so via its many mobile apps). It was the latest in a cascading stream of revelations, starting with the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, about how the tools we use and platforms we’ve joined — and into which we’ve dumped copious personal data — are more than the services they’ve marketed themselves to be.
Now, we’re beginning to see giant tech platforms differently — not as benevolent connectors or drivers of more freedom, but, as Rich put it, “as impenetrable black boxes where our most intimate personal secrets are bought and sold to further fatten a shadowy Uber-class of obscene wealth and privilege trading behind velvet ropes in elite cryptocurrencies.”
“I guess if we want liberty and justice in this world, we have to reclaim our power and start holding corrupt and wicked fools accountable.”
After the news of Google’s tracking broke, Q posted a message linking to the story: “FB listens [even after you remove app] TWITTER GEO-T/L You are under constant tracking/surveillance. DARPA. Q”
“As if our politicians weren’t already in bed with and/or sold out to Google, FB, Amazon, and the rest of em’,” one Reddit user wrote in a thread discussing the message. “I guess if we want liberty and justice in this world, we have to reclaim our power and start holding corrupt and wicked fools accountable.”
Maybe our heightened awareness explains why a term, thought to be outdated, has resurfaced in the popular vernacular: the Panopticon, a prison where cells are arranged in a circle around a central watchman who can see any prisoner at any time, but wherein the prisoners never know exactly when they’re being monitored, and have to assume they are under constant surveillance.
The term keeps popping up.
In her 2017 book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Angela Nagle described social media as a “panopticon, in which people lived in fear of observation from the eagle eye of an offended organizer of public mass shaming.” Nagle is not alone in conjuring up the Bentham’s prison as an analogy for the world we live in. In July, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Stephanie Hare worried that “biometrics increases the likelihood of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a dystopia of an all-seeing state.” Earlier that month, the Financial Times applied the term to just such a thing: China’s mass public surveillance system — calling it a “digital panopticon.”
If the world we have created is akin to a panopticon — or even an oligopticon — it’s worth wondering how it affects its prisoners. What might be happening to us?
Being monitored affects our minds.
“There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked,” Laurie Penny wrote, anecdotally, for the New Statesman in 2013. “To be blunt, it makes you feel crazy.”
Is that right? At the very least, anyway, it could be making us anxious and paranoid.
In 1999, a study in Scotland found that broad use of CCTV, a ubiquitous form of surveillance in the UK, “didn’t reduce crime — if anything it has increased — and it didn’t reduce fear of crime. If anything there was a slight increase in anxiety,” according to Jason Ditton, a professor of criminology at Sheffield university, who led the research. More than a decade later, in 2012, another report in the UK found that “although increased security, and in particular CCTV, was often very popular with residents, it did not necessarily lead to feelings of increased safety, with residents reporting that the presence of CCTV could instead increase anxiety.”
Constant surveillance makes us more than just anxious; it also makes us paranoid.
In 2016, researcher Jon Penney set out to measure whether knowledge of NSA surveillance affected online search activity. Did it, he wondered, make people less likely to search Wikipedia for things they thought might catch them up in the government’s digital dragnet?
Penney checked the page view counts for Wikipedia pages related to terms the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses to track social media, including terms like “dirty bomb” or “suicide attack” — terms people might think would prompt surveillance. Penney reviewed traffic on those pages over a 32-month period between 2012 and 2014 — a period of time covering pre- and post-Snowden revelations, which landed in June, 2013.
The result? A case for what Penney calls a “chilling effect.” Between May, 2013 and June, 2013, the average number of page views for Wikipedia articles related to the DHS tracking list dropped by nearly a million — or about a third of all traffic to the pages — which, Penney wrote, was a “large, sudden, and statistically significant drop in the total view counts.” Meanwhile, from June 2013, overall Wikipedia traffic kept increasing.
Trying to ascertain exact causes of a perceived chilling effect in this way might be an inexact science, but Penney’s findings echoed an earlier study from researchers at MIT.
“If people are chilled from informing themselves about breaking news stories and other important news events, or from researching matters of law, security, and public policy related to ‘terrorism’ online, then surveillance-related chilling effects will have serious implications for public deliberation about important topics,” Penney concluded. “Our broader processes of democratic deliberation will be weakened.”
Constant surveillance makes us more than just anxious; it also makes us paranoid. We live in a perpetual state of confusion, in which we are less willing to take action — for instance, to read about current news, attend a protest, or visit a country — for fear of being noticed in some manner, by either an all-seeing corporate or governmental power.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that, in the run-up to the 2016 election, 55 percent of Americans told one pollster they felt “helpless.”
In his speech to the Republican convention after being named the party’s nominee for president in July, 2016, Donald Trump focused on one key theme.
“In this race for the White House,” Trump said, “I am the law and order candidate.”
It was a thread on which his entire hall-of-mirrors pitch was based: that America is a gangland where cops are powerless; that the border is nonexistent; that America is being cheated by the world; and that illegal immigrants are stealing jobs. “There can be no prosperity without law and order,” Trump told the Republicans that night.
And he made a promise.
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves,” Trump vowed. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it… No longer can we rely on those elites in media and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”
Nearly two years after his convention speech, those who heard that promise, and put Trump in the White House, turned up at his rally in Tampa to hear him say much the same thing. Yet, the system Trump promised to fix is still in place, perhaps entrenched like never before. The swamp is still full. And the people who got beat up during the financial crash have yet to recover.
Maybe it’s telling, then, that so many of them didn’t come that night to see Trump. That instead, across their chests, emblazoned on t-shirts, was a different name altogether: Q.
“It’s fun because we know before it’s going to happen a lot of times,” Q follower Jamie Buteau told VICE News after the Florida rally. “So, think of it: when things are happening, we got a smirk on our face, and go ‘Q told us.’”
They’d gone to a political rally, not for the politician, but for the feeling he once gave them: emotional protection against the unknown via a false sense of certainty.
At the heart of QAnon, just as at the heart of Slender Man, is the story of a society filled with individuals feeling helpless and anxious.
In the case of Q, these feelings have warped into a uniquely bizarre urban legend, prompted by Trump’s promise of relief: that power would once again return to political office to deliver clarity and freedom from a corrupt, controlling, and faceless entity that haunts their lives.
“For those who have been following the QAnon posts, or ‘breadcrumbs,’ on 8chan, Twitter, Facebook or Youtube, the name itself is loaded with meaning, curiosity, and, perhaps most of all, HOPE,” one follower wrote in March.
In mid-August, NBC News reported that QAnon was, like Slender Man, a complete fabrication. According to NBC, three people plucked the original Q post — one of many allegedly anonymous, self-described high-level officials posting at the time — from its obscurity on 4Chan. The group “worked together to stir discussion of the ‘Q’ posts, eventually pushing the theory on to bigger platforms and gaining followers — a strategy that proved to be the key to QAnon’s spread and the originators’ financial gain.”
The reaction on Reddit’s Q-themed greatawakening board was, unsurprisingly, almost unanimously dismissive.
“Sounds like NBC is coming up with a Q conspiracy theory…This is NBC’s ‘Baseless Conspiracy Theory’ Lol,” one user wrote. “This one is better than the Russia Collusion hoax they tried to peddle…”
The power of a legend, after all, is that it’s not important if it’s true — what matters is the larger truth it reveals.