Trump in conversation: textures of glossolalia

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Jan Blommaert

After the disaster of his Tulsa, Oklahoma rally and the appearance of a book by former Trump Cabinet member John Bolton, Donald Trump sought refuge in the safe bubble of Fox’s Sean Hannity. Together they had what is called a “townhall”. And here is one fragment from it. Hannity asks a question.

Hannity

The question is straightforward and offers Trump every chance of taking his answer in the direction of his choice. It’s about the differences Trump anticipates in his second term as president of the United States.

Here is Trump’s answer, first in a “flat” transcript.

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Let’s take a closer look at this, for this stretch of discourse of 160 words long can be divided into units that, jointly, form a kind of argument. Let’s do just that: make these units visible and annotate them in terms of content and internal relationships. Their “coherence”, in other words, or how they make sense as an answer. We get something like this.

Trumps opens with a phrase directly engaging with Hannity’s question: “Well one of the things that will be really great..You know”. And then he embarks on a pretty long and complex argument. Note: I use the term “argument” in a technical sense here, as something all of us quite systematically try to construct in interaction with others in order to make a point.

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He opens with a 33-word statement on the relevance of the word “experience”, and he offers us a general direction here for his answer: what will be so great in my second term will have to do with experience. In formulating this direction, however, he gets badly sidetracked, almost contradicting himself (“I always say talent is more important than experience; I’ve always said that”).

What follows next is an elaborate take off point revolving around the broad theme of “I was inexperienced” when he got elected in 2016. The elaboration of that point consumes quite a bit of space: 68 words are spent on detailing how inexperienced he was in and with Washington DC when he became the resident of the White House.

Then he arrives at the point he intimated from the outset: now I’m experienced; or at least, “now I know everybody, and I have great people in the Administration”. From a viewpoint of conversational flow and coherence, this 12-word statement is the real answer to Hannity’s question. This (“Now I know everybody” etc.) is the big difference Trump anticipates when he gets re-elected.

He gets instantly sidetracked as soon as he’s uttered this key point of his answer, and he goes off-topic, for here comes John Bolton. As a tag-on of his claim to having “great people in the Administration”, he remarks that “You make some mistakes. Like you know an idiot like Bolton”. Who then gets blasted in the remainder of the answer. The entire off-topic coda to the answer takes 35 words, about the equivalent of his opening musings on the topic of “experience”.

How about coherence in this argument? Well, there is the flimsy line

  • “experience is important
  • > I was inexperienced in 2016
  • > now I know everybody”

And one could infer an implicit “ergo, I am experienced now” from all this. But from the viewpoint of argumentation, clarity and information balance we have seen that the answer is badly built: Trump appears to struggle throughout to follow the direction he announced initially, seems to lose his way in the web of sidetracking details and points he provides, and loses the point he’s making as soon as he’s found it, by aiming his guns at the “idiot” Bolton. So in terms of coherence, not much can be found here. We’re observing a painful example of someone having trouble to stay on topic and to develop a line of reasoned argument, and who comes up with something that is entirely off-balance. We’re seeing textures here of glossolalia.

(Comedian Sarah Cooper did her version of this particular fragment; watch it here).

 

 

 

Video lectures

hocus pocus

Jan Blommaert

It is unlikely that I will, in the future, attend conferences or similar meetings; my health won’t allow it. Over the past few years, I recorded several full-length lectures on a range of topics. I will post them here. All of them are open access, so feel free to use them whenever you wish to have me on the program of your seminars, symposia or what not.

On sociolinguistic scales

New modes of interaction, new modes of integration

The action perspective in linguistic anthropology

Invisible lines in the linguistic landscape

Online with Garfinkel

Political discourse in postdigital societies

Old new media: how big issues reoccur whenever new media appear.

Understanding the culture wars: weaponizing the truth

 

 

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Understanding the culture wars: Weaponizing the truth (video)

Jan Blommaert

In the culture wars, the status of “truth” is absolutely central. In this lecture, Jan Blommaert describes how we are moving from a robust system of well-established discourses of truth towards a far more fragmented one, in which truth is derationalized, moralized and individualized.

 

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Did Brexaustion kill Corbyn’s media strategy?

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Jan Blommaert

The outcome of the UK elections of December 2019 led some observers to state that social media campaigns are not really decisive. Sure! But that doesn’t mean that more traditional forms of campaigning and media coverage are decisive either. Something else is going on: we should look carefully at the interaction of mainstream and social media in contemporary political campaigns if we want to figure that out.

Brexaustion & Corbyn’s defeat

The UK elections of 12 December 2019 were, to say the least, hard-fought. Unprecedented levels of agression and hyperbole were displayed by all parties during the entire campaign, which ultimately ran on two sets of issues: the Brexit issue with its polarized camps on the one hand, and the end to austerity and the comeback of an equitable welfare state in Britain on the other. While Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour focused on the second issue – a new post-Tory Britain – Boris Johnson’s Tories exclusively addressed the first one. And the Tories won, they won big. For Corbyn, a disastrous defeat concluded an intensive campaign.

This campaign “won the argument but not the battle” according to Corbyn. It was a big gamble for Labour to try and develop a campaign agenda in which Brexit only played a secondary role – Labour, if returned to power, would roll back the Tory austerity policies of the past decade, and then submit Brexit to a second referendum.

But Brexit, obviously, was the dominant theme. Or rather “Brexaustion”, the widespread sense that the Brexit discussion had been dragging on, annoyingly, for far too long and needed to be concluded here and now. It was Brexaustion that informed and triggered the Tories’ central slogan in their campaign: “Get Brexit Done”.

The fact that the themes brought forward by Labour were of minor importance to Johnson’s party is illustrated by the numerous misrepresentations, lies and manipulations produced by Tory campaigners on such topics. Publicly displayed awkwardness or embarrassment, as when Johnson snatched a reporter’s phone when a picture of a sick child was shown to him, did not matter as long as the central topic – Brexaustion – remained safe and solid.

Occasionally, and in the last days of the campaign, Johnson would adopt some key demands from his opponents in his own campaign rhetoric – investments in the NHS’s public health provision, for instance – so as to infuse his Brexit message with a message projecting a better future after Brexit. The campaign was great in its simplicity (or simplism, some would argue). And it won the day for Boris Johnson.

Superficial analyses

Of course, there was no shortage of interpretations and analyses of the Labour defeat in the hours and days following the dramatic election night. Several such analyses articulated a sense of betrayal by Corbyn and put the blame for Labour’s catastrophic result squarely on him, his leadership style, his lack of clarity on Brexit, and his stubborn insistence on different campaign themes.

Others argued that the defeat of Corbyn’s electoral program heralded the end of ‘the Left’ in its current form in Britain. And of course, all observers agreed that Corbyn had to step down as party leader, and that Labour would have to change its ‘Left’ direction to a more ‘centrist’ one or vice versa.

In the same breath, these observers claimed that Johnson’s Brexit agenda had commanded overwhelming support in Britain and that opponents of Brexit needed to come to terms with that fact. Note in passing that, while such demolition jobs of the Corbyn campaign were plenty, lionized film-script like accounts of Johnson’s victorious campaign also flourished.

Analyses so shortly after a political drama of historic proportions are evidently prone to overgeneralization, partiality and simplification. It’s a genre of political commentary which we should approach with much reserve. The clarity of the Brexit issue, for instance, and the fact that it’s Johnson’s understanding of what Brexit meant in the elections that now defines the parameters of the debate – both these points are deeply flawed. For the SNP (Scottish National Party) also ran on the theme of Brexit but blended it with several other themes.

The point made here is: Scotland doesn’t want Brexit, and certainly not on the terms defined by the Tories. Scotland needs an end to austerity and demands protection of the NHS (here are the key campaign points of Labour). If Tories wish to push their agenda through, Scotland will demand independence. The SNP was able, by means of this blended and more complex platform, to carry Scotland in a landslide victory. We see here how the Labour pro-welfare state agenda points did work electorally, when blended with a strong regionalism and a clear anti-Brexit (and anti-Johnson) stance. Boris Johnson won Westminster, but the SNP won Scotland.

The social media issue

One of the issues emerging in reactions to the election results was, unsurprisingly, the role of the media. During the campaign, Labour supporters very frequently complained about the mainstream media bias in favor of the Tories.

Corbyn himself had repeatedly insisted on the perverse role of “billionaire media tycoons” in the public campaigns against him and his party. And when the results of the election became clear, the UK’s mass media – and not just its tabloid section, as we saw above – were blamed for their contribution to the outcome. In the same breath, it was said that social media campaigns had failed.

Let me start by noting that Labour ran an amazing, intense social media campaign in which nearly all platforms were saturated with high-quality messages, and which drew large audiences towards Labour’s social media channels. Judged from social media only, Labour had succeeded at re-setting the agenda and direction of the election campaign, and polls suggested that Labour had managed to seriously narrow the lead of the Conservatives in the polls. Clearly and convincingly, Labour had won the elections on social media.

Of course, all of that proved to be pointless on December 12. Labour’s dominance and brilliance on social media may have “won the argument” as Corbyn said, but not the election. It succeeded in a few things – winning hearts and minds, and more votes than Blair’s Labour in 2005 – but not in winning seats.  So fingers were pointed at Britain’s mainstream media and their anti-Corbyn bias.

Some Corbyn supporters concluded from this that the massive investments made in social media campaigning had been futile, given the substantial predominance of traditional media in the UK.

A weaponized hybrid media system

We are stuck in an either-or argument here: one has to choose between either mainstream media or social media. And superficial analyses add to this: it’s Johnson’s mainstream media dominance that defeated Corbyn’s social media dominance. Obviously, such an either-or argument does not hold water. Here are some points to consider.

One: most of what can be read in the way of analyses focuses exclusively on the campaigns, i.e. the messages directly emerging from the political actors themselves during the relatively short period leading up to the elections. Seen from that perspective, things are clear: the quality and intensity of Corbyn’s social media campaign were unmatched by that of any of his competitors. Yet he lost.

Looking at the campaigns alone, however, reduces contemporary political discourse to discourse produced by professional politicians and party staff alone. While we know that most political discourse today is produced and circulated by a multitude of actors – people like us. So rather than just looking at campaigns, one should look at the totality of exposure in contemporary mass-communication.

Two: that is where mainstream media come in. As observed by BBC’s Amol Rajan (in an exceptionally perceptive post-election analysis), “It is very interesting that many of the most viral clips on social media from the past few weeks were initially broadcast on traditional media.” Such mainstream media materials, in other words, became crucial objects in the social media campaigns. This effectively sinks the either-or imagery of mainstream versus social media: we see a hybrid media system at work in which (a) the different media types coexist and sometimes coincide while they diverge on other moments; and (b) a very broad range of actors ensures the production, circulation and uptake of political messages, most of whom are just rank-and-file citizens.

Three: contemporary advanced political campaigning involves the coordination of actions on very different media, not a properly segmented specialized division between social media work and mainstream media. One needs to generate precisely the kinds of intense interactions between different parts of the media system described by Amol Rajan in which elements from mainstream media are integrated in social media strategies and vice versa, creating a totalized ‘bubble’ of well-organized messages. We can call this the weaponization of the hybrid media systemthe creation, planning and coordination of a ‘total’ media strategy aimed at saturating the entire media system and exploiting the algorithmic environment in which the media system operates. And let it be the case that Boris Johnson’s campaign was run by the undisputed master of this game, Dominic Cummings (one of the architects of the successful pro-Brexit campaign in 2016).

Four: such advanced political campaigns are not aimed at converting ‘the public’ (i.e. the so-called ‘masses’) but at converting specific publics, usually the voters in ‘swing constituencies’. It’s micromarketing targeting specific groups with specific messages so as to create the ‘bubble’ mentioned above, not mass marketing targeting everyone with generic messages. The ultimate objective of such campaigns is not the population but the electoral system: it’s okay if the opponent gets more votes, as long as s/he loses the battle for elected representatives, and a series of small but significant victories is to be preferred over a bigger but ineffective one. This explains why Corbyn’s Labour obtained more votes than Blair’s team in 2005 but significantly less seats (and why Hilary Clinton won the popular vote while Trump won the White House in 2016). We should look at total exposure, as said above, but also at distribution when examining communication strategies.

Five: analyses based on the campaign alone are also restricted in time and tend to address just what went on from the moment a campaign officially starts until the moment of the elections. While in the weaponization strategy just mentioned, infrastructures, messages and target audiences need to be identified and prepared long before such campaigns start, and algorithms need to be made sensitive to items deployed en masse much later.

There is ample evidence that the Tories have been doing just that: creating social media and algorithmic infrastructures in which anti-Corbyn and anti-Labour campaign messages could be tested and disseminated long before elections came in sight, and in which specific target audiences could be identified and ‘bubbled’. This might explain the rather lacklustre social media performance of Johnson and the Tories during the campaign: most of the work had already been done long before the campaign had started.

It also shows how wrong it is to suggest that Boris Johnson only benefited from his support in the mainstream media. While there is no doubt that some “billionaire media tycoons” clearly preferred a Conservative victory over a Labour one, support structures had been installed across the entire media system before things really took off. When Jeremy Corbyn tried to insert a different line of arguments into the campaign, most of the space there had already been taken by the “Get Brexit Done” of the Tories, certainly in the ‘swing constituencies’ that were sensed to determine the result.

Johnson, or Cummings behind him, may not have designed a specialized social media campaign (while Labour clearly did). But they designed a hybrid media weaponization campaign in which the entire field of media exposure was attacked and in which specific game-changing audiences were relentlessly addressed. So while Corbyn won the battle on social media, he lost the war on this broader media exposure front.

How to analyze this?

The point is that most of this weaponization strategy remains invisible during a campaign. Like in war, one thinks of guns only when they start firing; the question of how such weapons got into place and were supplied with ammunition, personnel and directions of fire is usually a matter only addressed by military historians. By the time the campaign really starts, the weaponization strategy has shaped its ‘structure’, its ecosystem. And this means that analyses of the communication effects in elections now need to be longitudinal, pay attention to events in the background as well as to those in the spotlights, that they need to address the entire media system rather than segments of it, and look carefully at the distribution of communicative actions over specific audiences.

This approach has implications: three very widespread assumptions need to be critically reassessed.

One, the idea of ‘campaigns’ as self-standing and all-decisive periods of communication has become an anachronism. Campaigns are permanent these days and accurate analysis of the political process will need to be able to spot the seemingly unrelated and innocuous little signs, the significance of which can now only be judged in retrospect. This significance is, note, electoral rather than related to, say, popularity or legitimacy in the eyes of ‘the people’.

Two, the idea of the individual politician or party as the core actor in political communication is equally an anachronism. We need to address and identify the various specific collectivities that ensure production, circulation and uptake of political messages, as well as the algorithmic infrastructures used in the process.

Three: the idea of political communication as a process evolving between politicians and ‘the people’ (in clear and stable relationships) equally needs to be revisited. Sophisticated campaigners appear not to worry too much about what ‘the people’ think and how they react, and they have no difficulties explicitly antagonizing segments of ‘the people’. They are targeting specific segments of the population and keep electoral effects in mind, rather the thing we like to call ‘public opinion’. In addition, the uptake expected of specific audiences is active and productive – commenting, reposting, liking, and so forth, creating new political messages within and beyond the bubble – and not just ‘listening’ or other forms of passive uptake. Audience selection, audience design and active audience involvement are crucial in any analysis.

Apart from offering obvious analytical benefits these points will, incidentally, help overcome one of the nastiest aspects of current poor campaign-focused analysis: the (often heard) claim that people ‘out there’ – usually those belonging to the working class or otherwise stigmatized groups – are passive receivers of messages and just ‘believe’ the rubbish they are being fed by the tabloids. Much more complex things are going on, and it is high time for us to start getting our heads around them.

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Ergoic framing in New Right online groups: Q, the MAGA kid, and the Deep State theory

maga_hat_022819gn_lead

Ondřej Procházka & Jan Blommaert

(working draft)

1. Introduction

Conspiracy theories have had a long life in social research (e.g. Hofstadter 1967), and they have more recently become conspicuous as a topic of research on online social and political action.[1] The relationship between the online world and conspiracy theories is often described as synergetic:

Conspiracy theories, defined as allegations that powerful people or organizations are plotting together in secret to achieve sinister ends through deception of the public (…), have long been an important element of popular discourse. With the advent of the Internet, they have become more visible than ever. (Wood & Douglas 2013)

The Internet is also seen as influential: it is the place where conspiracy theories emerge and grow, before being moved into mainstream media:

However, as the Internet developed into a major form of communication, its function as a medium for the spread of conspiracy theories began to exhibit some important characteristics. Most obviously, ideas that in the past would only have reached the small audiences of conspiracy publications and late night talk radio now could potentially reach many more. Less obviously, it became clear that once fringe ideas appeared on the Net, they could eventually migrate into mainstream media (Barkun 2016: 3).

Conspiracy theories themselves are often left undefined, and remain caught in moralizing – usually dismissive – but analytically superficial discourse:

In Conspiracy Theories and the Internet – Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development (Clarke, 2007) he argues that many contemporary conspiracy theories suffer from vagueness. Looking at the development of conspiracy theories on the Internet, he argues that such theories have fared badly, since it does not take long for them to be analysed and subsequently shown to rely upon shaky or shakily interpreted evidence. As such, conspiracy theories online are now phrased in vague and less precise ways in order to avoid being easily falsified” (Dentith 2014:162)

In what follows, we into to engage with conspiracy theories in a way that does justice to their complexity as a social fact in the online-offline nexus characterizing contemporary social life (cf. Blommaert 2018). Examining a recent case of online group activism, we will focus on (a) how a particular form of reasoning is consistently developed and maintained, a form we shall call Ergoic (after Latin ergo, “therefore”), and (b) how such a form of reasoning generates and sustains a particular type of community, which we call a knowledge activism community; (c) we shall do this from a specific angle, which is action-centered rather than content- or identity-centered.

The latter point demands some clarification. The specific case we shall examine in this paper instantiates a central analytical problem of online research: that of people performing social actions online anonymously, under an alias or using avatars. This simple and widespread given has momentous consequences for analytical approaches of online social action: we cannot reliably assume participants’ identities and use them as a priori categorizations in the analysis (cf. Blommaert, Lu & Li 2019). We cannot, for example, use particular demographic and sociological diacritics – gender, age, even nationality or place of residence – in the analysis, since none of these data are available to the analyst, except when advanced software tools and analytics can be deployed. What we do have, however, are data documenting specific social actions – online interactions in which specific normative codes evolve and circulate; in which particular epistemic, affective and ideological stances are being semiotized by means of specific resources; and in which we see, through all of this, the emerging communities whose collective work (or, in Garfinkel’s 2002 terms, “congregational work”) generates sometimes considerable social effects. The communities are generated by the actions they are involved in, which is why we privilege these actions as the objects of inquiry. We shall see how this action-centered approach enables us to be very precise in the identification of the communities: specific forms of action generate specific forms of community.

We shall examine a particular conspiracy-theoretical event in which an online New Right activist community called Q used the mainstream media reports of an incident involving a white student (the “MAGA kid”) and an elderly Native American man to produce elaborate reframings of what happened, using “ergoic” arguments grounded in a conspiracy theory which we shall call the “deep state theory”. In the next section, we shall briefly introduce the incident; the subsequent sections will discuss, the nature of the congregational work performed within the Q community and the structures of the ergoicargumentative work they display in their online actions. In our conclusions, we shall return to the main themes of this paper and connect them to some major issues in research on online communities such as Q.

2. Q and the MAGA kid incident

In January 2019, two marches clashed on the Mall in Washington DC: the pro-life March for Life and the Indigenous Peoples’ March. While the first one could be roughly described as politically conservative, the second could be said to be politically liberal within the US political universe. One incident from the meeting of both marches went viral as a short video clip on social media: an encounter between a young white Catholic high school student called Nick Sandmann, wearing the iconic “MAGA hat” (the emblem of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign), and an Omaha elder called Nathan Phillips.

The clip itself circulated in a variety of versions and these versions became a topic of heated controversy. Initially, the dominant reading of the clip opposed a dignified Native American elder and a “smirking” white chauvinist kid. The “smirk” was read as an expression of disrespect, racism and white supremacy, thus strengthening the theme of the Indigenous Peoples’ March.  The fact that Nathan Phillips was also said to be a Vietnam veteran highlighted the inappropriateness of his attitude: veterans command respect, period. Memes were made in which this reading was codified (see Figure 1), and mainstream media broadcasted the story in these terms.

fig1Q

Nick Sandmann’s MAGA hat (by means of which he is identified in Figure 1) evidently laid a strong indexical link between Sandmann, the incident and Donald Trump, and in online discussions this connection was elaborated (see Figure 2).

Fig2Q

A New Right forum (or hivemind) called Q also immediately picked up the incident, and in the remainder of this section their reactions and reframing attempts will be central.

Q is an online activist collective in which a particular vocabulary is being used, including one for identifying the hierarchical levels of members and the specific activities they undertake, as well as the themes they mobilize around and the opponents they choose to fight. Q operates at different levels, with ingroup core actions confined to the relatively marginal user-generated imageboard platform 8Chan, while actions reaching out to a broader network of (potential) followers being performed on Facebook. More specifically, Q is believed to be a high-ranking individual or a small group of individuals operating in Trump’s administration with Q clearance, a level at which top secret and restricted data can be accessed. Based on their insider knowledge, Q post semi-coded messages (“crumbs”) on 8chan, which are compiled and discussed by their followers (Anons), who organize themselves in what they call ‘Great Awakening’: “an organic information and truth-seeking campaign, the goal of which is to help President Trump peacefully Make America Great Again, and by extension to make the world a better, safer place for all to live in peace” (Anons 2018: 1)[1]. This involves identifying and exposing both domestic and foreign enemies of Trump with a particular focus on what they have done (false flags operations, corruption, misdirection, cover ups, mind control etc.) what they do and will probably do with regard to current and past events.

Q’s first wave of Facebook responses consisted of rejections of mainstream media’s version of the events, swiftly followed by avalanches of messages offering the truth about what happened (cf. Figure 3).

fig3Q

In the days and weeks following the incident, ‘evidence’ was accumulated showing that Nathan Phillips was not a Vietnam veteran, that he had participated in several other public protests and activists’ meetings, that he could be identified as affiliated to organizations run by George Soros, and so on. The initially dominant frame was effectively turned upside down. Now, images of the incident should be read as involving an innocent, ordinary white kid being the victim of aggression by a professional activist claiming fake credentials. And from there onwards, the small incident became understood as a mere illustration of the big problem providing the raison d’être for Q: systematic anti-Trump machinations planned and performed in the US and elsewhere. The way the incident was cast in mainstream media, so argued Q members, was just another “hate hoax” – the fake news often qualified as “an enemy of the people” by Donald Trump.

The lines of action performed by Q in the wake of the MAGA kid incident have been sketched. We will proceed to deepen it, focusing on an examination of the particular ergoic knowledge regime developed and articulated within Q.

3. Ergoic reasoning: the Deep State theory and the MAGA kid incident

In order to understand what follows, we need to return to an old ethnomethodological principle: that people are reasonable whenever they try to make sense of social life, and that “reasonable” should not be confused with rational as conventionally used. Being “rational”, conventionally used, stands for the strictly regimented, detached, facts-only and evidence-based epistemic modality that characterizes, in the Enlightenment tradition, scientific reasoning and other modes of fact-based knowledge work such as journalism and forensic-legal inquiry.

Being “reasonable”, in contrast, consists of the construction of plausible explanatory formats in which details of everyday life can be related to some “theory” as proof of that theory (hence ergo, since the detail is explicable because of the theory). The theory – similar to what Goffman (1974) described as an overarching “frame” organizing experience – consists of general propositions of “how the world is” and how, consequently, everyday events can be made sense of as “logically” explicable with reference to the general propositions. The conventional understanding of being rational, then, is just one specific (and specialized) mode of being reasonable (Garfinkel 1967).

We can take this one step further. One can be “reasonable” precisely by disqualifying rationality in its conventional sense. The propositions of “how the world is” have the status of truth, and when this truth is contradicted by “hard facts” (of science, journalism or the law), such facts can be dismissed as fallacies or lies. And what we seen in conspiracy theories is exactly that: an antirational mode of arriving at reasonable explanations grounded in ergoic relations between specific events and a general theory or masterframe of “how the world is”. The latter has the status of truth, and – here comes the conspiracy – this truth is typically hidden by powerful opponents and demands to be revealed through the actions of the conspiracy theorists.

The masterframe within which Q performs its actions can be sketched as follows; we shall use the Q jargon discussed earlier.

  1. Q explicitly claims to work for Donald Trump. In that sense, it can be set apart from most other conspiracy theorists, who identify with the margins and pose as powerless voices. In the case of Q, there is an explicit alignment with the President of the US. The president, however, is described as locked into battle with what Q calls the “Cabal”. The Cabal are an alliance of several actors also qualified (by Trump) as “the swamp”: the real powers that control the US and the world. Q explicitly inscribes its actions in Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp”. Q members join Trump’s battle as “patriots”, self-qualifying as “We the People” (with its intertextual resonances firmly rooted in the foundational texts of US democracy). And they undertake “research” – knowledge practices aimed at publicly revealing a truth deliberately hidden by the Cabal.
  2. The Cabal is – in practice – organized around four major actors. The first is Hilary Clinton, Trump’s opponent during the 2016 presidential elections and seen as guilty of a protracted conspiracy to weaken the position of Donald Trump and, thus, to undemocratically regain the power that she was democratically denied in 2016. Clinton is described as an active opponent who, through the machinery of her Clinton Foundation and related charities and NGOs, as well as through her connections with the DC elites, sets up an unending sequence of attacks on Donald Trump. Trump systematically used the epithet of “crooked” for Hilary Clinton.
  3. A second major Cabal actor is Barack Obama. Obama, in Q discourse, represents the “deep state”; in that sense he is rather a passive opponent whose harmful influence is felt through the actions of state agencies such as the CIA, the FBI and the Supreme Court, all of which have been organized by Obama in such a way that they serve the interests of the Cabal.
  4. The third major actor in the Cabal is billionaire entrepreneur George Soros. Q describes Soros as a “puppet master” who actively finances and implements the plans and schemes of the Cabal, usually through the NGOs and networks he runs. Soros is also a “globalist”, whose activities have a scope far beyond the US. Which is why Trump needs to develop a new international policy and new international partnerships.
  5. Finally, there are MSM, the mainstream media, seen as the public outlets of the Cabal and therefore the main direct opponents of Q’s fact-checking and debunking online actions. The media, so it is argued, are the tools of propaganda and disinformation of the American public, happily transforming meticulously crafted anti-Trump hoaxes into major news stories.

We can call this the “deep state theory”, and summarize it schematically as follows:

fig4Q

This deep state theory provides the dominant ergoic logic for all of Q’s actions. Whenever a case is opened by Q, the direction in which ‘research’ is taken is scripted in the terms of this masterframe. The first step, therefore, is the instant assumption that mainstream news is fake, after which the detailed fact checking must reveal the direct or indirect involvement of the various actors in the Cabal.

In essence, the masterframe pictures an all-powerful, totalitarian state undemocratically controlled by the Cabal and shaped so as to serve their interests. The term “deep state” stands for exactly this: a state the organization and functioning of which have been profoundly adapted to serve particular elite interests rather than those of the masses (“We, the People”). The all-powerful nature of that state is reflected, according to Q members, in the level of meticulous planning of hoaxes and the never-ending, massive supply of such hoaxes, suggesting top-level organization, phenomenal resources and investments made available, and the mobilization of the “best and brightest” in the efforts of the Cabal. There are obvious pointers towards George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where Newspeak took the place of today’s “fake news” and where Big Brother sees all, knows all, and shapes a reality which is, in actual fact, a totalized lie intended to safeguard the power of the state from any unwanted form of interference. In the “MAGA kid” incident, the reference to Orwell is explicit in this meme:

fig5Q

Entering into greater detail, we see how the elements of the deep state theory serve, ergoically, as directives for practices of “research”. These practices are diverse and range from the constructions of “true” memes as didactic tools, over more elaborate explanatory practices in which features of evidence are being discussed, disassembled and reconstructed, and interactionally constructed modes of learning, mutual ratification and correction.

3.1. Data

The data were gathered from a Q-based Facebook group QAnon Follow The White Rabbit, which had roughly 37,000 members at the time of the incident. We joined the group several months (October 2018) prior to the incident to conduct a systematic ethnographic observation without active participation (commenting, liking or sharing). There are four main reasons why we selected this group in particular: i) the group is highly active (usually dozens of posts per day) and with a relatively high level of engagement from its members, ii) the group is sufficiently representative of the Q phenomenon in view of its gatekeeping mechanisms – it is a closed group (access is granted upon answering relating to Trump in which the applicant must show alignment with the Q masterframe), iii) the group shows little or no signs of content filtering or censoring activities and the vast majority of posted content is Q related; iv) the group has enabled a search function that helps us to laser in on its reception of the MAGA kid incident as it unfolds in a number of contexts which we will describe below.

We shall limit our analysis to QAnon’s reception and re/de-construction Nathan Phillips’ media image based on the memes and comments as reactions to posts containing links to various media informing of the MAGA kid incident that had posted in the group between January 20 and 25.  The data were collected in March 2019 after the activity pertaining the incident had ceased. To gain a better understanding of the networked chronotopic conditions in which our data emerge, we cross-checked and consulted our data with other Q-based platforms and websites, including q-research section on 8chan, Q-related data aggregators (e.g. qmap.pub/info) and other Q-related groups and pages on Facebook.

3.2 Analysis

We will focus on the following aspects of QAnon’s knowledge activism in debunking of the (mainstream) media image of Nathan Phillips: 1) exposing his true military credentials and 2) dispelling his authority as a native elder, which provides basis for 3) revealing his ties to the Deep State, and finally 4) his complicity in more grand conspiracy theories connected with the Cabal, namely its crusade against Christianity. But let us not forget that our analysis is not aimed to (dis)prove conspiracy theories propagated by QAnon. Our goal is ethnomethodoloical: we look at how the members of the QAnon make sense of the MAGA kid incident though interaction; or more precisely, how their interactional engagement marks a congregational work producing conspiracies as social facts and conspiracism as a default mode of reasoning. On that note, we begin with a brief outline of the most circulated memes illustrating the masterframe with regard to each line of debunking, and then we proceed to the discussion of the comments along the line in question.

Nathan Phillips is not a Vietnam veteran

Phillips’ military credentials were immediately questioned and invalidated in the wake of media’s reporting on the MAGA hat incident and subsequent interviews in which Phillips mentioned his military background and alleged service in Vietnam. QAnon’s ‘research’ (comparing Phillips’ earlier media appearances and other available information about him) shows discrepancies in his claims as well as questionable sincerity in his performance, which subsequently serve as ergoic arguments in undermining his account. The discrepancies are also documented in a number of memes circulating in the group.

fig6Q

fig 7 8Q

Fig. 6 features Phillips’ discharge papers (released under the Freedom of Information Act) indicating a number of AWOLs (absent without official leave) and no evidence of his Vietnam service. Its explanatory caption indicates that while his military service is honorable (even for QAnons), his personal integrity is not; and therefore, he cannot be trusted. This creates an aura of unbiased and rigorous ‘research’ or ‘fact-checking’ in addition to constructing a sense of epistemic superiority (having access to classified or hard-to-get information) on the basis of which QAnon makes its ‘evidence’ more compelling.

Other memes point to discrepancies in Phillips’ account (fig 6.) or mock Phillips by putting him on par with another “fakes” gaining a status of a meme (fig. 8). These memetic figures include a NBC anchor Brian William (on the right) falsely claiming to be a wartime correspondent in Iraq and a survivor of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, David Hogg (on the left), who is believed to be a crisis actor.[1]Memes propagated by Qanons inform and are informed by the masterframe of “how the world is”– the event was staged, orchestrated or simply ‘fake’. This is also reflected in the vocabulary resonating with the imperative to expose the role of Nathan Phillips played in the event.

(1) NATHAN PHILLIPS FAKETRIOT.. “‘LOWLIFE”‘

(2) The old bloke is a FAKE – PAID ACTOR !!!!!!!

(3) He is a paid protester.

(4)    Nathan Phillips is a fake and a plant. He was never in the service. Says he was a veteran. The Indians don’t like him, He gives them a bad name. He is a professional victim and a POS!

(4.1)Lets not forget stolen valor. Having never served as a “recon ranger” (no such job exists in the Marines) and never served in vietnam (As he professed to CNN)

Commenters frame Phillips along the same lines of ingenuity: as a fake patriot ‘FAKETRIOT’, paid actor and protester, an activist, a plant (i.e. a planted undercover agent)and a professional victim. Full or partial capitalization and overpunctuation frequently mark the urgency and insistence of highlighting the superiority of the epistemic regime pertaining to the Q masterframe.

The last two comments show how ‘evidence’ can be further specified and elaborated by QAnons. While (4) outlines the baseline ‘facts’ about Phillips, (4.1) answers by a more nuanced expository account of the claims Phillips “professed to CNN” (see the full transcript in Sidner 2019). In this vein, Phillips is not just a mere ‘fake’ – he is charged with ‘stolen valor’ (lying about military service), which is arguably a higher offense earning him more deplorable status of a ‘LOWLIFE’ and ‘POS’ (piece of shit). Apart from his military records, his self-reference ‘recon ranger’ (presumably part of special operation forces generally known as Army Rangers) is what gives him away, as it, according to 4.1, does not correspond with the Army register (nor with his expertise as refrigeration mechanic, fig. 5). We thus see that QAnon brings together people with different levels of knowledge and expertise from a wide array of domains which they utilize in concordance in their pursuit of ‘the truth’.

When the discrepancies became evident to general publics, CNN amended their report with the following note attached to the end of the transcript: “Correction: After this interview was conducted, Phillips told CNN he was Vietnam-era veteran. He did serve in the military during the Vietnam War, but according to his service records, he was not deployed to Vietnam” (Sidner 2019, n.pag). Commenters expressed both surprise and pride in furthering their endeavor in enacting the ‘Great Awakening’:

(5)    I can’t believe that CNN have started telling the truth..

(6)    Good news of the day – It’s getting harder and harder for the MSM [mainstream media] to dupe us anymore. It’s almost like a majority of us are waking up!

We now turn to another mode of ergoic reasoning related to identity work. In the next section we will see how the Q masterframe drives the scrutinizing and meticulous invalidation of another aspect of Phillips’ media image – his respectable rank among Native Americans.

Nathan Phillips is not a true representative of Native Americans

According to the research conducted by QAnons and testimonies of its members who identify as Native American, the Native American community is presented as ambivalent toward Nathan Phillips at best. Another series of memes and comment testimonies question the sincerity and authenticity in Phillips’ behavior. Instead of promoting Native American traditions and culture, Phillips’ presence in mainstream media reporting on the MAGA kid as well a past incidents shows ‘evidence’ that it has been in fact an intentional provocation falling in line with his previous public stunts that expose his true nature of an agent provocateur with a political agenda.

 

fig9Q

fig10Q

fig11Q

In this vein, fig. 9 captures and comments on Phillips’ earlier media presence tailored in a coherent frame that de-constructs his image as a respectable elder of the Omaha tribe, and re-constructs it as a provocateur political activist with ulterior motives. This includes, apart from the MAGA kid incident, a 2015 interview with Phillips following a similar confrontation with white students from the Eastern Michigan University (EMU) allegedly dressed as Indians in which Phillips claims that the students had approached him and eventually launched racist remarks on his address. Similarly to the MAGA kid incident, Phillips seeks moral vindication in the interview: “Whoever would sit judgement [sic] on them [the students], the university the law, society, that is their job” (Spencer 2015: n. pag.). The final fragment at the bottom of fig. 9 shows Phillips posing for a photograph in 2018 while being situated in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests[1]. Being equipped with an eagle staff and jacket with Indian tribal patterns, Phillips’ posture with his head not facing the camera, dark glasses and folded hands emanate a conceited look of a poseur or a model, and do not add up with the supposed protests that ought to have been going on. The composition of the photo thus does not speak of authenticity – it is taken as yet another piece of ‘evidence’ of the spuriousness behind his victim image presented by the mainstream media. Once again, Phillips’ identity performance is mocked through semiotic work superimposing his head into another memetic format ‘the most interesting man in the world’ (fig. 10) that is supposed to convey an avuncular life advice from a refined gentleman. In the same vein, Phillips gives advice on how to exploit a disadvantaged racial background to your benefit by playing a victim. Finally fig. 11 shows that screenshot Tweets can also operate as memes, which, in this case, questions Phillips’ representativeness of the Native American community by its own members.

Commenters attach great importance to Phillips’ representativeness of the Omaha tribe as well as Native Americans in general. We can notice processes of ratification in the comment section when it comes to extending the blame to the entire tribe, in which Phillips is taken as an elder.

(7)    If he’s their elder what does that say about them?

(7.1)    [referring to5]Don’t lump them all together. There are many elders in tribes. Elders mean older people .His tribe is probably embarrassed by him. Most Natives are good kind people. And will admit when someone is wrong.

Interestingly, Phillips is immediately reproached as an isolated individual whose actions do not represent the views or position of his tribe. On the contrary, the leading and authoritative connotations behind his rank of an elder are invalidated (“Elders mean older people”) and severed from his identity (“His tribe is probably embarrassed by him”) in addition to being attributed several qualities incompatible with an imagined ‘Native’ (Phillips is evil, unkind and intentional liar). Other commenters anticipate similar lumping statements and preemptively intervene with an apology.

(8)    I am Native and this guy has done nothing good for native people.
I am assuming that because of his actions there is big money involved.
I will Apologize for his actions
But with this I am putting this out here too.
We do all really need to learn to get along or the groups
wanting to keep everyone fighting so we can’t gang up on them

By identifying himself as a ‘Native’, he presents an insider view on Phillips, confirming that his interests align with the Cabal (i.e. ‘big money’) rather than with the Native Americans. What can be also noted is the imperative for maintaining social cohesion of QAnons in the face of provocateurs like Phillips and “the groups wanting to keep everyone fighting” and limiting the QAnons’ options to “gang up on them”. This brings us to the collective enemy, the Deep State.

Nathan Phillips is an agent of the Deep State

Having outlined some of the aspects behind QAnons’ ‘evidence’ debunking Phillips’ mainstream media image, it is no surprise that the inconsistencies and discrepancies in his statements and inauthenticity of his self-presentations are associated with the conspiratory scheming and machinations of the Deep State.

fig12Q

fig13Q

fig14Q

Before we address more general connections with the Deep State drawn in the fig 12, let us first discuss another frequent type of memes (fig. 13 and 14) associating Phillips with a current prominent representative of the Deep State – Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic Senator, 2020 preliminary presidential candidate and a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton. Warren has been consistently mocked by Trump and his supporters as ‘Pocahontas’ (or ‘Liawatha’[1] and the like) due to her purported Native American heritage she claimed after releasing results of her DNA test. Similarly to Phillips, she has been caught in a controversy, whereby their actions are perceived as political stunts and repudiated by the representatives of the Native American community. It comes as no surprise that when Warren praised Phillips’ endurance over “hateful taunts” on her Twitter account (Warren 2019), the compromised credibility she had accrued in the QAnon discourses was immediately transferred onto Phillips via memes as useful instrument.

Both memes possess captions drawing connection to the usual suspect of the Deep State (i.e. Soros, fig. 13) or evoking a sense of fulfilled anticipation, empowering and reinforcing the Q masterframe (fig. 14).

On a more general level, connections between Phillips’ Native Youth Alliance[2] and the Deep State are more didactically outlined in a diagram on fig. 12, which marks another line of ‘evidence’ that invalidates the institutional legitimacy of the organization that Phillips openly represents and promotes. This is done in a typical fashion – by following the financial trail or the ubiquitous question ‘cui bono?’ (who benefits?) which becomes pressing after Phillips’ purported identity virtues (a respectable elder with a noble cause) and credentials (Vietnam veteran) are dismantled. Exposing Phillips as “fake” is not enough – the ‘reason’, ‘motivation’ or generally ‘the truth’ behind his spuriousness must be explained. It is thus no surprise that QAnons’ research discovers financing by the crown members of the Deep State (i.e. Soros and his Open Society in conjunction with other compromised foundations marked by red squares), indicating their vested interest which will be discussed in the following subsection. The need for rendering the event meaningful for the QAnon community is explicitly articulated in the caption “now it makes sense” (top left) – the meme then provides a direct visualization of the conspiratorial masterframe applied in the particular chronotopic configuration of the MAGA kid incident.

More specifically, making sense is here guided by a number of visual devices, namely red arrows, boxes and careful distribution of additional semiotic fragments (list of donors/supporters, logos, portraits, headlines and sub-headlines presumably from a website of or related to Native Youth Alliance) in a circular composition – a frequent visual trope in conspiratorial discourses drawing ties between different individual and organizations (Byford 2011: 74). The geometrical shape often evokes order and coherence to otherwise seemingly random patchwork of ‘evidence’. As far as the comments are concerned, commenters seem to be readily accepting the ties between the Deep State and Nathan Phillips.

(9)        ANOTHER LIB ACTOR BEING PUT IN HIS PLACE!!!

(10)     Soros paid puppet

(11)     And finally, the TRUTH !!! A Soros paid instigator.

(12)     Chief smoking crack is a scum bag bought paid for by Democrats
Video clearly shows him walking to confront kid.
Kid did nothing wrong.
And once again CNN and the corrupt media spin it off against the kids
Promoting false propaganda
Again Media is AMERICAS ENEMY
CNN THE MOST TRUSTED IN FAKE NEWS

The associations between Phillips with the Deep State point to its multi-layered and vague structure of that Popper describes as “a kind of group-personality” operating as “conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men” (Popper 1972: 125). In this regard, Phillips falls in line with the usual suspects of the Deep State: liberals (9), Soros (10 and 11), democrats (12), and of course the mainstream media (most notably CNN, 10). The act of exposing Phillip’s true motivation often sparks a conspiratorial jouissance– satisfaction in furthering QAnons’ agenda (9) and a fulfilling sense of closure (11), but also a call for more elaborate explanation (12) re-energizing the purpose and validity of QAnon’s enterprise. On that last note, 12 attempts to extract a ‘take-home’ message situating the MAGA kid incident into a larger perspective. The decisiveness in Phillips movement towards the group of students have been interpreted as a sign of premeditation rather than coincidence (because he was paid to do so), which the mainstream media attempt to “spin” in promoting their own “propaganda” and the agenda behind it reaching and affecting the whole of ‘AMERICA’.

Consequently, there is a larger agenda to be discovered or exposed through the prism of everyday public events and encounters. Note that the perceived relationship between Phillips and the Deep State is of subordinate nature; Phillips is a mere instrument – a “puppet”, “actor”, “instigator” (provocateur) in a more grand scheme of things. This brings us to the overarching narrative in the Q masterframe– its millennial alignment with Christian morality and values against which the Deep State conspires.

Nathan Phillips provoked the standoff in a conspiracy against Christianity

To understand QAnon’s preoccupation with Phillips’ complicity in a conspiracy against Christianity, we have to reiterate that the whole incident took place in a clash between a catholic high school students participating in a March for life and Indigenous’ peoples March led by Phillips. Having revealed the true intent in Phillips’ engagement in the Indigenous’ peoples March, the conflict is quickly translated into a millennial fight between good (catholic MAGA hat kids) and evil (Phillips as an agent of the Deep State). Here we shall limit ourselves to the most prominent line of interpretation – staging the incident as a bid of the Deep State to incite anti-Catholic sentiments in order to weaken Trump’s sway over the Supreme Court of the United States.

fig15Q

fig16Q

Nearly three months before the MAGA kid incident, an associate judge of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), had suffered a multiple rib fracture demanding surgery and considerable medical care, and vanished from both public and professional life to recover from the incident. This led QAnons and other germane groups to believe that she is in fact dead, and negotiations are taking place regarding her replacement. Memes in this respect point to an elaborate scheme (fig. 15) to thwart or delay the nomination of Amy Coney Barret – Trump’s potential Supreme Court candidate and an openly faithful Catholic. Remembering that the ultimate goal of the QAnon community is the “Great Awakening”, the memes in this regard also aim for a general galvanization of the QAnon to wake people up in the course of fighting the ‘evil’ (fig. 14). The incentive resonates strongly in the comment sections.

(13)This tells me that he is being paid to slury the media message about Catholics. Yep. Getting ready for [RBG]

(14)This is to get people riled up and anti catholic for the next Supreme court nominee once they announce Ginsberg is dead

(14.1)  That is exactly the reason they are doing all of this. It is planned and paid for folks. Wake Up. The replacement for Ginsberg is going to be a Catholic female. They are trying to get the public up in arms about Catholics! It is called brainwashing the sheep!

(14.2)  yes, I believe that is a piece of the puzzle

As previously noted, Qanons are convinced that RBG is dead or her death will be announced in a near future (indicated in the QAnon code by a kill box [name] surrounding a given target, as used by 13). Once again we see a call for unity against the divisive subterfuge and scheming of the Deep State “to get people riled up and anti catholic” (14). Looking at some of the reactions to 14, commentators do not perceive the incident as isolated; it is “a piece of the puzzle” (14.2) or a larger effort in “brainwashing the sheep” (14.1). A frequent attempt to realize or uncover the bigger picture consists of drawing parallels among similar events in order to ergoically infer the mechanisms or strategies deployed by the Deep State.

(13) The Democrat Party Their sycophants Of The Main Stream Media And the Holly’s Wood elites, have become toxic… they have no respect for Christians or Catholicism …they have escalated the false narrative about the incident instigated by Nathan Phillips, to the same level as “Obama and Hands Up Don’t Shoot”…this fake news has been used by the Democrats and their sycophants of the MSM to sow Racial and Religious Division among Americans…

(14)OK, this POS is obviously paid off to attack all things Catholicism..Hmmmm…I wonder why??? Nothing to do with RBG and the new projected SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] judge right? They are not even clever.. Their playbook is simple. You are a racist, sexist with masculine toxicity, homophobic committing face crimes while smirking. Don’t worry, I see some of my liberal friends starting to question and see the light. The BS is so thick right now that you would have to be mentally compromised or a victim of mind control to buy what the media is selling. Its bombastic and even more sophomoric than before. Doesn’t seem possible but it happens.

In this regard, 13 draws parallel to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown who had been allegedly killed by a police officer while surrendering. The event gave way to ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ – slogan/gesture gaining media traction and quickly spilling into protests and activist moments (e.g. Black Lives Matter) against police violence. In the wake of the event, then-president Obama responded with sympathy for Brown and called the Americans to remember him through “reflection and understanding” (Obama 2014: n. pag.; cf. fig. 14) – a move which is now perceived as part of preparing fertile ground for contemporary division along the racial and religious lines, especially in the light of the controversy[1] that surrounded the shooting soon afterwards.

On the other hand, 14 tailors an ergoic frame laced with irony in a series of rhetorical questions, pointing to a ready-made scenario presumed to be enacted by the Deep State on similar occasions. The obviousness (“you would have to be mentally compromised or a victim of mind control to buy what the media is selling”) behind perceived behavioral order attributed to the Deep State seems to be the driving force reifying not only the Q masterframe, but also their knowledge activism gradually leading to fruition (“Don’t worry, I see some of my liberal friends starting to question and see the light”). Although the notion of the Deep State is rarely explicitly mentioned, it functions as a codification of discursive properties or chronotopic conditions that organize and ratify meaning-making processes related to mediated events, whereby ‘the truth’ can be discerned as a historical contingency in which its individual parts (Obama as its architect, democrats – including Clinton and Warren – as the enactors, the mainstream media as its instruments, Hollywood’s elites as its promoters, and Soros as the financial engine) work in conjunction to manipulate the public against Trump.

To summarize, we see knowledge activism of the QAnon community as not just  exposing or spreading ‘the truth’  in ‘Great Awakening’, but rather as an effort to instill a specific ergoic mode of reasoning to be applied in everyday life (alternatively described as ‘metapolitics’ (Maly 2018), ‘conspiracism’ (Barkun 2016; Byford 2011) or ‘paranoia’ (Hofstadter 1967)). The recipients or target audience are not categorized in terms of specific social or identity diacritics, and even the ideological opponents are not excluded – simply everyone ”see the light”. QAnon’s knowledge activism strives to reach beyond echo chambers of the Q related groups and platforms – it is to be enacted both online and offline, but with a constant recursion to the source of Q and QAnons. In this sense, knowledge activism constitutes the main organizing principle of the Qanon community, it secures its social cohesion in the face of a great internal diversity as well as dispersed and disembodied character of social media giving rise to temporal and loosely connected light forms of sociality in the online-offline nexus (Blommaert and Varis 2015; van Dijck, Poell and de Waal 2019).

4. Conclusions

The different actions documented in the preceding section are all guided by the “truth” inscribed in the deep state theory; details of the event can be ergoically connected, through “research” by Q members, to features of the theory – which is thereby continually confirmed and reiterated as the truth about “how the world is”. The actions we observed are all oriented towards knowledge, and Q can, as a community, be described as profoundly involved in knowledge activism. This knowledge activism is “reasonable” while it is profoundly antirational: it operates according to a compelling logic, the validity of which resides in the quality of the theory. When the quality of the theory remains unexamined and unquestioned, it is very hard to dislodge the specific ergoic arguments produced in the process. Conspiracy theories, we can see, are powerful argumentative tools.

It is through attention to concrete actions performed by members that we get a glimpse of the structure of an otherwise elusive community such as Q and of the ordered, patterned character of their actions. We are not observing an accidental congregation of people misled by first impressions and fake facts: we see a regimented community collectively performing a set of well-defined and ‘specialized’, genred actions, in a way that combines a light organizational structure with massive algorithmically mediated message circulation and considerable impact on public opinion, by systematically (and reasonably) dislodging and reframing what is widely accepted as the truth. This is serious business, and it is hardcore contemporary politics.

Acknowledgment

Research for this paper was supported by the ESF project “International Mobility of Researchers at Charles University” (No.: CZ.02.2.69/0.0/0.0/16_027/0008495). We gratefully acknowledge the stimulating input of Piia Varis. 

References

Anons (2018).Q: The Basics An Introduction to Q and the Great Awakening. 8chan 24/03/2019https://media.8ch.net/file_store/df825ce8cc8efe7b90579de958a15d47e4e8033e0cee38ae872d7682b6387e5a.pdf

Barkun, Michael (2016). Conspiracy Theories as Stigmatized Knowledge. Diogenes 2016, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1177/0392192116669288

Bengal, Rebecca (2018) Return to Standing Rock. Vogue 18/04/2018 https://www.vogue.com/projects/13542941/return-to-standing-rock/

Blommaert, Jan &PiiaVaris (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities:Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers of Culture Studies, Paper 139: 1-72.

Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet: On Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury.

Blommaert, Jan, Lu Ying & Li Kunming (2019) From the Self to the Selfie. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 222. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/c7b3f715-f213-4198-b196-42594e426181_TPCS_222_Blommaert-Lu-Li.pdf

Byford, Jovan (2011) Conspiracy theories.A critical introduction.Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clarke, Steve (2007). Conspiracy Theories and the Internet – Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development. Episteme 4(2), 167–180.

Dentith, Matthew (2014). The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dijck, José van, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal 2018The platform society: public values in a connective world.New York: Oxford University Press.

Garfinkel, Harold (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall

Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman& Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1974) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper and Row

Hofstadter, Richard (1967). Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New
York: Vintage Books.

Maly, Ico (2018).The global New Right and the Flemish identitarian movement Schild&VriendenAcase study.Tilburg Papers of Culture Studies, Paper 220: 1-27.

Obama, Barack (2014) Statement by the President on the Passing of Michael Brown. The White House Office of the Press Secretary 12/08/2014 https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/08/12/statement-president-passing-michael-brown

Popper, Karel R. (1972) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (4th Ed.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sidner, Sara (2019) NativeAmericanelder Nathan Phillips, in his ownwords. CNN 12/03/ 2019 https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/21/us/nathan-phillips-maga-teens-interview/index.html

Spencer, Dave (2015) Native American claims racial harassment by EMU students dressed as Indians. Fox 2 Detroit 22/04/2015 http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/native-american-claims-racial-harassment-by-emu-students-dressed-as-indians

Varis, Piia (2018) Conspiracy theorizing online. Diggit Magazine 12/05/2018, https://www.diggitmagazine.com/articles/conspiracy-theorising-online

Warren, Elizabeth (2019) “Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength, then urged us all to do better.“ Twitter 19/1/2019 https://twitter.com/senwarren/status/1086824484278095872?lang=en

Wood, Michael J. & Karen M. Douglas (2013) ‘What about building 7?’A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories.Frontiers in Psychology, July 2013. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00409

Acknowledgment

We are deeply grateful to our colleague and friend PiiaVaris for inspiration and guidance in the field of conspiracy theories. Piia’s work (e.g. Varis 2018) sketched the direction and raised the issues we try to address in this paper.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on message

800px-kerri_evelyn_harris_and_alexandria_ocasio-cortez_1

Jan Blommaert

(Also published on Diggit Magazine)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the US House of Representatives during the tumultuous midterm elections of late 2018. Running for the Democrats in the 14th District of New York – including the Bronx and part of Queens – she won a landslide, crushing her Republican opponent with 78% of the vote. Born in 1989, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest female Congresswoman ever. And not only that: she became a digital media phenomenon of global scope.

From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to AOC

The point of departure for what follows is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a highly unlikely candidate for such instant political stardom. Born in the Bronx as the daughter of lower middle-class Puertorican parents, submitting a CV in which academic brilliance is blended with activism and with menial jobs as bartender and waitress, and – more than anything else – proudly proclaiming unambiguously socialist principles: this is not the stuff that dreams are made of in the contemporary world of high office in the US. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is clearly an outsider.

But here is the thing: during her campaign and even more after her election, the image of the outsider was and is consistently, and quite brilliantly, used in her favor. This image  became the umami ingredient in terrifically designed and effective social media campaigns creating waves of viral popularity for which only Mr Trump himself provided a precedent. But with a difference: whereas the social media campaigns of Trump and others were overwhelmingly financed by corporate donors, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign funding was drawn from civil society and individual sources – her top donor is Columbia University and in the list of industrial sectors providing funding, the category of “others” (read: people who cannot be associated with an industrial sector) largely leads the pack. Crowdsourcing and volunteers provided the basis for Ocasio-Cortez’s enormous exposure and visibility during and after the campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign used all social media platforms – there is nothing exceptional to that. However, there is again a difference worth noting. Her campaign YouTube channel looks dismal with its 7.800 subscribers; the one million friends and followers of her Facebook page  are a crowd commanding some more respect. But things get more impressive. Her main Twitter account (user name @AOC) is followed by about 2,5 million people, and – most remarkable of all figures – the official Ocasio-Cortez Instagram account counts 1,9 million followers, which places her nicely into the league of global entertainment and sports stars (many of whom follow her account). Posts there get hundreds of thousands of likes and tons of comments.

In fact, it is through her intense usage of Instagram as a strategic mass-communicative device that Ocasio-Cortez stands out and innovates political digital culture. While the Twitter account is dominated by largely political updates, it is on Instagram that Ocasio-Cortez merges the roles of politician and popcult influencer. And it is there that we see the smart and carefully curated visual display of someone at once glamorous and plebeian, wearing designer fashion and Walmart, young and mature, sophisticated and plain, model and politician, frivolous and professional. All of these dimensions are picked up by followers and eagerly commented on, as we can see below. While the Twitter account is the brain, the Instagram account is the heart of Ocasio-Cortez’s communication strategy. And it’s a massive success.

screenhunter_1445 jan. 21 14.18

The effectiveness of the strategy becomes clear when we look at a detail: the fact that her name has become a media and public opinion acronym. AOC rapidly became, like FDR and JFK before her, the shorthand name used by supporters and opponents alike to talk about the unlikely candidate from New York’s District 14. Its effectiveness also becomes clear when we look at another phenomenon: the amount and intensity of media aggression directed at AOC. Ocasio-Cortez has become the target of daily avalanches of media criticism from her opponents. And in the same way as with Donald Trump in 2016, this negative exposure turns her into an even greater icon and creates a veritable brand, called AOC.

This brand label, incidentally, can be read on any bottle of French wine or on French cheese, where it stands for Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée and flags the authenticity of the origin of the product, along with its exclusive qualities and flavors. There is no end to the creative associative wordplay and innuendo that can be performed through the use of “AOC”, and the main indexical vector of “AOC” – let’s not forget – is positive.

AOC is on message

AOC is the outsider in Washington DC: this was the central theme in her campaign, it was the message. The message was constructed in two ways. One, by emphasizing her humble origins and her very modest material circumstances in self-presentations such as the central YouTube campaign clip. And two, by responses to opponents attacking her for being “out of place” in the world of high politics.

To start with the first, the campaign clip (viewed about 800.000 times) opens with a shot of AOC in a plain bathroom getting ready for a public appearance, accompanied by the statement “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family”. The frame is clear: the “normal” profiles of people running for high office in the US include such wealthy and powerful family backgrounds. AOC pictures herself, right from the start, as an outsider. But the title of the clip is The Courage to Change, and here is the full message: by running for office, AOC displays the courage to change the political system. It is exactly by being an outsider that she will be an agent of change – it is because I don’t belong here that I must be here. We hear an echo here again – be it an echo from within an entirely different socio-economic corner of society – of Mr. Trump’s central campaign message. Only outsiders can “drain the swamp” on The Hill.

The message, evidently, is powerful. And Ocasio-Cortez hammers it home relentlessly, by posting pictures on Instagram featuring other outsiders – her newly elected female peers in Congress (especially the Muslima Ilhan Omar, as in the Intagram post above), members of ethnic and Native American minorities, ordinary folk, suffering people.

And it is played out in virtuoso ways whenever Ocasio-Cortez comes under fire from opponents claiming that she is the wrong person for Congress. When in early January 2019 critics “unearthed” a ten-year old video of AOC, a student then, dancing on the roof of Boston University, a barrage of moral accusations was launched at Ocasio-Cortez. Mainstream as well as social media cried wolf about this “clueless nitwit” who obviously lacked the gravitas required for service as a member of Congress. AOC responded instantly with another video on Twitter and Instagram. The 11-seconds clip was a masterpiece: it shows the outsider in front of her office door in the House, dancing to Edwin Starr’s classic “War (what is it good for?)” and stating, with a wink, “Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too!” The clip got more than 20 million views in three weeks’ time.

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The point made here is: “I won’t be changed by Congress, Congress will be changed by me” – I will continue to do the things others consider transgressive and out-of-place, because that is what change is all about. And in that sense, transgression becomes the very thing she broadcasts: the suggestion that people must get used to someone who doesn’t fit the standard formats. She posted updates saying that House staff keep mistaking her for a spouse or an intern, and when a photoshoot in which she wore a very expensive set of designer clothes was being used by critics to doubt her humble origins and socialist orientation, she simply had to state that the clothes were of course not hers but borrowed from a designer for the photoshoot, and that they were inspired by the vintage look of left-wing radical activist Angela Davis – and the topic was entirely hers. Again, Twitter and Instagram were the main fora for such media-counterterror actions. With stunning visual self-presentations accompanied by concise razor-sharp statements, she dominates debates on these fora.

People are “on message” when the features they display adequately point towards the image they try to convey of themselves. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has understood the tremendous affordances of social media for “messaging” and takes political digital culture to yet another level. For rarely has anyone been so spectacularly “on message”. And while she’s in actual fact merely a (very) junior Congresswoman with a lot to prove, she’s risen to be one of the biggest things in the contemporary global political and celebrity worlds – in no time at all. Her maiden speech in the House is the most frequently viewed video ever produced by CSPAN.

Is she punching above her weight? Well, her first real policy proposal – to raise the top tax rate for the very wealthy to 70% – morphed from unspeakable and too-silly-for-words to a prime time national debating topic and opinion poll winner in a matter of weeks. It looks as if the weight categories have been redrawn lately…

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Why has Cultural Marxism become the enemy?

Dorotheenst_Friedhof_Marcuse

Jan Blommaert

In the colossal manifesto Anders Behring Breivik wrote before killing sixty-plus members of a Norwegian social-democratic youth organization in 2011, “Cultural Marxists” are a prominent category of “traitors”. It is due to the Quisling-esque sellout to the enemy by this overrepresented elite that Europe is now threatened by a genocidal Islamic Jihad, to be perpetrated by the millions of Muslims who immigrated into European countries – so it reads. Consequently, they deserve the death penalty, and Breivik executed more than sixty of them.

Cultural Marxism: the monster

Admittedly, Breivik was an eccentric and a freak even by the standards of ultra-radical European nationalists. But the logic of his ideological constructions is more widely shared and features as a template for fractions of the New Right in Europe and beyond. And the phrase “Cultural Marxism”, still rather marginal in 2011, has in the meantime become a stock term in political debate and in neoconservative writings, and it has precisely the meaning it had in Breivik’s manifesto. In the words of an American organization called “Western Mastery”,

Cultural Marxism has become the cultural branch of globalism. The enormous impact of this ideology on Western culture cannot be understated. It has effectively demolished societal structures and propagated cultural perversion. It has created a society that is racially mixed but extremely politically divided, sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic, and flat-out bizarre.”

So: what is this monster? And why has it become such an enemy of the Right?

Silly old Marcuse

When Cultural Marxism is described in such writings (and Breivik’s manifesto can serve as an example once more), fingers are pointed in two directions: to Antonio Gramsci and to the Frankfurt School. While Gramsci’s role is somewhat ambivalent – he is implicitly hailed as the inventor of metapolitics, and his strategies have been widely adopted in conservative and New Right politics – the Frankfurt School is usually presented as guilty of a long list of charges. It was the Marxist approach to mass culture developed by Adorno that provoked the “cultural perversion” mentioned in the fragment above, because Adorno exposed the bourgeois foundations of what we generally perceive as beauty and quality. And as for Herbert Marcuse, his “Eros and Civilization” is presented as a frontal attack on the robustly patriarchal and heterosexual Western sexual order, and the harbinger of the “sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic and flat-out bizarre” characteristics of contemporary Western social life – where abortion, divorce, and equal rights for LGBT people are legally inscribed in the mainstream. Marcuse destroyed (single-handedly, it seems) the age-old structures of authority in family life, in the system of education, in sexual partnership, and he really is the bad guy in stories of this kind. The more since he apparently had an “enormous impact on Western culture”.

One could, of course, spend ages offering factual refutations of almost everything said and written about this representation of “Cultural Marxism” and its enormous influence. But conspiracy theories, even when dressed up in the fancy clothes of academic discourse, are “reasonable” but not rational, and even require an outright disqualification of rationality as the foundation of their plausibility. Even so, Marcuse and his fellow Marxists definitely receive way too much credit for the perceived decay of sexual morals and patriarchal structures. It would be quite “reasonable” for those who blame Cultural Marxism to simply Google “Benjamin Spock” and the “Kinsey Reports” – American sources firmly grounded in the Liberal tradition (not that of Marx), and arguably vastly more influential in the post WW2 Western world than the works of Adorno and Marcuse. Blaming the latter for causing everything that is detested by neoconservatives is a clear case of convenient overkill. And now we can move on to more serious issues.

The cultural branch of globalism

In his address to the UN General Assembly in late September 2018, President Trump declared “the end of the ideology of globalism” and welcomed the “doctrine of patriotism” – a doctrine of “mind your own business”. I’ll return to his interesting choice of words in a moment; for now we can observe that it is exactly this element – the rejection of globalism – that unites Breivik and Trump, Orban and Le Pen, Brexit and Wilders. Globalism is the real enemy, for it presupposes a degree of democratic egalitarianism (the liberty and fraternity of the French Republic and the “all men are born equal” of the American one). And it comes with things such as immigration and sociocultural and political diversity, solidarity with people elsewhere in the world, respect for transnational agreements and loyalty in international cooperation in systems such as that of the EU, the UN and NATO. Taken together, the term “globalism” is the umbrella for everything that is wrong in the eyes of the actors just listed. And all of them militantly promote “patriotism” and its associated lexical field: “nationalism”, “sovereignty”, “independence” and “liberty”.

Trump interestingly qualifies globalism as an “ideology”, and he uses the latter term here as “false consciousness”, as a flawed and distorted representation of reality propagated by ideologues. Ideology, when used in this sense, opens a frame in which terms such as “brainwashing”, “thought control”, “propaganda” and, more recently, “political correctness” co-occur. And here, of course, we encounter the Cultural Marxists once more.

In Breivik’s manifesto, the term Cultural Marxists is very often accompanied by and equated with “Leftists” (of course), with “multiculturalists” and, curiously, “feminists”. Who is guilty of allowing these millions of Jihadists-in-spe into our countries? Yes, the Cultural Marxists are, for it is their “enormous influence” that spawned feminism, which then, in turn (due to, one can read, the softer side of femininity), has made our societies weaker and less confident. And Cultural Marxism is, in itself, a “multiculturalist” project in which the venerable traditions and canons of our Western cultures are critically questioned, deconstructed, ridiculed and denied the solid superiority they used to have. Cultural Marxists, and by extension the entire Left, are in essence postmodern “relativists” (another bad word in these kinds of discourse universe), and their relativism has led to the present threat of cultural, political, and ultimately physical genocide. They have successfully detached the people from their sociocultural roots, and this is a capital crime in Breivik’s eyes.

Cosmopolitan precursors

There are precedents for this, and they are not the most pleasant ones. The meanings now covered by the terms related to Cultural Marxism were at several moments in the 20th century covered by the term “cosmopolitan”. In Nazi Germany, cosmopolitanism was seen as the opposite of “German-ness”, and it was very often used to describe the supposed innate characteristics of Jewish people. The Jews were described as people lacking roots in the German “Volk” and in the Aryan race; due to that, they could not be assumed to be politically loyal to Germany and bore the suspicion of cultural and racial “pollution” – which motivated the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 as well as the “Final Solution”.

The term cosmopolitanism was also used in Nazi propaganda to connect the Jews to Bolshevism, or, slightly reformulated, the foreigner to the Left. The argument was that the Soviet revolution was led by Jews (such as Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev), and that the ensuing international work of the COMINTERN was part of a Jewish strategy to achieve global power. The Jews had invented Bolshevism so as to lure others into a mass movement which was meant to make them the rulers of the world, in short. Since the COMINTERN also influenced communist and socialist parties in Germany and elsewhere, the connection between Jews, German left-wing political opponents and foreign interference in German politics could be conveniently made. The Reichstag fire of 1933 was blamed on underground COMINTERN agents and led to the political purge of the German Left. German socialists and communists were the first inmates of Dachau. The Left, so it was explained, could never be “patriotic” because of its allegiance to political internationalism – remember “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

For Stalin, the proletarians of all countries were just fine, but those of the Soviet Union needed to be, above all, “patriotic” – loyal to Stalin and embodying the values of the Stalinist Soviet Union. In 1946, the Zhdanov Doctrine was introduced, forcing artists, intellectuals and scientists into a straitjacket of what would now be called “political correctness”. Jewish intellectuals were a particular target of the enforcement of this doctrine, for (in an echo of Nazi propaganda) the Jews were suspected of “rootless cosmopolitanism“, of a preference for influences and developments “from elsewhere” lacking (and thus betraying or sabotaging) the true character of the Soviet Union and its culture. Here, too, cosmopolitanism was seen as a threat to power, stability and sociocultural tradition, and people whose profession invites an openness to such influences (think of, precisely, artists, scientists and intellectuals) were identified as prime targets for repression. Interestingly, such targets were often accused of political alignment with … Leftism: Trotskist, anarchist or social-democratic inclinations, i.e. foreign influences at odds with the views of the Soviet, “patriotic” variety of socialism.

What’s left of Cultural Marxism?

There is, we can observe, a long discourse tradition in which the present attacks on Cultural Marxism fit. But let us now return to the 21st century.

It is hard not to see reflections of the 20th century “rootless cosmopolitan Jew” in the ways in which the American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros is represented in current political discourse in Hungary. Soros – not a man of the Left by any standards – fell out with Viktor Orban over the Hungarian stance towards refugees in 2015. What followed was an avalanche of accusations in which the “cosmopolitan” Soros was accused of interference into Hungarian domestic politics through the transnational institutions and NGO’s he controlled. In other words, his “globalism” was attacked from within the “patriotism” which is Hungary’s current doctrine, and the trigger for the attack was that prototypical 21st century icon of “globalism”: migration.

The backlash against Soros quickly focused on the usual suspects: intellectuals. The Central European University in Budapest, one of Soros’ transnational institutions described as “a bastion of Liberalism”, came under threat of closure. In the same move, the gender studies program at one of Hungary’s leading universities lost its accreditation. As explained by a leading Hungarian politician,

“We must raise awareness to the fact that these programs are doing nothing to lift up our nation. In fact, they are destroying the values-centered mode of thinking that is still present in the countries of Central Europe”.

It is highly unusual for the government of an EU member state to interfere in what used to be called “academic freedom”, and the measure met severe criticism internationally. Orban, however, remained unperturbed even when the EU threatened Hungary with unprecedented sanctions. In his view, cheered on by the likes of Nigel Farage, the EU should stop preventing its member countries from using their sovereign powers. The EU, in short, is way too “globalist” an institution, an alien body that should not take the place of “patriotic” national governments.

We can see, through this example, that the trope of the Cultural Marxists as sole, or main, agents of “globalism” is in actual fact a canard of considerable size. Soros is not a Cultural Marxist; there is, in fact, little evidence that he has ever been influenced by any form of Marxism. He is a cosmopolitan entrepreneur, though, whose reach of activities is global – but in a very different sense than the one intended by Marx and Engels when they wrote “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The same goes for the EU, of which one can say all sorts of things but not that it is a vehicle for Cultural Marxism. I invite critical readers to, for instance, consult the texts of the EU Commission’s Horizon 2020 program and identify fundable topics in which we detect the “enormous influence” of, for instance, “Eros and Civilization”.  And as for immigration, I welcome (critically though) analyses in which the German employers‘ repeated emphasis on the necessity of a qualified labor force of refugees (including Muslims, ladies and gentlemen) to maintain the German economy’s growth rate can be turned into a Breivikian Leftist conspiracy to weaken Europe and its peoples.

Roger Scruton, in a more civilized argument than that of Breivik, might view these German employers as “xenophiles” – people who have a preference for foreign cultures and who are, vice versa, “oikophobic”, displaying an aversion of what is ours. “Xenophilia” is yet another term we can add to “globalism” and “cosmopolitism”: it’s the wrong kind of openness to the world. But the flaw in the argument is obvious: according to Scruton and his followers, xenophilia is typically a Leftist attitude, incompatible with that of, say, Orban, Farage or Baudet. Yet, it appears compatible to that of international entrepreneurs such as George Soros or the management of Siemens and Volkswagen. Or such as Angela Merkel and the EU Council, for immigration is very much regulated by governments, not by Cultural Marxists writing books and holding speeches. As advocates and agents of immigration and political Liberalism, all those unlikely xenophiles appear to stand on the left of Cultural Marxism these days.

Globalism and globalization

We can see that the argument connecting Cultural Marxism to all that is wrong with the present Western world when seen from a Right-wing or conservative viewpoint is terrifically muddled and incoherent. It’s an easy shot: connect your political opponent (the Left) to the lack of national political agency due to international collaboration systems (“globalism”) and a racialized, ethnicized or culturalized and moralized version of a national utopia (polluted by migration and threatened by Muslims, feminists and LGBT people), and you have a discursive template that enables you to explain everything while actually addressing nothing. It’s a political-discursive passe-partout, reasonable for those willing to believe it, but profoundly irrational. The latter was demonstrated by President Trump himself. Shortly after solemnly declaring the end of “globalism”, he called upon the UN Security Council (one of the great fora of post-WW2 “globalism”, if you wish) to back the US sanctions against Iran. Thus, his new doctrine can be reformulated as “mind your own business, while I’ll mind everyone else’s”, and transnationalism hasn’t yet left the building.

Part of the incoherence is the confusion of a fuzzy and highly elastic term such as “globalism” with a highly precise and concrete concept such as “globalization”. Globalization is the development of a worldwide system of cooperation, mutual influence, exchange and interaction, and it has “hard” economic and political dimensions as well as “soft” cultural and ideological ones. People such as Soros, the Siemens and Volkswagen managers and the EU leadership are very much in the business of “hard” globalization, and so is President Trump. But both dimensions cannot be easily separated, for an important part of that “hard” globalization is a global industry of “soft” cultural and ideological commodities. (This, one should note, is the decisive insight of the Frankfurt School’s Cultural Marxists).  Rupert Murdoch‘s worldwide media empire is a major actor in it, and while this empire makes quite a bit of “hard” money, it also considerably influences the “soft” cultural and ideological aspects of societies included in the empire. Mr Zuckerberg’s Facebook-Twitter-etc. industry does the same. If there is any real “enormous impact on Western culture”, it should be sought with its real actors, not with those who merely analyzed it. And if we look for the “cultural branch of globalism” (or, more precisely, globalization), perhaps we should look in that direction are well.

So why is the so-called “globalism” of so-called Cultural Marxist such an enemy? Perhaps the – paradoxical – answer can be found in globalization. Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most insightful scholars of globalization, described years ago how globalized capitalism required a multiplicity of individual states, so that unfavorable business conditions in one state could be played off against favorable ones offered by other states. Large interstate systems or agreements – think of the EU now – can be favorable for business because they shape large markets; but they can become unfavorable because they would have the power to impose and enforce constraints, regulations and restrictions across that large market. The latter tendency is what “globalism” stands for in President Trump’s speech: it’s a rejection of multilateral economic regulation, to be replaced by “patriotism” – a monopoly over regulation in one’s own country.

Wallerstein also described how, in conditions of increasing globalization, culture would become the major battlefield. It is through the use of culture as an argument that individual states can make arguments in favor of protecting their own scope of agency and refuse or minimize more far-reaching forms of transnational integration. The process is cyclical, Wallerstein argues: phases of increasing integration (and, typically, of economic growth) would be accompanied by emphases on universalism, while phases of decreasing integration (and, typically, of economic recession) would be accompanied by emphases on racism and sexism.

We are far removed here from Leftist xenophilia and oikophobia, from “globalism” versus “patriotism” and from Cultural Marxists-multiculturalists-feminists. We’re in a world here of pretty robust historical facts. I would invite people to, at least, explore them, for looking at the hard facts of globalization and its effects can be massively helpful in addressing the catastrophically twisted ideas of people such as Breivik.

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Ergo: exploring the world of alternative facts

Capture Conway

Jan Blommaert

It was late January 2017. Donald Trump had just been inaugurated, and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his first press briefing, had referred to record numbers of spectators at the event. This claim was swiftly and conclusively debunked. NBC submitted this “demonstrable falsehood” to senior White House staff member Kellyanne Conway, and her reply became the stuff of legends. According to Conway, Spicer had merely offered alternative facts, not falsehoods. This statement marked the beginning of what has, in the meantime, become an institutional discourse tradition: confrontational debates over the truth, over fake news, over what constitutes reality-as-we-know-it.

For many, the very term “alternative facts” is an oxymoron, since facts are absolute. Either things are facts, or they are not, and relativism when it comes to factuality runs counter to most of our cultural assumptions about what constitutes knowledge and truth. So here is the question: how did Conway come up with this oxymoron? And how come people believe such things?

Rational versus reasonable

Part of the answer is general, another part is specific. Let me start with the general part. Garfinkel and other interactionists – think of Everett C. Hughes, Aaron Cicourel and Erving Goffman – will be useful in formulating this general part.

The point of departure is a fundamental assumption used in ethnomethodology and related branches of interactionism: in their everyday conduct, people continuously try to make sense of what goes on around them, working from details and singular events towards larger frames in which such details and events can be made to fit and become meaningful, recognizable as instances of social order. We are sense-making creatures seeking coherence – that is the summary of this assumption. We seek such coherence by trying to fit small things into bigger frames. And in thus seeking coherence, we are reasonable. This latter term, however, demands utmost precision and clarity.

First, being reasonable should be distinguished from being rational. In fact, we will see below how critical this distinction is theoretically as well as in the political, ideological and sociocultural practices I shall mention later.

Being rational is the form of orientation to knowledge and truth we have inherited from Enlightenment and modern science: it stands for a “facts only” approach and for strictly logical forms of argument in which disciplined rules of hypothesis-building and evidence support are being employed in explaining issues or answering questions. Such answers are conclusive and yield facts, the status of which is absolute. This rational orientation to knowledge comes with an attitude we call “objectivity”, with a degree of detachment and disinterestedness in making arguments. In our culture, it is widely seen and institutionally embedded as a superior orientation to knowledge (which is why Habermas, for instance, saw it as the key to the construction of a healthy democratic public sphere). Facts, rationally established, are also disembodied items, not tied to people or communities but transcending them. Facts are usually “hard”.

Being reasonable is a much less precise orientation to knowledge, and – not to put too fine a point on it – “reasonable” stands for “credible”, something we and our interacting others are ready to accept as true, correct, valid, and to which we are ready to be held accountable. It is undoubtedly a form of reasoning in which explanations are offered, but it does not rely on a codex of disciplined and disciplinary rules. Garfinkel coined the term “ethno-methods” to denote such forms of being reasonable: people in their everyday lives build and use “theories” of how things are and should be, and these theories structure their conduct and interactions with others. Such theories are “subjective” and often irrational, even if they can be experienced as unshakably true, as “visibly rational” (to quote Garfinkel). Culturally, however, they are perceived as inferior to rational orientations towards knowledge: they are the stuff of “folk” theorizing, “opinion” and “common sense”. This is “soft” stuff.

It is important to realize that both orientations to knowledge, the rational as well as the reasonable, share crucial features. Both are ways of making sense of reality-as-it-occurs-to-us, and both do so by establishing explanatory patterns we call ergoic – from Latin “ergo”, meaning “because” or “therefore”. Ergoic patterns are patterns of explanation in which small things – evidence – are explained in terms of bigger and more general propositions – theory. We observe a phenomenon or event, and it can be explained as related to a larger and more general pattern: it is what it is because (ergo) it fits into the larger pattern.The difference between both orientations to knowledge is in how ergoic patterns can be and are being made, the conditions under which ergoic patterns are being ratified: strict  rules of method apply to rational orientations, while such rules are absent (or at least hugely less rigorous) in reasonable orientations.

As Garfinkel and others explained at length, we are reasonable most of the time and rational, in the sense specified earlier, whenever we feel we need to be. Being rational, one could say, is a historically specialized form of being reasonable; the fact that we judge it to be the superior orientation to knowledge does not automatically make it into the most widely practiced one. After all, Mr. Spock came from another planet.

This is the point where we can become more specific and return to Mrs. Conway’s world of alternative facts.

Making the rational unreasonable

Mrs. Conway used her notion of alternative facts as a rebuttal of what the NBC anchor submitted to her as “demonstrable falsehoods” – the ridiculously inflated numbers of spectators at Trump’s inauguration. The NBC anchor, we can see, made his claim from within a rational orientation to knowledge. Facts are facts; no bargaining can be admitted when such facts are “demonstrably” established, and other accounts are in the same move conclusively and in absolute terms established as non-facts, as fiction. No two ways about it: it’s about proof, not about belief.

Mrs. Conway’s baffling reply (obviously irritating the NBC anchor) marked a moment in a political evolution in the US, the origins of which are older and instances of which more widely disseminated. Her statement marked the moment when that evolution became institutionalized, when it became the voice of the White House. And the evolution it marked is the rise of New Right-wing metapolitics. In what follows, I will describe four crucial features of such metapolitics.

1. Disqualify the rational

The first feature is the consistent disqualification of the rational as the superior orientation towards knowledge. This is done by a systematic denial of the sociocultural connotations we attribute to the rational: its status as objective, disinterested, detached voice serving as a critical instrument for democratic political systems. These connotations are replaced by their exact opposite: a conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory can be quickly summarized. Rational “facts” are a tool of oppression, a creation of a Left-wing elite (sometimes called “cultural Marxists”) aimed at suppressing and dismissing – here it comes – alternative facts. These alternative facts are experienced by “ordinary people”. But they never make it to the headlines of the mass media, the textbooks used in training university students, or policy papers, since the media, the world of expertise and the major political instruments are all in the hands of this over-represented “Left-wing” elite. Rational facts are, consequently, lies maliciously spread by these elite actors, while the facts experienced by “ordinary people” are ridiculed, their reality dismissed as fiction.

Consequently, it is not those who are officially licensed to be rational, define facts and non-facts, and speak the truth who should be listened to. Quite the contrary: the truth is in our hands, and we are those who are truly rational.

Capture Truth

Another convenient consequence of this conspiracy theory is that absence or scarcity of evidence does not cripple one’s version of the truth – it confirms it, since facts are deliberately withheld from the “ordinary people”. Similarly, arguments are immune to rebuttals using rational, “objective” and “hard” facts, since such facts are … deliberately constructed lies, attempts at thought control or brainwashing, or political correctness.

The connection between democracy and the rational orientation to knowledge, inherited from Enlightenment and institutionalized in education, media and politics, has been disqualified. In its stead, the reasonable orientation to knowledge moves towards the center of what is seen as a democratic system. It moves from “soft” to “hard”, to something unshakable.

To this disqualification of what we can call “institutional” rationality, another extremely powerful feature needs to be added.

2. Moralize the truth

We have already seen how the disqualification of rational orientations to knowledge included a focus on the actors: “facts” were to be dismissed because they were produced by the wrong people. The disembodied nature of rational facts, thus, is replaced by a profound and analytically crucial merger of knowledge, person, and morality. The truth, so it is claimed, is in the hands of honest, decent people. The truth, in other words, is no longer lodged in “objective” facts, the status of which cannot be challenged in random ways. It is lodged in concrete people who embody the right moral values. The truth becomes a matter of identity.

Of course, the truth is and has always been a profoundly moralized concept, which is why our vocabulary of terms for handling the truth is deeply moral in nature and projects moralized identities upon people. When we speak the truth we are “honest”, “sincere”, “reliable”, “truthful” and so on; when we don’t we are “liars”, “dishonest”, “untrustworthy”, “false”, “corrupt” and so forth. A term such as “fake news”, consequently, is not just a judgment of a particular chunk of knowledge; it includes a moral judgment of its actors, of those who produce, believe and circulate it.

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When the truth is moralized, we are moralized, and so are our actions. When we wage a struggle, the struggle is not a vulgar one – for power or money – but a struggle for values. After all, we are fighting for the truth, for a society governed by the truth. Our struggle, thus, demands all that is attached to moral greatness: courage, determination, sacrifice, discipline, persistence. Which is why such struggles are often imagined not merely as wars but as crusades.

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Such imagined crusades can take ludic shapes, as in the meme just shown. But they can also be deadly serious, as in the case of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Capture Breivik crusade

Breivik, as we know, described a new Knights Templar order in his long manifesto, reaching back to the early crusades. And he assassinated about 70 “liars” and “traitors”: members of a social-democratic youth movement in Norway. Crusades are real.

3. Do the ergoic work

We have seen earlier that ergoic patterns are at the core of what “being reasonable” actually means; we have also seen that it consists in relating small things – incidents, events, phenomena, occurrences – to larger patterns, to a “theory”.

This theory, we also saw, does not require the disciplined methodical underpinning of a rational theory. Absence of evidence simply constitutes proof of its validity; scarcity or falseness of evidence as well. What is required is (a) a Grand Narrative and (b) some evidence. A widespread Grand Narrative is that of Islam as a hostile religion, and of Muslims as engaged in a Jihad against “us”. This highly elastic proposition is directly connected to another very flexible theme: immigration. Immigration is always “mass importation” of “potentially dangerous enemies” who will eventually exterminate the populations of the Christian West.

Capture Wilders

(Translation: Fight with me… MORE MORE MORE: truth; no more political correctness; freedom of speech, our highest good; renewed sovereignty, no more EU-puppet; closed borders, no more Muslim migrants. LESS LESS LESS: ban Islam, a political ideology of conquest; get rid of the Qur’an, a book replete with hatred towards you; close al mosques, centers for jihadists; no more Islamic schools, poisoning. A Free Netherlands, Our Netherlands, Vote PVV, Party of Freedom)

We shall all perish because of the complicity of our leading Left-wing elites, who are actually (and especially through transnational systems of governance such as the EU, the UN or NATO) conspiring with the Arabs against us, in attempts to Islamize Europe. These elites, therefore, are our enemies. We shall perish through genocidal Jihad, and/or through demographic genocide – the gradual but steady increase of Muslim populations in the West, eventually turning “us” into a minority.

Capture Eurabia

Evidence for this Grand Narrative can be found in the smallest anecdotes relating to Muslim intolerance, aggression or cultural-religious assertiveness: women wearing the hijab, halal food in mainstream supermarkets, the use of Arabic as a publicly displayed language, Muslims complaining about violations of their rights and freedom of religion, Muslims attacking or verbally abusing non-Muslims, Western politicians meeting their Middle-Eastern counterparts or giving speeches at Muslim religious events (often qualified as soumission, following the title of a novel by Houellebecq) – there is no limit to what can be used as “facts” to prove the theory, and if there is a shortage of such facts, they can be manufactured.  Here is a short list of such hoaxes retweeted by Donald Trump.

Capture Trump retweets

The latter takes us to the fourth and final feature.

4. Use all the affordances of social media

Social media are excellent platforms for this kind of ergoic work. The economy of circulation on social media is characterized by speed, frequency and intensity, and quick ergoic patterns can be established by exploiting these affordances through short, often visual (or visually-supported), messages such as memes or gifs, or through the crisp and concise reiteration of the Grand Narrative as shown in some examples above. Veritable saturation bombardments can be performed this way.

Here are some examples, and note the ergoic patterns we observe in them.

CaptureLebanon

Capture London has fallen

Capture Allahu meme

Capture making muslims

The world of Ergo-ism.

Such ergoic patterns constitute “alternative facts”. They form a self-contained “truth”, immune to any form of factual refutation, for such refutations are – within this world of alternative facts – seen as conclusive evidence of the truth. Grounded in everyday forms of reasoning and sense-making, they have explanatory power, they create coherence in how people view their world, and they define individual and group identities. Supported by an infrastructure of social media offering unique affordances tailor-made for such quick-and-dirty explanations, they become extraordinarily persuasive – persuasive enough to turn electorates toward candidates and parties embodying the moralized “true” truth.

We live in a world where such ergo-ism defines the codes and standards of mass information and public debate. Whether this development is likely to make us “great again” is highly questionable. It is the topic of intense debate as well. And one element in such debates is inevitable: it is insufficient to simply disqualify such forms of ergoic work as a new form of obscurantism, as an endless supply of nonsense and unbelievable inferential quantum-leaps. We are facing here the rationality of our times. or better: the rationalities of our times, for there are multiple rationalities competing in the public sphere and reshaping what we used to call Modernity. Yes, the very term “alternative facts” could qualify as the ultimate marker of post-Modernity, since it turns something absolute – the rational orientation to knowledge – into a relative thing co-existing alongside a range of alternative ones. But even when we admit that we should address the puzzling moral absolutism with which such alternative versions are held to be the one-and-only truth. This is, if anything, an absolutist relativism – in itself quite an unbelievable thing.

(This short note is part of the Online with Garfinkel project.)

(For an elaborate example of ergoic framing in the sphere of QAnon, click here.)

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The citizen in the European GDPR: We’re all data subjects now

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Jan Blommaert

As of May 25, 2018, the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be enforced. This new regulation took a long time to prepare and implement, for its scope is vast and its effects will be huge. Reading the voluminous documentation about the GDPR, especially when done with a moderate dose of critical discourse analysis, yields some puzzling and potentially disconcerting insights.

What is the GDPR about?

On the EU website dedicated to the GDPR, the aims of the regulation are described as follows: the GDPR “was designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens data privacy and to reshape the way organizations across the region approach data privacy.” Even if the term “data privacy” is used as the element of coherence, we can anticipate something very complex here. We get a regulation that (a) creates legal uniformity regarding data privacy throughout the EU (and beyond); (b) in some way defines and delineates (and so presumably “empowers”) the data privacy rights of EU citizens, and (c) regulates and streamlines the ways in which data privacy is currently handled by “organizations”. The latter can be almost anything, from a boy scouts troupe to a multinational corporation, from a badminton club to a newspaper, from a university to a government department and internet provider. Knowing how the EU proceeds in its legislative work, one can only imagine the density of lobbying work that has preceded the GDPR, for almost anyone is affected by it.

Surely, data privacy is one of the most pressing concerns these days. The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data leaks scandal is still being rolled out to the public, cybercrime (including identity theft, hacking and copyright violations) has become a top security priority, and all of us have had the pleasure of receiving emails from extraordinarily friendly people inviting us to re-activate our bank accounts or social security numbers by sending all our personal details over. So it is clear that something needed to be done about such new forms of risk in an online-offline world. And yes, in the GDPR there are long and carefully worded sections “empowering” citizens when it comes to data privacy.

But much more attention is given to the transactional aspects of personal data: the conditions and rights to acquire, store and use such data in commercial, security, research and other contexts. The GDPR codifies the age of the Internet of Things, of Big Data and of the many ways in which Big Data generates social, economic, cultural and political effects, most of them entirely new and, consequently, poorly regulated. The citizen’s rights to privacy are defined in a regulated world in which such data are traded, exchanged, merged, and analyzed by a tremendous range of other actors. And that is where things become intriguing.

From citizen to data subject

The text is what we would now call “posthuman”: human beings are not central in them. This becomes clear from the standard use of the term “data subject” in the GDPR rather than, for instance, “citizen”.  To understand the implications of that, we need to take one step back and consider the most fundamental definition in the GDPR, that of “personal data”. Personal data stands for “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person”. 

The “identifiable natural person” is equated with “data subject”. This is not self-evident, but the reason lies in the small phrase “directly or indirectly” when it comes to being identified. Such innocuous-looking frases always look crucial to the critical discourse analyst, for they are deliberately vague while tremendously inclusive. They create an almost infinite scope for what counts as “identification” and, by extension, “identity”.

For here is the thing: one can be “identified” not just by anything directly leading to the “natural person” but even more by aggregations of indirect data gathered by others and within others’ range of legitimate agency through almost every instrument currently in place. The GPS data of your mobile phone, the algorithms of your social media profiles and your Amazon.com shopping routines, the IP address of your computer, records of medical check-ups and footage from surveillance cameras or drones placing you somewhere: all of these are “identifiers” that generate personal dataBut without the “natural person” as an active, intentional agent – it is not the “natural person” who creates and controls these traces of identity. We are in the world of “profiling” here and, indeed, I can be “implicit in the algorithm” and identified as a bundle of correlated features only indirectly suggesting particular actions – to which actions I can be held accountable nonetheless.

Are such data still “personal”? Can they be reasonably used as “identifiers” not just of people but of their individual character, behavior and actual (intentional) actions? In a 2015 interview, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli was clear: no. Butarelli saw a post-personal (or posthuman, as I called it) future ahead: “the concept of ‘personal data protection’ will disappear in the near future, as will the concept of ‘personal data’. We will all be easier to predict and identify even without data about our individual identities, it will be easier to reuse the information and group it together with other information and interpret it accordingly”. He went on: “The concept of ‘data-subject’ and therefore of the individual will in all likelihood disappear too, as we will be grouped together according to segments of information (…) The difference between ‘personal’ and ‘non-personal’ will then be blurred”. We are, in the most literal sense of the term, the profiles constructed of us by Big Data. And since, in the views of the European Data Protection Supervisor, we are facing the end of the individual, one should wonder what’s left of privacy?

Who owns “me”?

Most of the identifiers discussed in the GDPR are not created by the “natural persons” they index, I said. I must add: many of them are not even owned by these “natural persons.” We return to the core purpose of the GDPR here: it should enable and regulate the trading, exchange, storage and use of data about “natural persons” but by other commercial and noncommercial actors. Yes of course, the GDPR now stipulates that when personal data leading to an identifiable “natural person” are being used, these persons have to be informed and consent must be asked and obtained. The latter, however, is far from an absolute rule in the GDPR. There are several exceptions and there is a gigantic loophole under the label of “anonymized data” – the thing Butarelli alluded to when he spoke of people being grouped according to “segments of information” rather than anything properly “personal”. This, in actual fact, is what the term “data subjects” actually means: people grouped and identified as “type” or “category” X, Y, Z on the basis of Big Data aggregations, of specific combinations of data leading to specific profiles for people. Such constructions can sometimes lead to “individual identities”, as Butarelli said. But they need not.

The thing is that even if data are not properly “personal”, in the end they still are about, and from, “natural persons”, no matter what the degree of privacy protection is. After all, the entire thing revolves around identifiability, and even if the data gathered on me are used in “non-personal” ways, what is being done with such data can still have an impact on me. So there is a very wide space left for constructions of “me”, for which I can be held accountable in variable ways, but which have not been made by me, nor are they owned by me – profiles of me are creations and commodities made by others about me, and what the GDPR does well and in detail is to organize a firm legal footing for trading and exchanging such items in a Big Data market. Data subjects, in the sense just described, are the product in that market; if the specific data subject is me, I am a product, not an actor in the deal. Not much citizen empowerment can be observed in the process.

The clever play of words in EU texts such as the GDPR has, on many previous occasions, had the tactical advantage of silencing or delaying public debate. Public declarations on the GDPR will continue to foreground the phrase in which EU citizens are said to be empowered with respect to data privacy. A careful reading of this text, however, raises several large and pretty fundamental questions left unaddressed by the decision makers – and for that, too, precedents are plenty in the history of EU decision making.

For more information on GDPR, see here.