Conspiracy theories, such as the underground phenomenon known as “QAnon,” which posits that an anonymous US intelligence official has enormous quantities of data which will expose many figures worldwide as belonging to a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles, use human nature to further their aims, according to many experts.
This purported cabal is said to be running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been fighting supposedly an evil group of government officials, entertainers, and business moguls.
Conspiracy theories exploit the most basic elements of human nature
According to game theory expert Reed Berkowitz, the QAnon phenomenon cleverly exploits some of the most basic elements of human nature, including our drive to find patterns in the world and in the behavior of others, to receive positive reinforcement and the need to belong to a group.
And apophenia is at the root of the issue. The word, which means the perception of connections or meaning in unrelated or random phenomena. It was created from the German Apophänie, from the Greek apo- (away, off, apart) + phainein (to show).
Berkowitz, a 52-year-old who lives in Portland, Maine, got his start creating educational games with world-class children’s properties such as Peanuts, Sanrio (Hello Kitty), Felix the Cat, and many others. He has created award-winning educational, gaming, and entertainment products for the US and international markets.
His company, Cybernautics, with offices in San Francisco and New York, worked with many of the largest media companies in America – such companies as Universal Studios and Time-Warner – to help them explore interactive media and create new stories in new forms.
He explains, in an article posted on Medium.com, “QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe ‘guided apophenia’ is a better phrase.”
In an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter, Berkowitz expands on the concept of apophenia and how easily people can fall into such traps.
Thinking random patterns are meaningful – when they are not
“Apophenia is not so much about seeing patterns, as it is thinking that random patterns are meaningful when they are not. In other words, apophenia is about being wrong and thinking you are correct. In science or problem solving having a large number of hypotheses to test from can be invaluable, but eventually, the correct solution must be found. Apophenia is only about finding FALSE connection.
“There is a theory that apophenia is selected for because the price for NOT making the right connections is much more costly than the cost for making false connections. For instance, if you are a mouse and you think every rustle in the grass is a predator, you’ll be running around a lot, but you won’t get eaten by a cat.
“Life itself rewards being over-cautious”
“The mouse that DOESN’T connect the rustle of grass to a predator doesn’t live to pass on their genes. So life rewards being over-cautious. This means we’re likely to jump to false conclusions, especially if we think they are life-threatening in some way.”
Berkowitz states that the creators of QAnon — and those who coaxed it along the way, offering breadcrumbs to its breathless fans, used “guided” apophenia because, as he says “the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions.
“They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.
“There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you ‘figure it out yourself’ you own it.
“You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to ‘connect the dots yourself’ you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at,” he explains.
“Even Q-Anon was only one of several “anons” including FBIanon and CIAanon, etc, etc. Q rose to the top, so it got its own YouTube channels. That tested, so it moved to Reddit. The theories that didn’t work, disappeared while others got up-voted. It’s ingenious. It’s AI with a group-think engine. The group, led by the puppet masters, decide what is the most entertaining and gripping explanation, and that is amplified. It’s a Slenderman board gone amok.
“Let’s go back to the arrow on the ground again,” Berkowitz says. “It was not an arrow on the ground, pointing to a clue in a wall. It was just some random bits of wood. They did not discover an arrow. They created it. They saw random pieces of wood and applied their intelligence to it, and this is everything.
“It’s easy for people to forget that they are not discovering the story, but creating it from random data.”
“Q” a purely fictional character
“I’m afraid this needs to be said,” Berkowits tells readers in his original article. “Q is not a real person, but a fictional character. QAnon uses the oldest trope of all mystery fiction. A mysterious stranger shows up and drops a strange clue leading to long-hidden secrets which his clues, and your detecting power, can reveal.
“Let’s think about this for a minute.” he says. “How many great movies, books, and TV shows would have been forever ruined if the mysterious stranger just laid it all out for the protagonists in the first meeting?”
“The fictional reason Q doesn’t just tell the world what they know is that Q wants you to ‘do your own research’ and come to your own conclusions. How polite…
“This is not a real reason,” he admonishes. “Q does not want you to come to your own conclusions. Q is feeding you conclusions. This is VERY important and here are several reasons why this is included in the verbiage of almost every fictional conspiracy theory ever.
1: Follow The Breadcrumbs
“Telling people how and what they should think is the path of most resistance. Ideas that challenge us can do just the opposite of convincing us or enlightening us, but further engrain our old ideas. Even when presented with factual evidence.”
Berkowits then quotes Brian Resnick’s article in Nature.com, which states “It is well known that people often resist changing their beliefs when directly challenged, especially when these beliefs are central to their identity. In some cases, exposure to counterevidence may even increase a person’s confidence that his or her cherished beliefs are true.”
“Strongly held beliefs are literally a part of us. As such, attacks on core beliefs are treated very much as attacks on us, even as strongly as a physical attack.”
To explore these hypotheses, Resnick sought out Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California. Kaplan states in his article “A new brain study sheds light on why it can be so hard to change someone’s political beliefs,” published in Vox, that “The brain’s primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body.”
“The psychological self is the brain’s extension of that. When our self feels attacked, our brain is going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body.”
“If the ideas are generated by us, however, then these are the ideas we defend,” Berkowitz states. “If we ‘create’ the ideas in our own minds, they become fused much more intently into our personality. They’re OURS. There is no friction. Guiding people to arrive at YOUR conclusions is a perfect way to get people to accept a new and conflicting ideology.
Getting them to arrive at the destination can be a little tricky. You have to guide them there one little step at a time.”
“In QAnon parlance, these steps, or trail markers leading you into the forest, are called breadcrumbs: little morsels Q disperses that are easy to digest, that lead the players towards wherever Q is guiding them. One little bite at a time.
“But the breadcrumbs are not facts, they are questions. Puzzles and clues for the “investigators” to uncover,” he explains.
“This leads us to another reason Q would really like you to do your own research,” Berkowitz adds.
2: The Eureka Effect
“Puzzle-solving is a special way to learn and it encodes information into the brain in a different way than other learning,” he states in his Medium.com article. “Puzzles and knowledge gained through our own efforts are incredibly rewarding and also come with a hit of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure drug, as a reward.
“‘Do your own research’ means ‘Don’t trust other people. Don’t trust institutions. Listen to me.’ The conspiracy plot always has the same logic. The reason no one knows about the conspiracy is because of the conspiracy. Not because it doesn’t exist.
“Then initiates are given the tools to arrive at “their own conclusions” which are in every way more compelling, interesting, and solve more problems than traditional conclusions. Because they are wrong and fictional.
A key aspect of conspiracy theories: Being part of a community
“Solving puzzles together is a great way to form community and to join community,” Berkowitz explains. “ARGs (alternate reality games) are famous for this. Everyone has something to focus on, a shared interest, and something to do. The puzzles are often just a way of getting together. If Q drops some clues, then you have something to do and you have people to do it with. It’s bonding. The same reason puzzles are used in corporate team-building exercises and party games.”
“QAnon is an attempt to create a new reality that can be acted on, lived in ‘as-if,’ and manipulated, but does not match actual reality. Because if they can do that, then they can do anything they want and blame the outcomes on any fictional plot point they choose.
“One tentacle of a many-pronged attack of boogaloo bros, QAnons, Anti-maskers, etc. — all with the same message and the same end-game. To doubt reality. To create the fog of war without the war. To create a collectively shared reality that they directly control,” Berkowitz adds.
Russian origin of QAnon?
The game creator quotes Jim Stewartson, writing in an article on Medium.com, who states “Russian intelligence is, at a minimum, exploiting this game cult — to coin a phrase, to undermine our democracy.
“My theory,” Stewartson goes on, “is that they are far more involved than that. To them, Qanon in 2020 is basically Wikileaks in 2016 on a mind-numbing scale.
“They are all over this thing, from technology to content to distribution. In my view, the chance that they are not benefiting from all those connections is effectively zero. Putin, like Trump, is transactional and believes the world is a zero-sum game. To him, the way he wins is to diminish us,” Stewartson declares.
“There is clearly a leadership structure and well-known nodes for specific subjects and predilections and a set of rules for what is and isn’t allowed to be a target,” Stewartson states. “Just to pick an example out of the air, there is ZERO negative information about Russia. Pausing here again to repeat. ZERO. When Russia is mentioned it is always in positive terms. Yeah, always.
Russian disinformation floated at White House news conference
“On the other hand, America is assailed as a den of pedophiles and sin that needs a cleansing fire,” Stewartson avers. “On the second day I was exploring the darkest reaches of Qwitter, I saw something that I literally could not believe.
“It was a pipeline of disinformation started, as it turns out, by Russian intelligence, which emerged online first on the account of a first-tier Qanon retweeter and was weaponized by Chanel Rion of OANN (One America News Network), a literal Russian propaganda network — in the White House briefing room three hours later.”
The press conference Stewartson refers to involves the OANN reporter stating as fact that when you Google Antifa, you are taken directly to Joe Biden’s campaign website. Which was and is not true.
“‘Q’ is really not so mysterious, Stewartson maintains. “There are no other logical options for who ‘Q’ is right now other than Jim Watkins, a pig farmer who also runs the worst website on the internet, 8kun, which is where — and this is very important — Q exclusively resides.
“The fiction they invented for why their ‘government intelligence operative’ really, really has to be on 8kun’s rickety bulletin board is preposterous to the point of comedy. If you doubt Q’s identity, you should listen to Frederick Brennan. He worked for Jim Watkins until last year. He literally built 8chan. He both privately and publicly says that Jim Watkins IS Q.”
But why was the game created?
A Reuters report from August 2020 states that Academics who studied QAnon found that there were no signs Russia had a hand in the early days of the movement, which popped up in 2017 with anonymous web postings — amplified by YouTube videos.
However, as QAnon gained adherents and took on new topics — with President Donald Trump as the hero, waging a misunderstood battle against the establishment — social media accounts tied to a key Kremlin ally joined in.
In 2019, just one year before the fateful American presidential elections, accounts removed by Twitter which were suspected of being controlled by Russia’s Internet Research Agency sent a flood of tweets tagged with #QAnon and the movement slogan #WWG1WGA, short for Where We Go One, We Go All.
This was the conclusion of Melanie Smith, the head of analysis at the social media analysis firm Graphika. The Internet Research Agency was indicted by Robert Mueller in his prosecution of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Russian narrative that the “US is falling apart”
More recently, Russian government-backed media outlets RT.com and Sputnik have stepped up coverage of QAnon, which began with a false proclamation that Hillary Clinton would be arrested for an undetermined reason. Popular themes on QAnon also include theories about child trafficking by Hollywood elites, the coronavirus, and more.
Alethea Group disinformation expert Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst, told Reuters that RT, Sputnik, and other Kremlin-backed media have been writing more about QAnon, using it to fit into their broader narrative that “The U.S. is falling apart — look how much division there is.”
After Twitter banned thousands of users that spread conspiracy theories, especially QAnon accounts, RT.com predicted the move would backfire by directing more attention to the cause, adding that “it gave QAnon followers the validation they craved.”
“Though Russia is only one foreign actor capable of targeting US political audiences through the QAnon community, its history of operations appears to be the most ideologically aligned with the overarching QAnon theory,” the Graphika report said. “Russia also appears to have made the most effort to gain credibility within the community thus far.”
Greek Reporter asked Berkowitz how Q adherents would react to incontrovertible proof — if there ever is any — that a malevolent state or entity is behind all this? Such a revelation would, after all, add yet another intriguing layer to the conspiracy. And wouldn’t that make it truly fascinating?
“I think Q adherents will act as they always have,” Berkowitz replies. “People have been saying for many years that Q is a LARP, (another type of interactive game) or an ARG, or/and a media campaign by the Russians. It doesn’t bother them. Any proof of this would also have to be proof that they could accept. And what would that be?” he asks rhetorically.
Migrating to other conspiracy theories
Asked by Greek Reporter if the true believers have become too involved in the community and received too much affirmation that they cannot allow themselves to believe that they are being played by someone or something that wants to destroy or disrupt their country, Berkowitz mused:
“I think this comes down to each individual member. How much do they need it? How immersed did they get and how hard would it be psychologically to back down? Hopefully, the Biden inauguration will be the wake-up call for most Q adherents. It’s not going to be easy for them. If anyone knows a QAnon member, be there for them. Help them out gently. It’s bound to be painful.
“If people are really and truly entrenched, as long as the community is there, they will be there. Or,” Berkowitz concludes, “they will migrate to another community embedded in conspiracy-thinking and apophany.”