Julia Carrie Wong recently reported for The Guardian that Marjorie Taylor Greene received campaign donations from many powerful Republican figures and organizations, including one connected to the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows. To what extent do you hold social media companies responsible for the rise of QAnon, and to what extent do you see it as symptomatic of some deeper sickness in American social and political life?
Oh, it’s 100 percent a combination of the two. You don’t have a movement like this without people who’ve lost trust in expertise and authority and institutions. And I think the anger and the listlessness and the loss of opportunity for a lot of people, from the financial crisis onward, and that sense of precarity, has completely contributed to the conditions for a theory like this to latch on. And Trump is certainly a big player in the extended QAnon universe.
So I don’t think that social media companies created this in any way, but what they are responsible for is helping all those people find each other. They’ve given them an infrastructure, and they’ve also given them a path to monetization and a path to fame. There is a lot of money to be made. I think the current conditions in the country and the world — the disillusionment — helped birth the theory and give it purpose. And then these companies help spread it and supercharge it and give people a lot of incentives to keep it going forward.
Twitter recently announced that it was banning thousands of QAnon accounts, and Facebook said it was planning to do something similar, though it’s Facebook so we should probably take their word with a grain of salt. Is that the kind of action you think tech companies should be taking?
Adding friction to this movement is certainly helpful, but I also think that the horse is out of the barn here. A very classic dynamic of these tech platforms is to roll something out or build some sort of system without really thinking about the consequences of what would happen if it was abused, have people abuse it, have things get really out of control, and only once they’ve gotten that far out of control, try to rein it back in. And to some degree, you really can’t get back to where you started.
That’s what makes it really frustrating that Facebook decided to take this seriously and do their first audit of QAnon content on their platform only this June. This stuff has been going on for almost three years! And now they’re trying to stamp out these communities, but I don’t know that you can. I think they’ll just move somewhere else. I think Facebook and Twitter and YouTube gave them the petri dish in which to grow and now they’re strong enough that they don’t need it anymore.
Some free-speech advocates — and I mean free speech in the loose, extralegal sense — are concerned about social media platforms moderating content because it further entrenches the power of a few corporations to dictate the ambit of acceptable discourse. Do you share those concerns, or do you think they’re overblown?