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The Paradox of QAnon’s Terrible, Magnetic UX

As a digital communications strategist, I’ve learned to embrace certain fundamental principles of connecting with audiences online. Meet your followers where they are. Communicate clearly and efficiently. Own your message. Direct users to a clear next step.

Q, the leading prophet of the QAnon movement, breaks all these rules.

Q maintains no continuity of messaging. His posts are often profoundly confusing. His logic is labyrinthine. He relies on a growing base of loyalists who often lack media literacy and technical savvy, yet he posts in places that can be difficult to find, let alone navigate. He trusts his followers to scatter his incoherent teachings to every corner of the internet. And they do, bringing the Q ideology to Facebook groups and YouTube video summaries. Algorithms do the rest of the work, delivering Q’s teachings to the exact audience he wants through minimal effort of his own.

Like so much about QAnon, the movement’s rise to ubiquity defies every logical expectation. It divides us into two groups. On one side, there are those of us who don’t understand QAnon’s appeal at all, who see the myriad baffling ways in which QAnon breaks from objective reality. On the other side, there is a growing following getting drawn ever deeper into QAnon’s fabricated reality, as if it were a black hole with inexorable pull.

How did we get here?

Here’s my theory: the UX of QAnon lets people believe they are directing their own user journeys, rather than progressing through a structured funnel. The process of learning opaque terminology and sifting through mountains of disorganized data performs a similar psychological function as a hazing ritual. It fosters a deeper loyalty in the scholar who feels they’ve been able to discover their own conclusions independently. This is the rallying cry of the QAnon devotee: Do your own research. Decide for yourself. 

In this funhouse-mirror reality, traditional sources aren’t to be trusted. Journalists, scientists, experts – all those people who streamline your education, who make complicated concepts accessible – are filters, not translators. It doesn’t matter that Q’s prophecies rarely come true, starting with his initial announcement years ago that Hillary Clinton was days away from getting arrested. What matters is the process, the way each revelation feels earned, untangled as it is from a web of codes and red herrings that are seen not as additional data points, but as distractions from a hidden reality.

So much of online communication, especially the kind of brand communication on which I work, strives to be frictionless. Brands online are dogs, seeking your attention at every turn, following you from platform to platform via ad targeting and tracking pixels. QAnon is more like a cat: aloof, somewhat disinterested in earning your affection. So when an early researcher into QAnon feels they’ve begun to learn how to decipher the meanings of perceived symbols, they’re rewarded with the same feeling of accomplishment as the first time a new cat comes over on its own accord to snuggle in your lap. This is the paradoxical secret. This is the reason why inaccurate, incoherent ramblings posted on a niche message board have gained more ubiquity and a broader following than most brands and influencers can dream of. 

So what, if anything, can we learn from all of this? Certainly a major part of QAnon’s appeal is the messaging itself. Earlier this week, in journalist Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter Culture Study, organizer Garrett Bucks posited that QAnon – particularly its milquetoast “save the children” messaging that positions President Trump, noted Jeffrey Epstein fan, as a crusader against pedophilia – presents an appealing alternative to white guilt about the obvious ways in which kyriarchy is still deeply embedded in our social and political structures. 

QAnon offers followers an irresistible product – a child-torturing, demonic cabal, and a heroic fight to stop it that justifies any amount of tangible human cruelty, from voting for a transparent racist and misogynist to toting three firearms into a pizzeria on a quest to liberate captive children from a nonexistent basement. The absurd complexity of each new conspiracy theory, weighed down with caveats and excuses to dismiss actual evidence, flattens the world into easy, binary choices. It’s good versus evil. Either you’re a crusader on the side of Good, or you are so, so wrong, and you’ve made a terrible mistake.

Still, QAnon is running one of the most effective disinformation campaigns the internet has ever seen. Its tactics, not just its messages, merit examination. If there is a lesson for others trying to reach wide online audiences and change minds, perhaps it is this: when your message is potent, your audience will follow. Too much hand-holding can, in fact, push followers away. 

As Lili Loofbourow wrote for Slate last month:

There’s the psychology of the approach: Leftist discourse on these platforms can have a preacherly aspect that asserts moral truths without giving the listener the option of disagreeing. This can strike the not-yet-persuaded as condescending, bossy, or dismissive of their right to form independent judgments. Q-proselytizing folks err in the opposite direction: They tell tantalizing stories about their heartfelt conversions that are extremely light on detail and almost invariably conclude by saying, “Do your own research.” Of course this has power. It has the frisson of secrecy—find out what they’re not telling you. Most of all, it’s flattering: It expresses full faith in the reader’s abilities to discover the truth, promises a light at the end of the tunnel, and appears to invite independent verification and free inquiry. In practice, searching those hashtags tends to lead people into closed information ecosystems (and, yes, lectures) that are every bit as didactic as any “woke” explainer. The key is this: The new recruits feel that they have discovered these things.

People like to feel like they’re making their own decisions, not succumbing to marketing (even when that’s exactly what we’re doing). And when people are spreading someone else’s message online, they still want to be able to take ownership of it. In QAnon circles, they do this by sharing their own research and theories, or by updating the aesthetics of the message to suit a different platform

People buy into a message more when they’re allowed to retell it in their own words. (See also: TikTok duets.) They believe in their convictions more when they find them on their own, rather than being led through a coordinated series of targeted ads and email newsletters. So if you trust your message and your audience, maybe give them some time alone to get to know each other. Cede a little control. Open yourself up to collaboration.

I don’t think this will solve everything, but it may liberate us a little. It may lighten the pressure to say exactly the correct thing, to locate and pass on definitive answers. It may give us a chance to integrate more empathy into our discourse. And hopefully, we’ll do so to better ends.

Featured photo: Benoit Beaumatin on Unsplash

Published inContent Strategy

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© Mary Gaulke 2023