QAnon’s narrative system seemingly defies what have become standard evaluation tools for narrative persuasion’s impact. It’s difficult for even the media literate to understand how to respond to and contain this new phenomenon of misinformation (and disinformation) that has taken the internet (and now the real world) by storm. What began as a series of cryptic-to-the-point-of-cliché posts on an internet message board called 4chan, originating through 8chan and now 8kun, (The Atlantic) has now found its way into mainstream thought – even elected officials are falling victim to the fantastical narratives being espoused by QAnon’s national cadre of “true patriots.” What can we understand about why QAnon has become so successful at co-opting the belief systems and thought processes of people who read their narrative in such a short period of time? Let’s explore some of the elements of QAnon’s narrative storytelling and how it has become so persuasive (and pervasive).
Let’s Start with the Transportation-Imagery Model
In 2002, Green and Brock created a model for evaluating narrative persuasion they called the transportation-imagery model (Green and Brock). This is the theory that when a compelling, emotional written narrative is paired with compelling, emotional visual imagery it can cause psychological transportation (in which the reader gets “lost” in the story to the point that it feels more real than the real world –similar to the feeling described as being “lost” in a book). This transportation is such that the reader’s beliefs are actually changed by the compelling narrative. It’s immediately clear how this can be related to the visual memes and conspiracy-laden creative storytelling of QAnon. One aspect of the QAnon narrative that doesn’t fit the transportation-imagery model is the tendency for QAnon conspiracies to be experienced both within the narrative and outside in the real world by QAnon believers.
One example of this is “Pizzagate,” one of QAnon’s most famous early conspiracy narratives (The Washington Post). In this narrative, QAnon circulated a theory that children were being trafficked in a vast child prostitution and child pornography ring by members of a mysterious, famous “elite.” This narrative was pure fiction peppered with just enough real-world references to seem plausible to QAnon devotees. In this case, the story’s setting was a family-oriented popular neighborhood pizza parlor in the D.C. area. In addition to anchoring the fictitious story to the real world with a brick-and-mortar business location, QAnon linked the “elite” portion of the fictitious narrative to the Clintons. In response, true believers (calling themselves “true patriots”) physically traveled to the real-world pizza parlor on two separate occasions. One man went there to shoot it up with an assault rifle, and another went (at a different and unconnected time) to light the building on fire. Both acts of violence occurred when the conclusion QAnon’s false narrative had led them to expect did not occur. In this case, there was no secret basement full of trafficked children and no chance for these “true patriots” to act out their corresponding hero fantasies. The manner in which the true believers brought the narrative they were persuaded to believe from the page out into the real world may tell us that there needs to be more to the model we use to explain this phenomenon, and transportation-imagery as created by Green and Brock might not be the correct fit.
Is the Extended Elaboration Likelihood Model a Better Fit?
Kahneman might say that QAnon narratives tap into our System 1 thinking (Kahneman, p 698). As QAnon narratives center the reader as the protagonist in every story, with vague “elites” and their “nefarious” systems cast as the antagonists, Kahneman’s focus on the intuitive, System 1, “lizard brain” would appear to be a more accurate lens for evaluation. This is reinforced when you look at QAnon narratives the way De Graaf et al and their exploration of Slater and Rounder’s theory of an Extended Elaboration Likeability model for narrative persuasion (De Graaf) would. In this model a change in belief structure is created not just via absorption into a narrative but also by vicariously experiencing the whole experiences and emotions of the characters (De Graaf). In addition to the vicarious experience, identification with the characters in the narrative is essential. This is one reason why the separation of the protagonist reader (positioned as a “hero” and a “true patriot” in QAnon narratives) and the mysterious “elite” is essential in adoption of the narrative by the reader and dissemination of the narrative to a broader audience by the reader, now sharing the narrative as a perceived single source of truth.
Common Threads in Narrative Persuasion
One common thread in both the types of narrative persuasion models and the QAnon narratives themselves is a separation of belief from fact. The conspiracy theories in QAnon are designed to appeal to a person who is not inclined to believe research and facts, but to whom feeling or seeming authoritative on a subject via “secret” information might appeal. “Do your own research” is a common rallying cry amongst QAnon believers when their stories are challenged (The Atlantic).
Another common thread in QAnon narratives is one of mistrust in the systems that keep society working (NBC). The narratives frame the reader as a hero, a “true patriot,” who has been failed by the system yet has succeeded against perceived “great odds” and is thus being rewarded with “secret knowledge” that should be shared (The Atlantic). When coupled with the smattering of reality each false narrative includes, whether it’s a location or the name of a supposed “elite,” the reader finds the narrative not just persuasive, but irresistible.
It’s challenging to consider the breadth and scope of this series of QAnon conspiracy theories and the damage these stories can do in the wrong circles. The temptation is to combat the false stories with facts, but that likely won’t work. After all, “our choices are not driven by a single, linear, and consciously controlled system” (Ramzoy). The most effective way to combat beliefs that have been altered in a damaging way by an emotional, yet false, narrative as strong as QAnon isn’t clear yet. Even QAnon believers who have been shunned or shamed for their beliefs when their actions to support these false beliefs become too extreme have not let go of those harmful beliefs, even after facing consequences for their negative impact in the real world (The Atlantic). The best suggestion may be to try appealing to their emotions and their sense of self with a stronger, better narrative that is based in fact, but still compelling.
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Image: courtesy The Philadelphia Inquirer