Summer Potpourri: Unpacking QAnon; CrowdTangle's Poli-tech Journey; Van Jones' Tiny Windfall and much more

Oh, and Zuckerberg's plan to build us a "metaverse." And whether progressives have given in to "access politics."

One of the books I finished reading recently is Mike Rothschild’s The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult and Conspiracy Theory of Everything. It’s a pretty solid overview of the phenomenon, though Rothschild focuses a tad more on the evolution Q online persona than the whole movement. But I still learned a lot from the book. My main takeaways:

1) The QAnon conspiracy theory (which, remember, roughly 15% of Americans believe in) has thrived in part because of how physically isolated people have become in the digital age, and it took off even further when the COVID lockdowns made people even more isolated. And as “a participatory game played alongside a digital community against an easy scapegoat” it was “hugely compelling,” Rothschild writes. “One of the reasons baby boomers have fallen in with Q to such a surprising degree: many are empty nesters, on their own, or retired. One day they looked around, realized they didn’t get everything they were promised out of life, and wanted someone to blame…Q gave them enemies to hate and a way to get back at them.” It’s also no coincidence how much QAnon has gained purchase with older Americans; a 2019 study found that Facebook users over 65 were seven times more likely to share fake news stories than their younger peers. The early evangelizers for Q targeted that group.

2) QAnon is just one online scam that took off more successfully than others, and many of its tropes mirror those of earlier but less successful online scams. Rothschild shows convincingly how people plugging nonsense like the Iraqi dinar investment scheme glommed onto QAnon as soon as they saw it gaining traction.

3) It doesn’t matter that it’s a scam built on some of the world’s ugliest lies; QAnon gives its followers a lot of meaning. “You are saving the world when you are in Q, [it’s] the highest way you can view yourself,” Jitarth Jadeja, a former believer, told Rothschild. A pro-choice, pro-drug legalization, Bernie Sanders supporter, Jadeja had been “baffled” by the media’s failure to see Trump’s rise and wanted to believe that a “people’s movement” was succeeding. Science writer and hoax debunker Brian Dunning tells Rothschild he sees QAnon as “the right journey, the wrong way….it’s made up of people looking for a solution.” The religious dimension of this meaning can’t be emphasized enough. “They believe they’re doing God’s work.”

4) While QAnon lacks a leader or a church, it behaves like other messianic movements, most notably in its followers’ devotion to prophecy. Rothschild writes, “Q is a movement that, at its core, believe in the ever-approaching Great Event, though in this case, it’s the mass purging of progressives….an event that would forever alter the course of the world by eliminating the bad people and rewarding the good.” Hence the repetitive appearance of the phrases “Trust the Plan,” “We are Winning” and “Arrests Will Come,” in Q postings.

Rothschild ends his book with a chapter on “How to Help People Who Want to Get Out of Q,” and his advice is quite tempered. Don’t try to do this unless you really want to, he starts. It’s hard. Getting people to let go of their “secret knowledge” without offering something equally affirming isn’t easy. Go to supportive hubs like Reddits r/QAnonCasualties for help. Be patient and keep non-threatening lines of communication open with your Q-addled friends or family. Don’t try to debate or debunk them directly but do try to get them off of their digital addictions. And maybe, just maybe, point out some of the more obvious contradictions of QAnon, like Q’s reliance on the 8kun website, an imageboard that is full of racist memes and pornography. Would an intelligence operation charged with saving children really choose that website as its homebase?

As I read The Storm is Upon Us and thought about where QAnon fits in American history, Rothschild’s description of Q as a religious movement reminded me of Frances FitzGerald’s great work of sociological imagination, Cities on a Hill. That latter book consists of in-depth portraits of four utopian communities that came out of the ferment of the 1960s and 1970s: Jerry Fallwell’s fundamentalist church community; the gay community of San Francisco’s Castro district; the Rajneeshpuram New Age ashram in Oregon and the Sun City retirement village south of Tampa.

At the end of Cities on a Hill, FitzGerald connects these flowerings of idealistic community-building to a much earlier moment of social change in America, the “Second Great Awakening” of religious fervor that exploded across upstate New York in the 1830s and 40s. Fueled by rapid economic change enabled by the expansion of the state’s canal system, the communities of upstate New York birthed not just an intense wave of Christian revival meetings but new formations including Mormonism, the Oneida Society (which abolished private property and practiced group marriage), and the women’s suffrage movement (the first women’s rights convention took place at Seneca Falls, a few miles from the Erie Canal). The Oneida Institute was located in the area and a hub for much abolitionist agitation as well; both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas lived in the area. So much change blew through the region in those years that historians came to refer to the area as the “Burned-over District.”

FitzGerald writes, “How such an extraordinary variety of movements could rise up in the same few counties in the same short space of time is, of course, the great puzzle of the Burned-over District. For twenty years the society was a veritable fireworks display of extraordinary ideas and extraordinary enthusiasms: projects taking off skyward, creating bursts of brilliance and the—for the most part—fading out. This is also, of course, the puzzle of the 1960s and 1970s.”

It seems as though we’re living through yet another period of intense cultural tumult and creativity, along with corresponding reactionary movements. Perhaps QAnon is just one facet of a more complicated picture, that includes positive forces for transformation like Black Lives Matter and the transgender rights movement alongside backlash formations like the Tea Party and the anti-Critical Race Theory panic now underway. What all these things have in common is they are rooted in people whose lives have been disrupted, who are searching for answers and a path out of the mess we are in. Offering folks the moderate promise of “it will get better, but slowly” doesn’t seem to be enough in these times. But promising that deep and lasting change will come quickly, as tempting as that might sound, also is a devil’s bargain.

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Life Inside Facebookistan

Mark Zuckerberg may say that he’s all for free speech, but when it comes to speech freely derived from Crowdtangle, a Facebook data analytics tool that journalists have used to discover how much the platform amplifies rightwing misinformation, then not so much. That’s the upshot of Kevin Roose’s excellent report in The New York Times on July 14 on an internal decision to break up the Crowdtangle team, put it under the control of Facebook’s “integrity” team, and remove Crowdtangle founder Brandon Silverman from managing its use.

I don’t have anything to add to Roose’s story itself, which illustrates yet again how Zuckerberg’s zeal to dominate the web has overridden all other considerations, be they moral, political or spiritual. But I do have a footnote to add, about Crowdtangle’s evolution and an unanswered question that I think must haunt lots of political-tech entrepreneurs, especially those with progressive values: Is it a good thing to sell yourself to the Borg? (I can think of a number of interesting renegades from Big Tech, like Tristan Harris, who sold his start-up to Google and then started to feel lost inside the company; or Waze cofounder Noam Bardin, who wrote this fascinating post about why he quit Google years after selling his company to it.)

Here’s the thing: Before he started Crowdtangle, Brandon Silverman was the cofounder and director of communications for the Center for Progressive Leadership. And he originally built Crowdtangle back in 2011 in order to aggregate content from hundreds of Occupy Wall Street Facebook groups across the platform. He quite clearly identified with the left. By 2012, he was selling Crowdtangle’s services to a variety of progressive clients, including 350.org, Upworthy, AFSCME, the Lady Gaga Foundation and the ONE Campaign. By 2013 Crowdtangle was calling itself a “social discovery app” that organizations could use to see how their content and issues were being discussed on Facebook and Twitter. If you wanted to see the most “liked” or “shared” image or link in a given time period, Crowdtangle was a great way to do it. Back then, Silverman told me then that it was growing “by 2-3 new organizations” every day. Later that year, UNICEF came on as a customer, providing accounts to its social teams in many parts of the world. In the fall of 2013, the company raised a seed round of $1.1 million, led by Lerer Ventures and including betaworks, the Box Group, AdvancIt Capital, the Knight Enterprise Fund, and New Media Ventures.

In an email update that Silverman sent out at the end of 2013, he proudly highlighted how much Crowdtangle was serving the progressive sector: “From day one, the first set of partners we were most passionate about working with were progressive groups. As of this month, we have over 100 progressive groups using it, including most of the largest ones in the country from AFL-CIO to Greenpeace to MoveOn to DailyKos to the Sierra Club to the White House. In fact, 8 out of 10 of the largest progressive Facebook Pages in the country all use CrowdTangle to help find amazing content & shape their own strategies. Moreover, we send free digests to nearly 1,000 social media staff at progressive organizations every morning with some of the best progressive content from the previous day.”

They were also getting bigger, selling the tool to clients including Wieden+Kennedy, Droga5, Weber Shandwick, Major League Soccer, and other sports clients. In 2014, Silverman sent an email to company friends announcing that they were starting to grow their five-person team and letting folks know that they were making inroads with the big platforms. He wrote, “We've also built up great relationships with the platforms we're building on top of...including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. In fact, we were at Facebook's offices today where they're going to start using CrowdTangle to help power their new Facebook Paper app (and YouTube is a client too).” Still, despite growing closer to Facebook, Crowdtangle kept trying to serve progressive groups. This post on its blog from the end of 2015 shows its analysis of the best performing progressive Facebook posts of that year, for example. This one shows the most influential progressive Facebook pages of 2015.

That all ended in late 2016, when Tsai Ventures, a lead investor in Crowdtangle, announced its acquisition by Facebook. Silverman said in a press release, “We think Facebook is the single most powerful platform in the world in connecting people to each other and to stories they care about. And at a time when there is a revolution taking place in how people connect with the world, our team is passionate about building tools that help publishers get the data and insights they need to succeed. Being able to continue our work but with the full support and resources of Facebook is a dream come true.”

Silverman declined to comment for Roose’s New York Times story, and was reportedly taking time off, as he no longer has a clearly defined role at Facebook. Now I can only imagine that he is wondering if his dream came true. Fortunately, there is plenty of life after Facebook!

-Related: Speaking of the Borg, Zuckerberg keeps giving Casey Newton exclusive interviews, the latest one being about his ambition to create “the metaverse,” which he describes as “a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together, which I think is probably going to resemble some kind of a hybrid between the social platforms that we see today, but an environment where you’re embodied in it.” He adds, “what I’m excited about is helping people deliver and experience a much stronger sense of presence with the people they care about, the people they work with, the places they want to be. And the reality is that today with the mobile internet, we already have something that a lot of people access from the moment they wake up to when they go to bed. … So I don’t think that this is primarily about being engaged with the internet more. I think it’s about being engaged more naturally….I don’t know how much you’ve had this experience, but I have a bunch, in work meetings over the last year, where I sometimes find it hard to remember what meeting someone said something in because they all look the same and they all blend together. And I think part of that is because we don’t have this sense of presence in space. What virtual and augmented reality can do, and what the metaverse broadly is going to help people experience, is a sense of presence that I think is just much more natural in the way that we’re made to interact.”

I don’t think he uses words like “natural” and “naturally” the way the rest of us do. Go back to my review of Mark Pesce’s excellent book Augmented Reality if you need a corrective.

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Money and Politics

Van Jones, who was once-upon-a-time an actual progressive organizer, cemented his reputation as an A-list celebrity activist last week, as he celebrated receiving a $100 million check from Jeff Bezos, participating in a surreal post-landing PR gambit by the world’s richest man. As Philip Rojc reported for InsidePhilanthropy.com, “It’s unclear as of now exactly what Jones plans to do with his $100 million, but multiple organizations are likely to get a piece. In a press conference with no shortage of odd statements, Jones offered his own, cementing his centrist bona fides by talking about bridging the divides of sector and class and speaking favorably about the ‘genius’ of contemporary business magnates. ‘Can you imagine,’ Jones said, ‘grassroots folks from Appalachia, from the hood, [from] Native American reservations, having enough money to be able to connect with the geniuses that have disrupted the space industry, disrupted taxis and hotels and bookstores, to start disrupting poverty, to start disrupting pollution, to start disrupting the $90 billion prison industry together?’” Nope, we can’t imagine that.

In response, RootsAction has started a petition urging Jones to give $10 million of his windfall to the Athena coalition that is organizing to challenge Amazon’s power.

Just to put things in perspective, for Bezos, who is currently worth $209.2 billion, to give $100 million to something is the equivalent of someone who has $50,000 in assets donating $23.90 to a cause. It is .000478% of his total wealth. I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. For all the attention given to billionaires when they spend money in the public arena, the actual sums are paltry compared to their fortunes. The $500,000 that Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus put into a stupid idea called “Win the Future” back in 2017 was just .0000896 of their total combined net worth. That’s $4.50 to someone with $50,000. The $100 million that Mike Bloomberg blew in Florida in 2020 trying to win the state for Biden—that was the equivalent of $83 to a person with $50K. The only billionaires currently giving away anything like a real chunk of their fortunes are Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who has promised to give away $1 billion of his roughly $3-4 billion stack,  and Mackenzie Scott, who has given away about ten percent of her massive Amazon fortune.

-The MacArthur Foundation has decided to stop funding the field of nuclear arms control, Bryan Bender reports for Politico, “sending shockwaves through arms control institutions that are already struggling to remain influential.” He notes, “Since 2015 alone, MacArthur directed 231 grants totaling more than $100 million to “nuclear challenges” — in some cases providing more than half the annual funding for individual institutions or programs.” MacArthur’s decision was apparently prompted by an internal evaluation it commissioned that found that its decision in 2015 to fund efforts to enhance policy solutions and build relationships among key actors hadn’t demonstrated sufficient progress toward the goals of achieving a more stable global nuclear regime and a global agreement on the control of weapons usable material. But hey, the global arms control community got hit by a giant curveball in 2016, so, I don’t know, maybe MacArthur pulling out of the field is an even riskier response?

Odds and Ends

-Has President Biden defanged the left with access politics, like his predecessor Barack Obama? That’s the provocative claim made by Alexander Salmon in The American Prospect, and I’m somewhat convinced. I don’t think Salmon registers fairly just how much progressives have gotten out of the Biden administration in tangible legislation, however. Nor does he factor in how much grassroots organizers have needed a break from the intensity of the last few years. But he still has a point; so far this hasn’t been the hot summer of protest some (including me) expected.

-“Cryptocurrency is an inherently right-wing, hyper-capitalistic technology built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoidance, diminished regulatory oversight and artificially enforced scarcity.” That’s Jackson Palmer, the creator of one-time joke currency called Dogecoin, with a devastating Twitter thread on the entire field.

-“We should start to recognize the anti-CRT push as the Swiftboating of youth-led antiracism,” Lara Putnam writes. I think she’s right, and progressives ignore this fight at their peril.

-Civic Design 2021, a new conference from Rosenfeld Media that is being curated by Ariel Kennan, Sarah Brooks, Martha Dorris and Charlotte Lee,  is looking for presentation proposals.

-RIP, Robert Moses. Before anyone had conceived of the idea of “leaderful movements,” Moses was committed to building them. Tom Hayden wrote, ““When people asked him what to do, he asked what they thought. At mass meetings, he usually sat in the back. In group discussions, he mostly spoke last. Some say Bob was more a mystic than an organizer,” Hayden recalled. “If so, he was the most practical mystic I ever met. He was an organizer of organizers who organized people to free themselves of organizers.” Peter Dreier’s obit sums up his life well.

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this edition, hello dear friend, thanks for your attention! I’m compensating for reducing the frequency of posts over the summer by adding to their length, I guess. I’m taking next week off to go to a novel-in-progress writing retreat (I’m about 85% done with my first draft) so see you in two weeks. As always, if you’ve gotten this newsletter because someone forwarded it to you, please subscribe. And if appreciate what I’m doing here, please upgrade to a paid subscription; doing so allows me to keep from paywalling these posts.