Back when I was in college for my Bachelors, my parents gave me a post-paid mobile phone that had unlimited Internet access, but very limited SMS per month. This was a common theme for Indian telecoms back then – prepaid connections had thousands of free SMS messages, while post-paid had unlimited in-network talktime, and in my case, unlimited Internet access. The latter was a rarity and I really appreciated it. However, all my friends were on pre-paid connections and were diving into the free SMS world like crazy. I felt left out. So, one day I went out and bought myself a second phone (one of those epic indestructible Nokia 1100 phones), got a prepaid SIM and dived into the world of free SMS. For that first month, I got a package that let me send 9000 texts.
I was in heaven! I was chatting with all my friends, but also sending them all kinds of useless forwards. I would painstakingly send each message to my 60 classmates and ten or so hostel mates, twenty SMS recipients at a time (the technical limit for a group message in that phone). I reached a point where I started to annoy a few of them 😀
Pretty soon though, the supply dried up. There are only so many forwards a person received in a day at that time. That’s when my post-paid connection paid off. I would find interesting messages online, type them out on that rapid-fire T9 keyboard and save as draft, before going through the message forwarding rigmarole.
After some time, I went on a holiday. When I came back, my pre-paid pack had expired so I went to renew it. I learnt that while I was vacationing, my telecom was hard at work. They believed they had captured enough of the market and were ready to pull the benefits. The free SMS packs had reduced from 9000 texts to 900, and a few days later, to 600. This was barely enough to keep my interest and I moved on from this world. But it taught me a valuable lesson – anyone could setup shop as a message forwarder given the inclination and resources.
Years later, when WhatsApp forwards started flooding inboxes, I was over the trend even before it started. But I watched it with great interest. After all, what’s better than free messages? For anyone holding a smartphone, it was SMS-but-better-and-free. For a network engineer, it was nothing more than a few packets. It could have been a forwarded email or gchat message, but it was a WhatsApp message instead. Nothing to see here.
The likeness to SMS is what catapulted WhatsApp to the level where it is today. I don’t know about you, but MMS were never a thing in India. They were expensive and needed tech most people didn’t have. Hence when we think of WhatsApp forwards, we don’t think of MMS, just SMS, even though most forwards nowadays are a mix of well-crafted emoji-laden texts, and colorful images wishing you good morning and ten other things.
I’ve been reading a HuffPost article about QAnon, and its effects not on the cult’s followers, but on their families. It is both heart-rending, and deeply intriguing to see the parents of out generation fall for such traps. For the longest time, I assumed that the movement only existed online. Then, when it spilled blood, I assumed it was only a conservative thing. But reading the article, and reading about erstwhile Obama voters, and believers in alternative medicine and essential oils falling for the gargantuan myth of Q, I realized that it goes beyond just one side. It’s more a myth built to cater to anyone and everyone. Depending on whether you believe in aliens, are libertarian, or are just wary of oft-caught lying Mainstream Media, there’s some hook somewhere to get you in. After all, what’s better than one lie? A hundred lies, all built to cater someone or the other. If you believe in one layer of QAnon and not the next, all you need to say about the rest is that those others are nutjobs, but your beliefs are solid. Then, there’s no way to extricate you from the mess, because everyone else is objectively wrong, aren’t they?
I found some interesting things in the article – one of the people talked about chatting with their parents over discord. I had no idea the elder generation even knew about discord. But I believe the reason these specific ones know about it is because of discord’s private servers, which allow admins free reign over the content that gets disseminated to users. Also, the use of discord shows that the people controlling the movement are of a younger skew – those used to meme-making, shitposting, and gaslighting people for fun. If the people running the show were the same age as the people falling for the spin, they would be interacting wholly on other mediums – email, chat, twitter (perhaps), or something that I’m not into because I’m not in that generation. If this were happening in India (as some things are), it would be wholly on WhatsApp.
Another interesting thing is this quote –
And because QAnon adherents are conditioned to interpret opposition as validation, trying to debunk their falsehoods often only pushes them deeper into the movement.
This here is a masterstroke. Not only are you believing in the message, you’re also falling for the idea that anyone actively opposing you is either an agent of the “enemy” or is so misguided that they need help themselves! This, combined with the general distrust between the generations has led to a situation where children and parents are fighting for their definitions of the “truth”. The fact that QAnon has brought people to this place shows the true power of suggestion.
The thing that I asked myself when reading this article was – why? Why are people believing this nonsense? We’ve been reading about fake news, about MSM being a terrible source of information, about the slow and steady degradation of public discourse. But none of this should mean that our parents should fall down this trap of fake news. Why are they falling for it? Why is it so difficult for them to look at a news item with a critical eye before forwarding it or accepting it as the absolute truth? I thought about it a lot, till yesterday, when my wife shed some light on it.
Story time –
- When COVID-19 started, we were inundated by fake news. WhatsApp forwards played a very big role in the first few weeks/months in creating an environment of fear and distrust among people. But along with the external noise, we also had friends and family forwarding every piece of information from all quarters, without verification. I’m not saying disinformation about COVID has stopped, but when there are no sources of information, it’s particularly vicious to forward fantasy as fact. Early on, a friend posted a “news item” on a group stating that the Pope has COVID. I looked at it and immediately guffawed. People will believe anything. My wife commented that it’s really sad this happened, as it shows no one is safe. That spurred me into action. I looked at the URL. The “news” website was not one of the many reputable (or even disreputable ones) I know of. First red flag. Then, I googled the news item. No one else was carrying it, and neither google nor Apple News told me the same. In fact, both were pointing to the same link I had as the source of truth. Second red flag. Then, I went to the site’s homepage and looked at other news article. Lo and behold, every single news item was “someone rich or famous got COVID”. Big red flag! Lastly, since I know the tools for it, I did a whois on the domain. It showed that the website had been registered just three days ago. Yet it had hundreds of articles about everyone from the Pope to your favorite childhood teacher getting COVID. That was the last flag that I needed. For the first time in forever, I replied to a forward, listing out the reasons why it’s fake. Of course, the response from the other end was “I just forwarded it”.
- Yesterday, my wife told me that her Mom is considering the efficacy and safety of the vaccine. She received some signals that the vaccine may not be as aboveboard as we all thought it would be. This caused my wife a lot of anger and surprise. Why was her Mom listening to this noise? Of course the vaccine is safe. Of course she should get it! The funny thing is that my mother-in-law is receiving both signals – there are people getting it without a second thought and absolutely recommending it, and there are people who are steadfast against it, without any reason. What’s funny is that my wife gave me a very straightforward explanation for this – our parents are from a generation where the information coming at them has always been vetted, checked thrice, and editorialized. There’s little to no chance of an earth shattering lie. Conversely, we’ve grown up with the Internet, where every behemoth falls and sells our data and passwords to the most vile operators, and we’ve learnt through an infinity of forwards that everything coming at you should be taken with a grain of salt. Does this make us cynics? Sure. It’s worth being cynical when CNN tells us unequivocally that Iraq has WMDs and Facebook tells us that it doesn’t sell our data. That juxtaposition has led to where we are – teaching our parents right from wrong, just as Zoomers have taught us how to use snapchat and tiktok. (Seriously, how do you interact with an app that doesn’t have a visible interface????)
So that’s it – our parents, and everyone who has fallen into the QAnon hole, has fallen because they are a people who do not understand that everything from the Internet is not the truth. That they need to detach the message from the sender and take it first with a grain of salt and if it passes a cursory check, maybe accept it as fact. That we really, really, really need to stop forwarding Good Morning messages, as they’re killing the world.
But is that it? Is that the explanation? Maybe not. My favorite philosophy podcast – Philosophize This! – ran a very timely podcast in February on the book “Escape from Freedom” by Erich Fromm. Fromm talks about two kinds of freedoms – negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from outside influences such as tyranny or oppression. Positive freedom is the freedom to do what you want, such as the pursuit of happiness. At first, people develop a freedom from others – from nature and the elements, from tyrannical governments, from social stigma. Then people start to explore the freedom to do what they want to do with their lives, to keep their identity intact, yet be a part of the world and be productive and happy in it.
However, while some people choose to embrace this freedom and grow with it, others want to escape this freedom. Why? Because with freedom comes responsibility, and some people don’t want that on their heads. This seems so natural – while some people see an empty canvas as full of possibilities, some will see it with dread. It doesn’t even have to be our entire freedom. We regularly outsource specific responsibilities to others – the work of filing taxes, of selecting which countries to invade, of picking the next video to watch, of thinking about God to believe in.
The podcast goes on to talk about another of Fromm’s concepts – one used to explain why some people supported Hitler’s rise to power. He talks about people who, in that era, wanted to escape the freedom they had by supporting authoritarianism. Such people are practicing a form of sadomasochism. Sadism, because they want to control others, and Masochism, because they want to submit to a higher power, and divest themselves of the responsibility of thinking further about the political path of their country. Fromm talks about how in the same person, both psychological traits exist simultaneously. The same person who despises a caste/creed/religion/sex, and wants to suppress them, also believes in the supremacy of someone else, or themselves, or an ideal, and submits to that willingly.
The other way that such people escaped freedom was “automaton conformity” – by becoming a cog in a machine. Once more, the end result is that they are part of a larger picture. But the way they do it is by simply conforming to a set of beliefs being presented to them, without question. Such people are looking simply to divest the task of thinking for themselves, because it’s either too taxing or too painful or too mortifying to face the reality of their existence – that their freedom and the freedoms of others can coexist and help everyone grow together.
There is a third way for some to escape from freedom is to be destructive. Whether it’s by destroying what they can’t control, or by people around them, they want to create an identity for themselves that goes opposite to freedom, life, and creation. They want to be known for their culpability in destroying someone else’s freedoms.
Fromm’s thoughts teach us a lot about how to think about QAnon followers. Some of them are truly hateful of the powerlessness of their leaders and the victory of one party over the other. They want to escape the reality of living in a world they do not recognize, because it isn’t the utopia they were promised. Thus, they fall into sadomasochism, giving power to some in order to take power and freedom from others.
Others see the rising tide of disinformation and the blinding lights of social media and rather than figure out the means to clarify the truth, they simply believe any incoming information and become packet pushers, sending out as many forwards as they receive without stopping to question the information within them. These people would be described well as banal, but they do not believe it. They want to know so badly that their version of the truth is the absolute truth that they start to believe it is, regardless of proof either ways, and without searching for it.
Last are the people who attacked the Capitol building on January 6th 2021, or those who planned the attack on the Michigan’s Governor. These people feel they have the right to destroy others’ freedoms in order to assert their own, or are willing to sacrifice their freedom in order to stop someone else from living out their own.
To think that each of these people are the same would be wrong. But they are a part of a larger whole, a whole that has been duped into believing the abject lies of a few mysterious individuals who stand to gain somehow in all this – whether monetarily, politically, or just for the lulz.
Is it as simple as this? No, but it’s a starting point.