As New Zealand gets new COVID-19 cases, we immediately see the influence of QAnon down under

This isn't just an American problem or an online problem. This is a New Zealand problem, and we need to push back.

Welcome to Webworm. This is a newsletter I send out twice a week, where I descend various rabbit holes, online and IRL. Recently, because of the world we’re living in, a lot of those holes have involved conspiracy theory culture and what it’s doing to society.

I am trying to pull things apart in a way that is accessible, brings in expert voices, and also has a spot of humour. Recent pieces have included:

- Why #saveourchildren is not about saving our children
- How to talk to people stuck in a conspiracy theory hellscape
- Billy TK junior: An international assassin slips into New Zealand
- Won’t somebody please think of the children!
- Influencer culture should be burnt to the ground
- Freedom of speech vs spewing out misinformation
- Why has the world gone so horny for conspiracy theories?
- The QAnon documentary: I watched it so you don’t have to
- Plandemic: Please, for the love of God, stop spreading these godawful “documentaries”

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Here we go again.

Here in New Zealand we’ve been smug. I’ve been smug.

Over the weekend I gleefully tweeted about how I’d been to see one of my favourite films, Interstellar, on IMAX. What I was really saying was “look at us here in New Zealand, COVID-19 free, going about our lives!

Well, then this happened:

From midday, Auckland — where I live — goes into a semi-lockdown for three days while we figure things out. I imagine it will go on longer, but we’ll do what we’ve got to do to stop further spread and avoid people dying.

But last night, as I stupidly looked at my phone before I went to sleep, I saw the influencers were already out in full force, spreading misinformation, lies and bullshit.

Strap in” I thought to myself.

Here we go again.

Because New Zealand isn’t immune to COVID-19, and it isn’t immune to the dangerous, dumb thinking that America has become so famous for.

A New Zealand example. And it’s gonna keep getting worse.

The first account I saw spreading QAnon messaging on the back of this lockdown news was @blessedindoubles.

From what I can tell, it’s a mommy-blogger account (a type of Instagram user I hate to say is very partial to jumping on board the Q train).

I’ve covered their kid’s faces — but I suppose my subtle point is yes, their way of thinking and perceiving the world will be passed down to the next generation.


Also, they have over 63,000 followers — which is big for New Zealand. And they started sending out stories like this:

It’s a lot to take in.

“Muzzled like dogs” is an interesting way of describing “wearing a mask to mitigate risk to those around you”, but the wearing of masks has become almost symbolic of oppression amongst the QAnon crowd.

She also makes it clear she won’t be wearing a mask herself, truly one of the most selfish acts you can do in 2020.

There was this great example in Tucson, Arizona this week as man had to pick up his screaming toddler, who’d appeared to take exception to those in the store wearing masks.

The screaming toddler was his adult father.

I’d argue the mommy blogger in New Zealand has the same rage and fear inside her, but is taking it out on her Instagram stories instead.

She also expresses anger at our PM Jacinda Ardern, offers a line about deployment of the military (classic fear mongering), and most disturbingly advocates that New Zealander’s do not rush to get community tested. This, of course, with a line about not trusting the government.

Can I just quickly say: we are so lucky to have a healthcare system here that allows us to get tested. I just wanted to make that clear.

She also links to Billy TK Jnr, the man behind New Zealand’s QAnon party — the man who claims an international assassin slipped into our country to kill him. A man utterly full of shit.

To cap it all off — she then starts quoting scripture at length.

I think it’s worth noting the crossover between the conspiracy theory crowd and conservative / evangelical Christianity.

You will inevitably find that a lot of the loudest members of the QAnon community are fervent Christians.

I’m not going to get into that here — it’s probably a whole other newsletter. And I’m very aware there are Christians who are definitely not embracing a racist, deeply problematic conspiracy narrative (that is also hugely anti-Semitic).

All I’ll say is that one of the main tenets in Christianity is this idea that we’re all waiting for Jesus to return. That event will kick off a bunch of events including judgement of the evil ones, and the ascent to heaven of believers.

The main tenant of QAnon is that Donald Trump will one day reveal the global elites pulling the strings. He’s just waiting for the right time and place for his big reveal.

So, your typical QAnon follower is used to waiting. They’ve been doing it for ages.

Waiting for a big event where the truth is finally revealed is in their bloodstream. It’s in their DNA.

They are also used to being told they’re wrong. Your typical Christian is used to having smug, liberal atheists telling them that what they believe is false. So they’ve learnt to dig their heels in, and believe things on faith. Which is finethat’s what they believe and they’re not directly harming anyone.

But it’s also built up a frame of mind perfectly adapted to taking on board a belief system like QAnon, and only being empowered when people tell them they’re full of shit.

And yeah, I was blocked pretty quickly when I reached out to her for comment.

I wanted to look at this particular mommy blogger because it’s a small insight into how they think, and how this is all driven by fear and uncertainty.

Going back into lockdown makes people unsure, worried and panicked. They’re reminded this pandemic isn’t a fleeting thing that will just disappear. We have to live with it now. The world has changed. It’s moved on. Things are not the same.

I imagine, like with most people falling down the rabbit hole, their indoctrination has happened quickly. If you look at this particular influencer’s page, you can see her one of her recent pinned stories is “Rabbit Hole”:

If you play that down, she recorded it only five weeks ago.

It was just five weeks ago she discovered this way of thinking.

“I know it’s a lot” she offers to camera in the proceeding stories. “I want to tread extremely carefully because once you do start looking into all of this stuff, it is extremely confronting and disturbing and the reality of what could potentially be going on in the world is unknown to us but it is easy to turn a blind eye to it. I do believe there is a massive awaking happening…”

She then links to QAnon “documentary” Out of Shadows.

It was that simple. Now she’s advising her 63,000 followers to not wear masks, and to avoid testing.

This is a game. It’s fun. And it’s not going away.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about — as have others — is that for believers in conspiracy theories, this is sort of fun.

It’s a game.

The whole thing with Q is that some mysterious figure drops these little clues online (Q-drops, blah blah blah), that you then get to solve.

It’s a form of ARG; an Alternate Reality Game.

These things gained a bit of traction in the early 00s as a form of marketing, and one of the best at doing it, Adrian Hon, has written about it here:

The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory is so sprawling, it’s hard to know where people join. Last week, it was 5G cell towers, this week it’s Wayfair; who knows what next week will bring? But QAnon’s followers always seem to begin their journey with the same refrain: “I’ve done my research.”

I’d heard that line before. In early 2001, the marketing for Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, A.I., had just begun. YouTube wouldn’t launch for another four years, so you had to be eagle-eyed to spot the unusual credit next to Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, and Frances O’Connor…

The name marketers had added to the poster was Jeanne Salla: Sentient Machine Therapist:

That lead eagle-eyed people to Google that name, and go down a rabbit hole that took them further and further into the (fictional) world of the movie. They got a clue, and that lead to another clue, and another. It was a treasure hunt. It was a game.

Over at the New York Times, Adrian Hon has shared more of his thoughts on the links between 2000’s various ARG campaigns, and 2020’s fresh new hell.

Alternate reality games incorporate the internet and websites, real world interactions, advertisements in newspapers, smartphone apps, any medium we can get ahold of in order to produce the most immersive story possible. I saw the parallel with QAnon for two reasons. QAnon is a uniquely 21st century conspiracy theory. There have been others but QAnon was born on forums like 4chan and 8chan, and the way that people interact with it initially is so purely online. But the effects bleed into the real world much like an alternate reality game.

One of my favourite bands, Nine Inch Nails, did an ARG back in 2007 for their album Year Zero.

I remember watching eagerly online from New Zealand, as fans found USB keys in left in toilets at gigs, which were full of clues that then lead to other clues. A fan found some random static at the end of a song, and when they ran it through some spectrograph software, they got more clues.

There’s a big breakdown of the campaign here, and NIN’s art director at the time, Rob Sheridan, has been reflecting on it recently.

He’s been thinking about how the gamification of conspiracy culture is just sucking more people in.

I reached out to Rob to get this thoughts on what we’re seeing in 2020:

“I call it the “Gamification of Misinformation.”

The ARG we created with Year Zero was meant to entertain people, expand the art and vision of the album, and have a positive message designed to inspire real-world activism.

In the thirteen years since the Year Zero Experience, I’ve personally seen an entire generation of fans who hold the campaign close to their hearts to this day, a truly unforgettable experience that has inspired them and made them more politically conscious.

Of course that speaks to the power of Year Zero as an album and story and message, but it also speaks to the power of ARGs as interactive life experiences.

To dismiss ARGs as marketing ignores the key component that makes them different from traditional marketing: They can’t happen without the participation of an engaged audience moving the narrative forward.

ARGs rely on groups of people heavily engaged with the game, working together, and building communities. Those communities become so strong, on more than a few occasions I’ve heard from people who met their spouses through the Year Zero Experience.

It was incredible for me to discover how powerful a community-driven gaming experience can be, but I never thought I’d see that same power turned into something genuinely malicious.

For all the ways ARGs can change peoples’ lives and build memories and relationships, they’re still alternate reality GAMES.

Games have rules, some entity in charge of those rules, and ending.

Everyone involved with the game, from the game masters to the players, understand the dynamic they’re participating in, and that’s what makes it fun. It’s fun to get lost in because even though it spreads out into the real world, you always know that it’s a game.

With Qanon, there are no pre-defined rules, no game master at the top controlling the experience, and therefore no end.

The players are making it up as they go along, and without anyone guiding them they just spiral deeper and deeper, letting the experience consume them, all along building up walls to shield themselves from criticism.

It becomes a sunk cost fallacy where they have to keep searching for an end, but there isn’t one, because they took the first two letters, Alternate Reality, but left out the very important third one: Game.

And that’s how we end up of a blogger in New Zealand sharing stuff like this: linking the fact the government has always warned us a second lockdown as a very real possibility, with the idea it was all planned and executed on purpose.

I guess my point is — we are living in a very dangerous time. This stuff is only going to get worse, and we have to be aware of it, and on top of it.

I am still learning about how we can talk to these people. They believe with the passion of someone stuck in a cult. It’s not a logical discussion anymore, because truth is out the window.

I like to think I have provided some tips for helping these people — in this piece I spoke to QAnon expert Travis View who had some insight, and here I speak to conspiracy debunker Mick West.

Both of these guys provided talking points and tips when you come face to face with this stuff in your timeline, or IRL. I am trying to integrate their advice in my own interactions.

Conspiracy theories shouldn’t be like Pokemon: you don’t have to collect them all

Something I find amazing is that believers in this stuff don’t just believe one crazy theory, they believe them all.

Put simply, there is a difference between a conspiracy like Watergate (Nixon’s attempts to cover up his administration’s involvement in the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee HQ a real thing) and adrenochrome (children are being raped and tortured en masse in underground tunnels so they produce adrenochrome in their blood, at which point they are killed and their blood drained so it can be given to Hollywood elites / the cabal so they can gain superhuman powersnot a real thing).

There is a difference between these two things. One of them is not like the other.

I think it’s fascinating we have reached this point — and I think it’s important that we begin to have this conversation with those in the cult:

Hey, maybe because you believe this particular thing, doesn’t mean I have to believe all the things.”

Good luck. Strap in. 2020 ain’t over yet.