As each new claim emerges, it is added to the network of conspiracies. There is no end to the process of interpreting Q dumps and adding new conspiratorial strands, especially because QAnon can simply incorporate contradictions and disappointments into its future messages when the predicted apocalypse doesn’t arrive. Q had predicted that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta would be arrested. When that didn’t happen, QAnon followers just incorporated it into the conspiracy. The false dates were designed, they claimed, to trick the cabal into complacency.
It might be wrong to call QAnon a conspiracy theory at all. In a recent study, the political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum distinguish between conspiracy theories and this new brand of conspiracism. Traditional conspiracy theories are relatively coherent narratives that seek to explain some disturbing aspect of the political or social world. The new conspiracism presents incoherent, often contradictory assertions rather than a consistent story.
Conspiracism flourishes on social media. In part that’s because it’s so easy to tweet or upload. But the flow-oriented structure of social media also fosters conspiracism. You can’t tell a coherent story in a 280-character tweet, but you can provide a tantalizing assertion or allude to shared story fragments, especially if you use code words and acronyms (such as QAnon’s WWG1WGA) or iconic images (such as the alt-right’s Pepe the Frog). Taking part in the QAnon conspiracism means learning how to read these codes and fragments, and perhaps eventually contributing to this flow with your own posts or videos.
Online conspiracism offers an extreme example of the politics of flow, but an obsession with streams of information instead of their content is also affecting the political mainstream. Donald Trump has become a consummate flow politician, and Twitter is his medium. During these first two years of his presidency, according to Trump’s Twitter Archive, he has tweeted more than 600 times about Russia and collusion, more than 400 times lamenting fake news, and more than 200 times each about Clinton and Obama. Often, the tweets carry a simple, emotional conclusion, such as “No Collusion” or “Just more Fake News.”
Taken together, the tweets embody a theme of personal grievance and betrayal. But they do not form a coherent or even consistent narrative. In the weeks after the release of the Mueller report, Trump declared the report both a total vindication and a hit job—in the same tweet. His supporters don’t seem to notice the contradictions. And his detractors might not notice either—the flow generates too much material for anyone to keep up with, even professional political analysts and reporters.
A presence on Twitter has become almost a job requirement for columnists and pundits. YouTube can also be a valuable educational resource with videos of political roundtables, academic conferences, lectures, and interviews. But the flow-oriented design of these media inhibits extended debate. When the liberal economist Paul Krugman tweeted a critique of the inconsistency of Republican policies on interest rates, for example, most of the more than 100 replies were simply derisive comments about Republican hypocrisy—posts created to derive pleasure from online riposte rather than advocacy for a particular position.