When entering the anonymous content production of 4chan, it may at first sight appear to be a fora for playful one liners and encrypted repetition. Within this mismatch an advanced system of order seems to appear. Within this structure a collective effort and imaginative narrative is at stake. While conspiracy making is nothing new, this research specifically sets out to look at the formation of such structure within a digitally native environment. In this context the aim is to critically investigate the parameters of 4chan for conspiracy making and specifically to direct a focus to the strategic move of scattering links across the communication to amplify the narrative. As such the elaborate findings of this paper could be considered as taking on the two-fold order:
1) Through digital methods the production of data visualizations detect general behaviour and links of the development of the QAnon conspiracy and the “Epstein didn’t kill himself” conspiracy.
2) Rooted in these visualizations this provide an overview for dedicated attention to the methodological manoeuvres of breads, baking and breadcrumbs on 4chan as strategies for scattering the narrative and developing the conspiracy.
This approach begs a few questions:
How did the QAnon conspiracy theory initially develop in 4chan? In what way may this reflect a general pattern of conspiracy theories development online? And is it possible to consider this for future conspiracy studies?
For any external observer of these interactions, a first hand understanding of tools and terminology is key for further study. The sections of this paper are formed with the intention to work as an overview of terminology and strategies detected in the research of QAnon. When doing so we regard these aspects as instruments in the making of conspiracy theories online. A nod to “A Field Guide to “Fake News” and Other Information Disorders” seems suitable in this context. Formed as an overview for exploring the production of false news stories through digital methods, the guide is formed as a tool to detect the interplay between misleading information and its impact on societal patterns ( A Field Guide to “Fake News, 2017). In line with this approach, the terminology of methods in this project is supported by new data visualizations, which come to exist as an additional tool for research in 4chan.
The conspiracy theory of QAnon started in a post on 4chan the 28th of October 2017. Narrated from a far right perspective, the topics of the conspiracy connects links across various political scales. Embedded in this, the main aspects of the theory suggest how the world (cabal) is dominated by a group of satan worshipping prominent leaders. The rule of this group extends to control the media, the politicians, and eventually the circularity of world wide power structures (Rozsa, M., 2019). The content that triggered this conspiracy theory was originally posted by an anonymous author or collective under the name Q. While the roots of content unfolded online, the support of Q has further developed to appear outside the digital realm appearing for instance in connection with Trump supporters during the American midterm elections. While the physical traces of the impact of QAnon is important to stretch, the focus of this research direct attention to online development of the conspiracy.
The link between using the anonymous affordance of the 4chan is of noteworthy relevance in the reflection of the way in which narratives take form and are being shared. When unfolding the vocabulary on 4chan, the frequently used notion of bread crumbs, bread, and bakers stand out. As the scale of this communication method plays a remarkable role for the findings of this paper, it is worth unpacking this terminology further. In their simplest form, the 4chan narrative consists of parts of previous posts – these are known as breadcrumbs.
Figure 1. Mention of intentional breadcrumbs in context of QAnon, 4chan 01.11.2017
When spreading breadcrumbs the timing is important in order for them to be captured by as many readers as possible. Breadcrumbs derive from a larger thread, in 4chan which is also referred to as bread. Breads equals the formation of new threads. While the threads are relevant for steering the conversation, it remains as important to gather all this content in coherent overview which is the task of the baker. In 4chan bakers start new threads that contain all previously researched information of former threads (breads). In the process of baking on 4chan pointers to former breadcrumbs and links are also included. Occasionally gathered posts of questions are connected to cryptical answers and mentioned through the analogy of dough. In the research into the specific case study of QAnon, these posts tend to take form through an extensive list of questions that nearly resembles poetry more than coherent information. This method of questioning and posting questions instead of claims is brand new. information.
Figure.2 Example of “Bread”
The initial interest for investigating the formations of QAnon were sparked by the previous DMI Winter School research ”Understanding Normiefication” carried out in 2019. Through cross platform analysis this research looked into the development of the QAnon conspiracy from 4chan to Reddit, 8chan, Youtube, facebook, and finally news media portals. This methodology came to reflect how these different platforms bridge content and viewers, and eventually amplify the conspiracy through one another. The findings of this research came to foster the possibility and reasoning for the research in this paper to further detect the specific mechanisms of 4chan for the conspiracy to gain shape.
The paper furthermore pays a tribute to the Pizzagate conspiracy research also deriving the DMI Winter School. As opposed to the cross platform analysis of ”Understanding Normiefication”, the findings of this research more specifically devoted a key focus to the actions on 4chan as ”grammatised collective action” (Agre, 2003; Tuters et al. 2018). However while the the case of Pizzagate developed intensively within only 25 hours, this paper covers how the QAnon conspiracy during more than a month of development unfolded in a different manner. In extensions of the Pizzagate conspiracy this paper ultimately comes to nuance the affordances provided by 4chan as accumulating in another, but most definitely not less collective effort.
Overall the methods behind the research combines close and distant reading techniques combined with visualisations of larger datasets. Through this method our aim was to closely study the conspiracy development by tracing the post sharing on 4chan. When restricting this research to the development within one platform, we do so in extension of the existing cross platform analysis presented in the research of ”Understanding Normiefication”. By considering the development of QAnon across various platforms this research nuanced the way in which the various digital platforms act not only as links, but also ”(...)exercising a “bridge” function” to expand the development of the conspiracy theory.” (Understanding Normiefication, 2019). Along with insight from the Pizzagate findings, the methods of this research set off to research the strategic links breads, bakers and breadcrumbs in conspiracy making.
The primary research was done through the usage of 4plebs. 4Plebs is an online archive of boards of 4chan collected from April 2013. The search engine of 4plebs allows for filtering according to time, keywords, and post ID. Though the life of the QAnon conspiracy theory unfolded at a later moment in other digital platforms, the timeframe that got our main focus was set between 28 October 2017 – 6 December 2017. By extracting data from the 4plebs threads related to the QAnon terminology Calm Before The Storm (CBTS) and combining it with the Q post IDs, we gathered a dataset consisting of 750 treads with up to 500 messages in each. Since the system of the bakers in 4chan, construct new posts by compiling content from former posts, 4plebs proofed specifically useful when tracing back specific keywords. By detecting the 4chan QAnon terminology across various posts, the research took on a two step format, which eventually expanded our word search on 4plebs (Rogers, 2019). While terms such as Calm Before the Storm remained as a key term of the research, the closer readings expanded to include other pseudonyms of Q such as Iron Eagle, Alice & Wonderland, Godfather III, Snow White, Wizards & Warlocks, Speed, The Hunt for Red October, Geronimo, Godspeed, Speed, and Titanic.
By making a script for tracking mentions and occurrences of Q posts embedded in this data we were capable of visualizing the overall relations between the posts (Figure 3). This information helped indicating the relevance of breads and breadcrumbs on 4chan. While a map of different breadcrumbs enabled an indication of frequency, we wanted to further detect the relation between these links. With Python programming and the Pandas library we manipulated the datasets to detect links across 4chan (Figure 4). Ultimately these steps gradually came to improve the nuance of the research of the links in 4chan. In the following sections we draw on these visualizations in order to elaborate different insights to the development as well as function of posts in 4chan.
When tracing the frequency of links across opening posts (OP), we were able to trace a map across the process of bakers, breads, and breadcrumbs in the QAnon conspiracy development in 4chan. Through comparative analysis of OP it became possible to mark the extent to which such post were drawing on references and links to former opening posts. Ultimately by isolating all these posts, the quantitative dataset, provided an overview that improved the filtering process for the closer reading.
With a focus on detecting the development of a conspiracy theory in 4chan, our findings draw a clear relation between the sharing of information, and the strategy of spreading content. The 4chan communication strategy of interlinks is simultaneously also what obscures it. With links in links in links, the multi layered function of communication demands a track of the relations between sharing and referring back to older posts. Scrutinizing this development within 4chan enabled us to visualize the relation between the original post and how they developed in scale during the course of November 2017. This finding supports the aim of detecting and showing the instances of communication within 4chan as tools for intentionally developing the conspiracy of QAnon. The image below shows all the breadcrumbs.
Figure 3. Occurrence of breadcrumbs across the posts on 4chan
As a sea of references, the visualisation reveals how the references and interlinks of the posts related to QAnon on 4chan are widely spread.
The visualization provides an overview of relations between posts (breadcrumbs), post openings (breads), and post overviews (bakers) in 4chan from 1st of November – 6th of December 2017. This provides different aspects of interest: Firstly it shows the relation between the different OP connected to QAnon. By indicating the time aspect through a colour scheme, it also provides an overview of the frequency of which the links refer back and back in time. This reflects how the original post by Q on 27 October 2017 did non immediately gain intense attention. However, it evolved into a full story in time. The image below shows intensification of the story.
Figure 4. Shows the original relations across the QAnon on 4chan.
Figure 5. Shows the original thread 147433975 posted on 27 October 2017.
When tracing the development of the QAnon conspiracy a few posts stand out. By isolating these posts and connecting the overview of figure 4 with specific message boards, a pattern between ways of linking and usage of terminology become prominent.
Who controls the narrative? What is a map? And why does it matter?
An important part of content creation on 4chan exists in the dough making; moments in which Q performs convoluted form of answers. This is primarily done through a long listing of questions.
Figure 6. Who, What, Why word tree overviews of extracted questions posted by Q in 4chan.
Why do women vote left? Are feelings the same as thinking? And why is gender important?
When our period of research is restricted to an interval of less than 2 months it is related to postings of Q. From the first detected appearance of so called Q posts, an increasing amount of posts mimicking the signature of Q also starts appearing. Accordingly anons (users of 4chan) post increasing concerns on the trustworthiness of the posts signed by Q. In line with this the boards of Q change a number of times, for eventually to move from 4chan to 8chan. While the development of posts on 4chan are specifically reflecting the anonymous conditions of the fora, the internal distrust is also interesting to make an account of.
Figure 7. Appropriation of Q questions, 4chan, 16.11.2017
Qmaps indicate frequently referred mentions between the signatures and messages of Q. The maps are developed by various anons in 4chan. They mimic highly advanced military stringer maps, and occasionally go under similar titles. The stringer maps exist of words, numbers, letters, or/and glyphs used to convey more sensitive information.
Figure 8. Fri 24 Nov 2017 21:13:20 No.150760714
The maps are frequently referred to in various conversations and during the month of November they develop in parallel with the progress of the QAnon conspiracy. In various posts it is indicated how the maps exists as tools for “Here’s what you need to start: (This is your map in the Storm)” (Fri 24 Nov 2017 21:13:20 No.150760714)
Figure 9. Q map 4chan No.150761094, 24.11.2017, 21:17:24
Figure 10. Q map 4chan No.150761326, 24.11.2017, 21:19:39
The maps unfold complex narratives and intend to navigate the occurrence and relations between the events. Forming an overview of the development and relations of events is a commonly seen instrument on 4chan, serving a purpose of constructing and further developing the relations in the conspiracy. Thereby these maps also come to exist as visual insights to analyse the narrative development. Included in the maps are also a specific selection of recurring posts. Looking further into the relation between the content and format of these maps could benefit to be researched further in order to detect their true function.
It may be nothing new that we tend to objectify the world in order to understand it. In fact such an approach reflects common human cognitive ability to detect and connect content together (Drucker, 2011). Through this process even fragmented matter is transformed into coherent information.When specifically setting out to trace the way in the methods of 4chan come to amplify the making of the conspiracy theory, it is noteworthy to take account of how the data deriving from 4chan already is systematically numbered by the various contributions of the thread. The frequency of internal linking and appropriation in 4chan inevitably results in a complex dataset to enter. This ultimately comes to blur the order of the narrative. Seen in this light the affordances of the digital environment are of key interest (Rogers, 2009). While the ID number is assigned by 4chan, the threads are systematically interlinked across various posts. In this process we elaborate visual translations of situations and forms. While these scale models enhance our data and enable us to critically consider possible scenarios, they inevitably also contain structure of their origin. How may we take advantage of the findings, while also critically consider their native digital origin? When extracting and conducting closer readings of the data it could critically be considered if we to come follow a predetermined order. While this makes sense for chronology of the development, we may also consider how the convoluted mesh of interactions serve the relevance of a non linear analysis.
When directing a focus to the internal communication patterns of QAnon in 4chan and secondly taking notice of the anonymous appropriation of Q content, it becomes tempting to consider how the collective affordances provided by 4chan resemble the formation of other counter cultures online. The research in 4chan often comes to reflect how the content may develop to take different shapes and actions depending on its usage. As with other platform studies this comes to reveal a specific behaviour within platforms (Bucher & Helmond , 2017). When detecting the ephemeral and anonymous affordances that 4chan enable it may arguably be in the nature of the platform to function as a forum for a kind of post-truth protest (Tuters et al. 2018). In this context the research of Pizzagate is specifically relevant as it unfolds the techniques and technical design of 4chan (Tuters et al. 2018). If isolating the mimicking of Q questions, such approach could arguably be put in line with examples of other forms of exploitation of platform infrastructures such as trolling or partizan journalism. This consideration serves the purpose of considering the Q appropriation as similar trace for speculative digital counter movements. While this tendency may specifically be traced in political context, it meanwhile exemplifies how such exploitations come to reveal part of their contextual infrastructures (Galloway, 2014). If regarded as an anti programme, this act may arguably be detected in diffusing the original posts of Q, and as such mimic a rather issue-specific hijacking technique (Rogers, 2017, p.14). However while the appropriation of Q disrupts the flow of posts, it does not reveal any clear intention of counter position. To prevent appropriation of the Q posts, the terminology detected in the 4chan fora is furthermore constantly subject for change. This provides a lack of consistency in the research environment. Ultimately, when conducting quantitative analysis it is difficult to confirm the trustworthiness of all the data. Further research would benefit from a more advanced proof check of the data.
The research was steered by the motivation for detecting the patterns behind the creation of the origin of QAnon inside 4chan. In the process of doing so, we set out to consider how these methods could come to reflect general tools for conspiracy creation inside 4chan. Overall the combination between close reading and data visualisation of the relations between breadcrumbs, breads, and bakers proofed how the conspiracy of QAnon in 4chan developed through extensive spreading and posts and links accompanied by constantly updated visual relational maps. The link between using the anonymous affordance of the 4chan is of noteworthy relevance in the reflection of these strategically planted posts that spreads the theory of QAnon. While the study of 4chan reveals singular behaviour the research mostly reflects how collective effort in 4chan is key in strengthening the position of narratives.