Adventures in Disinformation

Daniel Morrison
26 min readApr 13, 2024

In 2020 I saw good people posting what amounted to pro-Trump propaganda, that seemed to be coming from an entirely alternative reality. Many others observed the same thing. Worrying numbers of individuals started behaving in very strange ways, that aligned with a very specific political agenda.

When astronomers looked at the orbit of Uranus through their telescopes in the 1600s, they noticed that it had a wobble which wasn’t explained by their existing models. They figured that there had to be another hidden planet out there, who’s gravity was making it move. So they looked, and sure enough, there was Neptune.

So I started trying to figure out what was making these people move. This article is a chronicle of that journey.

I followed the sources for their claims back to see where they were coming from. Pizzagate of course led to FBIanon on 4Chan, so I read all of the posts, looking for the signal in the noise that could provide some insight. When juxtaposed with what Jack Posobiec and Steve Bannon and Roger Stone were doing, it quickly became clear that this was part of an operation.

In August 2020 I published my first article, calling it out as a political propaganda campaign, connecting “Save The Children” to Qanon and some of the characters in the Trump team. It made a pretty clear and reasonable case, and was appreciated by many who were watching this space.

Over the course of the next year or so, as more things came to light, the case continued to evolve, with an article every few months, looking at different parts of it all from different perspectives.

Culminating in late 2023 with the piece that tied all together to explain the whole thing:

That is the story of how Pizzagate and Qanon started, and who and what was actually behind them. Right down to the specific people in the room when Q was first conceived. It’s not some intractable mystery, or some impossibly grand conspiracy. There is nothing outrageous, or fanciful, or even implausible in there. A series of events happened, and this is what they were. It fits and explains all of the evidence we see before us, and is completely consistent with all the historical context that precedes it. And not a single word of it is disputed by any of the experts.

The idea that this thing which does exactly what a propaganda campaign does could be a propaganda campaign, should not be controversial. The idea that the people who specifically deal in these kinds of operations, received high-level military training for them, talk about at them at length, and are openly pushing the exact political agenda they are trying to advance, might have had something to do with these particular operations, should not be controversial.

And yet, in the “anti-Q” world, it’s practically heretical. The conversation has firmly settled on the idea it wasn’t this at all, it was just a prank from a random troll, completely unconnected to anyone in the campaign, who just happened to radicalise everyone by accident. The people we can see spreading it had no hand in creating it, they just found it on 4chan and fell for it. Any implication to the contrary is swiftly dismissed, and anyone who suggests it is roundly ridiculed.

So today we’re going to look at how that happened. Where those narratives are actually coming from, and the grounds on which they are based. A lot of it is going to seem like dumb drama, because unfortunately that’s kind of the point. The sheer volume of dumb drama, that has drowned out the rest of the conversation, and in the process come to completely define the discourse.

After writing the articles, my first step was to go to the people who were considered experts in the anti-Q world. Sarah Hightower is pretty highly regarded. She talks about cults, and says Q is bad. She was the lead researcher on a podcast called “Q Clearance” that had set out to uncover who was behind it all. So I reached out with what I’d found, and she sets the tone right from the very top:

(nezumi_ningen = Sarah Hightower)

Right. Well that’s a bit strange. This incredibly hostile sentiment was echoed by a handful of accounts on Twitter, who were absolutely adamant that this was not a deliberate attack, and remarkably dedicated to ruthlessly mocking anyone who was trying to sound the alarm.

Straight-up ignoring direct questions, and literally obscuring the names behind it. Deliberate and exasperating time-wasting.

It’s a pretty weird cause for these seemingly random Twitter users to choose to dedicate so much of their precious energy towards. Particularly with such intense animosity. And particularly when that cause is “these professional psy-op people are definitely not doing these particular psy-ops, which happen to directly advance their exact political agenda”. Of all the ways to spend their finite time on Earth, that’s what they choose to do — relentlessly shit on people who try to warn about this attack and post rude and sarcastic gifs in response. The screenshots above are just a tiny fraction of the output too. That was all years ago, but they’re all still going at it today.

I’m an idiot, who’s gotten in plenty of internet slap-fights in my time. I have a remarkable knack for pissing people off or otherwise fucking things up. We should not exclude the possibility of my own hand having a role in this debacle. But fundamentally, I am trying to have a full and frank conversation about this dangerous threat, and they are trying to stymie that conversation. They’ve succeeded in making a lot of noise that has managed to completely derail the discussion, but if you look closely, you’ll notice they don’t actually land any strikes on the case at hand.

Either they’re acting in good faith, in which case great, we can all admit mistakes, get on the same page and move forward together in full cognisance of the nature of the threat. Or they’re not, in which case we have a pretty big problem.

I can’t say which it is. I don’t want to think they’re deliberately lying. To be honest, the idea feels frankly horrifying. But I also don’t really see how someone could organically be so committed to being so aggressively wrong. But perhaps that is a lack of imagination on my part.

Our assumption is that if they are calling out Qanon as fake, then they must be the good guys, and we need to realise that in this day and age that is not necessarily the case. Accounts can appear “opposed” to Qanon, ostensibly out to “debunk” it, but actually exist to control how the conversation surrounding it unfolds on the other side. Indeed if you’re running these operations, that’s the first thing you do after making them. Make sure that people don’t look into the operation, or report on it correctly. Turn the conversation toxic. When we’re literally looking at the world of narrative control through digital influence, this should not be unexpected. Especially from the wildlands of Twitter.

What about the actual established “experts” though? The trusted voices, who the media goes to for any news about the subject? Surely they’d be more reasonable.

The foremost voice in all this is probably a guy called Mike Rothschild. He is widely regarded as the go-to authority on the matter, and anyone with any interest in this follows him and listens to what he has to say. His position is that “Q” is fake and bad, obviously, but he seems absolutely determined to use his platform to steer people away from the idea that it was any kind of operation. He repeatedly insists that Mike Flynn (and Russia) had nothing to do with it, and declares that it’s Q-level craziness to suggest otherwise.

Again, it’s a pretty peculiar level of commitment, to a pretty peculiar cause. Why go to such effort to rule something out like that? Especially when there is literally zero evidence to justify excluding it, and plenty of evidence to justify at least keeping it in.

But hey, maybe he just hasn’t the chance to see it. These people are big and important authors. As specialists, it’s literally their job to pay close attention to this field, but a bunch of blogs from a random dude on the other side of the world might not have come across their radar.

Except no, they’ve definitely seen them. They just chose not to read them. In fact, they openly brag about not reading them, in a way that would seem designed to get others not to read it too. Otherwise they could just… not tweet about it.

Some accounts did claim to have read it however, calling it incomprehensible gibberish, while notably still not really saying anything of substance:

What about the people who get paid $1.5 million per year specifically to cover Qanon, what do they have to say about it all?

(the “Vice documentary” mentioned some of the names in the article, like Thomas, RDS, Manuel, Flynn, etc)

Ok, well that’s pretty weird too.

Keep in mind that when pressed, no one has been able to point to anything in there that’s actually wrong. In three years, not one mistake has been found in any of the articles. The closest they came was when they said that since their interpretation of the term “deep web” didn’t include 4Chan, that an agency like Psy-Group would not operate on 4Chan. Which not an argument that makes actual sense.

I specifically went to the experts who I believe are acting in good faith, like Poker and Politics, to ask them if there is something in there which is false, or which does not align with their experience, and they can’t point to anything. Even when $200 for their local food-bank is on the table, for finding a single word that’s out of place. Nothing. Instead, they explicitly say they just don’t agree with the narrative, and that no amount of evidence is going to persuade them otherwise. Which is worrying, because that’s what Q-believers do. That is the very crisis of epistemology that we face.

It’s perhaps worth clarifying here that plenty of people were able to read the stories, understand them, and find value in there:

And yet still, this narrative persists. The conversation remains firmly centred on it being a prank that these people definitely had nothing to do with, and anyone who says otherwise is an insane conspiracist.

Why is this story so hard to accept? There are a few possible reasons. First, it’s fucking terrifying. The idea that these theocratic fascists have access to these kind of psychological manipulation tools and techniques, that can have this kind of an effect, on this many people, is a genuinely chilling prospect, and choosing to believe something else is perfectly natural and understandable.

Second, the “anti-Q” community has been watching this shit for years, based specifically on the premise that it’s not an information operation orchestrated by anyone with any connection to military intelligence. Those are its foundational beliefs, so anything which so much as looks like it might be suggesting anything that resembles that is going to be instinctively rejected. And if you reject something insistently enough, for long enough, it becomes pretty hard to go back on.

Third, it implies that the supposed experts in this field have missed something which was under their noses the whole time. Which seems unlikely. And no-one wants to confront the possibility that the people we trusted gave us a bum-steer.

Fourth, we’ve all had a good time pointing and laughing at the stupidity. This takes the fun out of it, and means that the people we’ve been mocking were actually victims of a brutal psychological-warfare operation, which is uncomfortable to wrestle with.

There’s also the fact that I’m just a random dickhead on the other side of the world. So of course people are not inclined to listen to me over the bigger voices. The consensus is like an oil tanker, who’s course I am powerless to correct, especially given all of the other factors above. Perhaps I haven’t articulated it clearly enough. Not to mention my habit of somehow getting people off-side.

And of course, maybe I’m just wrong. Maybe this isn’t what happened. If that’s the case, fine, just tell us which bit’s not true.

But finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’re talking about the world of Digital Influence.

“Behaviour Change Agencies” have vast volumes of psychometric data on everyone, and know exactly how to exploit it. They’re not just going after the Q-believers, they want both sides of the coin. Everyone matters, and everyone is vulnerable to influence. And you don’t even need that psychometric data to know that a core part of this particular demographic is, by definition, rooted in ridiculing conspiracies. So if you want them to think that something is ridiculous, just call it a conspiracy. Nevermind if we don’t have a working definition of the term, what matters is the emotional response it creates. And sure enough, that’s exactly what we’ve seen.

Either way, in good faith or in bad, an almost impenetrable consensus has been created that it was just a LARP that got lucky. Any talk of orchestration is a conspiracy, and we don’t deal in conspiracies round these parts.

“The Q Origins Project” makes a good point there on the bottom left. Group dynamics are a hell of a drug. We are inherently tribal creatures, and people enjoy the feeling of being in online groups.

Watching these things like Pizzagate and Qanon tear through the cultural landscape was as worrying on the outside as it was thrilling on the inside, and people desperately wanted to make sense of it all. So naturally, a community emerged based around watching it, trying to understand what was going on, saying “this is crazy, right?” and debunking the obvious bullshit.

The way that community thought about all this, and the directions certain conversations took, would be of obvious concern to the networks behind it, and of course they would take steps to try and influence it.

Alright now let’s get right down to the nuts and bolts of precisely how and why this story is actually dismissed.

In 2018, to everyone’s great surprise, three guys started a podcast. To cover Qanon from the other side, for people who don’t believe in it. Since they were the first on the scene, at 10 months in, they have essentially become the bedrock of the anti-Q space, producing around ~ 500 episodes, and countless hours of Twitch streams. Which have included some valuable journalism, some decent entertainment, and a lot of laughing at how stupid the whole thing is.

Each episode opens with a soundbite mocking Michael Flynn as a bumbling goof who “found a way to connect to the internet”, before moving on to cover whatever the Q-world is talking about that week.

In all that time, with all that content, they have mentioned the name Thomas Schoenberger approximately exactly once. And it was specifically to tell people, in no uncertain terms, NOT to look at him. Or any of this story in general.

So let’s drill down on that some more.

It happened on a Twitch stream. A journalist called Dale Beran is telling the the hosts the story about the few days he spent looking at this. In particular his experience with a source named Arturo. He doesn’t find any actual inconsistencies, but recounts the story in a sarcastic kind of tone. Like yes, Thomas had worked with Micheal Levine, who composed the Kit-Kat jingle, a notorious ear-worm. That’s just a fun little fact. But the hosts laugh along like it’s all preposterous.

Ultimately, they reject the whole thing, based on what can most charitably be described as a mistake. Dale says:

“Arthur said that FBIanon posted feet, but I went and checked, and FBIanon never posted feet”

And on those grounds, and those grounds alone, he and the hosts dismiss the entire story.

But Arturo never said that FBIanon posted feet. He was talking about MegaAnon.

And that’s it. That is the reason this whole narrative is rejected.

You can listen to the whole thing for yourself here:

But perhaps it is clearer in transcript form:

“I just listened to Fred […] If I had an episode where I claimed that Thomas was Q, I would delete that episode […] In group chats, Fred was like “Dale investigated this”, and I was like “it’s bullshit, don’t bother”[…] Ignore it, don’t give it oxygen, just never report on it […] The people who investigate the origins are delusional […] How about we exclude the guy who lied about being Cicada or whatever […] It’s actually dangerous in some ways […] To focus on who Q “is” seems like to do it a disservice

Pretty strong stuff.

Was it a mistake? Could someone really have screwed up something so significant, so spectacularly, purely by accident? Are we just that unlucky, that these people were simply that bad at their jobs? I genuinely don’t know. What we do know, is that they have had multiple opportunities to correct the mistake, and have thus far declined to do so.

Nevertheless, this dynamic, based entirely on that mistake, has effectively defined the discourse from that point on. It’s now established canon in the field. None of those names have anything to do with it, and anyone who says that they do is just a crazy person. It’s uncool even to talk about it.

So who is this “Fred” we’re apparently all getting our story from. Funnily enough, it’s the guy who built the world’s number one white-supremacist radicalisation machine, Frederick Brennan.

He deliberately permitted the worst racists and misogynists to network and organise on his forum. But it turns out a hate site is actually a hassle to run. He struggled to make enough money to keep it online, and was about to go out of business altogether, when in walks a guy called Jim Watkins.

He had been a helicopter repairman in the military, got some computer training as part of his service, then left to run a bunch of dodgy domains in the Philippines. One day his son Ron told him about the woes of this website called 8Chan, where you could post whatever you want. They saw an opportunity, and swooped in to snatch it up. They flew Fred over to the Phillipines, and gave him a place to live with a full-time carer. But the relationship deteriorated, and in December 2018 they acrimoniously cut ties.

2019 saw a series of mass shootings — Christchurch Mosque in March, the Poway Synagogue in April, and El Paso in August. 75 dead and 66 injured between them. All the gunmen came from 8Chan, and used the platform to post their manifestos and/or livestream their slaughters, to what has been described as “Riotous Glee”.

As the creator of the board where this kept happening, Fred naturally received calls from the media. He didn’t say it should be taken down after Christchurch. Or Poway. It wasn’t until the wake of the El Paso shooting, where another 23 people were killed in 8chan’s third murderous rampage of the year, that he joined the chorus of people calling for 8chan to be removed. Why? Because having the world’s journalists call him for comment about all these mass-shootings that keep coming from the website he built is a drag, that gets in the way of “making his fonts”.

He just wanted the Watkins to change the name. He’s specifically said that if they did that, he’d leave them alone. And since they won’t (and since they did a bunch of other terrible things to him), he has a “vendetta” against them.

Since the Watkins are the ones who are most visibly responsible for keeping Q online, this vendetta has allowed Fred to walk right from one side of the battlefield to the other, and land a position as a popular figure and credible commentator in the “Anti-Q” world. And he has used that position to keep the attention of that world squarely on his nemeses, by claiming that they are the ones behind Qanon. To the ears of a community that had been trying to debunk this stuff for 3 years, this was music. It was just some gross pig-farmer in the Philipines. The guy who built the site says so.

Which is kind of true. They obviously didn’t start it, or have anything to do with the heady days of its first month, but as the owners of the board Q has exclusively posted on for the last five years, they almost certainly have some kind of a hand in it. At the very least they’re the ones who let it keep going, and they appear to have posted, or even written, at least some of the drops themselves. There was certainly a noticeable change in the quality of the output when it moved to their board. The exact ratio of control or level of communication between them and any of the original creators is unclear. Their current involvement doesn’t contradict any of the rest of this story.

And if that’s where Fred left it, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about him at all. Everyone has their journey, and his has been far harder than most. Plenty of people more privileged than him have gone down darker paths. I’m yet to see any good he’s done that cannot also be described as part of his vendetta against the Watkins, but if he’s genuinely turned his back on it all, great.

The problem, however, and the reason we are talking about him, is that he doesn’t just leave it there. He actively steers people away from some of the key names in this story. Fred really wants you to know, for example, that Lisa Clapier in particular isn’t Q, she’s the only one he’s sure isn’t Q, and isn’t involved in Q at all. Which is a curious amount of doth protesting.

Why go out of his way to say that? How is he so sure that this person, who clearly appears to have a finger in multiple parts of the pie (see part 11), has nothing to do with it? Has he spent time with her? Where, and in what context? What does he know about her involvement with SnowWhite7IAM, or Occupy, or Standing Rock, or #Unity4J?

If letting Fred be the authority on anything related to Qanon isn’t the fox guarding the hen-house, then it’s a pretty fox-sympathetic hen-house designer telling us how we should view foxes and their approach to hen-relations.

But ultimately, that is the reason this story is rejected. We all listen to journalists, and journalists all listen to Travis, Travis listens to Dale, Dale misheard Arturo, and “just listened to Fred” instead. Mike bragged about not bothering to look, encouraging others to do the same, and the whole thing became too uncomfortable for accounts like Origins and Poker. And now this is where we are.

If you’re running this machine that is waging this attack, the first thing you’re going to want to do is cover your tracks. You’re going to want to make sure that the conversation looks elsewhere. You’re going to want to foster an indifference, or better yet, an outright hostility to investigation. You’re going to want any suggestion of your involvement to be dismissed out of hand. You’re going to want the people who are supposed to be “opposed” to you fighting among themselves. Your credentials at using the internet to steer the narrative in certain ways are already well established. It would look awfully like this.

Throughout all this, I thought that I was at least on good terms with accounts like QOrigins. Our goals and our interests certainly seemed aligned. They had shared one of my articles, offered constructive feedback on the substance, and encouraged me to continue working. That was, until some of those accounts swooped in specifically to disrupt that amicable relationship, injecting intense language and animosity into the discourse:

A Q-promoter called Radix read my article, thought there was something to it, posted a link to it on her site, and recommended people go read it. QOrigins took this as an opportunity to write me and my work off completely, and hasn’t really spoken to me since.

The only criticism being made here is that the people who had a front-row seat to the whole thing found my account plausible. That’s literally it. There is zero critique of the substance of the case itself. Just an acknowledgement of the fact that this story succeeded in making even the most hardcore Q- promoters and believers say “hold on a second, maybe we’ve been lied to”.

There is no consideration for the fact that maybe it checks out with her because that is in fact exactly what happened. Instead, it’s turned into a reason to reject the whole thing.

I can’t say exactly how they did it. I don’t know who’s deliberately lying, and who’s just been influenced by a weapons-grade influence agency. And that line is way blurrier than we would like anyway. I’m just reporting these data-points. There are waves washing up that do not appear consistent with the wind patterns. There is a wobble in the orbits. There are under-reported planets out there, and they may even be actively evading detection.

This whole thing is a big bloody mess, that has been deliberately inflamed. There is so much information and disinformation to wade through, and waters that have been intentionally muddied. The biggest problem we face is the divergence of realities, and the best way to deal with that is through honest, open, good-faith conversations. Beware of the above.

Five Questions

--

--