By Trevor Scott FitzGibbon
One of the most effective information-operation weapons during the 2016 presidential election was to smear political targets as “Russian bots” working on behalf of the Kremlin. Journalists were de-platformed, presidential candidates were smeared, and lives were immeasurably damaged.
The art of attacking political targets by using open-sourced guilt-by-association is not new — nor is using Russians as foils. Joseph McCarthy and his ilk did it in the 1950s with “red-baiting” and the FBI tried to do it to Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Today that disgraceful tactic has reemerged. The smear du jour is to accuse someone of supporting the insane QAnon conspiracy — even if they don’t.
Assassinating the character of political opponents for “supporting” Q has migrated from dubious online provocateurs to television news programming. Suddenly, it seems as if every other word out of certain hosts and pundits on cable news shows begins with “Q,” and that a majority of Democrats sit around the dinner table every night discussing the conspiracy and how it is impacting Timmy’s fourth-grade class.
Ironically, according to the most recent Pew Research Center poll, while close to half the country has heard of QAnon, the majority of them are Democrats. Awareness of Q increased dramatically from 23 percent in March to 47 percent in September.
One reason for this is that the effort to hype the fringe conspiracy group has grown quickly. Increasingly, money flows to digital mercenaries to shame and cyberstalk not only individual targets but entire voting blocs.
QAnon is an idea with no structure, no chain of command and no rules. Anybody can pick up a YouTube channel or another social media account and claim to be an anonymous insider — and exploit and project whatever insane claim they want to make. With the rise of social media and recruitment of virtual reality and “gaming” technologists, these consultants have provided new mediums and taken the art of smearing to a new level. From slanderous TED Talks to inaccurate documentaries that defame individuals who have nothing to do with QAnon, the damage to the target can be severe. Often, those making the allegations are reliant on discredited sources.
But we cannot outlaw people who say crazy things. Whether it’s antifa in Portland, outrageous conspiracies from Q, or the Westboro Baptist Church protesting at funerals, the First Amendment protects problematic speech.
Increasingly, and regardless of your political affiliation, if you’re not echoing the establishment narrative, you are vulnerable to attack.
Discrediting Former Intel Members
Q character assassination has also been used in an attempt to discredit some of America’s most well-respected former members of the intelligence community, including Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. The targeting of VIPS members is strategic. One of them is former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared the President’s Daily Brief for Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Another is former NSA technologist Bill Binney, who has also been targeted as part of the “top leadership” of Q.
For a refresher, VIPS is the group that correctly debunked from the outset the bogus “Russiagate” narrative that permeated the Trump presidency. VIPS’ report was spotlighted in The Nation with a story headlined “A New Report Raises Big Questions About Last Year’s DNC Hack.” For that criticism, these leaders were accused of working with Russia. Fast-forward to 2021 and the exact same leaders are accused of being members of the Q brain trust.
Another troubling trend is the use of foreign operatives to drive the defamation of Americans. For example, one defamer lives in Mexico while another, who lives in Europe, is a self-described former member of a fringe group known as Anonymous. It begs the question, “Who pays them?”
And what’s the potential risk in all of this as a society? Those targeted in this way can potentially lose their business, their home, their friends. All because some misguided or politically motivated cyber-mercenary on contract from Washington, D.C., or a foreign country decides to do it.
Many of the same powerful forces who drove Russiagate are the same operatives now driving the Q smears, colluding with YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to do their bidding. I’ve spoken out publicly and repeatedly against Q because I believe it is a dangerous psychological operation that harms those brainwashed by it and the innocent affected by it.
But for the past few months on social media and cable TV, there has been a dramatic uptick of pundits and shady online operatives turning Q accusations into modern-day Salem witch trials. Q is now a talking point, and painting someone with that brush can completely discredit them — even those who are innocent of the allegation.
On some days, it seems that America has entered the sort of dystopia Aldous Huxley described in his classic novel Brave New World. If this doesn’t give you pause, it should.
Trevor Scott FitzGibbon is president of Silent Partner and an award-winning PR strategist focused on human rights and protecting whistleblowers while fighting disinformation campaigns.
The original version of this article was published on RealClear Politics and republished with permission.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
“As the QAnon phenomenon becomes more central to critical political and public safety questions, I realize we need a new vocabulary to describe this and similar phenomena. Q is not a “conspiracy theory”. The faked moon landing was a conspiracy theory. Perhaps birtherism was a conspiracy theory, though one with similarities to QAnon because of its strong ideological valence. But Q is not a conspiracy theory. It’s a fascistic political movement which predicts and advocates mass violence against liberals (and everyone else outside its definition of true Americans) in an imminent apocalyptic political reckoning. What we call the ‘conspiracy theories’ are simply the storylines and claims that justify that outcome. They could easily be replaced by others which serve the same purpose.” Josh Marshal, Talkingpointsmemo
The phrase “conspiracy theory” itself is used to smear. Sane people know that the powerful conspire to do things without telling the public. If someone offers a theory about what they are really doing, does that mean they are crazy?
Well said Sir.
Anyone following the events of JFK murder investigators for the last two or three years knows this work has revealed CIA lies about who and when the CIA knew about Lee Harvey Oswald can clearly see that CIA officials conspired to keep this exact same knowledge from the public.
Your question, “If someone offers a theory about what they are really doing does that mean they are crazy?” , begs me to ask another.
If someone very professionally and technically exposes hard information in the form of hard evidence that proves a conspiracy to with hold information from the American public doesn’t this indicate that the “theory” has now become proven as true and indicative that the purveyors have taken actions to conceal the facts that point to the true actions taken by the conspirators?
If someone offers a theory about what they, the conspirators were/are really doing and then by providing hard evidence, copies of communications, that reveal the original position claimed by the conspirators was enabled by lies the conspirators committed to secret their actions doesn’t that reveal the existence of an actual plan to conceal the truthful events tied to larger supposition ?
Investigations are based on theories and evidence. The evidence is something the CIA’s bogus use of their sources and methods claims is quite adept at preventing from being exposed. Time and computers have caught up to and nullified any legitimate basis for such secrecy. Know we are armed with evidence, evidence that CIA has denied exists, that is proving the CIA lied time and again about their involvement with Lee Harvey Olswald.
So much for the theory part of the conspiracy.
So yes “conspiracy theorist” is used to smear. The direct result of CIA’s attempts to kill the true story, subvert the truth and live to kill another day. Hell what could go wrong?
Conspiracy theorist, disgruntled, identity politics, all used as bogus “trip wires” to delegitimise and miss used in the process. We can save the made up bogus claim of manifest destiny for another time.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In colonial times, Freedom of Religion was grouped with Speech, Assembly and Protests, since toleration of different religious views was not a popular idea in Europe at the time, and the First Amendment was seen as an enlightened change. Louis XIV’s persecution of the Huguenots (he died in 1715) and the abuses of the Spanish Inquisition (disbanded 1834) were well remembered, as were the “religious wars” of the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. To be branded a heretic was almost as bad as being called a Putin asset or a Q-Anon disciple.
This non-tolerance of the Other seems to be the acceptable, allowed outlets for vitriol and hate.
We actually entered this dystopia some years ago, but it takes time for the broader public to catch on.
As a Marxist, I am of course appalled and disturbed by the continuing cold war mindset of anticommunists the world over. Considering the state of the world due to capitalism, with its imperialist wars, its science denial, its environmental devastation, its huge numbers of jobless and homeless people and the fact that a tiny coterie of billionaires are still holding out their hands for more government help while people starve, I would say that capitalism has proven that it is the most abysmal, cruel, illogical and violent system on earth. I am proud to be a Marxist and consider it the only honorable thing to be.
Where is our “civilized” society headed? Turning on each other like caged hungry rats.
In formal debates one would be disqualified for using smears, insults etc. (ad hominem attacks). Any serious informed person does not engage in childish insults in a serious discussion or debate. It is an obvious and pathetic attempt to stifle discourse about important issues.
Similarly, right-wing, neo-fascist Zionists and Israelis call everyone “Anti-Semites” if you don’t agree with their crimes and racism.
Great and important article. Fascism is ensconced and it is not the Republicans who’ve imposed it. Lamentably, change from within Progressives made it possible. Rather than feel remorse though, most are just morphing into Deep State tools.
The internet is filled with conspiracy theories. So Qanon is not surprising. As this article points out, there is more about Qanon in the mainstream media than there is Qanon on the web. This is how the media obsesses over what is really a fantasy of their own creation. They can take a very small sum of postings and blow them up into a world-wide conspiracy.
The Mueller Probe and its tentacles into Ukrainegate were a far larger and far more dangerous and damaging conspiracy theory. It was the subject of probably a million news articles and programs. It saturated the US and trashed out very important principles of justice such as lawyer-client privilege or prohibitions against false indictments and false evidence. Peoples lives were destroyed by the Russiagate conspiracy. The DOJ and FBI may never recover from it. I don’t think there has been any damage from Qanon in spite of the claims and insinuations of the media, as in the idiotic Ted talk linked above.
This is really about information warfare than conspiracy theory. I mean, “state actors”, a plethora of agencies, think tanks that dominate Congressional hearings and government nominations etc. create “their own reality” that is widely accepted, although not in the targeted countries.
One can say that state-run information warfare fertilizes the ground for “unapproved” theories, in part by legitimizing “connect the dots” and other tools of less professional and less lavishly funded “conspiratologs”.
One of the weirdest things about the long Mueller investigation is that after its conclusion, Mueller made a televised statement confirming that they found no evidence of Russian election interference — but then added, essentially, that “by God, we know they must have done something, somehow.”
Q anon isn’t really a conspiracy theory…theories sometimes turn out to be fact. Q anon is both a scam (the guy who runs it makes a lot of money via donations) and it’s also a story people tell while searching for an excuse to kill their fellow Americans. that is in fact what it’s about. No surprise CN writers and readers can’t put it all together…. Josh Marshal over at Talking Points Memo wrote a nice essay explaining all of this-might want to check it out
If you want a name for lunatic conspiracists, “Democrats” is what you’re looking for.
Here is the perfect example of a HUGE PROBLEM we non-partisans have to deal with.
Neither the democrats or the republicans have proven capable of sufficiently, efficiently or accidentally solving problems that are or should be non-partisan and are vital to the survival of this country and it’s government.
So torture this. If one is to be relevant to the process they must be part of the solution, otherwise as current history is proving one will be or become part of the problem.
I might ad here for the sake of the country and clarity that the “Proud Boys” and “Promise Keepers” are, as intended by the use above, are the very definition are” conspiracists” or more correctly conspirators. Phone records don’t lie.
In fact the term conspiracists might be a term better used to describe the more knowledgeable of those who investigate events suspected of being the result of a conspiracy, that is “a result of the act of conspiring together.
Lunitics come in all shapes and sizes the reject-president and our congress are living proof.
In addition my 1993 dated 10th edition of Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary does not list conspiracist – as a word, however it did come up when I GOOGLED the word. The Merriam Webster web page was at the top of the list. The explanation given there is the word, as used on two recent websites, is defined as “one who believes or promotes a conspiracy theory”.
I greatly encourage anyone and everyone to google the word and view the two examples given on the page. It appears to be a teachable moment.
Just as the phrase manifest destiny is bogus, and the use of “disgruntled” is a misnomer used to smear individuals who commit certain activities, conspiracist is often misused.
Thanks to CN PEACE
Once upon a time, not so long ago, any development that the establishment of the day didn’t like could be automatically blamed on Jews.
No evidence needed or wanted. Because Jews. Question the narrative and you must be on their side, too!
Today we are much more enlightened. Instead of blaming Jews, we blame Russia.*
No evidence needed or wanted. Because Russia. Question the narrative and you must be a Russian bot, too! No evidence needed for that, either.
*Brexit? Catalonian separatism? Trump? Blame Russia. Of course, when the vote goes the way that the powers that be like, then The Voice Of The People Has Spoken.
Russia, for Americans, are the perfect foil. The audience in the United States has been fed anti-Soviet propaganda since that nation’s inception in 1917 save for a short few years when we needed their help to save the world. Since then, anti-Russian bigotry is now probably even more firmly ensconced and certainly considered more acceptable than racial bigotry but it’s bigotry nonetheless.
That’s what I find most sinister about the new McCarthyism since it depends on that shared bigotry, the hatred for a foreign people that has been reinforced in a raft of American films. Just as in the post-war films, add a German accent to any character and you create a super-villain, during the Reagan era the “Evil Empire” and its people were considered evil incarnate. Even in the 21st Century, officials like the James Clapper can claim that Russians were uniquely and “genetically” predisposed toward manipulative political activities and almost no one bats an eye.
This will not end well.
Thanks for this article . Especially with regard to exposing the malicious lies expressed by that Ted Talk when it referred to VIPS . I felt compelled to comment on their video link as to their shallow cowardice in smearing that brave and courageous group. I wonder if Binney and MCGovern are aware of this slander.Perhaps Joe Lauria can make them aware of this slander. These people need to pay. They should sue those cowards. Lumping them into this Q phenomenon is absolutely outrageous. The vast majority of comments on that video gave this “ Talk” high praise. How easily some people are manipulated and brainwashed is extremely disheartening. I linked this article to them to try and stem the tide of groupthink. Likely futile but if it changed one mind it was worth it.
I don’t listen to Ted Talks. Too many right wingers on there.
“From slanderous TED Talks to inaccurate documentaries that defame individuals who have nothing to do with QAnon, the damage to the target can be severe. Often, those making the allegations are reliant on discredited sources.
But we cannot outlaw people who say crazy things.”
So far, “we cannot”. But templates are developed, and approved for the use by allied countries with sketchy tradition of freedom of expression. Ukrainian president outlawed three popular TV channels that belong to a member of Verkhovna Rada and froze all financial assets of those channels (and Mr. Kozak? I am not 100% sure on that) using presidential decree introducing a “sanction” on the basis of a law that allows to sanction foreign nationals on variety of reasons, and UKRAINE nationals engaged in terrorism, or supporting terrorism. The decision was based on undisclosed detailed claims of national intelligence, but judging from subsequent debate, it is a new notion of “informational terrorisms”.
US embassy reacted promptly: [my translation, I do not use Facebook where the original appeared] USA supports efforts to counter malign influence of Russia that yesterday were enacted by Ukraine to defend its independence and territorial integrity following Ukrainian laws. We all should work together, to prevent the use of disinformation as a weapon in informational war against sovereign states.
“Informational warfare” is accepted for external use, and now for internal use of our allies, and if it works, one can expect it at home.
Excellent and balanced analysis.
Thank you, Kevin.
On some days? We’ve been living Brave New World for decades. If anything recently we seem to be fast-tracking the transition to 1984.