In the Atlantic on Monday, Kaitlyn Tiffany has an interesting article about the use of aesthetics to spread the Q-Anon conspiracy theory on Instagram. Tiffany typically associates radical, alien-inflected conspiracy theories with bad graphic design, masculine colors, and in-your-face visuals with large, loud typography. However, she was taken aback by the subtle inclusion of Q-Anon conspiracy references in more aesthetically pleasing and more feminine graphics associated with lifestyle influencers who more typically offer homemaking tips and fashion advice:
Instagram has long been a place where what you see might be smoke and mirrors—a home for the best and most beautiful version of everyday life, put on display for consumption and then expensive imitation. What is startling about QAnon’s new presence there is the way it slips in: easily, and with little visible pushback from the influencers’ communities or from the platform that hosts them. We’re used to conspiracy theories appearing on the internet’s strange and ugly spaces, laid out with blurry photos and eyesore annotations. But those visual cues are missing this time. There’s no warning—just a warm, glamorous facade, and then the rabbit hole.
Tiffany found, anecdotally, that the strategy was effective. Many in the lifestyle influencing community weren’t aware of the conspiracy theories they were actively liking, reposting, and spreading. Instead, they trusted the lifestyle influencers who posted this material and assumed that the references to child sex trafficking in pizza parlors was a serious news story. (I can’t imagine what they thought of the Reptilians and ancient astronaut/UFO parts.)
Most disturbingly, the rabid Q-Anon fanbase can propel any new Instagram account to popularity, providing a perverse incentive for aspiring influencers to include Q-content to drive their follower counts.
Tiffany found it chilling that aesthetics could be used for evil. “An aesthetic that appeals to me personally was being used to mask something that it’s my job to pluck out and pin to the wall: It made me shiver,” she wrote.
I find this subject particularly interesting because I enjoy aesthetics, graphic design, and the visual elements that support narrative. Through the many iterations of this website, for example, regular readers have seen the different ways I have used aesthetics and graphic design to present serious and often skeptical historical content in a package that plays with the masculine, sci-fi, and horror design elements used by cable TV to market their shows. One of the books I found fascinating many years ago was called Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, which looked at the many ways that the Nazis used art, architecture, and design to convey ideology across every aspect of society. The female Q-Anon influencers have followed some of the more subtle strategies the Nazi designers used, working to normalize an extremist ideology through integrating it into otherwise innocuous formats and associating it with wholesome aspects of everyday life until one cannot be separated from the other.
We live in an America where the FBI tweets out copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—something they actually did yesterday afternoon and (plausibly enough) blamed a bot for in an apology tweet four hours later—and the president endorses Q-Anon conspiracy theories that involve Reptilians and fantasies of him murdering his political enemies. He praised Q-Anon yesterday as a movement of true patriots who “love” America. Lifestyle bloggers sharing warm and fuzzy photos with Q-hashtags is probably not the biggest problem, but it is nevertheless an insidious bit of propaganda.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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