The Propaganda Game

Among the questions triggered by America’s political chaos over the past few years, several have centered on the susceptibility of large numbers of people to conspiracy theories. Why do people go down the QAnon rabbit hole? Why do so many Republicans cling to the “Big Lie”  in the face of overwhelming debunking? What leads bigots to justify their assaults by belief in the “great replacement”?

There are probably multiple explanations for the acceptance of theories that displace rational observation so completely that they become world-views. Mental health issues explain some. Other folks are led into the swamp by deep-seated racism, and still others by long-simmering frustrations with their own lives.

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a fascinating “take” on the issue, written by a game designer. It will probably not come as a shock to those who read this blog to learn that I am not a person who plays video games–or who knows much about them–and the article was eye-opening.

For one thing, it introduced me to a word I’d not previously encountered: Apophenia.

Apophenia is the tendency to perceive a connection or a meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things. The author came across it early in his career when he designed what he thought would be a very easy game.

In that game,

the players had to explore a creepy basement looking for clues. The object they were looking for was barely hidden and the clue was easy. It was Scooby Doo easy. I definitely expected no trouble in this part of the game.

But there was a problem. As the players searched for the hidden object, they came across  random scraps of wood on the floor.

It was a problem because three of the pieces made the shape of a perfect arrow pointing right at a blank wall. It was uncanny. It had to be a clue. The investigators stopped and stared at the wall and were determined to figure out what the clue meant and they were not going one step further until they did. The whole game was derailed. Then, it got worse. Since there obviously was no clue there, the group decided the clue they were looking for was IN the wall. The collection of ordinary tools they found conveniently laying around seemed to reinforce their conclusion that this was the correct direction. The arrow was pointing to the clue and the tools were how they would get to it. How obvious could it be?

I stared in horror because it all fit so well. It was better and more obvious than the clue I had hidden. I could see it. It was all random chance but I could see the connections that had been made were all completely logical. I had a crude backup plan and I used it quickly before these well-meaning players started tearing apart the basement wall with crowbars looking for clues that did not exist.

These were normal people and their assumptions were normal and logical and completely wrong.

The author draws the obvious parallel: QAnon–and similar conspiracies– grow via what he calls the “wild misinterpretation of random data.” This is data presented in a suggestive fashion in circumstances that have been purposely designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding.

Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

I found the entire (long) essay fascinating, and if you have the time, I encourage you to click through and read it. One of his observations really hit on a significant–and under-appreciated– aspect of conspiracies that, like QAnon, involve large numbers of people. He explains that when you “figure it out yourself” you “experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you.”

Too many Americans today lack a community that accepts and respects them. The desire for community, for acceptance and a comforting solidarity, is an indelible part of the human psyche–it’s an aspect of human tribalism that is both individually supportive and socially divisive.

Comforting as these conspiracy communities can be, however, they are definitely not a game. They’re propaganda.

There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits.

Belonging comes from hating the same people…


  1. Prof writes “Belonging comes from hating the same people”.
    That has always seemed to be the core of the Republican party

  2. It must be the same with magic shows. You get drawn in because everyone else is going, and once there you tell yourself that it is not real. Yet it LOOKS real. The rabbit is real, and your mind tries to figure how it got up the magician’s sleeve. And that lady getting sawn in half… you are spellbound. “This can’t be real,” you tell yourself, but you are entranced and entertained and with others who are sharing the experience with you.
    “It’s all a lie, but Gee this is fun.”

  3. “Apophenia” is a new word for me, but I must confess that I suffer from it.

    In much of my life, I seem to be a diagnostician of things that once seemed to work and then, as if by unseen forces, suddenly stop behaving as expected. Our lives seem to be filled with such events.

    I employ artificial intelligence to get around my handicapping apophenia in writing and editing now in the form of Grammarly Premium (this is not an advertisement).

    Words flow from my 25-year-old brain out of my 81-year-old fingers into a refurbished computer laptop. My brain assumes that they make as much sense to other brains and are in our generally accepted abstract symbols for thoughts in letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs or to people closer by as choreographed systematic noises.

    Artificial intelligence nods sympathetically and proceeds to edit with fantastic, colorful flourishes to forge intelligent-appearing alternatives to what flows from my nearly full and wildly disorganized but relentlessly thoughtful cranium stuff.

    Magic happens, and sometimes, thought connections result.

    Trump knows what goes on in the minds of assorted other disgruntled groups and thinks of lies that take advantage of their condition.

    Would there be AI for politicians and advertisers that filter their words to what is in their minds but also limited to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    Then, 100% of us could return to doing more productive things like raising our young.

  4. Stevie Wonder says it best “When you believe In things that you don’t understand then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way”.

  5. Pete, I’m with you in your wish for an AI program or filter that sticks with “truth”, if such a thing could be devised.
    The problem is that discerning “truth” is a moral decision, and AI is about process, it’s not about morality.
    The two competing moralities in our current political world are coalescing in our two political parties: The Republicans are opting consciously for the tribal “me”-oriented moral framework, while Democrats seem to be going for the universal “us”-orientation…
    The first one is directed toward the human ego, the second one toward visionary idealism. It scares me that since the Garden of Eden experience, it’s usually the ego that wins. Especially when people feel threatened and not secure.
    As a visionary progressive, I’m feeling more and more in the minority in this messy world of ours. How about you?

  6. This brings to mind the comment that was often made back in the early Q days: “Do the research yourself,” as all of the “research” was laid out so that one was drawn deeper, and deeper, into the rabbit hole. Far too many people are primed to buy into the propaganda by way of their long term bigotries to begin with, as in “Aha! I knew it all along!”
    Apophenia is what led people to believe that they were seeing the face of Elvis Presley, on Mars, some years ago.
    “Belonging comes from hating the same people…” Sad, but true.

  7. There is no requirement that belonging be based on hate. It can be based on a multitude of things. All Americans are members of one country. All humans are members of one species. All living organisms are biologically related. Once we understand that everything in the universe is related to everything else in the universe, we can understand that we all belong to something infinitely larger and longer lasting than ourselves. It is a shift of focus from emphasizing differences to emphasizing relationships.

  8. The simplest answer is most likely correct. I might be stretching the principle of “Occur razor” a bit, but I think I’ve gotten to the point. Being human, we want things to be easy, but we don’t trust it when they are easy.

  9. This is nothing new, this is not some fantastical self-fulfilling prophecy that just appeared recently. This has been going on for millennia. The Germans are probably the most recent example of it. Us, as in the The Naziest we, are being replaced. So We/Us, come up with blood and soil! This came directly from the American, Manifest Destiny! So We/Us are going to take back that soil because our blood has been spilled on it. And who do we take it back from? Them! So, it’s Us against Them. We all know, Them/They, take everything that We/Us have. We/Us deserve everything. We/Us fought for what We/Us have.

    The unseen hand is against Us/We, because They/Them have infiltrated everything! But, we have those few of Us/We Patriots clandestinely watching the clandestine infiltrating by them/they And We/Us sound the alarm! It’s because of Us/We this country is great, Pacs Americana/American exceptionalism! They/Them just feel the need to leach off of US/We like a huge tick. Time to eliminate the vermin!

    See? It’s just history, and it repeats until there is no more history to repeat. It ain’t rocket science, nor is it brain surgery, or brain science, and rocket surgery, lol! This rabbit hole is like and endless wormhole that transcends time and space. It stops in every point of history, causing the same damage!

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