The difference between misinformation and disinformation is simple. The former is false information spread by those who don’t necessarily intend to deceive, while the latter is spread with the goal of deception.
When it comes to QAnon, some may think the distinction is clear. But in the early days of Q on blockchain-based social platform Steemit, users’ posts built a tangled web of Q’s possible origins and operators, conflating it with a difficult internet puzzle and muddying the waters between truth and fiction—for fun, for clout, and to deceive—all before Q’s “information” ever reached the masses.
While it’s easy enough to state the distinction between mis- and disinformation, separating the two in the real world is quite another story. It can be difficult to the point of impossible. If someone is spreading misinformation, can you trust them enough to believe that they’re not spreading disinformation, with sketchy ulterior motives? And if someone has sought to purposefully deceive once, regardless of the reason, can we ever again consider their dubious diatribes as anything earnest? Forget about the grains of truth floating in this soup of deception—picking them out among the contradictions becomes a Sisyphean task.
Such is the world of QAnon in its earliest days, where posts connecting Live Action Role Plays (LARPs) and the infamous conspiracy theory purveyor Q (of QAnon) exploded on Steemit. There, LARPers, alleged solvers and creators of online cryptographic puzzles and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), posted about cracking these games’ codes one week while writing about the “Deep State” the next. The back and forth between the games, some of which included vaguely political messages, and these IRL conspiracy theories helped blur the line between the LARPs these people engaged in and their views of reality. Where did the game end and the real world begin? And were these the people who really brought Q into the world?
Take Steemit user Defango, real name Manuel Chavez III, who posted throughout the summer of 2017 about crowdsourcing the solution to ARGs. In these games, players often boasted about the clues they got from anonymous sources (who they called Anons), and it was their job to solve them. These gave way to posts crediting one such game, Cicada 3301, for predicting Stephen Paddock’s mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas in October 2017. “This is a Crazy one people [sic],” he wrote. “There is a ton of stuff that shows us this was a group of people working together.” Defango had transitioned almost seamlessly from crowdsourcing people to solve alternate reality puzzles to essentially asking them to help him solve puzzles about real-life events.
This was the scene on Steemit right before the first post by “Q” appeared on 4chan on October 28, 2017—a post that got picked up and shared on the blockchain social platform just days later. Discussion about Q found an ideal home on Steemit, a platform where users were already as drawn to ideas about the deep state and mistrust in the establishment as they were to solving challenging online puzzles. It was, as one might say, the perfect storm for fueling what some have called a “death cult” and what others believe in their hearts is a heroic uprising against the political pedophilia and corruption we the people of the U.S. have been enduring and ignoring for decades—QAnon.
Let’s take a step back. To understand any of the above, we first must take a closer look at ARGs/LARPs, Q’s commonalities with those, and Steemit itself. The little-known platform, like many blockchain projects, never went mainstream, but it aimed to provide a trustworthy alternative to the centralized social platforms (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) which bend to the whims of their billionaire owners.
Co-founded in early 2016 by Dan Larimer, a computer scientist who created the cryptocurrency exchange BitShares, and Ned Scott, who worked in finance, Steemit gives its users financial rewards for their participation on the site. Unlike how Facebook and Twitter reap the benefits of their users’ activity (in the form of data turned ad dollars), Steemit’s users can reward each other with the platform’s cryptocurrency, Steem, for their posts. Those who earn the cryptocurrency can hold onto portions of it, instead of cashing out, to gain more influence over payouts and allow for more earning opportunities.
When the social platform paid out its users for the first time in July 2016, the total Steem amounted to more than $1.2 million USD, according to Wired. In a September 2016 interview with the YouTuber Tatiana Moroz, Larimer called Steemit a “subjective meritocracy.” Scott added: “Reputation and identity matter because there’s value on the line … people actually behave somewhat differently … and there’s an opportunity cost for trolling.” And people could trust that those on the platform were truly building their own reputations. Since Steemit is built on a blockchain, no one, not even its initial creators, could go back and alter its record. The blockchain, Larimer explained, is immutable and therefore meant to breed trust. (Both Larimer and Scott have since left Steemit, which sold to the Tron Foundation in 2020).
Alas, Steemit succumbed to the ills of any social platform. It catered, naturally, to the lowest common denominator, elevating the shocking shitposts, feuds, and conspiracy fodder that runs rampant on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Some of that content was, in fact, reposted YouTube videos, including those made by people like Defango trying to solve ARGs.
Steemit made sense as a home for ARG players. It offered lots of space for people to share their research—you could post a whole PowerPoint to Steemit—and essentially get crowdfunded for your work directly through the platform, Richard Miller, who said he worked on versions of the Cicada puzzle, told the Daily Dot.
“They’d use it to say, ‘This is the research I have, and if you want to pay me for my research, pay me for this Steemit post,’” Miller said.
That research was often passed around through Discord servers set up for specific ARGs. After Q appeared, some would post their Q research (in the form of YouTube videos, or a series of links to “evidence”) on Steemit in the same way, which would wind up on Discord servers dedicated to Q.
Steemit makes sense as a platform for conspiracies. University of Miami Political Science Professor Joseph Uscinski, who studies conspiracy theories and misinformation, told the Daily Dot, “No one slips on a banana peel and winds up on 8chan. They’re going there for a reason … because they already have beliefs that are outside the mainstream, so they’re seeking out stuff they already believe.”
The same could be said for those who posted to Steemit, an un-censorable platform that embraces non-state-issued currency, and where users could post freely without the fear of deplatforming.
Defango was one of the most active YouTube creators/Steemit users posting incessantly about QAnon in 2017 and 2018 (he did not respond to requests for comment). He began posting to the platform in August 2016, at first just discussing cryptocurrency. The following spring, his posts turned to ARGs like Cicada 3301.
First appearing online in 2012, the game sought “highly intelligent individuals” to solve its series of increasingly difficult puzzles, some of which stepped offline and into real life phone calls and coordinates—with the perceived end goal of joining a group of other highly intelligent individuals (which some speculated meant the NSA or CIA). In July 2017, Defango mused about “how to apply our Cicada 3301 investigation skills to another purpose.”
It’s unclear exactly what that other purpose was, particularly because the YouTube videos Defango embedded in these Steemit posts are no longer available (he’s been banned from the video platform). But following Q’s first 4chan post, Defango began posting on Steemit about Q’s connections to Cicada 3301, like how they shared some of the same predictions about “bad actors in the government” getting arrested. He posted to Steemit just a week after Q emerged on 4chan: “Looks like the internet is on fire with the new revelations from Q. I don’t think many people noticed that this is another part of the Cicada 3301 group’s plan for the future.”
This was one of the earliest times discourse about Q crossed over from 4chan to another platform. People in the Cicada 3301 community caught onto Q really quickly, said Miller, because they already had their eye out for possible ARG competitors. “Pretty much any ARG that pops up, we would know,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too surprising that a lot of us knew about Q right when it dropped.”
“I think that’s also a reason why a lot of people point the finger towards Cicada [creators as being behind Q],” he added.
Defango has since stated that the people who worked on Cicada 3301 also created Q, and he claimed some of the responsibility. The story, as chronicled by the likes of Jim Stewartson, an early creator of ARGs and controversial Q researcher who dug deep into this collective of Q-associated trolls, is headache-inducing. The number of players, their purposefully obscured (and at turns seemingly baldly exposed) connections, their varying online homes and handles, their alleged connections to Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and the former 8chan owners Jim and Ron Watkins, and additional trolling operatives is ideal fodder for a corkboard and a ball of red string.
It all comes back to Steemit. As Stewartson told the Daily Dot, “It’s a complicated story, but in the last part of 2017 and the early part of 2018, Steemit was a place where all of the trolling and … back-and-forth was going on to keep controlling QAnon.”
The “power struggle,” as Stewartson described it, played out in the comments and posts on Steemit and can be found when you search for any of these key names—like Defango, Frank Bacon, Tracy Beanz, Thomas Schoenberger, and Titus Frost. They called each other “shills” and liars, claimed to know or not know Q’s true identity, and, ultimately, trolled the heck out of each other and others on the platform.
While Stewartson’s explanation for this activity points to influence that goes all the way to the top (Flynn, Russia), Miller presented a perhaps more innocent explanation for the conversation surrounding Q on Steemit in late 2017 and 2018. Per his view, people amplifying Q on Steemit were largely doing it for the attention, and the cryptocurrency they could earn from popular posts.
Tying notable names like Cicada and Seth Rich, who was murdered in 2016 while working for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., to Q’s writings helped imbue them with meaning that otherwise wasn’t there and made the posts more enticing. Miller also said the popularity people accrued with their Q posts helped them build loyal followings, which they could mobilize to favor their side during infighting that had been happening in the ARG community and playing out on Steemit.
Regardless of the reasons behind these Q discussions on Steemit, one aspect of them is undeniable. Those participating created a hall of mirrors, pointing fingers at themselves and each other about who to trust and who to avoid, the information regularly shifting and becoming increasingly difficult to parse. The misinformation, disinformation, and truth blurred beyond distinction. Were these people just playing a game, and at what point did that game begin influencing reality?
This, per Stewartson, is a problem that arises out of an ARG gone bad, which many surmise QAnon is. When Stewartson started making these games, he and his team learned that if they didn’t put “guard rails” around the game experience, to show a clear separation between what was part of the game and what was not, people would “drive themselves crazy trying to figure it out.” The game creators implemented guard rails so that players knew when it was time to stop playing.
QAnon, Stewartson said, “did the exact opposite … it set up mysteries and puzzles in the real world, said ‘go solve them,’ but there weren’t any solutions.” Uscinski, of the University of Miami, called Q a “choose-your-own-adventure … it put out garbled clues and you can find whatever you want to find. There’s no one official version.”
People, the #QArmy and trolls that perpetuated it, got sucked into a “game” they couldn’t stop playing because it had also become their real life, even if the information in it was never intended to become the basis of a violent worldview. Even those seeking to “expose” Q, like Stewartson, got wrapped up in the murky purgatory between truth and fiction, as people have come to regard his work as just another conspiracy theory.
Stewartson sees Cicada as a possible “inspiration” for Q, and Steemit as the platform where a lot of this discussion, in-fighting, and deception played out because it was a “small, isolated social platform where money could be exchanged … it’s like a microtransaction platform for trolls.”
Whether these trolls amplified Q on Steemit to gain popularity, service their own infighting, or at the shadowy behest of government-level operatives, the result was the same: a niche platform successfully promoted a niche conspiracy theory to mainstream attention.
Just because something plays out in the shaded corners of the internet doesn’t mean it’s not consequential. While many of us live out our lives unaware of mysterious online puzzles and the mechanics of semi-organized trolling, there are plenty of “extremely online” people who’ve spent years learning how to tantalize and manipulate strangers on the web for all sorts of reasons.
On Steemit, it got out of hand. And the world is paying the consequences for their playing around.
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