An Interview about conspiracy theories and the tactics of the communication guerilla with the authors of the Wu Ming collective
There are strange things going on in the within the social networks inhabited by right wing groups, like 4chan - even considering the low standards of the extreme right. A bizarre conspiracy theory is gaining traction, titled simply as "Q", exactly like one of your most popular Works. "Q" states on 4chan, among other things, that Donald Trump as a true American hero is engulfed in a titanic struggle against a global conspiracy, organized by a mighty pedophile organization. Did you as Wu Ming provoke this conspiracy-theory by using tactics of communication guerilla?
Wu Ming: Wu Ming and the Wu Ming Foundation don't pull media pranks. That was one of the activities of the Luther Blissett Project, which lasted from June 1994 to December 31st, 1999. After the end of that project, all participants moved beyond and founded new projects and collectives.
Wu Ming is the name adopted in January 2000 by the authors who, using the collective moniker Luther Blissett, had previously written the novel Q. After the end of the LBP and the global impact of Q, we decided to keep experimenting with the novel form and meta-historical fiction. In the following years we wrote 54, Manituana, Altai, The Army of Sleepwalkers and in these days we're finishing a new novel titled Proletkult. We also wrote heavily researched, fact-filled works which one might simplistically describe as creative non-fiction. We ourselves call them "Unidentified Narrative Objects", UNOs.
In Italy, a sort of "fan activism" has developed around our novels and UNOs, a vast community developed out of our blog Giap and our Twitter profile, with lots of experiments, transmedia storytelling, collaborative projects, open workshops and seminars, new blogs and collectives, even new mountaineering clubs. This process had already started in the 2000s, but it intensified and accelerated during the 2010s. This "collective of collectives" is what we call the Wu Ming Foundation.
We got involved in the international debate on the QAnon hoax because it bears many resemblances to both the LBP's work and our old novel. Many people got in touch with us in the past weeks. We had received dozens of emails and twitter DMs even before the Buzzfeed interview. Anyone who read our novel and then read the news about the QAnon phenomenon found it obvious that the latter took inspiration from the former, and wanted to know what's our take on the whole thing.
Not only the references to our novel are hard to overlook - starting from the most apparent: «Q» himself and his dispatches - but the similarities between QAnon and the kind of media pranks we used to play back in the Luther Blissett days are striking.
Can you explain us the tactics of communication guerilla, as invented by your group? Give us some Examples.
Wu Ming: We aren't sure we invented anything, but certainly we developed an effective synthesis of strategies and tactics, which we call "the playbook". What's going on is like a warped version of some of those tactics, and there are also most of the issues we used to tackle: paedophilia, satanism, the Church, fake deaths, and so on.
We pulled elaborate media pranks to demonstrate the dangerousness of the great paedophilia scare that took Italy and Europe by storm in the middle-to-late 1990s. Other pranks were parts of counter-investigations and solidarity campaigns to show that some people accused of Satanic ritual abuse were innocent. We also put on line vaticano.org, an almost identical version of the Vatican's official site, whose domain is instead vatican.va, with a few subtle changes designed to puzzle visitors. We faked the disappearance and death of imaginary famous persons, like the artists Harry Kipper and Darko Maver, who actually never existed. In doing all this, we adopted tactics and narrative techniques that were very close to those typical of live action role playing and alternate reality games.
This all was kept together by an eclectic theory of "mythopoesis", ie we wanted to create myths, communal narratives that would stimulate collective imagination and cooperation. The myth of myths was the collective moniker "Luther Blissett" itself, which we borrowed from a British soccer player: hundreds of people adopted and shared the name in order to foster, action after action, prank after prank, writing after writing, the open reputation of an imaginary media prankster.
Without the mythopoetical purpose, our main activity in the Blissett years could be dismissed as forging complex fake news. It was never about that per se. Our media pranks had precise aims: first, they were always played in order to raise awareness on some sensitive issues and how the media talked about them. Secondly, the pranks had an "educational" DIY aspect: we always did the reverse engineering ourselves, publicly revealing that they were pranks and explaining in detail what cultural automatisms bugs in the information system we had taken advantage of. The account of how we played the prank was more important than the prank itself.
Finally, each prank added to Luther Blissett's mythical reputation and made calling yourself Luther Blissett more interesting and affectively appealing. By adopting the multi-use name, you felt being part of a community, you shared a certain style, a certain imagery, even if you never met the other members.
Mariano Tomatis, a magician who is part of the Wu Ming Foundation, says that there may be ways of revealing the trick behind a magic act which, far from spoiling the show, make it even more magic. To us, that's what a good media hoax must be: a magic act that benefits from its own reverse engineering. Nowadays spreading fake news is easier than it ever was. What's more and more difficult is to keep this balance, this educational aspect, this sense of communal purpose, the belief that critical thought is not the enemy of the sense of wonder, and vice versa.
You can't really troll people who would exploit and "gamify" anything in order to hurt their enemies
Can you imagine left wing groups, influenced by your work, invented QAnon? What do you think about the tactic of seeding false, absurd conspiracy-theories within the extreme right? Is this legitimate, in order to embarrass them, or is this just to problematic - in times when even the most bizarre lies are willingly accepted.
Wu Ming: Let's try to summarize the whole thing: we suspect that those who started QAnon meant it as a prankish experiment on the US right-wing, a political hoax that - at least at the beginning - took inspiration directly from our work. Very soon, for several reasons - reasons that were far from being unpredictable - the hoax acquired a life of its own: it became a kind of nazi LARP in which the most influential players triggered the most gullible section of Trump's fandom, then everyone pushed to make the narrative more and more wild, absurd, edgy, astonishing.
Those who advance the QAnon narrative are taking two birds with one stone: they spread racist and fascist messages in a novel way, while seriously baffling and shocking the establishment and the mainstream media, which alt-righters usually shorten as "MSM". The pundits are flabbergasted, they can't believe that so many people have come to believe such incredibly bullshit.
It's still also a prank on some levels, of course, but who's playing it? Who's taking the piss out of whom? Whatever critical and radical edge QAnon may have had at the beginning now seems to be buried in crazy white (suprematist) noise. You can't really troll people who would exploit and "gamify" anything in order to hurt their enemies. You should never give rope to people who want to hang you no matter what. In US, in the past weeks there were several threats of gun violence in the name of QAnon, and the arsonist who's charged of setting California's so-called "Holy Fire" is a rabid consumer of QAnon bullshit. The situation is very risky.
That's why we jumped in, explained the similarities between QAnon and our 1990s work, and suggested it started as a prank. It's also a way of - at least partially - deflating, weakining the whole thing. And in fact we managed to spread some confusion in the alt-right, and several right-wing online forums are disavowing QAnon because they say it's making them look like "a bunch of idiots".
One thing is certain: if a novel can generate such a tsunami, it means that literature is still relevant.
Believing in a conspiracy makes you feel like you're against the power
Undoubtedly, there are conspiracies taken place all over the world. The history-books are full of them, like the beginning of WW2 (Sender Gleiwitz), or the Gulf of Tonkin (Vietnam War) incident. What makes the widespread belief in conspiracy-theories so dangerous? When is the line crossed between reasonable doubt and ideology?
Wu Ming: In certain ways, conspiracy theorists are in the same league as psychics, magicians, astrologists and gurus of pseudo-medicine: all these people work in the field of wonder, the field of surprising, alternative views, the field of fascination and what you Germans call Das Unheimliche. In doing this, they exploit human needs, because in our life we do need surprise, wonder, new angles from which looking at things and thinking we're different. Conspiracy theorists provide all that, and channel the people's anxiety on their lives into the belief in an all-explaining narrative.
The skeptics and debunkers who pop the balloons of pseudomedicine, paranormal activities and conspiracy theories invariably play the role of the killjoy, in Italian we call him "il guastafeste", the guy who spoils the party, and we're sure there's a beautiful word for that also in German. If you pop a conspiracy balloon in the name of the establishment, relying on any sort of authority, be it political or journalistic or academic, you end up strengthening the desire for "alternative" views. "Fuck the killjoys" is the collective, cultural reaction when the MSM debunk conspiracy theories.
And in fact, there's a lot of debunking around, even excellent debunking, but conspiracy theories thrive all over the world. That's because believing in a conspiracy makes you feel like you're against the power, against official truths. We all agree that those balloons must be taken down, but popping them doesn't solve the fundamental problem, because it doesn't tackle those basic needs we were talking about, and what's more, it doesn't tackle the kernel of truth.
Every conspiracy theory is based on a kernel of truth. Stating that the US government staged 9/11 and blew up the Twin Towers is moronic to say the least, but it has long been proved that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which you mentioned in your question, was a fake enemy attack which the US staged in order to start the Vietnam War. It has also been proved that in 2003 general Colin Powell presented the UN Security Council with fabricated evidence on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and so on. The US government lied very often about its enemies' actions, and sometimes the US literally attacked themselves in order to create a case for war. If you debunk those absurd theories on 9/11 without exposing their kernel of truth, you only strengthen the belief in that conspiracy theory.
In several countries sceptic organisations asked advice from important illusionists, like James Randi in the North-America and Silvan in Italy, in order to debunk the tricks used by psychics. Psychics are illusionists, only they don't describe themselves as such. Illusionists, their actual colleagues, can spoil their shows quite easily. It's a tradition that dates back to Harry Houdini, who was the arch-enemy of psychics.
Now, it's incredibile that sceptic organizations and professional debunkers learned so little from the illusionists they've been working with for such a long time! They used illusionists only for "destructive" purposes, for unmasking swindlers. Instead, they should have asked them how to be constructive: how can we retain, in our debunking, the same sense of wonder and difference that psychics and conspiracy theorists exploit every day? How can we pierce the balloon without popping it like a boring killjoy would do?
We've been reflecting upon this for years, we co-operate with Mariano and other illusionists, we run many experiments with narratives. Even the way we intervened in the debate on QAnon - debunking a hoax while reviving the spirit of our 1990s pranks - was a consequence of that research.
Don’t you feel as if the extreme right is now somehow copying your tactics of guerilla communications by spreading more or less elaborate fake news? It is a shallow imitation, for sure, devoid of the progressive core, there is no intention to enlighten, just to mislead the public.
Nothing new, that's what the far right always did: Fascists always copied from the Left the words, the tactics, the slogans, the imagery, the colours of flags, and then degraded all of them, made them banal and horrendous. The term itself "fascism" derives from the Italian word "fascio", which in the last decades of 19th century had come to mean more or less "collective": a "fascio" was a collective of workers on struggle. Before founding Fascism, Mussolini was an important leader of the Socialist Party, that's where he took the word "fascio" from, and indeed Fascism kept using also the word "Socialism", like the NSDAP did in Germany: "National-Socialist".
Italian Fascists also stole the black flag from anarchists. Now neofascist groups like CasaPound show off their versions of squats occupied social centres, of course almost all of them are fake, it's always lame stuff, but they use it for their propaganda. There's really no invention on the Right, only parasitism, recuperation of what the Left, the social movements, and the workers on struggle invent.
QAnon is a prank on the right, those who started it may have lost control of it
What are the latest developments concerning the Qanon conspiracy?
Wu Ming: Yesterday, August 21st, was a dark day both for Donald Trump and the people who believe QAnon's "revelations". Two of Trump's major collaborators - his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen and the ex-chair of the 2016 campaign Paul Manafort - were found guilty of several crimes related to the President's election and administration. This is probably only the beginning. There was a storm approaching, but Trump's supporters didn't see this coming, they were totally unprepared. Why?
Because of QAnon. Since October 2017, Q's mysterious dispatches pushed a lot of right-wing people to believe that all the ongoing investigations on Trump and his associates - of which the most prominent is the so-called "Mueller investigation" - weren't really against Trump, but were instead ingenious cover-ups masterminded by Trump himself. By pretending to be under investigation, Trump could freely operate to disrupt a hidden pedophile sex ring whose leaders were the Clintons ... and Tom Hanks. Trump was described as a genius, one of the best strategists ever. Absurd as it may seem, this is what the QAnon believers have been thinking.
Normally, Trump's fan base would have protested and demonstrated against the perfect judiciary storm that was going to hit their leader. Instead, they spent their whole days talking about crazy conspiracies. They had been led to think that those inquiries and investigations weren't real. The latest developments caught them off-guard, and their trust in QAnon's narrative is heavily damaged.
In our novel Q, the purpose of Q's letters is to provide false information and delude Thomas Muentzer and the insurgent peasants into thinking that victory is inevitable, written in their destiny. That's why they arrive in Frankenhausen totally unprepared for the big battle, and they are practically exterminated.
Surely, so far QAnon has done more damage than good to the American right. It distracted them in a crucial moment, it weakened opposition to the Mueller investigation (because Q said that Mueller was secretly "one of us"!), and it discredited a good portion of Trump's fandom, forcing other sectors of the right to take their distances in order non to appear, by contagion, as complete morons.
We still think that it's been a dangerous game, but these consequences reinforce our idea that QAnon is a prank on the right. Those who started it may have lost control of it, and at times it became a nightmare, but in some ways the prank kept a part of its initial kernel of meaning and purpose. If the purpose was to make fascists lose plenty of precious time and make them look like fools, well, it worked.
By the way, I know the next rightwing-conspiracy: "Qanon was a deliberate and elaborate setup, a leftwing/liberal/jewish conspiracy! funded by Soros and the deep state"
Wu Ming: Yes, you're right, that's how they'll try to reframe it.
German version: "Verschwörungstheoretiker spielen in derselben Liga wie Hellseher, Astrologen und Gurus" (Tomasz Konicz)