Skip to main content

Without Their 'Messiah,' QAnon Believers Confront A Post-Trump World

Now that former President Donald Trump has left office, the community of believers in the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory are left wondering what will happen next. Washington Post national technology reporter Craig Timberg has written about QAnon and related subjects in recent months.

43:36

Other segments from the episode on January 28, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 28, 2021: Interview with Craig Timberg; Review of 'My Year Abroad.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. As Donald Trump's presidency neared its end, there was growing evidence among his followers of the influence of QAnon, a set of conspiracy theories holding that Trump was battling a cabal of deep state actors and their celebrity allies who were undermining Trump and engaging in satanic worship and pedophilia. QAnon supporters were well-represented in the deadly assault on the Capitol on January 6.

But Trump's departure from the White House and Joe Biden's inauguration as president may have left many QAnon followers angry and confused, since they expected Trump to vanquish his adversaries and remain in power. After the mob stormed the Capitol, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube banned Trump, and many of those social media platforms have targeted QAnon as well. Twitter and Facebook have removed a combined total of more than a hundred thousand QAnon-linked accounts.

For some insight into what these events mean for QAnon and other extremist groups in the country, we've invited Craig Timberg to join us. He's a national technology reporter for The Washington Post, specializing in privacy, security and disinformation. He's written on QAnon and related subjects in recent months. Since joining the Post in 1998, he's been a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent and co-authored the book "Tinderbox: How The West Sparked The AIDS Epidemic And How The World Can Finally Overcome It." He joins us from his home in Washington, D.C.

Well, Craig Timberg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I think maybe we should start with just a little primer on what QAnon is. People may have heard the names. Some may be fuzzy on what exactly it is. Just give us the basics.

CRAIG TIMBERG: Well, thanks, first of all, for having me on the show. This question you ask is harder than it sounds because we researchers and journalists debate exactly what QAnon is. In fact, our copy editors are questioning whether we should call it a conspiracy theory or an extremist ideology. Some researchers think it's a cult. Some think it's an alternative reality game. So it's a little hard to wrap your brain around. You called it a kind of collection of conspiracy theories, which kind of works for me.

But the gist is that there is a person who goes by the pseudonym Q who is supposedly a top secret official in the U.S. government, who is sort of gradually dribbling out the truth about what's really happening in the world. And as you said, a lot of this truth has to do with the idea that prominent Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are pedophiles, that they traffic in children for sex - and they also eat those children on at least some occasions - and that they are working together to undermine the U.S. government and take control of essentially the whole world.

And so these ideas have been dribbled out on a forum called 8kun. And people who believe in this then take those sort of cryptic messages, share it among themselves, analyze it, and then, you know, have sort of become a community of sort of, you know, fellow travelers in this stuff that seems so crazy to many of us but actually is a really animating force in a lot of people's lives and has been for years.

DAVIES: Right. And they regard Trump as their champion, battling this deep state cabal. And we'll get into this a bit later. But what's the specific reason that they might have been so disappointed to see Trump actually leave office?

TIMBERG: Well, you put it well - right? - I mean, that Trump is their leader. And I think if you were to kind of make a series of circles of like, you know, Republicans and then the subset of Republicans who are Trump enthusiasts and then the subset of Republicans who are really, really diehard Trump enthusiasts, like, QAnon is in the in the dead center of those circles. Like, some of the most fervent Trump supporters in the world believe in QAnon. And so - and they regard him not merely as their president and leader, but also as essentially a messiah.

And so, you know, I was seeing messages the night of January 19, when President-elect Joe Biden was presiding over a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, in which QAnon supporters were saying, hang on, right? Trump is still going to - he's going to stay in office. He's going to take control. All of our prophecies are going to come true. So when the when that didn't happen the next day on the inauguration, when Joe Biden actually became president, there was just huge amounts of consternation and cognitive dissonance or whatever you want to call it because they just - they had trouble making sense of it. And so there's all these new theories that are now spinning out of it. But it was a clash of reality with prophecy that was very discomforting to people.

DAVIES: And the prophecy was that there would be mass arrests of these Democrats and pedophiles, right?

TIMBERG: Yeah. I mean, that was part of it, that Trump was going to stay in office, that he had really won the election, that the various baseless claims of election fraud were going to be true and proven true and acted upon as though they were true, and that a bunch of Democrats were going to be rounded up and arrested and, depending on which version of this you believed, you know, shot or hung.

DAVIES: All right. Let's back up a little bit and go back, you know, before the events of this January. You know, over the past year, couple of years, there was growing evidence of support among QAnon. It's always been hard to tell how many supporters it had. It's not like a membership organization. But it came to be recognized as a serious threat by law enforcement, right?

TIMBERG: Indeed. Going back several years now, you know, QAnon is essentially born in October 2017 on a, you know, on a message board called 4chan. And then, you know, the conversation online, including on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, is almost immediately terribly violent. And they're calling for firing squads and nooses and all that for people who were supposedly, you know, pedophiles, et cetera. And within, you know, a couple of years, there had been some incidents that flowed out of that online talk of violence.

There was a - there's an incident at the Hoover Dam where an armed man in a truck kind of, you know, blocked off traffic for a while and got arrested. There were - there was an actual murder in New York City of a mob boss by someone who was inspired by QAnon. And so, you know, the FBI, you know, issued a warning about QAnon is a domestic terrorism threat a couple of years ago. The, you know, researchers at West Point issued a similar warning. And countless independent researchers, you know, started sending up, you know, bright red flashing warnings years ago that this was not merely something that was roiling the online world, but it was something that had the potential to spill into our world, our real world, and cause actual violence and harm to people.

DAVIES: And at the same time, it was sort of gaining credibility among more mainstream Republicans, right? I mean, you had a number of Republican candidates who spoke, you know, flatteringly of QAnon. A couple have made it into Congress. That's a part of this picture, too, isn't it?

TIMBERG: Yeah, absolutely. It's very hard for me as a newspaper reporter to know what percentage of the people who kind of mouth these various conspiracy theories, believe them, or find the merely convenient, right? There's always been an element of profiteering about QAnon. There's T-shirts to sell and books to sell and websites to stand up with, you know, advertising. And there's also political opportunity.

And lots of politicians, you know, overwhelmingly but not exclusively Republicans, have, at a minimum, found it useful to kind of hint that they are aligned with this ideology. And indeed, you know, a couple of them are now in Congress. And the kind of footprint of QAnon among, you know, Republicans in the United States is, you know, probably larger than many of your listeners imagine. Again, there's no precise way to measure it. But at a minimum, there's a lot of kind of affinity for the ideas that QAnon traffics in among Republicans in this country.

DAVIES: Right. Now, there have been - social media platforms have have imposed restrictions on Qanon and many others after the events of January. But it's easy to forget that this didn't just start then. In 2019, there were some - also sort of a crackdown on Qanon. What happened?

TIMBERG: There's been a variety of crackdowns. You know, the platform Reddit a couple of years ago - you know, Reddit was the site where a previous conspiracy theory called Pizzagate, which also imagined that Democrats in Washington were trafficking in children and running a sex ring. You know, Reddit was sort of, like, you know, ground zero for Pizzagate. And so when Qanon flared up, Reddit acted pretty aggressively almost immediately in 2018 to purge that stuff from the platform. The other platforms - Twitter, Facebook, YouTube - were much, much slower. And I and others have done stories that have looked back at how violent and unhinged the conversation around Qanon was, you know, going back several years now and pointing out (laughter) that the platforms just basically didn't do much of anything for a long time.

Now, they did quite a bit more in 2020. And they did, actually, to be fair, quite a bit more before this thing blossomed into the kind of consuming catastrophe it became around the election time. And so - and interestingly, this has to do with the coronavirus because, you know, as the pandemic arrived around the world and COVID disinformation became so prominent - you know, untrue things about how it spread, about masks, about vaccines - the people around those companies said, well, hang on a minute. Like, it's OK if people want to lie about politics. But it's not OK if they lie about science.

And so what we saw, beginning, really, late winter last year, was a broad movement in Silicon Valley to kind of enforce the truth, which is something they'd never wanted to do before. And so that - once they kind of got the taste of it and saw the impact of enforcing truth and casting disinformation off their platforms, they became progressively more, you know, intent on doing that. And that meant that a lot of things that had never happened in previous years suddenly began happening.

And so part of that was Facebook, Twitter, YouTube all crackdown on Qanon over the summer. They closed a bunch of accounts. They limited the reach of the accounts that were still there. And they kind of put everybody on notice that that wasn't really going to play on the platforms before. And what we've seen since then is a continuation of that. And the events of recent weeks, the platforms have finally really, really taken a hammer to these ideas and to the people pushing them on mainstream platforms. And it's really led to a fracturing of the whole community.

DAVIES: And it was probably harder for these social media platforms to act decisively given the criticism that they're unfairly targeting conservatives all the time, right?

TIMBERG: Yes. To some extent, that's certainly true. I think it's fair to ask how much harder it would have been. It certainly is the case that Facebook, in particular, and to some extent the others, were just terrified of angering President Trump and his followers. And there were two reasons for that. One is President Trump was the most powerful person in the world, you know, oversaw the Justice Department, had leverage in Congress. And if he wanted to go after the social media companies, as he ultimately did, that was a big problem for them. So yeah, that was an issue.

Secondly, you know, Facebook in particular didn't want to be known as the platform for, you know, liberal America or modern America. They wanted to - you know, these are customers. They wanted to have all of America. They wanted to have all of the world. And so if this idea that Facebook or Twitter or YouTube was, you know, really just a platform for the left, that meant - that had real business stakes for all of these companies that they were deeply aware of. Now, all that said, I think the events of the past few weeks have really reinforced how, actually, easy it was for the platforms to make these decisions once they were ready to make these decisions.

And it hasn't been lost on anybody that all of these companies acted on the very day that Biden's ascent to the White House became clear and that the Democrats' control of the Senate also became clear, right? So on the same day that - on January 6 - that the mobs overtake the Capitol, we'd learn that these two runoffs in Georgia have yielded two new Democrats, which meant a new party was going to be in charge in Washington. And so yes, it was politically hard for the platforms to act against a dominant Republican Party in the past few years. But it also clearly was logistically super easy and simple to just turn off some of this stuff. And there's real questions about whether they should have done that sooner.

DAVIES: Right. And the fact that all the committee chairs in Congress going forward would all be Democrats probably just eased their minds a bit.

TIMBERG: Indeed.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a little break here. We're speaking with Craig Timberg. He's a national technology reporter for The Washington Post. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "NIGHTMARE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg. We're talking about how President Trump's departure and social media restrictions on him and some of his more extremist supporters, including followers of the Qanon conspiracy theories, will affect events in the coming months.

You wrote that before the Capitol rally on January 6, which, of course, you know, the president summoned and attracted people to and said it's going to be wild - all that stuff - that you followed the website, thedonald.win, and that you saw it was host to a really troubling interaction between online rage and real-life activity. You want to just describe some of that?

TIMBERG: Yeah. Certainly. The - it wasn't just thedonald.win, it was Parler. It was Gab. It was a whole coterie of kind of new-ish, largely conservative social media platforms that were just boiling over with rage. And it wasn't the first time I had seen this. And - but it also took on a certain kind of urgency because January 6 was seen as the day - sort of their last stand, right? This was a day Congress was going to meet. They were going to certify the results of the election. And if that election was going to be overturned, it had to happen then. And so you could see both an intensity of rage, calling for the killing or arrests of Democrats. You could see calls to, you know, attack the Capitol. And you also could see logistical conversations happening about what they were going to do. It wasn't super tactical. But it was, you know, how can we bring guns to D.C.? How are we not going to get arrested? How do we move in packs and evade the inevitable law enforcement, all we're going to run into? So it was very specific. And it was really, really troubling.

DAVIES: Right. And there was a feedback loop - right? - where people would then post videos of themselves doing - what? - you know, I don't know - stacking ammo and putting on goggles and tactical gear?

TIMBERG: Indeed. So there was that - there was imagery of sort of preparing for violence and unrest. And then that, of course, carried on on January 6 itself, where on these very same online forums people were talking about what they were doing, talking about what they were seeing. They were taking videos and pictures and narrating the action in a way that, you know, (laughter) everyone who wasn't, you know, part of the Qanon group or wasn't kind of - you know, didn't want to see a bunch of people storm their Capitol found really disturbing and abhorrent. And that, in a way, was - ended up - you know, the social media aspect allowed them to organize in a way that wouldn't have been possible. But it also caused them to be exposed to the world in a way that wouldn't otherwise have been possible and may have led to their, you know - maybe not their demise, but certainly their fracturing now.

DAVIES: You know, when the social media restrictions were imposed on a lot of these groups, many of them found refuge in this site, Parler - P-A-R-L-E-R - which was a site which allowed much more free-flowing debate. And, you know, these groups could flourish. It has gotten the attention of congressional investigators who've expressed concern about ties to Russia. What's going on here?

TIMBERG: Parler was founded in 2018 as an alternative to Twitter that had virtually no content moderation. So if you - if it was within the law to say it, you could say it on Parler. And it gained a lot of traction as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube began to crack down on things like hate speech and incitement of violence and et cetera. So it had a really kind of robust place in the market that was growing more and more for months. The reason why, you know, some congressional leaders want to investigate it is because so much of the sort of inciting to violence around the Capitol siege happened there.

And there's also, you know, some sort of Russian connections that are, you know, worthy of learning more about. The CEO's wife is Russian. And I don't know if that's a problem or not. But members of Congress want to know if that's a problem. And Parler also has - is using, you know, a web services company that's based in Russia. And that has raised concerns because, you know, companies based in Russia are subject to Russian laws. And hence, data can be sucked up. And presumably, the spies can look in on that stuff, too. So those are the sources of concern more than the ownership exactly. But, yeah, the Congress - it's on the radar of Democrats in Congress.

DAVIES: Has Q himself, this anonymous figure or, supposedly, a high-ranking government official, has he posted anything since the election?

TIMBERG: Yes, but very little. I mean, the - you know, Q, who we presume is a man, but we don't actually know, has posted - I don't know - three or four times since the election. But it's gone largely dark. And it's not the first time that this has happened. But it sure has caught everyone's notice that at a moment when kind of Qanon ideas are traveling more widely than ever and that we're approaching this moment of reckoning that the supposed leader of the movement has been quiet. So yeah, it's been a very striking turn of events.

DAVIES: Right. And the predictions - you know this stuff better than I do - but, I mean, was that there would be this apocalyptic confrontation which would result in the mass arrests of these Democrats and celebrities and pedophiles. The great awakening, the storm, that was the prediction, right (laughter)?

TIMBERG: It was the prediction from the very beginning, actually. I mean, going back to October, 2017, when Qanon existed on a previous place called 4chan, the first - the very first posts talk about arrests. They talk about arresting Hillary Clinton in particular. And somehow, the fact that these predictions never came true was, you know, internalized and metabolized by Qanon believers all along.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Craig Timberg. He's a national technology reporter for The Washington Post. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "TUNJI")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Craig Timberg. He's a national technology reporter for The Washington Post specializing in privacy, security and disinformation. He's written recently about the followers of the QAnon conspiracy theories and other extremist groups that were involved in the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. We're talking about how President Trump's departure and social media restrictions on him and many of these groups will affect them and the nation in the coming months.

So let's talk about how Trump's departure and the Capitol assault affected all of this. After this happens and, you know, Trump goes to Florida, and Joe Biden is inaugurated, and Trump, you know, kind of condemns the violence, how have QAnon members reacted?

TIMBERG: Different people have reacted in different ways. And I'd say there is absolutely a group that says, hold on a minute, like, what happened to the storm? Like, how is Joe Biden now president? And there is clearly consternation - in some cases, outrage - among people who feel like they were misled.

DAVIES: Can we just focus on them for a moment, Craig? I mean, are they saying, hey, we've been duped - do they say this was all - we've been played? What do we hear?

TIMBERG: We have heard exactly those kinds of comments, people feeling duped, people feeling played, people being angry. Yes.

DAVIES: And have some of them left or taken down their sites or...

TIMBERG: Yeah. It's hard to know exactly what the impact has been because, you know, Twitter, et cetera, have been so aggressive at knocking these forums. down. I mean, in preparation for this conversation, I sort of poked around some of my familiar places. It's actually relatively hard to get a feel for what's going on in the QAnon community now because the community has been smashed into a hundred different bits. And you can find it, but it used to be you typed QAnon into Twitter and you knew immediately what was on people's minds. It's just not true anymore.

DAVIES: Clearly, some disappointment, some disillusionment. What about others who are still believers? How do they interpret these events?

TIMBERG: So I would say they fall into two broad categories. There are those who believe that the great storm is still coming in some way, shape or form, even though President Biden is now in office. And I guess actually there's two iterations of this. One is that President Trump is secretly in charge and controlling events from Mara-a-Lago, I guess. The other is that there's a new date, March 4, which is - was the original inauguration date in this country, was done away with, I believe, in the '30s, and that when March 4 arrives, Donald Trump will swoop back in and say, oh, I've been president all along. I'm taking a second term. And then the mass arrests and the coming storm will happen then. So we'll have to see what happens to that group when that day comes and goes.

But then there's like an even more angry kind of dead-ender group that is feeling as though the central tenets of QAnon about pedophilia and Satan worshipping, et cetera, have been true all along, that Donald Trump was not maybe the messiah they thought he was, and that they're sort of like preparing for a longer struggle. Of all the groups, that one kind of scares me because they're really doubling down on the most terrifying parts of these prophecies.

DAVIES: So let's talk about what's happened on social media platforms in response to particularly the violence at the Capitol. What have these large platforms done?

TIMBERG: All of the big platforms - really, all at once - acted against Donald Trump. They began seeing what we all had seen for a long time, which was that the president was a huge source of misinformation that was reverberating through our world and shaping it in all sorts of ways. And so he got, you know, de-platformed by Twitter and Facebook and such. And other online forums that were pro-Trump and also pro-QAnon also have really had a rough few weeks.

So one we've written a lot about is Parler, which was founded as kind of a - what they would call a free speech alternative to Twitter. There was supposed to be essentially no rules as long as what you did was legal. You know, Parler was knocked offline. It was kicked out of the App Store by Apple and Google. Its web hosting services from Amazon were withdrawn. And they're working pretty hard to get back online, but they're really not online now.

And another forum that was very prominent in all of this called thedonald.win has also disappeared. And now there's two new versions of that and it's not clear which one of those is going to emerge. So in the social media world, the mainstream platforms have cracked down on this stuff. They've closed tens of thousands of accounts finally. And in addition to that, the smaller platforms have really struggled to stay online and stay coherent. It's been a tough - it's a tough time to be a QAnon believer, believe it or not.

DAVIES: Right, certainly hard for people like you to find them and presumably harder for them to find each other.

TIMBERG: Yeah. I mean, I think the the conventional wisdom is, A, the Internet's such a big place that there will always be places for them to gather and talk to each other. What they lose is the ability to like, you know, talk to my uncle, might stumble upon this stuff on Facebook. Like, that has really been removed. But, B, the other place people have gone are these encrypted chat apps, Signal and Telegram, et cetera. And I love these apps. Like, I use Signal every day, all day long. And I think it's great. But the downside of it is that there's really no way to monitor what's going on on a platform where the communications are encrypted end to end, meaning from my phone to your phone.

And so I think there's a lot of evidence that folks have moved off of places where they can be easily monitored, not just by researchers and journalists like me, but also by the FBI. They have moved off of these places into these darker, quieter places where they can speak in an unfettered way. And there's no real - there's very little possibility anyway to be overheard by someone they don't want to overheard by.

DAVIES: Maybe you should catch some of us who are less technologically savvy up a bit on this. You said you used - what was it? - Signal?

TIMBERG: I use Signal.

TIMBERG: And, yeah, what is it? What do you use it for?

DAVIES: Signal is a communications app that goes, you know, essentially from phone to phone or computer to computer. And so when I send a message or have a phone call on Signal, my software in my phone turns it into encryption, which is basically, you know, if it was intercepted on the way, it looks just like a jumble of code. It's just sort of gibberish, essentially. And then it lands in, say, my friend's phone and it gets unencrypted and becomes my voice or an image or a text message.

And so for someone like me who, you know, does a lot of communicating and doesn't necessarily want everyone to know what I'm saying about whatever or who I'm talking to, it's a complete godsend. I mean, reporters in Washington use Signal and similar things all the time. And that's true of human rights workers. It's true of political dissidents. The ability to communicate without your government easily just tapping in is great. But as with all of these technologies, it's also something where criminals use it and, you know - and terrorists use it. And so it's a double-edged sword, ultimately. I love it, but the police don't love it - I can tell you that.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Craig Timberg. He's a national technology reporter for The Washington Post. We'll continue our conversation after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg. We're talking about how President Trump's departure and social media restrictions on him and some of his more extremist supporters, including followers of the QAnon conspiracy theories, will affect events in the coming months and years.

You know, apart from the crackdown on QAnon and other extremist groups on social media, probably the most far-reaching move was to take Donald Trump off of Twitter and Facebook. And you're right about this. I mean, this has impacts far beyond, you know, spreading conspiracy theories, doesn't it? This is kind of a major social change, isn't it?

TIMBERG: Absolutely. And it's one that, you know, for me, it does make me uncomfortable. Like, I mean, I think that it's certainly true that Donald Trump had become a major source of misinformation in the world, right? The Washington Post, my colleagues who do the fact-checking, counted 30,000 falsehoods during Donald Trump's presidency. And let's remember - he rose to political prominence pushing another lie, which was that Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States - right? - the birther conspiracy theory. So absolutely, he had become - in the public conversation, he had become very powerful and also was pushing a lot of untruths.

At the same time, it's problematic when any group of people decides who of us gets to speak and how. And now I don't - I wouldn't love it if the government took away my ability to communicate. I don't love it that social media companies are now put in this position. I'm not sure that it's the wrong choice. It may well be the right choice. But it does raise all sorts of really uncomfortable issues about who gets to talk, what they get to say and where these red lines are.

And for my money - I've been covering the intersection of these issues for eight or nine years now - I've never found a really comfortable place in terms of, like, where - not only what the rules should be, but who should make the rules, right? And that debate - the removal of Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook really brings that debate back to center stage. Who gets to decide who gets to talk and how? And while there's certainly not a First Amendment right to have a Twitter account or anything like it, to deny the power that these companies are now wielding is - seems to me to be shortsighted.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, ideally, we would want, you know, learned judges making good-faith decisions based on a careful reading of the Constitution. Here we have these big private companies that, because of the way the Communications Act is structured, has this enormous power. And it's interesting. You know, Facebook has committed to a formal process on deciding what happens to Donald Trump's access in the future. I mean, can you describe this? Are you familiar with this?

TIMBERG: I don't know all of the ins and outs of this process. But I can tell you that, as someone who's written critically about all of these companies for many years, this is one point in which I actually have more than the usual sympathy (laughter) because, you know, we just don't have laws in this country that give these private companies guidelines to follow, right?

So people talk a lot about the First Amendment and the freedom to speech, but the First Amendment governs what governments do. That does not say anything about what private companies can do. And as you said, the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act likewise gives companies a lot of latitude to monitor and kind of manage their platforms. But it doesn't say how. It doesn't say where the lines are.

And so we're asking a bunch of private companies that are fundamentally about expanding their markets and making money to draw lines that we've been unwilling as a society to draw more broadly. And that strikes me as, like, not a great setup. And I applaud Facebook for trying to - you know, to set up a more formalized structure to wrestle with it. But it all comes down to who's really, really in charge, right? And you know who's really, really in charge? Mark Zuckerberg's in charge, right? (Laughter) He's the CEO of Facebook. He controls the voting shares of the stock. You know, Jack Dorsey at Twitter, he's in charge, right?

And the only good part of this is that they are responsive to public opinion and market forces and when, after a lot of the unrest last year, a bunch of advertisers boycotted and were able to make some changes. So I guess one could argue that on some level the system's working. But deciding who should be making these calls is hard. And I think if as a society we got together, we probably wouldn't put all of this power in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg, would we?

DAVIES: The interesting thing to note about this is that what, you know, Zuckerberg has done, apparently, is to assemble this large committee and given them quite a staff, about 30 people, and has promised to abide by their decision and given them, you know, a deadline. So it will be fascinating to see where it takes us.

TIMBERG: Totally. But he promises to abide by it until he changes his mind, right?

DAVIES: Still abide (laughter).

TIMBERG: Just a - yeah. I mean, there's no - there's just no legal authority to it. And so what I'm saying is - we're a democracy, right? I mean, this is the job of Congress (laughter) to - or the executive branch to try to wrestle with this and lay out some kind of legal guidance or some jurisprudence or whatever. And, you know, our elected representatives ought to be making - trying to make these decisions, you know, and reflecting the will of the people, not - you know, not a handful of billionaires in California.

DAVIES: How effective are bans like this? Do we know? Do we know how much disinformation changed in the United States, for example, once Trump's accounts were suspended?

TIMBERG: I mean, happily we do know the answer to that question now because by a variety of metrics, you know, misinformation around the election plummeted after Trump's account was taken away by Twitter and a variety of other actions, including the closing of 70,000 Twitter accounts that were pushing QAnon. I mean, I think the number that we've quoted is 73%. Others have come up with a similar kind of measurement.

And so this gets to the heart of the problem. I mean, so while we would - while we love free speech and we want free speech to be as open as possible, it's also true that my speech can drown out your speech, and my lies can drown out your truth. And so those don't seem like good outcomes to me. And so what we have in the past few weeks is kind of a science experiment. Like, what do you - what happens when you turn down or really eliminate the voice of someone who is pushing a lot of lies? It turns out that a lot - those lies have a lot less traction. They move around less often.

DAVIES: So let's talk about what happens now. It seems QAnon and other extremist groups are probably finding it harder to communicate with each other, certainly harder to reach a mass audience. Is it possible that those under these restrictions might become more committed, more militant?

TIMBERG: Certainly. And researchers have been saying to me for weeks that the people who stick around, the people - the QAnon believers who, you know, kind of - whose beliefs survive the inauguration of President Biden are likely to be more committed, they're likely to be more fervent and more conspiratorial and that there's also going to be active recruitment of people from the really, really hardcore haters, the neo-Nazis and the white supremacists, that they're going to sort of see disaffected QAnon folks as targets for specific kinds of recruitment.

So I think that there is a real danger that what we'll see is a somewhat smaller but maybe more fervent and maybe more hateful and maybe more stealthy remnant that, you know, remains a force in our political life, you know, for years to come and maybe also, you know, engages in acts of violence.

DAVIES: One of the things that's occurred to me after - in the wake of the assault on the Capitol is, you know, how it is seen by those who are, you know, very committed adherents of some of these extremist ideologies. And on the one hand, you could regard it as a crushing defeat, right? I mean, you got chased out. Biden was - his election was certified, and Trump left. You could also see it as something that would really embolden you. It was sort of an unprecedented act, the first step in many to really make a mark. I don't know. Do you have any feel for how it's playing?

TIMBERG: I'd say there's two narratives that have begun to play out. One is - and this happened instantaneously - was the effort to recast what happened as somehow the work of left-wing activists - right? - that antifa and Black Lives Matter somehow got a lot of people who looked an awful lot like Trump supporters to storm the Capitol. Now, I'm laughing because on some level, it seems silly, but it's very well-trafficked. And it's - clearly, a lot of folks who weren't there believe that this was somehow a left-wing operation that was pulled off, and they've fooled the world yet again. That's the beauty of conspiratorial thinking. You can always plug a new fact in and - you know, and move it around a little bit and still kind of hold.

The second piece of this is, as you suggested, that somehow this is the first step in a movement that's going to lead to more power for - you know, sort of for this hardcore group of Trump followers that - I mean, and it's not inherently crazy, right? Like, it isn't like, you know - Tiananmen Square was not - was, you know, seen correctly as a great day for the democracy movement in China, but it didn't lead directly to democracy, right? So the idea that a big public stand ends in sort of defeat in the immediate sense but somehow, you know, sets up the future in a way that is - you know, that could lead to bigger, more successful events later - like, that's - you know, that's not totally crazy. That has some historical antecedents that, if you wanted to believe it, you could turn into something that feels true.

DAVIES: Craig Timberg, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TIMBERG: Yeah, it's been great talking to you. Thanks for having me on the show.

DAVIES: Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post specializing in privacy, security and disinformation. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Chang-Rae Lee's new novel "My Year Abroad," about an American college student who travels to Asia for a very unusual education. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. As a novelist, Chang-Rae Lee is known for capturing some of the alienation and humor of the Asian American immigrant experience. In his latest novel "My Year Abroad," the tables are turned, and an American college student travels to Asia for a very unusual education. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I'm always curious about what Chang-Rae Lee is up to even if I don't always love the result. Lee captivated me and a multitude of other readers with his 1995 debut "Native Speaker" about the insider/outsider situation of that novel's first generation Korean American main character. "Native Speaker" was layered with humor, absurdity, sharp social observation and loss. In contrast, I thought Lee's 2014 dystopian novel, "On Such A Full Sea," fell uncharacteristically flat, though it was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award.

His new novel is called "My Year Abroad" and flat it is not. This exuberant novel weighs in at almost 500 pages and takes readers on an excursion out of the New Jersey suburbs and across the Pacific into some of the more luxurious reaches of Asian megacities. Along the way, the novel's main character, a rising American college junior named Tiller Bardmon, who's one-eighth Asian and otherwise white, gets a hands-on education in entrepreneurship, hedonistic excess and worker exploitation.

Tiller retrospectively narrates this travelogue, and I'll say at the outset that he's an odd choice for this central role. He's an empty vessel, one of those passive young men who appears to have no driving interests and perhaps only two saving graces - he's funny and he's willing to be led. Consequently, Tiller allows himself to be led into some strange situations.

In the present time of the novel, Tiller is living with a 30-something woman named Val and her eight-year-old son, whom he met at the Hong Kong airport on the way home from his overseas expedition. Val is hiding out in a witness protection program, and Tiller dryly dubs the nondescript suburb they're tucked into as Stagno (ph). A year earlier, Tiller was living with his single father in a different American suburb, a more upscale Stagno. Tiller was killing time, waiting to leave for his college semester abroad. Here's how he describes that rite of passage enjoyed by privileged college students. My small, expensive college and the semester abroad program were one and the same in terms of people and anticipations. Namely, we were generally well-off and generally bright and generally interested in the things worth being interested in, like sustainability and creativity and equality and justice, but also keen on hooking up and cool beaches and cheap, authentic-enough ethnic restaurants and making connections with people who might offer opportunities for cultural and professional experiences that were life-changing, but hopefully not too much.

That passage, for me, encapsulates everything fabulous and wearying about "My Year Abroad," a novel I feel deeply mixed about. Lee's writing style, as usual, is alive with wit and satiric social commentary. But Tiller is such a walking personification of ennui that it's hard to care very much about what happens to him on the alternative adventure he stumbles into instead of his planned semester abroad.

Here's how it begins. One day, while making pocket change for his impending trip, Tiller is caddying at a golf course and meets a Chinese businessman named Pong Lu. Pong, Tiller tells us later in the novel, was one of those people who always seem freshly popped from the tennis ball can. For reasons that remain obscure to the end, Pong invites Tiller to be his assistant on an investment trip to Asia. And because Tiller is, as he tells us, one of the 99.9% of people who simply orbit, he agrees.

In the months that follow, Tiller trails Pong into lavish deal-making dinners in China and high-stakes casinos in Macau. Readers familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's over-the-top short story "The Diamond As Big As The Ritz" will hear echoes of it in Tiller's climactic adventure at a mad billionaire's estate. I guess, like "Diamond," "My Year Abroad" can be read as a critique of capitalist desire run amok - or not. Maybe there's no grand takeaway here. For despite its expanse, "My Year Abroad" doesn't carry Tiller or us readers as far as we might expect. As an excursion, the novel mimics Tiller's own earlier description of those college semester abroad programs - boisterous and fun, but a bit light on core content.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "My Year Abroad" by Chang-rae Lee.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, like this week's interview with John Colapinto about the human voice - how it works and how it evolved - or with filmmaker Dror Moreh, who takes us inside the negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders during the Clinton administration - which held real promise for a peace agreement - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLLY MILLER TRIO'S "I'M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

07:43

< A Disgraced Interrogator Gambles On Redemption In 'The Card Counter'

Movie critic Justin Chang reviews The new independent drama "The Card Counter", starring Oscar Isaac as a professional poker player and former military man who was convicted of war crimes at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue