This week, we’re in conversation with Joel Finkelstein, cofounder and director of the Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, multidisciplinary research group of experts who study online disinformation, and Pamela Paresky, a senior scholar at the Institute who focuses on the psychology of thriving in a liberal democracy. Both have been sounding the alarm about the dangers of the antisemitic conspiracy theory movement QAnon and they join us to discuss what we can expect next from the movement and how we can take steps to stop it. 

Then we hear from AJC Managing Director of Global Communications Avi Mayer on storytelling and AJC’s Arabic video series, Manya Brachear Pashman on President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Seffi Kogen on the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. 

Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Google Podcasts.

Episode Lineup: 

  • (00:40) Pamela Paresky and Joel Finkelstein
  • (23:17) Avi Mayer
  • (26:48) Manya Brachear Pashman
  • (29:29) Seffi Kogen

Show notes:
Arabic Video on Protocols of the Elders of Zion

 


 

Transcript of Interview with Joel Finkelstein and Pamela Paresky
on the Dangers of QAnon

 

Manya Brachear Pashman  (0:28) 
Joel Finkelstein is founder and director of the National Contagion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, multidisciplinary research group of experts, including neuroscientists, psychologists, physicists and machine learning experts who study online disinformation. Pamela Paresky is one of those experts, a senior research fellow at the Institute who focuses on the psychology of thriving in a liberal democracy. Both have been sounding the alarm about the dangers of the antisemitic conspiracy theory QAnon, and were not at all surprised to see the events at the Capitol on January 6. They're with us now to discuss what we can expect to see next from the movement and what is within our control to stop it. Pamela, Joel, welcome to People of the Pod.

Pamela Paresky  (1:24)  
Thanks for having us.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (1:25)  
So first of all, please explain for our listeners, in the most basic of terms, what is QAnon and why a group called the American Jewish Committee might find it troubling.

Joel Finkelstein  (1:37)  
So QAnon is a cyber cult that organized with populist conspiracy theories, largely on Twitter, but on other social networks as well. It really got its roots in a fringe community called 8Chan. 8Chan is largely considered the armpit of the Internet. Some of the worst ideas that arrived from social media come out of 8Chan. What's interesting about the cult of QAnon is that unlike other populist movements, which rely on hashtags and organize based on conspiracies, and have antisemitic components, the value add for QAnon is, they also had an anonymous prophet. So these diffuse organizations that form mobs on of hashtags, they have a lot of power and benefit because people can act out in the name of the conspiracy without anybody really being responsible. But one of the drawbacks they have is that there's no leadership. Q figured out a solution for how to solve that. You create an anonymous leader who can drop missives. Secret coded information, on 8Chan, that's encrypted with an encryption that he's the only one that has the key for. In doing that Q enlisted his followers to become fellow researchers, but got them researching with one another to portray a vision of reality that became increasingly apocalyptic.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (2:52) 
Interesting. And so, tell me a little bit more about the antisemitism that runs through QAnon and how it informs these theories and this movement.

Joel Finkelstein  (3:03)  
Conspiracy groups reach for antisemitic disinformation, because every single successful conspiracy group necessarily has to reach for antisemitic disinformation, as a matter of history and pragmatics.

Pamela Paresky  (3:16)  
The beauty for a conspiracy theorist, beauty being an odd word to use, but the ease of antisemitic elements, is that they are conspiratorial. There's a long history of, as Joel was saying, things to grab, things to look for, that you just need to look at antisemitism defined. And then you just enter that world, that conspiratorial world where there is a mysterious, you know, evil, but somehow secretly powerful other who hides among you, and is not always easy to spot. That has tentacles in every seat of power, government, and media and finance. That's the Jewish conspiracy theory. That's the disinformation about Jews. Jews benefit from transparency. And the new technology of social media allows for so many areas of black boxes, you know, so many areas of, you know, the dark web, so many areas where light is not shining. And that's where these conspiracies grow.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (4:33)  
Pamela, going back to your point about transparency, I'd argue everyone benefits from it. But yes, I see your point about Jews benefiting from that. I also should point out QAnon rose to prominence not just during the isolation of the pandemic, but during a moment of racial reckoning in this country. Is that relevant?

Joel Finkelstein  (4:53) 
One of the places where we see this coming together in terms of the tools the Network Contagion Research Institutes used to create transparency on social media, literally our goals create literacy on social media. We use machine learning to extract trends at a massive scale, so we can characterize the information operations from these groups like QAnon. And one of the largest information operations we've ever witnessed, took place in the middle of quarantine, when George Floyd was killed, and it was mobilized by QAnon. And it was blaming George Soros for instigating a civil war against Antifa, the moral other. And so that really kind of, I think, brings home Pamela's point in very concrete terms. You had this entire conspiracy network, mobilizing around the idea that a Jewish international financier was causing a civil war, was the force behind the moral other. And that that was happening in the midst of the conditions of quarantine. And that force, you know, not coincidentally, was also behind the virus. So that was the largest surge of Soros activity we've ever seen on Twitter, with tens of thousands of coupon related bots, and conspiracy groups, kind of hijacking that and really escalating that to be at the top of the public narrative. So that's part of the power of the information operations that social media as a medium is permitting for the conspiracy groups. That isn't just something that we're talking about around the watercooler. That's a global number one trending topic. That is the news. And so one of the things we spotted early is, is kind of like, you know, snake eating its own tail behavior with these conspiracy groups. That, we are the news, whatever we say the world is it is that's kind of magical thinking. And we can make it that way. And every time we make it that way, it feels very powerful. So that's a sense of control in an otherwise very, very uncertain world. Increasingly uncertain.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (6:45)  
Joel, you just said a key word: control. Is that the appeal of QAnon? Does it simply give people control at a time when so much seems dictated by a microscopic virus?

Pamela Paresky  (6:58)  
It's a paradox. Because we focus on this as a concerned society, we focus on the activities of groups like this, and then that makes the news. And that sort of adds fuel because the tension is between the powers, like the media and the government, and the people. Right and so QAnon see themselves as the people, and they're fighting evil power. This is a sort of way of finding a sense of meaning. Each individual who joins this group, this movement, could be somebody who, it's sort of like, discovers and names a comet. Just like anybody with a telescope can discover a star. 

Manya Brachear Pashman  (7:44)  
Pamela, you call them discoveries. Joel, you called it magical thinking. I'll call them false prophecies, as they fail to materialize and just turn out to be lies. How many people still ascribe to QAnon, and what does its future look like?

Joel Finkelstein  (7:59)  
I think it's changed quite a lot. I think they've seen some pretty significant losses over the past month. And I think that there's been a real turn on QAnon, in terms of moral, they're kind of moral exile now. They still have some purchase, and it's considerable in the Republican Party, so we shouldn't downplay that. And they still have considerable sway and leadership and people are still kind of holding on. But I think that the writing's on the wall in terms of the moral signifiers that people really are seeing kind of QAnon, given the events of the 6th is kind of outside the community of the good. And I think that's hurt the numbers. And I think it probably means that QAnon is going to end up changing into something a bit different.

Pamela Paresky  (8:39)  
But the psychology of joining a group like this, it's not surprising, and I wouldn't be surprised if those members of this group who lose faith, join other conspiratorial groups, because we're such a fractured country now, where we don't have a sense of all being in this together. We don't have a sense of us as members of a country.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (9:08)  
Are the politicians aware of this movement, aware of the dangers of its movement? I mean, are they active players, or not? Are they just not aware?

Joel Finkelstein  (9:21)  
My experience of politicians is that when we try to explain to them what these thoughts are, like, it's a very long conversation. If we're lucky, the response is fairly predictable. The conspiracy group you need worry about, some will tell us, is QAnon. No, say others, the conspiracy group that we need to worry about is Antifa. And, I think we're missing the scope of this. Politicians, especially are missing the scope of this. And so while we're sitting here playing Game of Thrones, a long winter is coming towards our democracy. And the zombies are coming over the wall. So I think that that's by and large, been what we've told politicians And unfortunately, because taking that position requires courage and causes exposure, there are very few people who are willing to show leadership and courage to stand in the middle right now. We have a great concern that the center will not hold.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (10:14)  
What can we do as Americans to preserve that democracy?

Pamela Paresky  (10:18)  
This is among the most important tasks of our time, which is to develop the capacity to see the people with whom we most disagree. Even people we think are crazy, even people who join cults, and conspiracy groups like this, to be able to see them as human beings, with the same kinds of concerns and the same kinds of needs that we have, and not to dehumanize them, to the point where we can't see that we share something in common. The more we ostracize people, the more they join groups like this. And the more they join groups like this, the more we ostracize them. Joel has, I think, a thought on this.

Joel Finkelstein  (11:08) 
I think what you're saying in some ways is that there's a relationship in what you're outlining between hate and ignorance. Because what you're saying is that hate is a form of censorship. We don't have to be literate, if we blot out anywhere, there could be light, right? There's nothing to know, the hate cuts off the expansion of our awareness. It's a discount of having to think that hard.

Pamela Paresky  (11:28)  
Yeah. I mean, I cannot remember who said this. But it's something that I have thought about a lot, which is that listening is an act of love. And when we decide that somebody is not worth listening to, they get it. They get that we don't value them, we don't love them, we don't want them, they're rejected. And we're all human, and we all face rejection with the same psychology. You know, nobody likes to be rejected, and some people are more hurt by it than others. Some people have a higher need for belonging than others. But we all need to belong. When people find a sense of belonging, whether it's in a gang, or in a conspiracy theory, or in a community that feeds the homeless, you know, it doesn't matter what the goals of the community are, if it provides belonging.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (12:23)  
So do we just nod and smile and accept this magical thinking so people feel heard? What is our responsibility?

Joel Finkelstein  (12:30)  
People aren't just entitled to acceptance. I actually think that's a bad predicate, no one should be forced to accept somebody unconditionally. Part of what allures people to these groups, is the idea that they're researchers, but they're in on something together, that they're drawn into a cause. And I think that the cause that we need to offer is democracy. And democracy demands our participation. In other words, the thing that gives light to covenantal truth is mutual engagement.

Pamela Paresky  (12:58)  
A democracy relies on the capacity to accept difference, and not just the capacity to argue, and to debate and to disagree, but an embrace of it. And when people don't feel like they have anywhere to express what they have to say, with people who disagree with them, that they're rejected, that they're shunned, because they think something different, they start to form, you know, underground groups.

Joel Finkelstein  (13:31)  
I would add to that, that's the reason that I think this is such a nuanced conversation. Pamela and I both co-authored a piece in the Jewish Journal recently, talking about the problems that critical race theory, and critical theory in general, are posing towards democracy, and how those are really instantiating themselves in ethnic studies curriculum in California, but will soon be all over the country.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (13:53)  
Yes, in fact, that's what last week's episode was about.

Joel Finkelstein  (13:57)  
And this is what's so devious, is that it's easy to recognize the enemies of democracy when they're wearing Nazi insignia and they're talking about race as the thing that divides us. It's harder to recognize that when it's happening on the basis of ideology. It's harder to recognize that when it's arguing that it's just, and it's in that it's compassion. And I think that the worst genocides historically that have ever been committed in the history of the world, were committed on the basis of equality. They weren't committed on the basis of race. That's such a horrible truth, that we still can't admit that it's true. We can't even see it. So I think that there's something nefarious and acidic towards our commitments to democracy that we haven't really fully understood. So there's a very nuanced conversation to be had there, I think.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (14:47)  
If the numbers are dropping, what's next for this movement? 

Joel Finkelstein  (14:51)  
I think that the financial networks and intelligence networks that have developed around this are very powerful, that what they've shown is that the enterprise is very lucrative. And so, whatever else is true, they're not likely to give that up anytime soon. They may be in disarray now, but the idea that they won't reorganize or come up with the next move, it's not possible. For instance, the President was in negotiations to join Parler and was going to own 40% of that. Those negotiations are probably ongoing. But we know that they were funded by the political and financial networks that supported the Trump campaign in 2016, the Mercers. And that became a very big base for QAnon. Now they're talking about opening up servers in Russia. So there are efforts to create a satellite of disinformation that are beyond anyone's ability to please.

Pamela Paresky  (15:45)  
And there are international aspects of the Q conspiracy too. So it's really not all about this one particular figure. But also conspiracy theories are resistant to challenge because they're not about evidence. They're not about truth. They're about seeking. And they're about being the people in the know, where everybody else doesn't have the information that you have. I would actually imagine that even if Q started saying, "This was all a hoax", or something to say, "Okay, now this is over", the people in the community wouldn't leave it. They would think, somebody got to Q. It's a faith. It's like a religion. And therefore, there's no counterfactual that's going to, I think, make a difference.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (16:35)  
And in other words, there's no saying the jig is up.

Pamela Paresky  (16:37)  
Now there isn't I mean, if you look at Doomsday cults, for example, and then Doomsday didn't come, you know, some people left, but often the thing just morphed. They're just very resistant to disconfirmation.

Joel Finkelstein  (16:51)  
And quite the opposite, in some ways they're anti-fragile. The more disconfirmed the conspiracy is, the more it has the potential to take hold.

Pamela Paresky  (16:58)  
There's a paradox in that the more people join a conspiracy movement, the more it seems true to the insiders, because more people are joining it. But also, the smaller it is, the truer it seems to the people who are in it, because they're the only ones that have the real information.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (17:16)  
I'm thinking back on the discussion we had a few minutes ago about acceptance. And I'm wondering if what's missing in our national conversation right now is actually empathy.

Joel Finkelstein  (17:27)  
It's that we have a responsibility to engage with one another, that our democracy is founded on. The entire basis of our Constitution, the entire basis of how our founding fathers envisioned we would be doing business has to do with the responsibility that we have to engage with one another on these issues. And to come to the table and bear our grievances honestly.

Pamela Paresky  (17:46)  
The commitment to democracy actually is a commitment to equal and universal dignity. And when we're in a dignity culture, then we can withstand all kinds of bad ideas, and even bad words. We don't have to like the people that we're disagreeing with. We just have to be committed to allowing the disagreement.

Joel Finkelstein  (18:10)  
Well, I'll be careful here, Pamela, because you're getting dangerously close to your territory, where you're suggesting that becoming very literate in a circle of trusted friends and trying to really make sense of the world through arguing and thinking about legal things and really, really hashing it out. It sounds almost like what you're saying is that that gives you an internal source of nutrition and dignity, that can sustain you against all things and can endure.

Pamela Paresky  (18:32)  
Kind of sounds a little bit Jewish, doesn't it?

Manya Brachear Pashman  (18:37)  
I think that's a good note to end on. Thank you both for making us a little more literate about this movement. 

Joel Finkelstein  (18:43)  
Thank you. 

Pamela Paresky  (18:43)  
Thanks. Thanks so much for having us.

Seffi Kogen  (18:51)  
Now it's time for our closing segment, Shabbat Table Talk. And joining us at our Shabbat table this week is Avi Mayer, AJC's Managing Director of Global Communications. Avi, when you're talking with your family at your Shabbat table this weekend, what are you going to be talking about?

Avi Mayer  (19:05)  
Thank you, Seffi and Manya. This Shabbat as we enter the Jewish month of Adar, I'll be thinking about the importance of storytelling. In two weeks we'll be celebrating the holiday of Purim and will recount the trials and tribulations of the Jews of Persia in the book of Esther. Exactly one month later - yup, it's that soon - we'll gather at our Passover Seder tables and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, fulfilling the imperative of "V'higadita L'Vincha" - "And you should tell your children". Storytelling is integral to the Jewish experience. It's often focused inward at our own children in order to pass along the collective memory of our people. But sometimes we need to tell our story to others. And I'd like to talk about that today.

As you know, AJC has long had strong ties with senior officials in numerous Arab and Muslim countries, traveling to meet with them and bring them closer to Israel and the Jewish people. But we realized some time ago that we had no way of reaching the man and woman on the Arab street, no way to share our perspective with hundreds of millions of Arabic speakers. So one year ago we unveiled An al-Yahud, or About the Jews, a series of animated videos aimed at telling the Jewish story in Arabic. We've thus far released five videos on topics ranging from Jewish ties to Jerusalem to the Holocaust. They're all available at AJC.org/arabic. Since launching An al-Yahud we've reached tens of millions of Arabic speakers across the Middle East and North Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Arabic speaking Facebook and Twitter users have liked and followed our AJC Arabic pages. Yes, many of the comments on the videos are hostile, laced with the kind of ugly antisemitic rhetoric that is, unfortunately all too common in the Arab world. But what's much more important to me is the number of people who've chosen to share our videos on their timelines, making our content available to their own networks and friends.

Our latest video about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has already been shared 1200 times. Our first video about the history of the Jewish people has been shared 5000 times. In other words, thousands of people across the Middle East and North Africa have chosen to be our storytellers, sharing the Jewish story with their communities and increasing understanding across the Arab world. If that's not cause for hope and celebration, I don't know what is. Manya what's on your mind this week?

Manya Brachear Pashman  (21:18)  
Avi, Seffi, at our Shabbat table, we will be gearing up for Valentine's Day, cutting out red construction paper hearts and nibbling on chalk flavored engraved candy that evokes childhood memories. We will not talk about waiting by the phone for that crush to call, an adolescent memory of which I'm less fond. Waiting by the phone appears to be a big story these days as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly waits for President Biden to call. I say allegedly because my guess is the Prime Minister is not waiting by the phone like a giddy teenager. When asked why President Biden has not called the leader of Israel yet, Secretary of State Tony Blinken shrugged off the flap and said one of the first calls the President had during the transition was with the Prime Minister. Blinken also said he has talked to his Israeli counterparts on multiple occasions already. Still, others are making a big deal, on social media of course. Former Israeli envoy to the UN Danny Danon even went so far as to tweet Netanyahu's phone number.

I'm less interested in the lack of a phone call than in the kind of shallow story it's turning out to be. A story about snarky tweets and sound bites about what one single phone call might or might not portend for the Middle East peace process. While misinformation on social media is a problem, as my interview earlier in this episode discussed, misdirection and misguided priorities are problems, too. It's just too tempting to reduce a story down to who had the last word on Twitter. I prefer to read about the substance such as what are the diplomatic strategies and priorities of the Biden administration? How will it make sure the UN Human Rights Council stops singling out Israel? How will the genocide of the Uighur population affect our country's relationship with China? How will Biden address challenges to democracy like in Myanmar, and the dangers facing another Muslim minority there, the Rohingya? How will he bring the Palestinians back to the table with the Israelis and revive a peace process? Serious, complicated questions.

I brought up a similar concern last week when talking about Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green and her ridiculously antisemitic social media posts. Instead of joking about Jewish lasers, I wanted to see consequences for the very real danger her words and ideology posed. Thankfully, we did see consequences, and she was stripped of her committee assignments as this podcast went live last week. Then we moved on, which is why I thought our segment on QAnon today was important to provide some context. In hindsight, those teenage crushes were so trivial. Oh, but how many hours did I waste pining for that star soccer player to pick up the phone when I could have been doing something so much more valuable with my time. I'm grateful those days are behind me. And I can now enjoy cutting out construction paper hearts with my children, recalling my childhood follies, and what the future holds for my kids. That's what we'll be talking about at our Shabbat table. Seffi?

Seffi Kogen  (24:15)  
Well, on an earlier version of our closing segment, I used to ask each week whether a certain bit of news was good for the Jews. I've had that question bouncing around my head all week, as I have followed the news from the second trial of former President Donald Trump. On one side of the trial, is lead house manager representative Jamie Raskin, who is the main prosecutor in the case. Raskin is proudly Jewish. Tragically, his son died on New Year's Eve, and so in observance of Jewish mourning rituals, when Representative Raskin arrived at the Capitol on January 6 to certify the results of the Electoral College, he was still wearing his Kriyah garment. In his case, as is common in the more liberal Jewish movements a small ripped black ribbon pinned to his shirt. Raskin was wearing that Jewish reminder of his personal tragedy, as he experienced the national tragedy of the insurrection, which set the events of this second impeachment into motion.

Now, on the other side of the trial is another Jew, Trump's defense attorney, David Shoen, an Orthodox Jew from Atlanta. He, too, had a public display of Jewishness this week, as he briefly became a meme. Shoen, who usually wears a kippa was not doing so and he spoke on the Senate floor, and so placed his hand on top of his head when he drank water to ensure as he does whenever he's eating or drinking that his head was covered. This motion, odd looking as it may be to the uninitiated, pretty predictably drew ridicule on Twitter, which mostly, but not entirely, died down, as Jewish journalists stepped into explain what was going on. What are we to make of this odd quirk of history that the former president is being both prosecuted and defended by Jews? Is this one of the ultimate signs of having made it in America, that we are called upon to wield the power of the state against the former office holder? And to defend that office holder who, after all, was the most powerful person in the world just last month? What are the antisemites going to make of it? And, also bear in mind, Raskin and Schoen are not the only Jews in the story.

Of course, we all know by now that Trump has a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren, and also that the newly installed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is very Jewish himself. Pat Leahy, on the other hand, who is presiding over this trial as President pro tempore of the Senate is as Catholic as ever. I don't know exactly what to make of this. I don't think it represents some great leap forward in Jewish acceptance in America. But it is, at the very least, historically remarkable, so I'm remarking on it, and will do so again at my Shabbat table. Shabbat shalom.

Manya Brachear Pashman  (27:07)  
Shabbat shalom.

Avi Mayer  (27:09)  
Shabbat shalom.