[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It doesn’t take much to start a conspiracy these days.
News Clip: Jeopardy is being called out by hundreds of former Jeopardy contestants after one contestant seemed to use a white power signal on air.
News Clip 2: On Tuesday when winner Kelly Donohue was introduced as having won three games, he held up three fingers, making a gesture that appeared similar to the okay symbol made by a right-wing militia group called the Three Percenters.
News Clip 3: We know what we saw on screen. If this is one, this is two, this is three. It’s not the other symbol.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Here’s all you really need to know. A Jeopardy contestant held up three fingers awkwardly when he was introduced. He had just won three games in a row.
It could have been nothing more than that, but of course it could also be something dark, something much more, more sinister. I mean, it can always be something much darker and much more sinister, if you look hard enough. And a [00:01:00] bunch of people, including dozens of former Jeopardy contestants looked very, very hard indeed.
If you thought that online conspiracies and the rabbit holes they produce were only the domain of the far, right? Well, I’m sorry. They are what happens to any of us when we go looking to confirm something that just feels right, and then we refuse to back down. And the story of how that happened to a group of people, two Jeopardy contestants who fit the most stereotypical definition of smart that we have, can offer a little glimpse into what the internet is doing to all of us every day.
So how does that happen?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Ben Smith is the media columnist at the New York Times. Hello Ben.
Ben Smith: Hey!
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t you start, [00:02:00] for those of us who didn’t watch the infamous Jeopardy episode, um, by setting the scene. Uh, who is Kelly Donohue and what was kind of happening leading up to the moment that we’re going to start with?
Ben Smith: Um, you know, I, I never talked to Kelly. He’s a, he’s a state employee in Massachusetts, I think works on bank regulation, and visually he’s a big kind of balding white dude with a, wearing a red tie and a blue blazer. And, you know, he was sort of on a bit of a roll on Jeopardy. He had won in fact, three in a row, which is pretty good. And I think was, you know, set to take home ballpark a hundred thousand dollars. And in after he won the first time, the, um, on the second show he puts, when they announced that he has one already won one, he holds up a finger, ’cause he’s won once. And the second time, so on the beginning of the third show, they announced the guy’s already won twice and he holds up two fingers.
And then on the, um, fourth show, after he’s won three times, they announced he’s won three times and he holds up three [00:03:00] fingers.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And what happened right away?
Ben Smith: Well, he held the fingers in kind of a weird way. Like he folded in his index finger and his thumb and he kind of held them across his chest and a handful of people, a couple dozen people on Twitter said, “That’s weird. Is that some kind of secret, you know, white supremacist hand gesture, or is that a QAnon sign or what is that?” It was a weird way of holding his hand.
And, um, Jeopardy contestants who are very earnest and very focused on Jeopardy have their own private admission-only Facebook group only for contestants, which is like a pretty cool honour to be part of, I think if you’ve been on the show. And in that group, people started messaging the moderators, like we’ve got to do something about this, but they kept it all just in messages to the moderators, because there’s an ironclad rule that you don’t post about that night’s episode until 11, because you don’t want to spoil it for the people on the west coast.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So once the embargo, I guess, for lack of a better term, uh, passed, how did the Jeopardy contestants [00:04:00] handle this? And again, at this point, there’s just some chatter on Twitter about like, we don’t know what this is, right?
Ben Smith: Yeah. And people being, like on Twitter, sort of being like, “What? Did I just see some kind of Nazi KKK signal on Jeopardy, or what did, was that a QAnon signal? Or like, what was that?” Based I think kind of on how Donohue looks, um, and I’m like, this was a super weird kind of way he, was not how you would normally pose the number three. It also was not a recognizable hand signal to any known group, it was just kind of funny way to hold his hand.
The moderators of the group immediately at 11 o’clock post to say, “We’re taking this very seriously. We certainly won’t allow Kelly to join this group, you know, and we’re going to take action.” So that, so, you know, we’re on it basically.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do a group of Jeopardy contestants, quote unquote, take action?
Ben Smith: Well, first of all, they, they kind of already had investigated Kelly, which is to say that they had looked at his Facebook page and found that he seems to be a Trump supporter. There’s a picture of him wearing a MAGA hat, which, you know, [00:05:00] if you already think, well, this guy’s a right wing extremist, I guess that’s confirmation. Although of course there were 70 million people who voted for the president and most of them were not flashing cryptic with supremacist signs at each other.
Um, but, and that is, you know, and that, and then, you know, they went looking for other evidence and there was a picture of Frank Sinatra holding his fingers in the okay sign, which white supremacists have sort of tried to appropriate as a white power sign. But, and again, if you’re kind of out there looking, I think this is one of the things that I’ve, I’ve certainly fallen down this, into this trap.
If you already have a theory and you think you know what happened and you go in this sort of infinite space of the internet looking for confirmation, you’ll usually find it. And they found what they kind of thought was confirmation of their worst fears. And so they, they drafted a letter and wrote a public letter that I think more than almost 600 former contestants signed, although there are a few thousand people in the group and some of [00:06:00] them were either saying in the group’s chat or to each other privately, this is totally nuts.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: But just to be clear because we’re going to talk about the bigger picture of this. The sign he made is not an actual sign, right?
Ben Smith: Correct, yeah. This was, this was totally insane. And I think like this is, to me, what was so interesting about it is often when there are these social media blowups, you know, actually the person at the heart of them probably maybe did something bad, but like the response is wildly disproportionate, or it’s really hard to ultimately figure out what happened or, you know, or you’re, or you’re debating how bad something was, but you’ve agreed on what happened.
And here, I think unusually, any observer who comes and just sort of looks at the situation is going to conclude this was kind of mass hysteria. Um, and in fact, you know, perhaps the best qualified observer was the, um, the Anti-Defamation League who spent a lot of time [00:07:00] thinking about white supremacists and what’s a white supremacist signal and you know, are very, very quick. And sometimes they’re criticized for being too quick to denounce what they think is antisemitism or white supremacy.
And th- the members of this group in fact, had written a letter to the ADL saying, you know, we want to report this, this anti-Semitic incident. And a couple of weeks later, the ADL official gets back and say, you know, we think, thank you so much for reaching out, but that’s actually the number three.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what did Kelly, like what happened to Kelly after after this letter went public?
Ben Smith: Soon after he got off the air, a lot of people were on his Facebook page saying like, you’re a Nazi, what is this antisemitism? Like it wasn’t, the group didn’t totally gin this up. There were definitely people on the internet who had seen him and thought he was doing something messed up.
And so he did what I think a normal person might do, which is basically post, uh, quick comments saying, “You people are all insane, this was the number three.”
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And that, that ended matters, right?
Ben Smith: That did not end matters. In fact, the, um, the contestants in their letter were like particularly disturbed that it, [00:08:00] that he had not issued a kind of grand and formalized apology for white supremacy, his white supremacy, and had rather, you know, just denied it. Like that was somehow more outrageous.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What did they actually expect would happen? Like that Jeopardy would just ban him or remove him or what?
Ben Smith: Well there were two things. One, I mean, I think they wanted to, they wanted him to issue kind of a fulsome apology, sort of ritualistic apology, which he then did by the way, and said he was appalled that anybody had a thought this was white supremacy and he opposes white supremacy, et cetera, et cetera.
And they also, and I, they also, but they actually, and they told me, although it’s a little hard to read this in their letter, but they told me that their main focus was on Jeopardy’s producers, who, you know, re- who do edit and shoot, reshoot these episodes. And when you do something weird, will edit it out or make you reshoot it. Like it’s a television show, you know? And so while I think the sanctity of the game is preserved, they thought Jeopardy’s producers, probably rightly, like should have realized this was going to become a [00:09:00] thing and should have cut it.
And so they wanted, they wanted Jeopardy’s producers to be more sensitive to what they saw as secret white supremacist code, which I think a reasonable person could see as like, kind of a weird moment that if you’re making a TV show, you cut, cause you don’t want people to be confused.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I mean that’s fair enough, I guess, to say that they should’ve just cut around it, but.
Ben Smith: Sure. Yeah. Yeah, no, that does. I mean, in retrospect, they, they obviously should have. But I don’t think that really, that I don’t think that really gets to the heart of what happened here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah! It doesn’t. And what I’m fascinated by, and clearly from your piece, what you were fascinated by too, is that, you know, this QAnon symbol, kind of decoding Nazi symbology, it is the sort of thing that I think we would stereotypically associate with the far right, with conspiracy theorists with, uh, to maybe not be so blatant, less educated people. Um, and here it is among Jeopardy contestants, which are kind of the hallmark for like [00:10:00] smart folks, right?
Ben Smith: Yeah. I think that’s, that’s what struck me about this. It’s just that liberals and educated people like to think that the kind of conspiratorial thinking and how information bias and polarization that has melted the brains of conservatives on social media, that it doesn’t affect them slash us. Um, you know, and obviously that’s not true. And these dynamics, these same dynamics, you know, play across, you know, they’re, they’re really about human nature and about social media.
You know, that’s not to say that every conspiracy theory is equally dangerous, that every crazy social media belief is equally dangerous. Um, but it was a real case study on how to be a bunch of, and, you know, I spent lots of time talking to Jeopardy contestants. And these are like, as you would sort of expect, like, you know, really people who know a lot of facts and seem pretty smart and are kind of really nice, earnest people too, like know, you know, they were, they were very politely disappointed in my article, but nobody’s sent me really hateful emails [00:11:00] afterward either. Like, you know, I think they are trying to be sane, responsible citizens.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well tell me a little bit more, then, about how they kind of kept going down the rabbit hole, even after, you know, Kelly had said, that’s not what I meant. And you mentioned that even the ADL had said, look, that’s not a secret Nazi symbol, and that wasn’t enough for them.
Ben Smith: Right. I mean, first of all, they didn’t believe Kelly because they’d seen particularly that he was a Trump supporter and that was sort of-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Ben Smith: You know, you can’t, you can’t trust those people, I think was the general idea. And probably that means that in some way that like he has hate in his heart, and this must’ve been an expression of that. I think that was, picture of him in a MAGA hat was pretty damning from their perspective. Yeah, and then once you’re committed to something like this, you just sort of, I mean, I think this is something we all also feel, you get backed into a corner and you stand by with whatever it was you said, um, rather than admitting you were wrong in an embarrassing way.
And so at some point at the end of the, the rep from the Anti-Defamation League says, you know, thanks, [00:12:00] thank you for your kind report, but this is not true. And the immediate response is literally quote, the ADL is gaslighting us because we saw what we saw. We know what we saw.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How is that gaslighting?
Ben Smith: Yeah. I mean, right. I mean, I think by the, I think, you know, the word gaslighting, which obviously is, you know, intended to mean sort of causing someone to think they’re insane by denying what’s in front of their eyes, is often used on the internet just to mean disagreement.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Ben Smith: Like that’s all the ADL did was that they, and they are experts, said, no, this is not the thing you thought you saw, pretty persuasively because again, when it comes down to it, there is this whole argument and very complex kind of trolling driven argument online about the okay symbol and whether white supremacists have appropriated that in a way that makes it inappropriate to, have succeeded in appropriating that basically.
But this wasn’t that symbol. He was doing some other strange thing with his hand that nobody else had really seen [00:13:00] before and, like, you know, pretty kind of like who cares. This is slightly odd way of forming the number three, but just, the fact, like the fact that it was not, it’s very hard to get past the fact that the thing he did was not a symbol that was familiar to, for instance, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, who I spoke to about this.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When they’re feeling gas lit in a group like that. What happens next? Like, do they keep doubling down? Do they go hunting for more? And where does it go from there?
Ben Smith: No, I think they feel misunderstood by me, by the New York Times by, um, the world, um, I think, but, but know in their hearts that they’re right. And meanwhile, it was certainly true that there were a lot of people in that group who thought that they were insane, but didn’t want to say it because they were afraid that they would become, you know, they would get called names or just that they would be in a Facebook group, screaming at people, and nobody wants that.
I mean, I do think that [00:14:00] like, you know, half the Facebook groups in North America over the last year have devolved into some sort of screaming match around this stuff of, you know, from varying degrees of constructiveness. But a lot of, I think, social conflict has played out in the social media forums that maybe aren’t always perfectly suited for it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What do you do in that case? And this is why I’m fascinated by the people in that group who recognized that this was probably dumb. Like, what do you do in that case? You don’t want to get sucked into it. Um, but you’ve gotta be thinking that like, these are supposed to be my peers and they’re nuts.
Ben Smith: Yeah. You know, some of them left the group. Some of them are conservatives and went and made fun of the group on Twitter or got themselves tossed off the group. Yeah. I mean, I think it kind of contributes to that, that polarization. I mean, to me, the most depressing thing was just the sense of dangerous thing, right. That, and this is, I mean, this is obviously at its most extreme among far-right QAnon supporters, but just that, um, you know, these fellow citizens of this country are kind [00:15:00] of like feel so alienated from one another that they imagine that these other people in their country are, you know, shipping children in refrigerators around America or communicating to each other in these secret codes.
And if you sort of take it, if you know, you know that this is not something you would ever imagine of someone you knew because it’s ludicrous.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And that’s what I think got me, is that, especially after watching what happened, during the entire end, I guess, of the Trump presidency, where QAnon supporters were like, “Well, this is going to happen. You know, just stay tuned. You know, don’t worry about it. It’s all part of the plan.” And I think that must have happened five or six times. And each time there was this question of like, well, will these people wake up now that X hasn’t happened, now that Trump’s not still president, now that Biden hasn’t been publicly executed or whatever it was. And it’s easy to write that off as crazy, but this was that like writ small.
[00:16:00] Ben Smith: Yeah, this was a version of that. I mean, you know, kind of millenarian cults are nothing new and the notion that, you know, the world is supposed to end, and then people somehow managed to stick around in the cold after the world didn’t end, that’s also nothing new. But I do think, yeah, there’s just this willingness to believe the absolute worst of your fellow citizens. Not just believe it, but kind of assume it based on basically no evidence. That’s pretty troubling.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You’ve been covering media for some time now. Have you seen it get substantially worse, exponentially worse, or is it just, this has always been around and now we’re hunting for it?
Ben Smith: I’ve only been covering media for a year, so I can’t say, but it’s really gotten exponentially worse. Um, but I’ve been working in the business-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You’ve been extremely online for quite some time.
Ben Smith: But I’ve been extremely online for a very, very long time. And I don’t think this is fundamentally a media story. Like I think media obviously plays a role in polarization, like maybe a very central role, but I do think there’s this political polarization of [00:17:00] society right now that is very, very intense. And that’s playing out through these forums and social media obviously is a huge part of that.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Is there a way to get past that mistrust? Like I guess I was hoping for some sort of resolution in this case, you know, for some of the smart people in that group who should theoretically be able to say like, you know what, okay, we were wrong, and to come back together and like, it profoundly depresses me, I guess, that even, even a Jeopardy group could be split like that along something like this.
Ben Smith: Yeah, and I mean, you know, not just split, like this wasn’t like a debate, like a group of people were experiencing basically a mass hallucination and everybody else was like staring at them appalled. Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, you know, I think this stuff spreads sort of at scale and spreads easily and, and it, and, and, you know, deprogramming people is really hard.
I mean, you think about like, the, uh, you know, these sort of worthy initiatives to [00:18:00] bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together in summer camps to get to know each other. I mean, it’s, it’s very hard to figure out how you reverse this kind of tribalism. And, you know, what’s interesting is in media, they’re at this, you know, media used to be this very unifying force in the US, particularly broadcast television, big Metro newspapers, because they provided this kind of central channel that everybody watched. And that has really degraded, and there’s much less of that. And, you know, when you start thinking about what are the fora where you ha- you know, that are, you know, what, what media figures, what media products are popular among Republicans and Democrats in America? You, you, there’s not much left. I mean, like Dolly Parton, maybe, and Jeopardy.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, and I mean, not to, not to pump your employer’s tires, but you work for the paper of record here and you reported what had happened and interviewed the president of the ADL. And you’re telling me the feedback you got from Jeopardy contestants, not [00:19:00] all of them, obviously, but some of them was like, no, you’ve got it wrong. Jeopardy contestants should believe the New York Times.
Ben Smith: Oh, for sure. I mean, New York Times readers in the comment section thought that too.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That seems like a real, and I don’t want to end this on a down note, but that seems like just a, an unsolvable, existential problem in America. And I mean, probably in Canada, too, I’m not trying to, uh, put it all on you guys, but like that’s, I don’t know how you overcome something like that.
Ben Smith: Me either. I mean, I was thinking of moving to Canada, so I’m disappointed to hear that that that’s, that that’s not going to be an option.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, we’re a few years behind, so if you head up now, um, you’ll get to enjoy it for a little while. Ben, thank you so much for your time today explaining this, and thanks for reporting.
Ben Smith: Yeah. Thanks for having me. I’m gonna dust off my passport.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Ben Smith of the New York Times. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can email us any time, even with a conspiracy theory, trust me, [00:20:00] we get ’em, [email@example.com]. You can also find us in any podcast player. You can also ask for us on any smart speaker and of course, wherever you are, if they let you, leave us a rating, leave us a review.
Stefanie Phillips, Claire Brassard, and Ryan Clarke produce The Big Story, Joseph Fish helped us this week with extra production. And I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, thanks for listening. Be safe this weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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