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The Piercing Vision of the Eye Emoji

For leftist scholars of the Jeffrey Epstein saga, ?represents a glimpse of widespread complicity

Assuming civilization survives another hundred years, how will this era be introduced by history textbooks? They can’t just write, “shit was messed up and weird,” accurate as that is. Perhaps it would be more suitable to explain how corruption, incompetence and extreme wealth inequality had made for a small, closely knit ruling class that barely tried to conceal its most odious secrets anymore. This could be remembered as a time when it was hard not to see behind the curtain.

Twitter is in the process of cracking down on accounts that promote QAnon, a chaotic right-wing conspiracy network built on the unfounded notion that President Trump is leading a shadow war on the “Deep State,” often portrayed as a cabal of Democrats who abuse and murder children. In response, the Q community is scrambling to devise new coded language to evade bans while still discussing their wild theories. Meanwhile, the real saga of the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring continues to unfold, with his alleged right-hand woman Ghislaine Maxwell in custody and awaiting trial on charges that could net her 35 years in federal prison.

The sprawling case has been of great interest to leftists in part because it implicates so many of the wealthy, powerful elite — Epstein was friendly with Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, Kevin Spacey and Prince Andrew, not to mention Trump himself. But where QAnon has many overcomplicated catchphrases and slogans to express their thinking, scholars of the Epstein web need only a single pictogram that speaks volumes. That would be the humble eye emoji.

Back in 2015, emoji users were intrigued by Apple’s addition of a “creepy” silhouette design that looked like an eyeball set in a speech bubble. Some speculated that it had to do with government surveillance. Today, though, it is the human eye emoji — added to Emoji 1.0 the same year and Unicode 7.0 in 2014 — that signifies a silent watchfulness, with the gaze turned back at politicians and other public figures.

Unlike the double-eye emoji, which tends to suggest some interest in petty online drama or gossip before it truly explodes, the single eye is realistic, not cartoonish, serious rather than snickering. It has also gained notoriety as part of a meta-emoji that places the mouth emoji between a pair of the eyes (???) to create a face of stricken acceptance — “it it was it is” — that shows up in a number of TikTok videos.

On its own, the eye can still make for a symbol of helpless comprehension, except it is staring into something much darker. It represents a vision of the cultish depravity that binds our masters. It means that many, many more are complicit in Epstein’s deeds and the behavior of predators like him.

And soon enough, they’ll be ensnared.

This nuance of the eye was popularized in large part by the podcast TrueAnon, hosted by Liz Franczak and Brace Belden, which takes listeners down the rabbit hole of Epstein-related crimes and skullduggery. While the research they present is earnest and extensive, their tone is that of irreverent, leftist shitposters. It’s not that this is some grand ironic riff — that they don’t believe what they’re saying — but a recognition of how insane the actual Epstein story is.

To speak the reality is to sound like an unhinged lunatic. The title mirrors the phrase “QAnon” to signal both a parody of and parallel to that movement: Q people are completely wrong in every detail, but they hover close to a terrible truth about how the rich and well-connected enable and protect one another in nefarious plots.

Similarly, the eye emoji plays on a favorite trope of outlandish conspiracies — think the “Eye of Providence” atop the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill, frequently taken for an emblem of the Illuminati or an equivalent secret order — to indicate the curious overlap between fantasy and inconceivable fact. So TrueAnon and its fans can drop the eye when their suspicions are genuinely aroused, or when they’re mocking the ridiculous accusations from QAnon, such as the viral claim that the furniture company Wayfair is trafficking children in expensive cabinets.

The eye does double duty, either joking or focusing.

Where, in the end, does all this seeing get us?

It might be enough for the moment to let the villains know they are seen. The eye is not infallible: It flared up in tweets about a shooting at the home of a federal judge assigned to a lawsuit from Deutsche Bank investors that mentions the company’s relationship with Epstein, although the deadly attack now appears to be the result of unrelated motives. Nonetheless, vigilance is the point. The eye resists the assumption of eerie happenstance or immaterial evidence; it probes and searches for a better explanation.

Most of all, it is open to possibilities that may once have sounded ludicrous — because we live under a president, and a set of millionaires and billionaires, who wield status in ways that strain rational credulity. What the eye sees clearly is how they obey no moral limit, safe in the sureness of their coalition, and in the failures of a system that allowed them to rise to where they are. But this has made them sloppy and brazen. And there can be no doubt anymore that we are watching.