As Donald Trump endorses candidates in the 2022 midterms, “he and his allies are seemingly embracing QAnon followers,” the millions who believe that Democratic politicians and high-ranking media and entertainment figures run a massive child sex-trafficking ring and secretly control U.S. society (MSN). QAnon adherents are waiting for Trump to unleash a wave of apocalyptic violence, the “storm,” against the devil-worshiping cabal (New Yorker). Last year, a third of Fox News viewers and around half of far-right news consumers believed such a “storm” was imminent (PRRI).
In 2017, a person purporting to be a government insider began posting cryptic messages on the anonymous message board 4chan (BBC). QAnon conspiracy theorists have built fanciful interpretations of these statements as predictions of impending martial law, the return of Trump to power, and the execution of Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama after a military trial at Guantánamo Bay (Salon, Reuters). Aside from eagerly awaiting a fascist coup, QAnon adherents believe that the existence of systemic racism is a lie spread by the Satanist conspiracy as a psychological operation to maintain control (Media Matters). Some echo the conspiracy theory that the Holocaust never happened (CNN). They hijacked the #SaveTheChildren hashtag to spread misinformation on fictitious child trafficking (Vox).
• Communicate and find common ground with those exploring conspiracy theories to start to pull them out of their echo chamber.
• Use Checkology to learn more about fighting misinformation and identifying credible news.
QAnon theories aren’t limited to traditionally right-wing spaces. A significant group of yoga practitioners, reiki healers, and New Age psychics now loudly uphold QAnon beliefs (L.A. Times). Believers include mothers on Facebook (Teen Vogue), fathers who have entertained harmless conspiracy theories in the past (Narratively), and influencers sharing aesthetically-pleasing quotes and images (The Atlantic). There’s a subreddit full of people commiserating about loved ones who’ve been consumed by the conspiracy theory (Reddit).
There’s a long history of conspiratorial thinking in U.S. politics (Smithsonian). Internet adoption and the plummeting trust in journalistic and governmental institutions have created the perfect conditions for the QAnon conspiracy. The conspiracy alleged by QAnon believers is extremely useful for right-wing candidates who are more than happy to take donations and votes from a movement of fervently-motivated individuals who believe themselves to be engaged in a war of good against evil. Because the fictitious cabal is connected to the Democratic Party at large, any far-right politician contesting an election gets to paint themselves as a fearless anti-Satanic warrior. But because the cabal is said to only include the very highest-ranking “evil” elites, influential people, like a real estate mogul turned President, aren’t tarnished with allegations of involvement.
While QAnon fictions are useful for opportunistic politicians, it can have disastrous consequences for believers. QAnon conspiracy theories cut people off from their communities, leading them down internet rabbit holes accompanied only by other true believers. One QAnon adherent brought a gun into a pizza shop to expose a non-existent child sex ring (Salon). Another assassinated the head of the Gambino crime family (Rolling Stone). These beliefs are dangerous enough that we should confront them head-on.
Conspiracy theories like QAnon are nurtured by the sense that official explanations don’t add up and that forces outside our control govern our lives. This isn’t inherently wrong. According to sociologist C. Wright Mills, a small, elite network from the same schools, churches, and fraternal organizations “establishes the governing policy agenda” in this country. “The public’s role in the policy making process in U.S. society is largely symbolic” (Psychology Today). But real-life elite networks don’t depend on Satanic blood rituals to maintain power. For that, they have lobbyists, charitable foundations, and the police. And the influential people in our society largely do not have to hide. C. Wright Mills didn’t have to sneak into secret underground lairs to compile his list of the American power elite: he analyzed publicly available data. The truly powerful aren’t afraid of YouTube videos exposing their misdeeds; they’re plastering their names on hospitals and university buildings.
In the words of Edward Snowden:
The greatest conspiracies are open and notorious – not theories, but practices expressed through law and policy, technology and finance. Counterintuitively, these conspiracies are more often than not announced in public and with a modicum of pride. They’re dutifully reported in our newspapers; they’re bannered on to the covers of our magazines; updates on their progress are scrolled across our screens – all with such regularity as to render us unable to relate the banality of their methods to the rapacity of their ambitions…
Conspiracy practices – the methods by which true conspiracies such as gerrymandering, or the debt industry, or mass surveillance are realized – are almost always overshadowed by conspiracy theories: those malevolent falsehoods that, in aggregate, can erode civic confidence in the existence of anything certain or verifiable (The Guardian).
Actual injustices become harder to address when connected to nonsensical or bigoted false theories. When we deceive ourselves into believing that it’s not garden-variety rich and powerful people but mystical secret societies of holographic alien reptiles who control our lives (MSN), coming together to actually make change seems futile.
Like many things on social media, people start subscribing to QAnon through word of mouth. A conversation can spark interest, and a conversation can end it. The next time you see someone participating in sharing this harmful content, reach out.
• Donald Trump is promoting content from the QAnon movement.
• QAnon believers await the imposition of martial law and apocalyptic violence against a secret group of powerful Satanic pedophiles.
• Conspiracy theories can promote bigoted narratives and impede our ability to fight for social justice — including against real-life collusions of the powerful.