With the storming of the Capitol behind us, the horrifyingly vivid memories of Americans running through the halls of Congress are preserved for posterity. However, as countless analyses have indicated, the incident was neither isolated nor surprising.
Among the organizations who participated in the events of January 6, QAnon is one of the most infamous. According to NPR, 17% of the rioters had ties to “extremist or fringe groups or ideas,” and 21 are apparently linked to QAnon.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a powerful faction of Democrats and celebrity elites run a child-trafficking ring. They assert that Donald Trump is waging a war against these pedophiles and that the mysterious “Q” is an anonymous source trying to tell the world the truth.
QAnon truly began in 2017, when a user known simply as “Q” posted on the anonymous imageboard 4chan claiming that Hillary Clinton would be arrested on October 30, 2017. The post exploded in popularity, and since then, Q has posted almost 1800 messages which form the conspiracy known as QAnon. Their followers were particularly vocal in their support for Donald Trump in the 2020 election, even referring to Trump as a savior of America who would one day carry out “The Storm” to defeat Democrats and arrest members of the child-trafficking ring. With this in mind, it is important to note that this conspiracy is a shapeshifting amalgamation of conspiracies, not an official platform; social media has fueled its rise, and it continues to fuel its growth.
While we regard parts of this theory as laughable in its absurdity, the movement has continued to grow. According to Forbes, one in three Republicans (33%) say they believe the QAnon theory about a conspiracy among deep-state elites is “mostly true,” and another 23% say “some parts” are true.”
Recently, QAnon has surged in popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an ISD report, Facebook membership in QAnon groups “increased by 120% in March 2020 and engagement rates increased by 91%”. QAnon has also infiltrated the GOP, seen with the extraordinary rise and expulsion of Majorie Taylor Greene.
Why do these conspiracy theories continue to gain traction? And, more importantly, how do we as a nation return to a common ground of fact-based reality?
These are tricky questions to place in the age of misinformation and disinformation. Social media is geared to share posts that have the potential to go viral — their revenue is achieved mainly from the clicks and shares generated for a certain post. In many cases, the most viral and lucrative posts include outlandish, scandalous information which has elements of conspiracism and is grounded in falsehoods.
There is additionally an element of human psychology. In a report from the Global Network on Extremism & Technology, author Daniel Allington explains the rise of conspiracism and radicalization. Allington cites a study which explored links between “anomie, authoritarian inclinations, low self‑esteem and feelings of powerlessness,” as well as “belief in the paranormal and lower general intelligence.”
Followers of the QAnon theory are likely to feel out of control. Those feelings of powerlessness are only exacerbated in the midst of a pandemic where online information sources are often dubious or poorly researched. Further, as Liddy Trudeau points out in her article on The Society Pages, the pre-Covid era was marked by the fall of powerful men such as Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, who used their status to sexually exploit others.
Trudeau also rightly points to the solid moral foundations of the theory: in her words, sensational and unexpected evil in the form of sexual exploitation does exist, and of course we don’t want our children to be sexually exploited. Fear of disinformation, distrust of government corruption, and outrage at child sex trafficking are all reasonable emotions shared by countless people across both sides of the political aisle.
In an interview with NPR, host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous Travis View voices this nicely; “QAnon satisfies needs that we all have,” he says. “We all need to have a feeling of significance. We all need to have a feeling of community, and we all need to have some sense of optimism for the future. And if you’re not getting that in any other way, then QAnon can fulfill that role.”
However, the dominating instability of conspiracy theories and QAnon lies in their proposed solutions to these overexaggerated dangers, and the evident disregard for properly researched and supported truth. The problem is inherent to the theory. QAnon encourages its followers to view the world with suspicion, labeling each person outside the conspiracy as morally evil and a liar. This actively inhibits productive dialogue, as the world looks to be a minefield with pedophiles and authoritarians around every corner.
In the wake of the riots on the Capitol, several social media sites have begun shutting down accounts that encourage the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories. Apple and Google decided to remove far-right app Parler from the app store, and Amazon said they would stop hosting their website. However, deplatforming will not halt the spread; it is a temporary solution, but hardly long-lasting.
Allington attempts to tackle this problem, noting that oftentimes outside corrections serve to strengthen pre-existing beliefs among individuals already committed to the ideology. He examines a few studies which attempt to mitigate this problem by analyzing exposure online and its correlation to conspiratorial following. The report summarizes that “…in order to prevent conspiracy beliefs from taking hold, it will be necessary to engage individuals with rational argument before they are exposed to conspiracy theories, and at a stage where their social connections have not yet come to be dominated by conspiracy believers.”
The trickiest part of this solution is figuring out how to engage people in rational dialogue before they are exposed to conspiracy theories. This could require a fundamental institutional shift in our social media platforms and information systems, requiring a change in algorithms or more transparency about the types of information that each post contains. It could require a cultural shift on the individual level to educate people on the types of trustworthy information. Or, most controversially for those who oppose government interference, it could require a shift in our censorship laws.
Whatever the solution may be, it is evident that the spread of QAnon and other conspiracy theories have not stopped even after Trump has left office. On the individual level, appealing to some common ground to help followers to examine their own beliefs could be a possible solution; outright challenges to their belief systems and their versions of reality are counterproductive at this point.
Nevertheless, it is important to learn from QAnon in order to examine our relationship with information. While social media and the Internet have the amazing capacity to expose underrepresented problems in society and amplify unheard voices, it also gives platforms to groups who will take advantage of the algorithm to wreak havoc on the American (and international) political and cultural landscape. We have led ourselves into an information crisis; it is time to examine our values in freedom of speech and press and determine how far we are willing to allow information to spread before we take tangible action.