QAnon, the conspiracy group that developed out of the 2016 US election and spread through Facebook, has now emerged into mainstream US politics and is even finding supporters in Australia. So just who and what is QAnon? What threats does it pose to democracy and how can it be countered?
In the midst of these global ructions and within the particularities of US politics, QAnon, a group banding around a conspiracy narrative, came to life in the last presidential campaign. Since then it has been slowly but surely gaining supporters, primarily spreading their message on Facebook.
According to reports, hundreds of thousands of Facebook users are known to belong to one or more QAnon groups, but Facebook has declined to give more precise figures. Just this week, the social media giant started to combat the conspiracy groups and it put a broom through nearly 800 QAnon conspiracy groups for posts relating to violence and weapons.
Why do we have conspiracy theories?
Who doesn’t enjoy hearing a good conspiracy theory. Just enjoy it for the yarn that it is, just don’t believe it. Except that some people do.
Conspiracy theories and those who believe far-fetched stories about events have long been with us. Who killed Kennedy, Elvis is still alive, 9/11 was an inside job, the moon landings are fake. Mostly they’ve been confined to the fringes of sensible society because they largely defy commonsense, rational analysis and plausibility. Time magazine has even compiled a list of the 10 enduring conspiracy theories.
In 2020, by most accounts, distrust in government is at an all-time high, democracy is under threat around the world and the centre in the political divide is giving way in many countries as parties of the far-right and the extreme left attract voters confused, frightened and angry about the effects of globalisation, growing inequality and rising nationalism and geopolitical tensions.
And with the coronavirus crisis gripping the world, there’s been a rise in conspiracy theories because of the unfortunate link between pandemics and conspiracy theories. Covid-19 is a hoax, 5G is a health hazard AND is spreading the virus – we’re seeing special Covid-themed conspiracy theories coming to light at the moment. While these conspiracy theories are mostly mutations or reworking of existing theories, is part of the questioning of science that goes hand in hand with denying climate change, long-running fears about radio waves causing cancer and big pharma spreading disease because of the lucrative financial benefit.
How did QAnon develop?
Before the 2016 election, QAnon came to life after the false “pizzagate” conspiracy that claimed prominent Democrats were running a pedophile ring out of the basement of a Washington restaurant. It stemmed from the trove of emails released by Wikileaks from Hilary Clinton’s campaign that mentioned a pizza restaurant. The idea was advanced by Trump supporters that the messages indicated they were code for child abuse being carrier out by Clinton and her team.
The idea just seems so far-fetched it’s laughable, but there are people who believe Trump is trying to expose an elite cabal of power run from the top down in the US. Anonymous postings from someone using the nickname Q, who claims to be high up in the Trump administration, have asserted that Democratic and Hollywood elites worship the devil, eat children and, in some cases, have already been executed after secret military tribunals and replaced by actors.
The FBI has classified QAnon as a domestic threat in the US, the existence of this worldview and the legion of adherents rejecting reason and objectivity and connecting and spreading the theories through platforms like Facebook that allow these ideas to spread to large numbers of people in decentralised, connected groups that would be otherwise impossible is giving potency to ideas that demand to be rejected on the basis of collective rational logic. The US congress is now even looking to new laws to condemn the movement and block criminal activity by adherents.
What about QAnon in Australia?
As the first QAnon supporter will soon be in US congress and the US president Donald Trump accepts the support of adherents and doesn’t call out the baseless and fear mongering theories, its ideas and supporters are becoming more vocal and energised.
QAnon is also attracting supporters in Australia. And this is no Malcolm Roberts in a tin foil hat fan group. A cursory look this week on Facebook shows the Australia and New Zealand QAnon group is two years old, has over 4000 members and about 50 posts a day, with 60 new people joining the ranks of conspiracy theorists a day.
The anti-vax movement, distrust in government, climate change denial, shrinking mainstream media, fracturing of traditional news outlets in favour of social media and the internet, undermining of science, effects of globalisation, growing wealth inequality, job insecurity, shrinking government safety net, intergenerational wealth disparity and now the coronavirus pandemic, Australia has its fair share of issues and challenges. And with complex issues and a lack of trust in deomocratic processes and government, simple ideas about who’s to blame and what’s going on can become appealing to some.
If you encounter them, talk to people who may have fallen into the conspiracy theory rabbit hole is important, reinforcing rationality and commonsense, especially with young people growing up without traditional media as sources of their news and information. Support news outlets with a subscription that are working to publish credible, accurate news and reporting, and urging governments of all levels to have appropriate messaging to avoid confusion. Have a look at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which works to counter extremism in many forms online and has tool kits and resources that may be useful if you’re an educator, campaigner or interested citizen.
And now for something completely different
If that’s all got you down a bit, here’s something to lighten the mood. A funny Ted Talk by Negin Farsad, a self-titled ‘Social Justice Comedian’ who has developed a hilarious taxonomy of haters. This includes the ‘Drive-by Haters. “The ones who just yell ‘go back to your own country’ at the lights because they couldn’t even be bothered getting out of the car to hate.”