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QAnon and you(anon)

| Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Alright, I’ll admit it. In the heat of the lockdown summer, around June of last year, I found myself down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. I was consuming heaps of media centered around conspiracies, from binging “The X-Files” to spending sweltering afternoons watching “documentaries” on The History Channel with my dad. I found learning about conspiracy theories to be an entertaining way to distract myself from the real world, but it’s not like I was really buying anything. (Well, except for Fox Mulder’s insistence that maybe aliens are real – but that’s a topic for another time).

Unfortunately, as the heat of summer faded into the first chill of fall, learning about conspiracies became a lot less fun. In the run-up to the 2020 election, it seemed every American who considered themselves well-informed wound up reading articles titled something like “QAnon, explained.” 

If you somehow haven’t, I’ll give a quick summary. QAnon is a conspiracy theory, originating in the far-right corners of the internet, based on the idea that there is a group of Democratic Satanist elites running a child sex trafficking ring, who also control American politics and media. It is also deeply intertwined with the Trump presidency — QAnon believers contend that President Trump was recruited by military officials to break up this group of elites. The theory originated in October 2017, when a 4chan poster who called themselves Q posted the first claims about the cabal.

It should go without saying, but there is no evidence that any of QAnon’s central beliefs are true, and many of its theories have been repeatedly debunked. Yet, the resilience of QAnon believers is kind of astonishing — many of Q’s predictions have very publicly failed to come true, the most recent example being the successful inauguration of President Biden in January. Yet, the conspiracy is extraordinarily malleable, and while some believers gave up after Trump left office, many seem willing to follow Q anywhere, including to Trump’s second inauguration on March 4 … no, March 20 … no, wait …

For a long time, it was easy to brush QAnon off as a fringe, harmless conspiracy theory, finding company among the flat-earthers and moon landing truthers. Yet, QAnon is no longer fringe, and it’s certainly no longer harmless. A December poll found that 17% of Americans wholeheartedly believe the core tenets of QAnon, with another 37% saying they are not sure whether they are true. Further, law enforcement officials found that belief in QAnon was a common thread among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

Still, it’s easy to feel like QAnon is a far-off, distant threat. Sure, your crazy uncle Steve had some weird takes on George Soros at Thanksgiving, and you’ve seen some distant relatives sharing Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s Facebook posts, but your close family and friends don’t buy into any of it. And there’s absolutely no way you’ve played a role in spreading QAnon-adjacent misinformation — right?

That’s actually a harder question to answer than you might think. While you’re probably not accidentally sharing information coming directly from Q, QAnon is a “big tent” conspiracy theory, meaning it encompasses a wide variety of other conspiracy theories as proof of the existence of a Deep State. There are detailed, extensive maps laying out the massive web of QAnon beliefs, and the ideas that are included might surprise you. Some are seemingly innocuous social media campaigns, like #SaveOurChildren (easily confused with the actual NGO, Save The Children), that spread easily because of their broad appeal — who doesn’t want to end child sex trafficking? Some seem completely unrelated, the type of thing you would expect to see on The History Channel — Atlantis, the JFK assassination, UFOs. 

QAnon feeds off misinformation spread widely across the internet, even onto platforms many would consider “safe.” It’s easy to believe that wild conspiracies are being spread on 4chan — I mean, it’s 4chan — but TikTok? That kids’ app everyone downloaded when we were all stuck at home? Yeah, they removed 400,000 videos in the second half of 2020 due to misinformation. I’ve heard lots of close friends and family write off QAnon believers as “wackos,” then innocently ask me if I’ve heard about that Wayfair thing. People who liked TikToks that were tagged #SaveOurChildren are clearly not the same as those who stormed the Capitol, but the latter were probably, at some point, the former.

The dismissive discourse around QAnon is key to allowing it to continue to grow, and its nature is twofold. First, there’s the aforementioned notion that you, a sane person, could not possibly fall down the QAnon rabbit hole. The second is reliant on the first, but more sinister: since you would never believe conspiracy theories, the people who do must be completely unhinged — there’s nothing we can do.

Many psychologists see the rise of QAnon as symptomatic of larger cultural and political issues plaguing the United States: increasing community isolation, rising mistrust in government and media, and feelings of helplessness, triggered by increasing inequality. Conspiracy theories, especially broad ones like QAnon that seek to explain systematic issues, provide simple explanations for complicated problems — it’s unsurprising that as the world becomes more complex, people become more desperate for simple explanations.

Of course, the explanation of their beliefs does not excuse them — QAnon is deeply rooted in white supremacy, anti-Semitism and a melting pot of other violent ideologies. And there are many people who believe in ending child sex trafficking but never spiral toward belief in a Satanist cabal of political elites. Yet, for those who recognize the reality of the threat posed by QAnon, it is vital to avoid the trap of complacency. QAnon is dangerous because of its accessibility, and everyone needs to be more vigilant toward misinformation and structures that make people more likely to fall down that rabbit hole. That doesn’t mean stop watching “documentaries” on The History Channel (I certainly will not), just do your due diligence before preaching to your friends about the Illuminati.

Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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