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Conspiracy theories were bound to happen

By Alma Fabiani

Internet culture

Oct 15, 2020

Do you tend to blame stupid or easily influenced people for the impressive amount of conspiracy theories there is online? From QAnon and #TrumpCovidHoax to the Flat Earth Society and anti-vaxxers, what if all of these conspiracy theories were simply part of a larger (and unavoidable) authority crisis created by the internet? What if conspiracy theories were bound to happen, dumb people or not?

Trust me, I didn’t get this idea all on my own. Not long ago, I used to think the same as you—that conspiracy theories were just a result of the constantly growing number of paranoid partisans present on this planet. In other words, I was convinced that, were we to get rid of impressionable minds, this problem would not exist, or at least, it wouldn’t be this apparent.

Until I stumbled upon an article in The New York Times titled Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Addictive Right Now. Did I really need a reminder? Not really, but specific points made in this piece led me to understand the inevitable factor of the state our society is now in. After it was announced that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, the first thing that writer Kevin Roose did was to go on Twitter and other social media platforms to check what people were saying.

Instead, what he found online consisted mostly of “a bunch of paranoid partisans posting grainy, zoomed-in photos, analyzing video footage frame by frame, and people straining to connect the dots on far-fetched conspiracy theories involving a cabal of nefarious elites staging an elaborate cover-up.” No, Roose didn’t end up on a QAnon website, his feed was simply flooded with die-hard Democrats who were speculating, with no evidence, that Trump was faking his illness to engender sympathy and boost his re-election chances.

As he continued scrolling through his feed, Roose discovered more conspiracy theories linked to Trump, with one that claimed that the president had actually died and been replaced by a body double, another that said he had gotten a secret vaccine from Russia and was quarantining until it took effect or even that he had deliberately contracted the disease to distract the public from a New York Times article about his taxes. “Creative, but doubtful,” wrote the journalist.

Regardless of the fact that not one of these theories mentioned above were founded on something concrete, most of them were shared like there was no tomorrow. According to The New York Times, the online misinformation tracking firm, Zignal Labs, said that the theory of Trump faking his illness had been mentioned more than 85,000 times on social media, and that the hashtag #TrumpCovidHoax, which trended on Twitter in the US, had been mentioned more than 75,000 times. That sounds like a lot of fake news if you ask me.

So why is this happening? First of all, conspiracy theories and the amount of reach they get is linked to the way social media platforms work. As you probably know by now, especially if you’ve recently watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix, social media favour bold, engaging and shocking claims over careful (meaning true) ones.

But that’s not all of it. Conspiracy theories are growing quickly and reaching more people not only because of the platform they use but also because of us in the first place, no matter their political persuasion. This means that the rejection of authority conspiracy theories represent is not a singular phenomenon or one that is limited to far-right extremists.

Take Trump when he tested positive for coronavirus, for example. Democrats theorised about what secret maladies he was covering up while Republicans speculated about what signals he was trying to send to his political opponents. No one was simply accepting the scene at face value. Real information or not, in the age of social media, authority is held by people who can effectively get their message out.

Social media, mixed with human nature, was bound to bring us conspiracy theories en masse. This wasn’t something we could have avoided. Now, the real question is: are we going to be able to return to accepting information handed to us by elites at face value one day? Speaking to The New York Times, former C.I.A. analyst and media theorist, Martin Gurri, seems pretty sceptical, “There’s simply too much information now, traveling over too many channels, for people on any side to be satisfied with a single, straightforward answer to any question—whether it’s about the president’s blood oxygen levels, an imaginary pedophile cabal or something else entirely.”

Yes, conspiracy theories were bound to happen, and it certainly looks like they’re not going anywhere as long as social media platforms exist—and let’s be honest here, they’re too important to disappear. Brace yourselves, things are about to get ugly.

What is QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that took over the internet?

We’ve all been spending a lot of time online—more than in our lifetime for most of us during these last few months thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. This means that you’ve probably heard of QAnon, the viral, controversial conspiracy theory that reached the American mainstream and took over Trump supporters in August. But while we’ve heard about it, QAnon remains a constant question mark for many of us. Here’s everything you need to know about QAnon.

What is QAnon?

It all started in November 2017 on 4chan, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet along with Reddit and Voat, when a YouTube video creator named Tracy Diaz and two 4chan moderators, one named Paul Furber and the other still unnamed, got together to shed light on one specific anonymous user and his posts which were originally lost in the sea of conspiracy theories that populated the website. These were the 4chan posts of ‘Q Clearance Patriot’, the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer and who later became known as ‘Q’.

Shortly after that, the trio started creating videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology was started based off of Q’s 4chan posts. The theory they adopted would become QAnon, also spelled Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those relatively secret message boards to national media stories and Trump supporters.

QAnon followers believe that a group of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires run the world while engaging in paedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children. They also believe that Donald Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president and fight a secret battle against this society and its “deep state” collaborators to expose the culprits, then send them all to Guantánamo Bay detention camp and military prison.

According to QAnon followers, this satanic clique includes top Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.

In 2017, Q confidently asserted that Hillary Clinton’s “extradition” was “already in motion” and her arrest imminent. Q also predicted that this war against that cabal would soon culminate in ‘The Storm’, an appointed time when Trump would finally unmask the secret society, punish its members for their crimes and restore America to greatness.

In other words, QAnon is a wide-ranging and baseless internet conspiracy theory that has been festering on the fringes of rightwing internet communities for years. Its visibility only exploded in recent months amid the Black Lives Matter protests and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But that’s not the end of it

Wait! There’s more. QAnon has also incorporated elements of many other conspiracy theory communities, including claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and whether he is still alive, the existence of UFOs, and the 9/11 Truth movement, which is a group that disputes the general consensus of the 11 September attacks and suggests a cover-up, and the Rothschild family controlling all the banks.

Even the podcast QAnon Anonymous, which is based on the QAnon movement calls QAnon a “big tent conspiracy theory” because it is constantly evolving and adding new claims to its beliefs. But, just to keep things clear, the existence of a global, satanic, paedophile cabal is the main theory of QAnon and the one that most of its followers believe.

QAnon is based on Pizzagate

If you feel like you’ve already heard these strange conspiracy theories somewhere, it is because QAnon is actually basing all its beliefs on previously established conspiracy theories, some new and some a millennium old. Do you remember Pizzagate? The conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 US presidential campaign, when rightwing news outlets and influencers promoted the idea that references to food and a pizza restaurant located in Washington DC in the stolen emails of Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta were actually a secret code for a child trafficking ring.

The theory led to harassment of the restaurant and its employees and culminated in a December 2016 shooting by a man who had travelled to the restaurant believing there were children there in need of rescue. Well, unsurprisingly, QAnon based many of its own conspiracy theories on the same structure Pizzagate showed—characters and plotlines remain quite similar and the provable specifics are yet to be seen.

Only QAnon has taken it even further. The movement has its roots in much older antisemitic conspiracy theories. After all, the idea of the all-powerful, world-ruling group comes straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document claiming to expose a Jewish plot to control the world that was used throughout the 20th century to justify antisemitism.

Furthermore, the idea that members of the secret group extract the chemical adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims and ingest it to extend their lives is a modern version of the old antisemitic blood libel, which accused Jews of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood as part of religious rituals.

What about Q himself, who is he?

In 2017, after Q emerged from the message board 4chan with a post in which he confidently asserted that Hillary Clinton’s “extradition” was “already in motion” and her arrest imminent, he then established his legend as a government insider with top security clearance who knew the truth about the secret struggle for power between Trump and the “deep state.”

In all his posts (there have been more than 4,000 so far), Q used a ‘trip code’ which allowed followers to distinguish his posts from those of other anonymous users known as ‘anons’. Q switched from posting on 4chan to posting on 8chan in November 2017, went silent for several months after 8chan shut down in August 2019, and re-emerged on a new website established by 8chan’s owner, 8kun.

Q’s posts are very cryptic. They often consist of a long string of questions designed to ‘guide’ readers toward discovering the “truth” for themselves through “research.” Many of Q’s predictions have failed to become true, yet believers tend to simply adapt their narratives to account for inconsistencies.

According to The Guardian, close followers of QAnon have a very organised way of justifying Q’s false predictions. The posts (also called ‘drops’) contain ‘crumbs’ of intelligence that they ‘bake’ into ‘proofs’. For ‘bakers’, QAnon is both a hobby and a deadly serious calling. It’s like an internet scavenger hunt with incredibly high stakes.

As a 2018 investigation by NBC News uncovered, the fact that the trio of 4chan users worked together to promote and profit off QAnon might actually be why it is what it is today, which is a multi-platform internet phenomenon. Without this help, Q  would have probably been just another anonymous internet poster who claimed to have access to secret information. There now is an entire QAnon media ecosystem, with video content, memes, e-books, chatrooms, and more, all designed to attract potential recruits.

How many people believe in QAnon?

Because there isn’t an official membership directory, it remains unclear exactly how many people consider themselves QAnon followers, however, the number must be quite impressive. If you only count the ‘hard-core’ QAnon believers, the number may be at least in the hundreds of thousands.

Some of the most popular QAnon groups on Facebook have more than 100,000 members and Twitter recently announced it was taking actions to limit the reach of more than 150,000 QAnon-associated accounts. A recent report by NBC News found that Facebook had conducted an internal study of QAnon’s presence on its platform, and it concluded that there were thousands of QAnon groups, with millions of members between them.

However, conspiracy theory experts point out that belief in QAnon is far from common. While at one point, 80 per cent of Americans believed a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, a poll by Pew Research in March 2020, found that 76 per cent of Americans had never heard of QAnon and just 3 per cent knew “a lot” about it.

QAnon appears to be most popular among older Republicans and evangelical Christians but it has also spread to Latin America and Europe, where it appears to be catching on among certain far-right movements. The number of QAnon followers has also probably grown during the pandemic, as people stuck indoors spent more time online. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal found that membership in 10 large Facebook groups devoted to QAnon had grown by more than 600 per cent since the start of lockdowns.

What role have social networks played in QAnon’s popularity?

QAnon owes much of its popularity to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which have amplified the movement’s messages and spread its reach through their algorithms. QAnon followers have also used social media to harass, intimidate and threaten their ‘enemies’ and to promote other types of misinformation. Several of the most popular conspiracy theories on the internet this year such as Plandemic, a documentary containing false claims about COVID-19, as well as the viral conspiracy theory that claimed that the online furniture company Wayfair was trafficking children have been amplified by QAnon believers.

Some social media platforms have started trying to remove QAnon content such as Twitter, which recently banned thousands of QAnon accounts, saying it had engaged in coordinated harassment. Facebook has also taken down nearly 800 QAnon groups and restricted thousands of QAnon-related groups, pages, and Instagram accounts.

How has Trump responded to QAnon?

As you might have realised by now, Trump is QAnon’s main heroic character—the one who will save the US and the world. That’s why QAnon believers analyse Trump’s words and actions closely, looking for hidden meanings. When Trump says the number 17, they take it as a sign that he is sending secret messages to them only because ‘Q’ is the 17th letter of the alphabet. When he wears a pink tie, they interpret it as a sign that he is freeing trafficked children as some hospitals use ‘code pink’ as a shorthand for a child abduction in progress.

Although it remains unclear whether Trump knows the details of the QAnon theory, he has embraced the movement’s supporters by saying in a White House press briefing that “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.” He also declined to denounce the movement when asked about his support for Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon-affiliated congressional candidate. Last but not least, he has shared posts from QAnon followers many times on his Twitter.

What’s next for QAnon?

As QAnon picked up steam, growing scepticism over the motives of Diaz, Rogers, and the other early Qanon supporters led some to turn their paranoia on the group. Recently, some followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers.

Other pro-Trump online groups have questioned the roles that Diaz and Rogers have played in promoting Q, pointing to a series of slip-ups that they say show Rogers and Diaz may have been involved in the theory from the start.

Then again, it seems like QAnon believers don’t really care about who Q is or how he knows all these things. “The funniest thing about those who try to discredit Q. They focus on whether Q is real or not, instead of the information being provided,” tweeted one follower. “NO ONE cares who Q is. WE care about the TRUTH.”