On July 21, Twitter announced they would take heavy action against accounts and posts associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, a theory that online furniture store Wayfair is secretly trafficking missing children through over-priced cabinets sprung up. A month later, QAnon was back in the news thanks to congressional candidates who publicly support it, and a president who refuses to disavow it.
Conspiracy theories have seen a disturbing rise in popularity recently. Even the most bizarre are increasingly becoming mainstream, and no longer relegated to the fringes of the internet. During a global pandemic and a presidential election, it’s more crucial now than ever to avoid falling down these toxic rabbit holes.
What is “Qanon”?
QAnon is an incredibly broad and all-encompassing conspiracy theory. “Q” is supposedly an anonymous government official with Q level clearance (which is a real thing that has nothing to do with conspiracies) who leaks information through the internet forum “4chan.” It began during Trump’s campaign in 2016 and has gained even more popularity this year.
The posts associated with QAnon are filled with prophetic language and bizarre, almost religious, beliefs. Some people warned that the late John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive and would announce himself as President Trump’s running mate on the Fourth of July. This, of course, did not happen.
The fundamental belief of Q’s “followers” is that the “deep state,” including politicians like Hilary Clinton and the media, is controlling America in order to traffic and abuse children. Q believers gained some legitimacy after Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest and death, thanks to Epstein’s connection to many wealthy and powerful individuals.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories have spread like wildfire in recent years thanks to social media, even though several major news outlets have attempted to debunk them. But it seems that the more credible the source that debunks it, the more conspiracy theorists are affirmed in their belief.
Studies have shown there are several factors involved in a person’s belief in conspiracy theories. One common trend is that if a person believes in one, they’ll likely believe in several. This explains why QAnon was able to become so widespread and mainstream–it links together several theories into one.
People are also susceptible when they feel that they’ve lost control of their lives and the world around them, which is understandable given recent events. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about one’s personal life or world events can prompt them to find meaning in a convenient falsehood. White nationalists, whose ideology is built upon conspiracy theories that often overlap with QAnon, usually target young white men of lower economic status for this reason.
There is also the unfortunate truth that human trafficking, including the trafficking of children, is very much real. It is also true, apparent because of Epstein, that there are wealthy and powerful individuals who use their wealth and power to commit and cover up such atrocities.
Why does it matter?
In 2017, a man opened fire in a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant because he believed that Hilary Clinton was hiding victims in its basement. This of course was not true, and the restaurant didn’t even have a basement. Fortunately nobody was killed, but this should have been a wakeup call.
Conspiracy theories have also had a history of far-right extremism, especially anti-semitism. Many QAnon beliefs are either explicitly anti-semitic or they have clearly been inspired by longstanding anti-semitic falsehoods.
Some conspiracy theorists believe that the elites abduct children in order to harvest “adrenochrome” from their blood as a psychedelic for their Satanic rituals. This mirrors the anti-semitic accusation of a “blood libel.” As far back as the Middle Ages, Christians accused Jews of kidnapping Christian children to use their blood for their rituals.
NBC News traced QAnon back to three individuals who spread the “movement” early on in order to make a profit. Many others have also willingly spread fake news, motivated by either self interest or political outcomes. The current president, who is seen as the savior by believers, will not disavow or even acknowledge it since it benefits him politically.
A conspiracy theory as widespread as this does not only inspire violence, but it also erodes trust in democratic institutions. The 2020 election is already being questioned before it’s even held, and the president’s attacks on mail-in ballots and the U.S. Postal Service only exacerbates that.
What do you do if someone you love becomes a believer?
It’s easy to get frustrated when speaking with someone with such outlandish and dangerous beliefs, but showing anger can sometimes affirm their mentality that the world is out to get them. 2020’s defining feature is uncertainty–it’s hard to fault people for acting paranoid.
It’s best to speak with them privately, rather than trying to “dunk on them” using social media. You can show them that you’re on their side by treating them like a person and framing the conversation in a way that shows you want to help. If it reaches a point where they don’t show any respect for you, or they refuse to budge, it isn’t selfish to remove yourself from the situation.
Users on Reddit have created a community for people whose loved ones have been radicalized by the conspiracy theory. They also compiled a list of resources for debunking and speaking with loved ones, as well as options for fighting against human trafficking.