Are you familiar with QAnon? If not, you’re not alone. In fact, when asked whether they had positive, negative or neutral views of QAnon, 45 percent of voters “weren’t sure or didn’t know.” Peddlers of QAnon generally claim some groups of Democrat politicians are running a Satan-worshipping pedophile ring, while former President Donald Trump is the savior to bring an end to it. You may be raising an eyebrow reading that thinking, “Who could ever believe this nonsense?” but you may be surprised. An elected member of Congress, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Green, has signaled support of QAnon, labeling Q, the mythical savior behind the scenes, a “patriot” and “on the same page as us.” Fortunately, support for this theory has declined since the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, but many conspiracy theories are going nowhere, or getting worse.
Although you may have never heard of QAnon, it’s very likely over the past few months since the November election you’ve heard slogans like “Stop the Steal” or references to “Dominion Voting Systems” or claims that Sharpie usage skewed the election results. These all relate to the various false conspiracy theories about how President Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the election from Trump. The reality is simply that Biden won the election, but Trump was willing to throw not just the kitchen sink, but the whole kitchen at the public, spreading wild misinformation and international conspiracies — the most pernicious being that voting machines were tied to the Venezuelan government and Hugo Chavez.
Although QAnon itself may have a favorable rating only in the single digits, the conspiracy theory that Trump somehow legitimately won the 2020 general election is widely accepted in Republican discourse. For example, in Texas, 83 percent of Republicans believe baseless 2020 election fraud claims, as reported by the Houston Chronicle. This is the result of a systematic misinformation campaign organized by Trump and the Republican party across the United States to delegitimize the legitimate results of a democratic election. So although we may laugh at the absurdity of QAnon, conspiracy theories have the potential to gain traction like a wildfire, or even a pandemic. It was only 2016 when an armed gunman entered a pizza parlor somehow convinced that Hillary Clinton was helping support a secret pedophile ring in the building. Similarly, the theory gained traction on social media platforms and fake news outlets such as “InfoWars.” Luckily, no one was hurt, but sadly that can’t be said for those in the way of members of the public trying to storm the Capitol earlier this year after internalizing similar disinformation.
Arguably even more dangerous are the conspiracies that have arisen from disinformation about the pandemic. Whether it’s mask denialism, anti-vaccine propaganda or an outright rejection of the virus, people are willing to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories with impunity. If someone believes no one has ever walked on the moon, it’s unlikely that will cause external harm. But if you believe the pandemic is fake, masks don’t work or a microchip is in the vaccine, it’s quite likely you will ignore social distancing, refuse basic safety measures and continue to spread the virus. The fact is that certain conspiracy theories, although they may be equally baseless, may result in vastly more harm than others. COVID-19 denialism is a perfect example of this. Misinformation doesn’t just mislead, it can kill too.
If we want to stop the propagation of conspiracy theories, it won’t be a flick of the switch. The material conditions of people can radicalize them into cult-like conspiracies — jobs get outsourced because companies can exploit underpaid workers abroad, but some Americans choose to blame immigrants and scream “white genocide.” During the Great Recession, millions lost their homes, yet instead of looking up at the big banks, some Americans choose to blame Jewish people and spread neo-Nazi propaganda. Beyond personal economics, there are many other avenues where people become radicalized. Sociologists tell us gender and sexuality are simply more complicated than the traditional concepts of each, but some Americans choose to blame academia and the “gay agenda.” After tragic terror attacks in the United States, rather than critically looking at the ways in which the United States is involved in geopolitical conflicts abroad and destabilizing the Middle East, some Americans choose to blame Muslims, claiming they all want to end Western civilization.
My point here is that we’re all fallible, all with our own faults, blind spots and biases. Material conditions can and do lead to radicalization, leading some to question existing oppressive systems, while others turn to truly inhumane and bigoted theories. When coupled with demagogues willing to give the worst actors of movements megaphones, we all must be wary of those spreading the most heinous ideas and recognize when we are being led.
Eleanor Gully is a junior triple-majoring in philosophy, politics and law, economics and French.