In the last few months, QAnon proponents have gained momentum on social media, with President Donald Trump recently offering encouragement to the theory advocates. QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory concocted in 2017, which argues that there’s a deep state working against Trump and his administration. Their statements have no grounding in reality, but they are a real consequence of our disregard of facts, of the post-truth world we have learned to live in.
QAnon argues that Trump is fighting against a pedophile elite that controls the deep state (government, media, and private sector). According to the BBC, the theory first saw the light in October of 2017 when a user of the online forum 4chan posted messages in favor of the theory, claiming to have a security approval in the government that he labeled as “Q clearance.” Since then, thousands of users have posted messages known as “Q drops” with slogans and other conspiracy notes. Among its wild assertions, Q has predicted that Hillary Clinton will soon be arrested; and that Obama, Clinton, and George Soros are part of a group involved in an international sex trafficking ring. Most recently, QAnon supporters have claimed that “Antifa” members had been detained for starting the fires in Oregon, reports CNN.
It would be different if these theories never left the online world, but frequently they do. Last year, New York mob boss Francesco Cali was killed in Staten Island by a man who claimed Cali was part of a deep state conspiracy against Trump—part of the QAnon theories. This April, the New York City Police Department arrested a woman allegedly attempting to kill Joe Biden with more than a dozen knives she carried in her car. She was also a QAnon supporter.
The theory has been labeled a potential domestic terror threat by the FBI, but multiple political electives still support QAnon. With its broad social media outreach, the current social and political scenario, and a slew of representatives celebrating the theory, QAnon poses a threat to the country’s social fabric. Our authorities and institutions should take further steps in dismantling QAnon theories and its online presence, as they pose a threat to democracy.
In the past year, QAnon’s theories have spread throughout the US like wildfire. Conspiracy theories thrive in a context in which institutions are not trusted, and reputed media is put in doubt. We only seem to be able to trust our immediate circle of friends and family on social media. That environment coupled with political instability, further accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has led many in the right to turn to QAnon. For QAnon believers, its statements do not seem that crazy. President Donald Trump already vilifies democratic leaders and traditional news outlets. When asked about QAnon in a White House press conference, most likely because they serve his political agenda, Trump responded: “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.” Other elected officials have expressed even more clear support for hate conspiracy theorists. For example, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has defended QAnon, won House Primary in Georgia in early August. With the stamp of approval given by the US’ political class, it is only logical that QAnon adepts keep growing. But that it is a logical consequence does not mean it should not be controlled, reduced, or even disqualified.
A context in which QAnon festers has failed to realize three essential notions. One, that the online and offline world are not separated. If a threat or a theory is shared on social media, it rarely stays there. Its believers will share it among themselves, read the news with a conspiracy lens, and act on it. Actions can go from voting for specific candidates to rallies to more violent acts like taking a gun and threatening Democrat candidates. Online and offline are no longer separate spheres. Our online world is usually richer in reach and poorer in-depth, which helps disseminate fake news. With quarantines and social distancing practices in place, the online world can be our only way to interact with each other.
As a consequence, social media giants have an increased responsibility to make it work. So far, they have tried. Twitter has made its stance clear by blocking hundreds of QAnon accounts this year. Facebook’s response came a bit later in late August—but with equal force. The tech giant announced in August that it had removed 790 QAnon groups from its platform. But with QAnon supporters talking in code, Twitter and Facebook’s ability to act weakens.
Two, freedom of speech has its limits, but it is hard to see where they are. QAnon conspiracies are not exactly hate speech; they are just fake news and can even seem like insider jokes. Taken like that, it seems impossible to regulate them until it is too late—until the online comment has made it offline. But we certainly must. In the post-truth world, we have learned to assume that all opinions have the same weight. There are no set facts; it’s what you make of them. QAnon is the consequence. But we must remember that there are differences; making up a theory and getting thousands of people to believe in it does not mean that theory is correct. Educating ourselves in seeing those differences has become more critical than ever. This takes us to our last point.
Despite our tendency to disregard authorities, they exist for a reason. We need the country’s health protection agency, the CDC, to understand the pandemic and dictate norms to protect ourselves. We need the nation’s outlets to inform us of the facts. We may think they are biased, as every outlet with an editorial direction is, but we must still trust them to inform us. If not, we end up trying to inform ourselves by trusting others who are as ill-equipped to do it as we are.
QAnon is the most palpable consequence of the post-truth world. Our institutions—be it the government, news outlets, and social media platforms—must counter it, not only because it’s fake news, but also, and more importantly, because they represent a threat to democracy. Voters guided by entirely misconceived notions of the political scenario will likely take equally misguided decisions. For healthy democracies to thrive, our institutions must ensure that facts and truths are available to the public, and that fake news is labeled as such.