Waiting for "The Great Awakening": QAnon as the Mother of All Conspiracy Theories

Very few people know how to protect themselves from the corrosive influences that surround them.

Fortunate is the person that during their adolescence years doesn't give up on education.

- Orison Swett Marden.

One of the most controversial and influential conspiracy theories of 21st Century America is QAnon. At its core is the belief that a worldwide shadow government of the elite secretly runs the world; its members have been variously accused of following Satan, of cannibalism, of running a child sex trafficking ring, and, more recently, of creating and deploying the coronavirus. This "deep state" cabal manipulates the public, democratically-elected state with the help of the mainstream media and Hollywood. Because the majority of those who believe in QAnon conspiracy theory may be categorized as politically far-right, they see the election of President Donald J. Trump as marking the beginning of a behind-the-scenes battle against this secret cabal, which, in turn, plotted to remove him from office and is now blocking his return. QAnon followers are kept in the know about this battle through cryptic coded postings on the Web by a supposed government agent who signs the messages with "Q-Clearance Patriot," which is meant to indicate the poster has Q security clearance, that is, top-level security clearance in the U.S. Department of Energy. Q's revelations will lead to a "Great Awakening" and to the ultimate event of this battle between the forces of good and evil, "the Storm," when the cabal will be defeated and the truth revealed to all. [1][2]

As a Q follower reveals to filmmakers Bayam Nooman and Mary Clements during an interview for their documentary QAnon 101: The Search for Q, Q's communications have all the characteristics of a psychological operation (psy-op), that is, "a military-led strategy to influence a population’s emotions, motives, and objective reasoning."[1][3] By using a "gamified model" that requires readers (known as Anons) to follow clues and conduct research to decode their meaning, Q's postings engrosses its audience. The Anons' hard work is then rewarded by the top-security insider information supposedly obtained, which further encourages their buy in. Since the goal of a psy-op is to undermine an adversary's ability to command and control its military operations,[4] the process of decoding Q's messages is seen by QAnons as a means of liberation from the lies and propaganda by a corrupt establishment.

"Q Shaman" January 6, 2021

The Consequences of QAnon: Division and ChaosEdit

On January 6, 2021, the United States suffered an attack on the Capitol, where members of Congress were meeting to confirm the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Some of the attackers were QAnon followers who believed in President Trump's affirmation that the election had been stolen from him. That day many QAnon supporters were expecting to get more instructions from Trump to finally bring the secret shadow government to justice and allow him to rule for the next four years as he deserved. Inflamed by the president’s rhetoric, they forced their way into the capitol to “stop the steal,” threatening our democracy and causing the death of five people.[5]

This was not the first time that individuals who believed in the reality of a “deep state” cabal had taken matters into their own hands. In 2016, Edgar Welch, a man from North Carolina armed himself and went to self-investigate conspiracy theory allegations that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of Comet Pong, a pizza restaurant located in Washington D.C. After finding that no children were being held in the pizza place, he surrendered to the police.[1] A second example happened in in 2019, when Anthony Comello, a Staten Island man, fatally shot the Mafia boss Frank Cali because he believed he was a member of the deep state. That was when the FBI classified QAnon as a domestic terror threat. [6]

Even after President's Joe Biden victory was confirmed, the QAnon movement did not stop its spread of false assertions, the latest of which concerns the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. Believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory refuse to get vaccinated because they think that the government’s “elite” wants to control humanity and that the COVID-19 virus was developed to reduce the population. The fact that some of those vaccinated have suffered complications has given more credibility to these false assertions, creating fear between American communities, preventing people from getting the vaccine, and slowing the process to end to the pandemic. [7]

How Do Conspiracy Theories Interfere With Our Commonsense Reasoning?Edit

Conspiracy theories have always been with us. However, in recent years we have seen a dramatic rise in their influence on politics thanks to social media. While in its most basic form social media helps us express freely, instantly, and globally, the repetition of ideas via "likes" and "re-posts" gives power to irrational and harmful beliefs that only end up destroying commonsense reasoning and may end up creating an unstable and dangerous society.

"Conspiracy theories arise in the context of fear, anxiety, mistrust, uncertainty, and feeling of powerless," explains John Ehrenreich when reporting on the phenomenon for Slate magazine. People who present anxiety, stress, and a need for control over the environment are more susceptible to believing in conspiracies because they are frequently suspicious and distrustful, easily believing that others are plotting against them. They find relief in theories that explain their feelings and concerns, which offers them a safe environment. Conspiracy theories also fill psychological and ideological needs as individuals are more likely to pay attention to and believe information that validates their existing beliefs. This is referred to as “confirmation bias” by psychologists. Here, again, is where technology tips the scales: because the algorithms on which social media platforms are built tend to give us more of what we have indicated that we like, we may get our biases confirmed as “facts” when we interact with others who share our opinions through social media.[8]

Americans and News ConsumptionEdit

Americans rely on their news from social platforms

The frightful way Americans are consuming their news nowadays is one of the main reasons they are often falling for the misinformation shared on the Web, as shown on a survey analysis by the Pew Research Center. About 18% of adults confirmed getting their political and election news from social platforms, and about 25% from news websites and apps. According to the survey, only 8% of these adults followed the 2020 election “very closely.” The lack of attention leads to insufficient knowledge for which users who rely on social media to get their news are less likely to get the facts and more likely to hear unproven claims.[9]

Based on the Pew Research Center Survey [9]
Source Percentage % Source Percentage % Source Percentage %
News Websites/ Apps 25% Cable Tv 16% Print 3%
Social Media 18% Network 13% No Answer 1%
Local Tv 16% Radio 8%

ConclusionEdit

Americans should become more cautious about how they consume their news. The Internet and Web can be great tools for unscrupulous people attempting to manipulate information, which ends up threatening our daily lives, national security, and democracy.

Conspiracy Theories Trivia GameEdit

The goal of this trivia game is to create awareness of how easily we may believe in conspiracy theories. You have one minute and thirty seconds to answer as many questions as you can!

Trivia Game: Are you a conspiracy theory believer?

If you like the game and want to learn more about each topic presented, go to this link click on the ? as you play the game.

Further LearningEdit

  • Eli Pariser, Beware online "filter bubbles" TED. March, 2011. In this TED conference the activist and entrepreneur Eli Pariser explains how algorithms used by social media shape our political views.
  • Myles Bess. "Why Do Our Brains Love Fake News?" Above the Noise. An explanation of how confirmation bias works so that we end up believing what we want to believe. A lesson from National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
  • Claire Wardle, "Can you outsmart a troll (by thinking like one)?" TED-Ed. October, 2020. This video illustrates how quick and easy it is to spread false information with the purpose of manipulating people's beliefs.
  • United States Department of Homeland Security, Analytic Exchange Program. "Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaigns: A Whole-Of-Society Issue." Homeland Security Digital Library. October, 2019. In this article a team of researchers explain how disinformation campaigns became popular, how they work, and what we can do to combat this threat.

Discussion QuestionsEdit

  1. List the common elements of conspiracy theories. Discuss what these common elements can tell us about those who believe them, about the historical moment we are living in, and about our society.
  2. Where do you usually get your information? How do you know these sources are credible?
  3. Look at the types of information that the Web algorithms are suggesting that you check. What trends, biases, or possibly filter bubbles do you see? How could you train the algorithms to give you more diverse information?
  4. "The best way to fight ... fake news discourse is not to give counterarguments, but to try to check the validity of the other person's argument." --Journalist Thomas Huchon, "A Conspiracy Video Teaches Kids A Lesson About Fake News." Do you agree with Huchon? Is it better to fact-check the sources of a person's story than to counteract the story's fake information with facts? Which method, in your view, might change the mind of a conspiracy theory believer? Why?

ReferencesEdit

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  1. a b c LaFrance, Adrienne. “The Prophecies of Q.” The Atlantic. June 2020.
  2. Rozsa, Matthew. "QAnon is the conspiracy theory that won't die."Salon. August 18, 2019.
  3. Clements, Mary and Joonam Bayan. QAnon 101: The Search for Q. YouTube, January 25, 2021.
  4. Wikipedia contributors. "Psychological operations (United States)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 May. 2021.
  5. Chason, Rachel and Samantha Schmidt. “Lafayette Square, Capitol rallies met starkly different policing response.” The Washington Post. January 14, 2021.
  6. Russonello, Giovanni. “QAnon Now as Popular in U.S. as Some Major Religions, Poll Suggests.” New York Times. May 27, 2021.
  7. MacFarquhar, Neil. “Far-Right Extremists Move from ‘Stop the Steal’ to Stop the Vaccine”. The New York Times. March 26, 2021.
  8. Ehrenreich, John. “Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.” Slate. January 11, 2021.
  9. a b Mitchell, Amy, et al. “Americans Who Mainly Get Their News on Social Media Are Less Engaged, Less Knowledgeable.” Pew Research Center. July 30,2020.