There are reasons why I’ve written so much about extremist networks like QAnon. They hold far more influence over our country than we’ve wanted to believe. If we ever want to nurse our democracy into better health, then we first need to recognize just how ill it truly is.
QAnon is just the latest example of how we’ve allowed fringe to become “the new mainstream”.
At first glance, this appears to be the end of the road for the QAnon conspiracy cult. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have extensive think pieces on QAnon’s “identity crisis” following President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. But when we look beneath the surface, we can see there’s still so much disinformation flowing from QAnon-affiliated social media accounts and other extremist networks that’s polluting our feeds.
After all, Donald Trump himself still uses “fraud” claims that are themselves fraudulent as excuses not to concede the election. Here in Nevada, partisan hacks like former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) and American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp continue to hurl accusations that have already been thoroughly debunked. Next door, Martha McSally (R-Arizona) refuses to concede to U.S. Senator-elect Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) even though he’s winning Arizona by a larger margin than Biden. In Georgia, the Republican Secretary of State is trying to fend off attacks from his fellow Republicans for refusing to deny the reality of the vote count. And at the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “joked” about the Trump administration refusing to agree to a peaceful transfer of power after losing this election.
It’s bad enough that a shadowy collective of very shady people spread rumors online that manage to convince millions of Americans of a “grand conspiracy” that does not actually exist. It’s even worse that most Republican Party leaders now endorse the non-existent “grand conspiracy” and encourage the spread of even more disinformation all over the internet. So can we finally stop pretending that we don’t have to worry about the growth of QAnon and other online extremist movements?
Remember: It’s 2020.
If the leaders of a major political party validate conspiracies, they become legitimate. Republican Party has become a dangerous, radicalizing force in America. Ironic for a “conservative” party. https://t.co/CGD71RyzuC
— stuart stevens (@stuartpstevens) November 11, 2020
For those who are accustomed to the 2000-2016 political and media status quo, they’re shocked to see so many rank-and-file Republicans turn against some of their own elected officials and turn against the very TV network, Fox News, that was once considered the de facto public relations wing of the GOP. But for those who’ve been tracking the growth of online extremist movements since the earliest days of “Gamergate” and the devolution of Alex Jones’ InfoWars network, this comes across as no surprise.
In a recent interview with Vox, progressive pollster David Shor sought to explain the main reason why so many reputable polling firms missed Trump’s overperformance in multiple swing states: “Low social trust voters”, or voters who tend to distrust institutions and shy away from building relationships in their neighborhoods, did not respond to these pollsters’ calls, texts, and emails. If this is really the case, then there’s really no such thing as “shy Trump voters”. Rather, we’re probably seeing a growing group of “disengaged Trump voters” who are less and less tethered to their own physical communities.
If these “low social trust voters” have disengaged from their own physical communities, where are they engaging? I have a theory that I think will keep us heading in the right direction. For years, we’ve seen evidence that more Americans hold less trust in the government and other major societal institutions. And for years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories gain popularity alongside the growth of social media conglomerates. Might it be that far too many of us have failed to notice the radicalizing propaganda that’s been hiding in plain sight and right on our social media feeds?
Why didn’t we notice the nonsense that was piling up on our own social media feeds?
Before November 3, I got tips from friends and family on the kinds of feedback they were hearing from voters. According to one account, a few younger voters this person was talking to were repeating false rumors about Joe Biden and child abuse. Another account centered on an acquaintance of a friend getting hooked on an online radio network that repeats false accusations about the Democratic Party and communism. Another account came from someone who was talking to friends who repeated false claims about Donald Trump giving people “stimulus checks” long after most of the CARES Act relief programs expired.
Though I wasn’t disputing their reports from the field, I did wonder how many people were actually believing this stuff that can easily be debunked with a simple Google search. But over time, I began to worry more as I began to notice myself all the disinformation that was flowing so freely on YouTube (which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet), on Facebook, on TikTok, and on other high-traffic corners of the internet.
When I began researching QAnon in 2018, I couldn’t help but ask: How can anyone believe this nonsense? JFK Jr. is dead. Adrenochrome is not a real drug. “Pizzagate” was debunked years ago. For goodness sake, Donald Trump used to be quite close to notorious human trafficker Jeffrey Epstein! Now, it increasingly looks like we have the answer: These monetized algorithms really are killing our democracy with “fake news” in real time.
QAnon-sense doesn’t have to be our fait accompli. It’s up to us to change our trajectory.
Authoritarian cults do not just go away.
— David Neiwert (@DavidNeiwert) November 11, 2020
Police say Utah man speeding in snow said he was on his way to kill Claire McCaskill https://t.co/YPqkGwcsPt
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (@stltoday) November 11, 2020
For all their tough talk on how they would not permit disinformation on their respective platforms, Google (as in, YouTube) and Facebook have again been caught allowing election disinformation to flow all over their respective platforms. And for all the reassurances that “it’s just a few fringe types”, we see growing evidence that propaganda movements like QAnon truly are connecting with more Americans in a way that real news outlets and real civic organizations are not.
Even before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, we were beginning to live more and more of our lives online. Now, we’re forehead-deep in an “info-demic” as people continue to stumble upon the Plandemic videos, QAnon accounts, and (even more) lies about the election.
So what can we do about it? First, we need to admit that this is a real problem. Next, we need to figure out what to do about these “Big Tech gatekeepers” who continue to open the floodgates to dangerous propaganda. And going forward, we need to figure out how to rebuild the community ties that have fallen apart, hence allowing online propaganda networks to fill that void. The status quo is truly unsustainable. And if left unchallenged, the status quo will destroy our democracy.