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This Week in Corona Scams: QAnon-sense, v.2021

Donald Trump

This Week in Corona Scams, QAnon is back in the news thanks to HBO’s new docuseries. How well does Q: Into the Storm actually explain the story of how and why QAnon has become one of the most potent disinformation networks of the 21st century?

And since we’re already talking about QAnon, we need to continue our conversation on the COVID-19 vaccines. If you enjoy weekend TikTok binges as much as I do, please be careful of who you’re paying attention to and which videos you’re liking.

First, we need to talk about HBO’s new QAnon docuseries.

Since 2018, we’ve been keeping close eyes on QAnon and their ever-expanding ideology of bizarre conspiracy theories, gross bigotry, and gawd-awful pseudoscience. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to turn our lives upside down, QAnon acolytes were quick to deny the reality of virus, promote fake “coronavirus cures”, and link arms with the anti-vaccine movement to lie about the safety and efficacy of vaccines (we’ll have more on them later!). And especially since January 6, America has had to come to terms with the reality of this extreme network of disinformation being such a potent national security threat.

Even before January 6, more mainstream media figures started to notice QAnon and investigate what was going on there. The documentary filmmaker Cullen Hoback apparently began digging into QAnon shortly after it burst onto the 4chan scene in late 2017, and HBO is now airing Q: Into the Storm, where we can follow along with Hoback’s attempt to “unmask the true identity of ‘Q’” as QAnon’s central hive moved from 4chan to 8chan (now known as 8kun), then President Donald Trump refused to refute any of QAnon’s lies, and QAnon eventually took hold on mainstream social media platforms across the internet.

At the very least, we shouldn’t dismiss the work that Hoback and his team put into investigating and unraveling QAnon’s backstory. As I frequently say on these pages, this did not “come out of nowhere”. For people who already have a strong understanding of why QAnon is so dangerous, there’s plenty to appreciate in this docuseries’ revelations about QAnon’s real history. But for people who are not already well-versed in QAnon ideology, there’s risk in getting so lost in “the mystery of ‘Q’” that one might forget why any of this actually matters.

QAnon is not some fun “whodunnit mystery”. Rather, QAnon is a dangerous conspiracy cult that pollutes so much of the internet we regularly interact with.

As we’ve previously discussed, one of the worst mistakes that many media outlets made during Trump’s presidency was reveling in “the greatest show on earth” instead of exposing the ugly reality behind the glitzy show. In this light, I understand why some TV critics worry that Q: Into the Storm risks glamorizing QAnon in some viewers’ eyes by focusing so much on the flashy “secret society” elements (and eye-roll-worthy Tiger King style drama) and less on the real-world danger that’s resulted by the rampant spread of QAnon’s propaganda.

If you’re looking for an explanation of QAnon’s backstory that’s simultaneously thorough, concise, and accurate, I highly recommend Bellingcat’s “Making of QAnon” story, the QAnon Anonymous podcast episode that explains how Japanese “otaku” culture eventually came to America and later opened the door for QAnon’s launch, and The Daily Beast’s detailed explorations of QAnon‘s conspiracy universe. If you have more time, try listening to Jake Hanrahan’s and iHeartMedia’s QClearance podcast series, and go ahead and binge more QAnon Anonymous episodes. And if you’re trying to understand why QAnon has become such a huge cultural phenomenon, you can’t go wrong with Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa at Gaslit Nation, Jared Yates Sexton’s new Substack, multiple New Yorker stories (and a New Yorker Radio Hour episode) investigating QAnon’s seeping into mainstream political dialogue, and PBS Frontline’s investigation into “the vast right-wing conspiracy” that made Trump’s presidency and QAnon’s popularity possible. 

Again, I do not want to minimize all the work that went into HBO’s series. I, for one, will continue to watch to see what they include in the final two episodes of this series. From what I’ve seen in the first four episodes, they present a compelling case for their theory on the real-world identity of “Q” (or at least, who’s been posting “Q-drops” from January 2018 onward). If you’ve already been following along with our QAnon coverage, and especially if you’ve been doing some of your own research, you will likely appreciate how Q: Into the Storm takes you deeper into this “rabbit hole” of a story.

However there are far more important elements to this story than the simple question of “Who Is ‘Q’?”, and so far those far more important elements have been reduced to small video clips that get rushed through in passing. Even if we never uncover the full truth of everyone who ever posted on 4chan and/or 8chan as “Q”, we already know plenty on what we need to do to stop the worsening “Infodemic” that QAnon has been intensifying for the past three-plus years.

Since we’re already talking about QAnon, we need to revisit the “COVID-19 is really a globalist bioweapon” rumor that’s getting a new lease on life.

In case anyone wonders why I keep harping on QAnon, and on other “corona scammer” propagandists like Alex Jones, just check CNN. Their chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, spoke with multiple Trump administration officials to get a better sense of how they handled the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Gupta spoke with former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, he actually parroted a claim that we had already begun fact-checking last May, then revisited following the release of the Plandemic videos. No really, Redfield actually claimed, “I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory. You know, escaped.”

Though U.S. intelligence officials refuse to publicly rule out this bizarre theory, that may have less to do with medical science and more to do with geopolitics. Even if Biden administration officials are frustrated by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s continuing refusal to cooperate with independent investigations on the origins of COVID-19, so far we still have zero evidence showing that COVID-19 is any kind of “bioweapon”, and there’s not even any definitive evidence suggesting that some “lab accident” started this pandemic.

Yes, most scientists are being incredibly careful by refusing to completely rule out the “lab accident” theory. This goes to show that these scientists are being responsible and ethical by refusing to rush to definitive conclusions when we probably don’t (yet?) have all the facts. 

Here’s what we do know, based on the actual evidence and scientific research that’s available: It’s nearly impossible that COVID-19 is any kind of “globalist bioweapon”, it’s highly unlikely that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the result of deliberate or accidental lab work, and the virus’ genetic material still points more toward the probability of a virus that was already spreading among bats mutating at some point to become more conducive to spreading among humans. I know this doesn’t feel as clear-cut or “sexy” as the “lab” theories, but it’s important to remember that we live in the real world, not some hokey Hollywood action movie.

As we say so often in these pages: Actions have consequences.

Since we’re already talking about that CNN special on the early days of COVID-19, we might as well discuss the other prominent voices on the show. In her interview with Gupta, Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, finally publicly admitted what outside public health experts had been warning since early 2020: “There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

Yet while whistleblowers like Dr. Rick Bright refused to censor the science and instead braved Trump’s wrath to show Americans the truth about COVID-19, and shortly after whistleblowers like former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, former National Security Council Director for European Affairs Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and former National Security Council Director for Europe and Russia Fiona Hill refused to condone then President Donald Trump’s attempt to coerce the Ukrainian government into “getting dirt” on Joe Biden, Deborah Birx instead chose complicity. 

In fact, one year ago this week, Birx told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data. I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues.” From there on out, Birx continued to praise Trump, even though she now admits she was lying about Trump being “attentive to science”, and she had ample opportunities to follow the lead of Yovanovitch, Vindman, Hill, and Bright. Instead, she chose to stay, she chose to “tow the party line”, and she’s now choosing to rewrite history rather than come clean on her own complicity.

As we often try to remind everyone, actions have consequences. Thanks to the egregious complicity of the likes of Birx and Redfield, and even thanks to the less-severe-but-still-problematic complicity of the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other Trump administration officials who helped Trump present an inaccurate portrait of the federal government’s COVID-19 response efforts, Donald Trump, his QAnon allies, and their fellow COVID-19 deniers had far too much free reign to lie about COVID-19 and convince millions of Americans to believe the lies. 

Whether it’s “KM” shilling for “BS Beads” on Instagram or anti-vaxxers making lies go viral on TikTok, our “Web of Hate”/“Infodemic” crisis is far from over.

Of course, the buck does not just stop at Dr. Birx’s office. Far too many traditional news outlets were also complicit in amplifying Trump’s lies, and far too many “big tech” conglomerates are still complicit in amplifying disinformation from QAnon operatives, anti-vaxxers, and other “corona scammers” on their social media platforms. Even as medical experts and public health professionals are openly asking community partners to help them share the truth about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, the “big tech” owned social media platforms continue to allow the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia), Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Del Bigtree, and Brian Rose to spread the most blatantly disgusting (and easily debunkable) lies about COVID-19 and vaccine safety.

For all their hollow complaints about “censoring free speech!”, anti-vaxxers have largely flourished on multiple social media platforms despite repeatedly violating these platforms’ rules on misinformation and community safety. According to a recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch, over 60% of the anti-vaccine content being shared on Facebook and Twitter originates from the “Disinformation Dozen” of anti-vaxx movement leaders. Despite Facebook’s constant claims of “supporting reform”, the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found in January that Facebook was still providing monetization tools to known anti-vaccine propagandists. And despite TikTok’s claims that they’re cracking down on dangerous extremists at their platform, Media Matters published a report last week documenting how TikTok was still promoting QAnon, anti-vaccine, and even far-right militia content onto the “For You” page that typically functions as users’ launchpad to explore TikTok videos. 

Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Quite frankly, I can vouch for the veracity of these investigations because I myself have caught this kind of disinformation on these platforms. Though Facebook finally appears to be disciplining the ex-Younique MLM salesperson we call “KM” for repeatedly violating their rules, it took a year’s worth of her notorious lies about “corona borona” for her to face any kind of discipline from Facebook. Even in this past week, “KM” again took to Facebook and Instagram (another Facebook-owned platform) to lie about the “BS Beads” providing such effective “skin care” that, “We go back to fetus status.” Just yesterday, she again took to Instagram to make false claims about the beads boosting “blood health“, treating “menopausal symptoms“, treating chronic fatigue syndrome, and even “boosting energy“. (Spoiler Alert: There is no actual medical science backing up any of these “healing stone” and “energy healingfalse advertising claims.)

Meanwhile on TikTok, the anti-vaccine disinformation campaign has grown so rampant that medical professionals like Dr. Eric Burnett, Steven Ho, Dr. Zach Wagner, and Chris Lucia have had to put more effort into publicly debunking the anti-vaxxers’ lies on the platform. While I’m thoroughly impressed by these and other TikTokers’ efforts to debunk the lies about COVID-19 and the vaccines, it’s still infuriating that TikTokers themselves have to do most of the heavy lifting in fighting disinformation that spreads on TikTok.

Finally, a quick PSA on vaccinations and preventing another wave of COVID-19 infections
COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccines, vaccine science, SEIU 1107, UMC, health care
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Starting next Monday, all Nevadans aged 16 and up become eligible for vaccination. As we’ve been trying our best to explain on this site, these vaccines work in preventing severe COVID-19 disease, and we have new data showing that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work in curbing new infections. Now that we’re on the brink of universal adult eligibility for vaccination, please take advantage of this opportunity we have to accelerate the end of this pandemic.

While we await further vaccinations, please stick with the proven methods to stop further spread of COVID-19. And as you surf the web and partake in the social media zeitgeists, please fact-check before you follow any advice from any “influencer”. On that note, please enjoy the holiday weekend safely and wisely, and we’ll talk more next week.

If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please wear your masks and maintain social distancing from people outside your household.

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