- by Aron Solomon
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Donald Trump, who is tirelessly fighting the cabal.
The Pew Research Center has shown that Americans’ awareness of QAnon has doubled from 23% to 27% from March until September. While it’s tempting to believe that these conspiracy theories are embraced only by the naive and politically disconnected, the reality is that Americans with high political knowledge are more likely than others to have heard of QAnon. In fact, more than a dozen Senate and House candidates in the 2020 election have deeply engaged with the QAnon conspiracy theory.
While QAnon has clearly become a remarkably well-known conspiracy theory in 2020, it’s not that we didn’t have conspiracy theories in earlier times.
Two thousand years ago there were widespread conspiracy theories circulated about Nero’s death. While he committed suicide in 68 AD, popular conspiracy theories claimed that Nero had faked his death and was in hiding and plotting a return to power.
In the United States in the 1960s, the John Birch Society promoted the Black Helicopter conspiracy, attempting to convince Americans that a United Nations force would soon arrive in black helicopters to bring the US under UN control. Promoted by conservative talk show hosts, the theory re-emerged in the 1990s during the Clinton presidency.
And some conspiracy theorists still believe that Denver International Airport stands above an underground city which serves as a headquarters of the New World Order. These theorists believe that the airport's significant size and distance from the city’s downtown core (actually not terribly unique features for an airport) laid the foundation for this secret underground lair, which includes myriad Satanic and Masonic symbols.
Yet these earlier conspiracy theories didn’t have the rocket fuel today’s theories do - the Internet. An important Rand Corporation study on radicalization in the digital era shows that radicalization online takes place four times faster than offline. This is precisely what gives conspiracy theories wings.
Hate spreads online like wildfire.
A recent piece in the Washington Post shows that while the QAnon conspiracy theory is beginning to lose a bit of momentum in the United States, it is flourishing internationally. The elasticity of the QAnon theory works beautifully on other nations. It’s primary thesis is proving to stick remarkably firmly to local causes in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia, among other places.
That QAnon is deeply intertwined with anti-semitism has given it strong legs in 2020. Europe, for example, a current hotbed of the QAnon movement, has endured a spate of antisemitic terrorst attacks over the past year. So it comes as no surprise that a recent study in Germany showed that one in three Germans has a conspiratorial view of the world.
Felix Klein, federal commissioner for Jewish life in Germany, recently told an Israeli news site that the protests against the COVID-19 regulations, particularly in Berlin, have been fertile ground for conspiracy theories and rampant anti-Jewish sentiment.
The current protests against corona-related restrictions serve as a rallying point for antisemites, Holocaust deniers, and believers in conspiracy myths. At "hygiene protests", participants downplay the Holocaust by, for example, comparing the current requirement to wear a face mask with the obligation to wear a Star of David during the Nazi regime…
Germany is taking QAnon and other conspiracy theories very seriously, something Klein also discussed in 2018 with the Washington Post. When recently asked about the danger posed by such conspiratorial views, Commissioner Klein shared that there is deep concern that conspiracy theories and the verbal statements that attach to them could cause many people to act upon them. He noted that:
Conspiracy myths also prepare the ground for violence, as history has shown. Those who perceive themselves as victims and feel threatened can themselves turn into a threat. Anti-Jewish pogroms throughout history have been the fatal consequence of such obsessive hatred of Jews, as have the antisemitic terrorist attacks worldwide in recent years,"
The most significant catalyst for the spread domestically and internationally of QAnon in 2020 has been COVID-19. This is absolutely clear. A global crisis, such as a pandemic, makes it significantly easier for a greater number of people to embrace conspiracy theories because they are desperate for answers and control, something all conspiracy theories offer.
The European Commission, the official EU strategy and policy implementation body, has been sending warnings about COVID-19-related conspiracy theories since the onset of the virus. Their warning, set in bold on the landing page of their site, offers perfect closure for this piece about the international spread of today’s most insidious conspiracy theory:
Be warned: the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a rise in harmful and misleading conspiracy theories. It may be difficult to recognise them or know how best to deal with them.
About Aron Solomon
Aron Solomon is the Senior Digital Strategist for NextLevel.com and an Adjunct Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.