In his welcoming speech, the Head of Department for my undergraduate course asserted that a university education would teach us “how to think”. Of course, what he meant by that is: a university education would teach us the importance of questioning everything and then to research and analyse the available information that verifiably supports the evidence for any inquiry.
In recent months, I’ve found myself recalling his words. For it seems, while the population of the world is better educated than at any other time in history, more and more people are accepting without critical thought or thorough investigation ludicrously baseless narratives as facts.
Deep state, Flat Earth, Bill Gates Microchipping, 5G, Anti-Vaxxers, Global Warming, Covid-19. The world is in the grip of a pandemic of conspiracy theories that are gaining traction and going viral and infecting the minds of too many too ready and too willing to believe.
The most recent and most outlandish and perhaps most dangerous of these is QAnon. Adherents believe there exists a secret cabal of politicians, billionaires, and Hollywood actors who are Satan-worshiping, child-trafficking paedophiles, and that they harvest from children’s glands the chemical adrenochrome, for its hallucinogenic qualities. Furthermore, they believe Donald Trump will soon expose and arrest these monstrous evil-doers and bring them to justice in a day of reckoning known as “The Storm”, or “Awakening”. It should be noted that to date, the President has refused to disavow these claims.
Of course, conspiracy theories are nothing new. From the Slave Power agendas of planters during the 1800s said to be behind the assassinations of two presidents, to the communist plot that saw JFK parted from his brain by Lee Harvey Oswald, suspicions that dark agents operate in the shadows to serve Masters bent on controlling humankind have been with us as long as we’ve developed a capacity for paranoia. The Illuminati, The New World Order, the Bilderberg Agenda, the Freemasons, Shapeshifting Reptilians – all have become common synonyms in our collective language for the secret work of sinister faceless forces. And thus it usually follows that any modern conspiracy theory can be heard in the fear-raising toll of an older predecessor.
In the case of QAnon, its closest antecedent is Pizzagate. Circa 2016, proponents were convinced that a child sex ring was operating out of a pizzeria in Washington, and its members, including Democratic Party officials, were encoding messages in emails and emojis on social media platforms for the benefit of its paedophilic traffickers. It culminated in one man attacking the Comet Ping Pong restaurant with an assault rifle. When arrested and questioned, Edgar Maddison Welch said he had intended to rescue the children being held hostage in its nonexistent basement.
While QAnon’s most distant relative can be traced back much further, to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Written in Russia round about 1903, this weapon of anti-Semitic propaganda has long been exposed as a fake. Nonetheless, that did not stop Henry Ford publishing and distributing to gullible US citizens 500, 000 copies (some still in circulation and being read as truth today). Nor some Nazis accepting it as an article of faith that righteously justified their attempt to systematically extinguish the world of all Jews – with a special reserve for megalomaniacal Jewish bankers – in order to prevent them from drinking the blood of our children and taking over the world.
If any unspeakable historical world event should forewarn us of the potency of disseminating false information and the susceptibility of people into trusting the veracity of its authorship without authenticating its sources, it is the Holocaust. And yet, while none of the advocates of QAnon’s theories could provide substantial or undeniable evidence to support their beliefs, they know - just know - they are true. And its followers are multiplying. Especially among Trump-supporting Alt-Right groups. Indeed it is now common to see T-shirts printed with a Stars-and-Stripes-patterned “Q” and “Q”-baring banners being waved aloft at the President’s campaign rallies.
But who is this “QAnon”? And how and why has his or hers or their preposterous theories gained so much weight? And not just in the States, but increasingly elsewhere in the world. And should we be afraid?
In November 2017, one or more anonymous persons signing out as “Q” on the fringe messaging board 4Chan (a favourite site for internet trolls), hinted at the existence of an influential and sophisticated paedophile network with links to high-profile figures such as Hilary Clinton. Since “Q”, in government parlance, denotes someone who has “security clearance”, people quickly sat up and took notice: surely, here was someone with inside knowledge; here was a whistleblower, or whistleblowers, alerting the public to nefarious clandestine acts perpetrated by rich elites. Never mind that they have ever provided conclusive evidence, indeed any evidence, rather only continually fomented their theory by leaving intermittent cryptic messages – or “crumbs” – for “bakers” to gather and become the subject of no end of wild interpretations (including the mass rounding-up and execution of these elite kiddie-fiddlers), QAnon’s growing cult of disciples show no immediate signs of abatement.
In normal times, we might hold our bellies and laugh at this delusional brigade of tinfoil-hat wearers. But these are the very antithesis of normal times, and as such, we should perhaps be more than a little concerned.
This year, 81 so-called QAnon “candidates” ran for the US Senate or House. In August, one of these, Marjorie Taylor Greene, won the primary election for the Republican 14th Congressional District, Georgia, and is now looking a good prospect for victory in November and taking a seat in the House of Representatives. Scarier still, with the vacant seat in the American Supreme Court left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg likely to be filled by a zealous Christian and antiabortionist, the climate-change sceptic Amy Coney Barret, a theocratic, totalitarian Gilead future appears all-too frighteningly imaginable.
But before the American people allow this to happen, they perhaps ought to remind themselves how closely such a state might resemble what they abhor about the caliphate Isis are intent on creating in the Middle-East. And how the current populist climate has reverberations of the Communist witch-hunt of the McCarthy era. Which saw the persecution of those whose political affiliations were said to be anti-capitalist, and by extension, anti-American. Remember, Mr. President, how many lives were ruined by false allegations and opposing points of view by people harbouring a personal agenda.
And lest we forget, Mr. President, remember how you once paid for a newspaper ad calling for the execution of five black boys, two of them only 14-years-old, who were later proven to be innocent of the brutal rape of a woman in Central Park – this before their conviction and thus based on little more than a gut-feeling of guilt. The folly and racist overtones here are not difficult to recognise.
Reasons for QAnon’s and other such conspiracy theory’s popularity aren’t so very difficult to recognise, either. Fear and insecurity and a lack of understanding are always at their heart - particularly in such uncertain times as now. When our very existence and way of life is threatened by an unseen enemy, microscopic and perceived alike; when the walls and ceilings of the houses of politicians and the super-rich are not made of glass; when none of us can hope to grasp the complexities of global politics and neo-liberal economic ideas, nor the motivations of giant tech companies with their mind-controlling algorithms and Amazon-sized warehouses crammed with vast computers that know everything about us - we look for narratives we can understand.
And we look for people who are like us, who believe in what we believe. For nothing urges us towards a want for belonging than a feeling of not belonging. We are naturally a social species. People need people. We yearn to be part of a tribe. And for anyone feeling the fear, in desperation, they will latch onto any group that offers a sense of unity, togetherness, and like-mindedness.
So, one has only to invent a common enemy, no matter how far-fetched, something upon which people can agree they can collectively fight against, and watch as an army rises. One prepared to take up arms and defend themselves and their loved ones against, in this instance, paedophiles. Because paedophiles are undeniably real and everywhere and walking among us. And as everybody knows, paedophiles are subhuman, shapeshifting reptilians who must be smoked out and eradicated for the sake of our children’s lives.
For my final dissertation, I ambitiously sought to debunk the notion of conspiracy theories by way of linguistics. At that time, 2008, along with several hardcopy texts sourced from the campus library, the internet provided a useful body of work to support my proposition. And my research led me to conclude that the problem was not so much the amount of misinformation that existed out there that dangerously influenced people’s way of thinking. Rather, it was the sheer volume of information that contributed to a conspiracy theory’s very credibility and shelf-life.
12 years on, that quantity has increased exponentially, and continues to do so, largely unchecked. So much so, and far more now than back then, it is nigh-on impossible to know what sources to trust and who is telling the truth. If we want our suspicions confirmed, there’s a website out there that will gladly supply all the bias our paranoid minds and angry, fearful hearts could ask for. Click on that link, start reading, or watching, and algorithms - such as YouTube’s - will instantly take note and feed us more of the same. Because their spooky, clever, lightning-quick calculations recognise that that is what interests us, and they have the magic and means by which to keep whetting our hunger for more. Making info-addicts of us all.
We might suggest that to offer balance, for every baseless and unevidenced piece of propaganda on the internet, algorithms should recommend an evidence-based counter-argument. Except that in itself might prove counterintuitive, and act as validation that we do indeed have something to fear, thus creating a perfect vicious circle. As John Cook, an expert on misinformation with George Mason University’s Centre for Climate Change Communication, recognises: “For a conspiracy theory where the misinformation is wrapped up around this air of distrust - distrust of institutions, distrust of mainstream accounts, even distrust the science - then any evidence that comes in that disproves the theory is seen as being part of the conspiracy,”
By the very nature of governments and secret societies conducting their affairs, well, secretly, disproving involvement in secret Satanic rituals or conspiracies designed to subjugate the dissident human race, will remain forever remote and problematic, and therefore always subject to contentious debate. With the unceasing spread of disinformation and misinformation only adding to the already stormy vortex of truth, I wonder how and if one of our greatest philosophical achievements - critical thinking - can survive this swirling torrent of myth-making fallacies, and if killed off, who might we claim is responsible for its assassination.
Paul Davenport Randell is a writer and free-thinker. His debut novel, The Meaningless Killing of Luke Little, can be purchased on Amazon here.