QAnon, the latest conspiracy stunt that would anoint Trump as a hero
Just when you think you've heard it all, just when you think it can't get any worse, here comes yet another plot that puts all the others together.
I'm talking about QAnon, a conspiracy theory that is becoming increasingly popular on the web, especially through social networks.
What is QAnon?
To define QAnon as simply a far-right conspiracy theory would be reductive.
In fact, a myriad of elements related to other conspiracy theories that have depopulated in recent years appear in the narrative.
The followers of QAnon claim that Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, is reportedly working in secrecy to dismantle a dangerous group of pedophile Satanists, guilty of setting up a horrendous child trafficking ring for the purpose of perpetrating physical and sexual abuse.
Victims are even said to be sacrificed to extract certain chemical components from their blood that would be used to prepare a kind of elixir of long life.
According to the QAnon theory, this group would include some prominent members of the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, and also Hollywood celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres.
Even the likes of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama have been associated with this hypothetical group of monsters who, again according to the theory, would hold the fate of the world in their hands.
With this in mind, Donald Trump is presented as a kind of savior, recruited by the U.S. Army in 2016 to put an end to this conspiracy and make justice triumph again.
But it doesn't end there: there are other elements that contribute to making this theory one of the most absurd ever heard in recent years.
QAnon followers claim that John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. did not really die in the infamous 1999 plane crash, and that today he is helping Trump in his secret mission.
Add in some side theories about aliens, vaccines and 9/11, and you're done.
It is curious how this conspiracy hypothesis is gaining momentum at Trump's most sensitive time, namely the approach of the new election (scheduled for November 2020).
In fact, the president has never confirmed or denied rumors about this: what is certain is that he is using QAnon's delirium as a weapon in his campaign, In order to gain acceptance among the population.
QAnon, when it all started
To understand this we have to go back as far as October 2017, when a cryptic message by a user calling himself Q Clearance Patriot first appeared on a platform named 4chan.
The person in question claimed to be a high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer and, as such, had access to classified information regarding Trump's secret fight against this Satanist-pedophile sect.
According to Q, President Trump's mission is to publicly expose those responsible for this huge conspiracy during "The Storm", a precise moment when justice will finally be served and America's dignity restored.
In recent times, abetted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the approaching 2020 presidential election, the conspiracy theory QAnon is back in vogue more powerful than ever.
Q's cryptic messages have invaded the web, taking over the likes of Facebook and Twitter platforms and spreading these delusional beliefs like wildfire.
Trump himself shared several tweets supporting the theory several times, stating: "I heard that these people love our country.", suggesting that perhaps, underneath, he approves of the actions of his followers.
Donald Trump implicitly defends QAnon by avoiding answering reporters' direct questions on the subject - Source New York Times
Why does the QAnon theory have so much of a following?
Kevin Roose, a journalist for the New York Times, argues that this theory turns out to be fascinating for multiple reasons. The most curious and interesting of all likens the QAnon conspiracy to a kind of intricate online multiplayer game, where everyone makes a contribution to solving puzzles and deciphering clues to move to the next level.
Followers of the theory, in fact, are convinced that Trump sends them certain coded messages to update them on the progress of operations: the number 17 (corresponding to the letter Q in the alphabet), for example, would indicate some sort of secret message, while the pink ties the president likes to wear would be an unmistakable sign of the progress made in dismantling child trafficking.
The main problem, however, is the growing functional illiteracy that is sweeping the world.
As always, more than ever, we are constantly bombarded with millions of different pieces of information every day: distinguishing between true and false, between authentic and fake news, becomes extremely complicated.
Too much information to process, too little available to verify its veracity.
This mental laziness causes us to make reckless use of heuristics, which are cognitive shortcuts we use to process faster the information we absorb every day in order to save energy.
Simulation heuristics, for example, cause us to estimate the probability of the occurrence of an event based on the ease with which we can imagine it.
Or again, the expert heuristic causes us to agree with a message simply because its source is considered authoritative, without posing too many problems about it.
In the long run, our brains can no longer process information objectively, since to do so would involve a considerable expenditure of energy that few are now willing to sustain.
It is much easier to just read news headlines, not take the trouble to verify sources or cry "Wolf! Wolf!" rather than to develop critical thinking about it.
This kind of communication only fuels anxieties, fears and paranoia inherent in human beings, making them unable to distinguish the true from the false. That is why, in this situation, conspiracy theories such as QAnon find fertile ground on which to thrive.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence With team members SWAT of Broward County, Fla., Nov. 30, 2018; the man on the left of the image shows a red and black "Q," used as a symbol by QAnon conspiracy theorists. The photo was tweeted, removed, and then replaced in Pence's feed.
The role of fake news in conspiracy theory
By now it is a fact: fake news like QAnon and the like do nothing but create further divisions among the population. It is no mystery that the technique of divide and rule enjoyed enormous success in the past, and helped several empires-Habsburg and Roman empires above all-to expand their holdings.
In the modern world, the divide and rule passes through spreading hate and fear among the population through fake news on duty.
Allowing authoritarian governments to emerge, garner support and rise to power. I realize that such a statement might sound a bit conspiratorial, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 showed us another side of the coin that we may have been ignoring.
It was shown that Russian intelligence had purposely created and disseminated a number of Facebook memes on the theme "Black lives matter" for the purpose of inducing African American voters to abstain from voting.
These are not conspiracies, thus more or less fanciful hypotheses based on unproven assumptions, but refined techniques of psychological manipulation that have political, social and economic consequences.
How do you expose fake news?
This is becoming more and more complex, but there are a few things you can do to try to detect this kind of news. The first is definitely to check the authoritativeness and veracity of the source: portals such as Lercio, The Corsair Courier, or Whattheydon'twanttoknow are not authoritative sources.
Three on-the-fly tricks for figuring out what you're reading:
- Try to stick to official communications, and always compare different articles to see if they all say the same thing or if there are discrepancies.
- Needless to say, but I want to reiterate, one should read the articles in full and not dwell only on the headline, especially if it is clickbait.
- Be careful with images, too, because anyone would be able to manipulate them to their liking: it only takes a minimum of Photoshop knowledge to create events that never happened.
The role of Facebook, Twitter and Tik Tok in the spread of QAnon
These three platforms were literally taken by storm by QAnon followers.
In recent months it has been all about a proliferation of groups, posts, videos and tweets on the subject, so much so that the tech giants have been forced to ban thousands of accounts supporting the theory.
It is news in recent days that Facebook has deleted a group with more than 200,000 members in support of QAnon, guilty of misbehavior and violence against the community, as well as the spreading of blatantly false news.
Twitter and Tik Tok are also scrambling to limit the spread of this conspiracy theory, deleting hashtags, blocking urls and spreading si posts on the topic.
Shira Ovide, a journalist for the New York Times, argues that these mass deletion actions are quite insidious, as they only confirm the suspicions of the plotters.
They, in fact, claim that the powers that be are plotting to silence the QAnon revolution and, of course, the suspension of the indicted accounts would only confirm their theory.
Conspiracists are known to reject any kind of official information and feel the need to dig up data, theories and content to support their theses on alternative sources.
This explains why there has been a proliferation of traffic on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit, which, by the way, has contributed to the exponential increase in earnings of these giants.
To better understand the topic, I suggest you invest 15 minutes of your time to watch the Ted Talk by Carole Cadwallar, Guardian journalist who helped uncover the Cambridge Analytica case.
In this speech, Cadwallar addresses the sensitive topic of democracy, the role that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have assumed in the modern world, and questions whether we will ever be able to guarantee the impartiality of any political election as we once did.
"Hatred and fear have led the country to turn against itself. It is now impossible to distinguish the true from the false, because nothing is as it seems", Carole Cadwallar.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the consequences of psychological manipulation
If you still haven't seen The Great Hack on Netflix, I recommend you watch it now. It is a documentary about the events that led to the downfall of Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm that ended up in the eye of the storm for misappropriating the sensitive data of millions of people around the world with the complicity of Facebook and using it to influence the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the year Donald Trump became head of state.
Why am I telling you about this?
To demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate information and create distorted realities to support one's arguments. Companies such as Cambridge Analytica are in the business of creating ad hoc content to influence certain segments of the population in order to induce them to vote or not to vote during elections. The content is customized according to the psychological profile of the person in question, who is shown a "fictional world" built on his or her beliefs.
David Carroll, a U.S. professor who has mounted a lawsuit against the British agency, argues:
"All my social interactions, my credit card payments, my online searches, my likes, are collected in real time and linked to my identity, thus giving free access to my entire innermost emotional experience to anyone who wishes to purchase this data.
With this information available, anyone can fight to get my attention by administering a feed of content created especially for me and visible only to me. And this applies to each of us."
Nowadays it is extremely easy to manipulate reality to pursue one's own ends.
This is the effect conspiracy theories such as QAnon have, which is to muddy the waters for political, economic and sociological purposes.
Update July 2021
Yesterday we witnessed scenes on TV that seemed to come straight out of a Hollywood movie, from the "Attack on Power" thread, but those images were unfortunately true.
A large group of people, armed and certainly with less-than-peaceful intentions, stormed the U.S. Congress during the session that was supposed to certify the election victory of the new U.S. president, effectively disrupting it and preventing it from running smoothly.
Beyond the motives of the parties involved, and the folklore of some protesters, this fact is yet another demonstration of the persuasive and triggering power that social media has over the masses.
All it took was a video message and a few tweets from President Donald Trump to spark the riots, which at the time of writing, have had their access revoked by the platforms themselves for inciting hatred and violence.
This is the first time social platforms have blocked access to a Western head of state for its use, and there is bipartisan condemnation coming for the blatant incitement to revolt.
But let us not stop to think about the political implications, let us rather think about the role of the Social Media which more than any other media are able to achieve these effects.
And let's ask some questions.
- How easy is it at this point to be able to distort the reality of facts or create artfully fabricated news to manipulate the masses?
- What enormous responsibility do social platforms have? Or should this responsibility fall solely on the users who use them?
- What are the limits and yardsticks that "decision makers" within platforms should adopt in deciding who to give a voice to and under what rules?
There will certainly be much more talk about the events of January 6, 2021 and the riots in the U.S. Congress and social will undoubtedly be brought up as key players in the development of these events.
The result of all this was dozens of arrests and as many as 4 deaths due to clashes with law enforcement officials who regained control of the offices that were being occupied and vandalized.
One of the victims of the January 6, 2021 violence.
Ashli Babbitt supporter of QAnon.
Those in the courtroom fleeing
Author: Drew Angerer | Acknowledgements: AFP - Copyright: 2021 Getty Images
Author: Drew Angerer | Acknowledgements: AFP - Copyright: 2021 Getty Images
Author: SAUL LOEB | Acknowledgements: AFP - Copyright: AFP or licensors
Everyone is clearly free to think what they want, I am not here to argue about that.
The purpose of this article is to try to make you understand what lies behind a conspiracy theory like QAnon, what psychological mechanisms are put in place, and how to counter them.
My advice is to evaluate carefully, following these simple rules:
- Verify information by doing more than one search.
- Don't stop at the first results you find, but dig deeper.
- Check with authoritative sources, such as the New York Times, Il Corriere della Sera, etc. EDIT: I cite these two newspapers as examples, to make the point that everyone should inquire at the sources they consider authoritative, even if they disagree with their own thinking. One cannot form an objective opinion by hearing only one bell. Do you agree?
- Cross-reference data with opinions to get different viewpoints.
- Always read and inform yourself with awareness before exposing yourself in comments or judgments on social media.
Always keep in mind that, by now, the value of personal data has far surpassed that of gold, turning it into the most valuable asset on earth.
Your thoughts, behaviors, habits and preferences are worth much more than you think.
So think twice before giving them to anyone.
Update August 2021
The risk is to fall into the trap of someone who, under the guise of offering you an alternative answer to your legitimate questions, leads you to believe things that are not true at all.
Conspiracy theory--in general--is born out of this very human weakness, appealing to the need of those who ask questions but then err on the side of seeking validation to funds and facts.
If we think of the most sensational hoaxes in history, they have always gone through the logical-but then deviated-process of:
- I ask myself questions
- I don't trust official sources or want a second opinion
- I find an alternative answer (perhaps more "comfortable" for my belly).
- I make it my own by proclaiming it as the only truth, without verifying data or sources.
Just as is happening now between ProVax and NoVax.
The former appealing to science and official data, the latter not trusting official data and looking for alternative answers.
Very helpful TLON video explaining how conspiracies arise and why there are people who believe in them, just like in the QANON case.