You’ve probably heard the pitch. There’s an evil conspiracy of Satan worshiping, baby-blood drinking, basement dwelling pedophiles that are secretly running all our lives from inside hidden compartments in the heads of lizard people. Maybe you’ve heard stuff that is even more outlandish.
To most people who can string the concepts of 2+2 together and get a result in the neighborhood of 4, none of this stuff is worth the air or pixels expended on it. The real problem isn’t normal thinking people. It is the 20 percent or more that actually believe this crap.
A study published today by PRRI puts this in a more sobering perspective.
The far-right conspiracy theory movement known as QAnon emerged on the internet in late 2017 and gained traction throughout former president Donald Trump’s time in office. QAnon’s core theory revolves around Satan-worshipping pedophiles plotting against Trump and a coming “storm” that would clear out those evil forces, but the movement has also been described as a “big tent conspiracy theory” that involves a constantly evolving web of schemes about politicians, celebrities, bankers, and the media, as well as echoes of older movements within Christianity, such as Gnosticism.
PRRI breaks their research into the political, religious and media components. Unsurprising is the data that more Republicans actually believe these conspiracy theories, 23 percent. The religious breakdown is interesting:
With the exceptions of white evangelical Protestants (24%) and Mormons (24%), less than one in five members of all other religious groups agree with this idea, including white mainline Protestants (18%), other Protestants of color (17%), Hispanic Catholics (17%), white Catholics (16%), other Christians (15%), Black Protestants (12%), Hispanic Protestants (12%), religiously unaffiliated Americans (12%), and members of other non-Christian religions (11%). Jewish Americans (6%) are the least likely to agree that true American patriots may have to resort to violence.
The media outlet breakdown takes on an important dynamic.
Nearly half of Americans who trust far-right news (48%) and one-third who trust Fox News (34%) agree with the statement that “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” About one in five who do not watch television news (22%), those who report trusting local news most (18%), and those who report trusting CNN most (17%) agree with this theory. Fewer Americans who trust MSNBC (14%), broadcast news (12%) or public television (11%) agree.
Around four in ten Americans who most trust far-right news sources (42%) and around one in four who most trust Fox News (27%) agree that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Less than one in five Americans who do not watch television news (19%) or who trust local news (16%) agree, and less than one in ten who trust CNN (9%), broadcast news (8%), public television (7%), or MSNBC (7%) agree.
We have already seen too many instances of violence generated by the proliferation of Qanonsense through various media outlets, ranging from the Pizzagate incident (involving a moron who was convinced by right wing media that children were being held by Hilary Clinton associated pedophiles in the basement of a pizza parlor—that had no basement.) All the way up to the January 6th Insurrection (a tourist visit with body armor, weapons and a gallows) at the Capitol.
Just in same way that the fabricated “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was used as a pretext for violence against and the attempted extermination of Jews, Qanon seeks to recreate this violence against the perceived “elites.” Both the former and the latter are targeted toward radicalizing people with marginalized on nonexistent analytical skills.
Sure, the followers of Qanon in any of its forms are suckers. But these suckers are sometimes only too happy to be the canon fodder of those who see them as easy marks. A tiny few woke up after invading the Capitol on January 6th and realized they’d been conned. Most have just doubled down, convinced of the rightness of their adherence to abject stupidity. It is both sad and illuminating that various members of the Republican Party pander to this demographic.
The real question is how do we balance the First Amendment’s right to free speech with speech that is clearly designed to incite violence through lies. The key word is balance. We actually need to restore balance to our media channels by renewing their covenant to act in the public service.
Until the Reagan era, we had a requirement for fairness and even-handedness in the media. This was obliterated with the removal of the Fairness Clause by the FCC. Restoring a version of this is vital—it is now a more difficult situation since that little thing called the internet popped up in the meantime. But this problem needs to be confronted.
Just as shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech under the First Amendment, the screeds of Qanon adherents should be similarly regarded as beyond the pale.