The Dark Side of the GOP: Conspiracy Theories
We all saw the extent of the harm that conspiracy theories can cause during the Capitol incident on January 6th. These last few years, ideas that were seen as fringe and fantastical have emerged in the mainstream. So many impressionable people have fallen down a rabbit hole where they accept conspiracies as truth and reject information from accredited news networks. How did this phenomenon come to be?
Let’s begin with extreme theorist Alex Jones, who is considered to be one of the largest contributors to the rise of conspiracy theories. Some of the views he’s expressed on his programs include 9/11 being an inside job, fetal parts being used by Pepsi, the moon landing being a hoax, and Bill Gates vying for depopulation. A self-proclaimed libertarian and paleo-conservative, he rose to prominence following the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting by claiming it was staged. He frequently went after different parents of Sandy Hook victims, causing his followers to harass them and send death threats. After facing lawsuits by the family members of student victims, he revealed in a deposition that it was a ‘psychosis’ that led him to question the massacre. Jones claimed that “[he] basically thought everything was staged, even though [he’s] now learning a lot of times things aren’t staged” (NBC News). Although he’s been kicked off YouTube and other digital platforms, he’s successfully helped fringe ideas make it to the mainstream. Some current theories involving COVID-19 and vaccinations have likely been fueled through him.
One of the first conspiracies to make its way from the world of the unknown to the masses was Pizzagate. It refers to the unsubstantiated claim that high-profile Democratic politicians and celebrities are participating in a satanic ritual of eating children, which has been heavily promoted on social media and the Internet. Looking at the leaked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, message board users believed that “cheese pizza” was a code word for “child porn." Edgar Maddison Welch, a North Carolina father, drove 350 miles to D.C.’s Comet Pizza to avenge these trafficked children. Welch, who had previously viewed Infowars videos on the topic, entered Comet Ping Pong with his AR-15, confused as to why he could not locate this mysterious dungeon. Alex Jones issued an apology to the restaurant owner, citing that he formed opinions on an incorrect narrative. But for Welch, he couldn’t take anything back-- he was arrested and is currently serving time. In hindsight, this event was a warning, showing us how dangerous acting on unsupported views could be.
That was the antecedent that led to QAnon, which is a bit more complex. Q symbolizes a person and Anon is slang for anonymous. Here’s how it works: an unknown message board user (Q) appears into chat forums on sites like 4chan or 8kun, where they leave behind cryptic messages (called “Q drops'') and sign off with the letter Q or one of their other signature terms. QAnon includes many conspiracies, including Pizzagate, but also focuses on others like the “Deep State,” ISIS, and the JFK assassination. Q has claimed to be some sort of insider government official with security clearance, but their identity remains unknown. At Trump rallies, you can be sure to find merch worn with mantras like WWG1GA, meaning “where we go one, we go all'' or We Are Q. Despite Trump mentioning on numerous occasions that he knows nothing about this group, he has retweeted QAnon posts on Twitter several times to his then millions of followers--essentially validating QAnon's claims. As many of us probably remember over the past 4 years, Trump has frequently talked about “draining the swamp,” meaning getting rid of the corrupt elite in government. This ties in with a central idea of Q—“The Great Awakening." Supposedly, a “storm” will occur where Deep State leaders will be arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Q also explains that Trump is the person who is working to crack down on these evil leaders. QAnon and Trumpism essentially go together. The support for this movement is probably greater than we’re even aware; the largest QAnon Facebook group had around 200,000 members before being banned in August 2020. There are even several QAnon research web pages dedicated to exploring everything that involves Q even further. White evangelical leaders are amongst those boosting Q theories.
An aspect of QAnon that largely goes undiscussed is the echoes of anti-Semitism. While this movement itself is not explicitly anti-Semitic, it is a consistent undertone. In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League reported a rise in tweets from Q accounts that referenced Jews, Zionists, Israel, the Rothschild family, and George Soros. Soros and the Rothschilds have been frequent attacks for anti-Jewish claims. QAnon builds on centuries-old theories—including rebranding the most famous anti-Semitic document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Written as a work of fiction, it essentially blames Jews for every problem in society. The Q idea of eating children parallels the blood libel, which claimed Jews were responsible for kidnapping and killing Christian babies for ritual purposes. Because of these claims, 100 Jewish people were killed between the 12th and 16th centuries. Many Q supporters may not even know about these connections to longtime anti-Semitic tropes, as Jews aren’t mentioned directly. But for others, their motives are clearly to promote hatred.
People who tend to gravitate toward these types of conspiratorial views can be explained by psychology. People who experience stress or anxiety are more likely to rely on cognitive shortcuts to make sense of the world. Social psychologist Karen Douglas says, “People who feel insecure in their relationships and who tend to catastrophize life’s problems are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories” (National Geographic). For passive QAnon adherents, believing this narrative can provide psychological comfort, as it replaces feelings of helplessness with purpose. She believes the recent spike in conspiracy theories may be a result of the pandemic’s effects. The emergence of insane plots during social upheaval and turmoil goes back to the Roman Empire’s collapse. Collective narcissism serves as another possible explanation for latching onto conspiracies. Marta Marchlewsa, who studies conspiracy theories, says, “Collective narcissists are apt to look for imaginary enemies and adopt conspiracy explanations that blame them” (National Geographic). They feel good about themselves for having acquired knowledge that others may not have, hence the notion that they are the holders of truth and everyone else who dissents is a sheep. It’s noteworthy to mention that Infowars founder Alex Jones has been formally diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder by an expert therapist. Another big psychological factor is the tendency to identify with groups of similar views, often led by influential people. Marchlewsa says, “People who believe in conspiracy theories usually seek a savior—someone who will help them protect their in-group from conspiring enemies” (National Geographic). Dissuading these people may seem nearly impossible due to belief echoes, or the emotional response to messages even after they’re known to be false. Pointing out fallacies in their theories also generally serves in strengthening their beliefs. Political scientist Michael Burkun states, “Rejection by authorities is for them a sign that a belief must be true” (Soapboxie).
With Big Tech companies de-platforming conservative users who promote conspiracies, they can tap into their censorship and cancel culture narratives. Now that Twitter and Facebook have cracked down on these pages, many conspiracy believers are now flocking to free speech platforms where they can spread their views with like-minded people. Since trying to talk these individuals out of their beliefs becomes more difficult as they consume more and more, American society must face the sad reality that conspiracy theories will only grow with pushback and uncertainty.