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How Can Liberal Democracy Respond to the Rise of QAnon?

CJ Werleman explores the overlap between those with hard right beliefs and people with a desire to lead alternative lifestyles via the conspiracy theory group which believes Donald Trump is saving the world from cannibals and paedophiles

A woman wearing a QAnon shirt in Munich, Germany, in May 2020. Photo: Sachelle Babbar/Zuma Press/PA Images

How Can Liberal Democracy Respond to the Rise of QAnon?

CJ Werleman explores the overlap between those with hard right beliefs and people with a desire to lead alternative lifestyles via the conspiracy theory group which believes Donald Trump is saving the world from cannibals and paedophiles

The US Presidential Election will go a long way to determining whether or not democracy, liberalism, and political parties of the left are able to survive in the social media age.

If American voters re-elect Donald Trump – a President who is on tape admitting that he downplayed a virus that has killed more than 200,000 people and put 30 million more on the unemployment line, while at the same time smearing dead US soldiers as “losers” and “suckers” and being credibly accused of sexual assault for the 42nd time – then it will be in part because 56% of Republican Party voters steadfastly believe that he is defending the planet from a secret cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles and cannibals: a conspiracy theory known as QAnon, which contends that the secret end goal of liberalism is to legalise child sex.

A Trump victory in November would make evidently clear that a majority of voters are unable to discern truth from fiction, information from disinformation, and decency from vulgarity.

But the QAnon conspiracy is not confined to the US. It has now landed in the UK, in the midst of the country’s second COVID-19 wave.

“This has to do with the QAnon movement,” a late-middle-aged man who described himself a member of the English Democrats, told Byline TV during anti-mask protests held in London over the weekend.

“We are a lot of people sitting at home while COVID-19 is going on and looking on their computers and finding out actually what is going on,” he said. “QAnon is giving people lots of information, and it’s asking you to use your mind. It’s the best thing. I mean, I really didn’t know what was going on for years and years. Now obviously there’s an illness – COVID-19 – but it’s not to the extent it is they are giving and they are using COVID-19 to control the population. It’s as simple as that. As Q would say, get on your computers, go out there and get the information for yourself.”

In the real world, “Q” – the alleged source of the conspiracy – does not exist, originating instead as a poster on the far-right message board 4Chan, which has become popular among neo-Nazis, white nationalists and white supremacists.

When “Q” began accusing Democrats, “Deep State” government officials and liberal Hollywood elites of running a secret child-sex trafficking ring, QAnon conspiracy theorists began showing up at Trump’s campaign rallies in 2018. Two years later, they are winning Republican Party primaries and on the verge of being elected to the US Congress.

In many ways, QAnon has become a one-stop-shop for right-wing extremists, anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracy theorists, 9/11 truthers and anyone else seeking a simple reading of a complex world. But even more concerning is the way in which the movement seems to be evolving and is now associated with New Age hippies, Peloton mums, astrological forums and yoga communities.

“It is remarkable how dramatic of a demographic shift QAnon has undergone in about two months,” observes NBC investigative reporter Ben Collins. “Suburban white women have completely taken over this movement.”

Those following the evolution of the conspiracy movement have observed how female social media influencers, from mothering advice accounts to alternative health pages, have given QAnon a more feminine touch by “softening the messages, videos and traditional imagery that would be associated with QAnon narratives,” according to PhD researcher Marc Andre Argentino. “This branding is the polar opposite of ‘raw’ QAnon”.

Slate magazine’s Lili Loofbourow says that, at the same time the QAnon conspiracy retains its violent roots, with subtle and not so subtle pleas for vigilante and anti-democratic retributions against its targets, its appeal is becoming more “morally ambiguous, simultaneously frightening, and perfectly crafted to draw in a certain slice of suburban women”.

It’s worth mentioning that the FBI has identified QAnon conspiracy theorists as “extremists” who pose a potential domestic terrorism threat and that the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, Giles de Kerchove, has warned about a future wave of terrorism “rooted in conspiracy theories and technophobia”.

“We have already seen small-scale acts of violence caused by a belief in conspiracy theories – for example, against telecom masts – and given the amount of disinformation online, we could see more serious examples of this in the future,” Kerchove told the counter-terrorism journal CTC Sentinel.

Dangerous Coalitions

The growing nexus between the New Age movement and neo-Nazism that is forming via QAnon is especially troubling because it is undermining traditional liberal alliances – the kind needed to withstand anti-democratic and pro-authoritarian movements.

Jules Evans, a fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, documents how the New Age movement overlapped with far-right politics in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. Not only did astrological organisations endorse Adolf Hitler, but the Nazis supported alternative medicine, homeopathy, natural healing and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

“Hitler and his fellow Nazis sold the German people a simplistic, supernatural fantasy and conspiracy theory, in which all their problems were caused by a hidden global elite of monsters/vampires/demons – that is, the Jews – but the magical light-warriors of the Nazi Party would defeat them in a cosmic battle, ushering in a golden age of peace and love,” writes Evans.

“Does this sound like Q to you?” she asks, rhetorically., a subscription-based platform, is not only for yoga and meditation enthusiasts but “truth seekers and believers empowering an evolution of consciousness”. The site, which boasts 300,000 members, also promotes David Icke, who has spoken of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories such as questioning the “official narrative” of Auschwitz and blaming powerful Jewish elites for the Holocaust, while also arguing that the world is being controlled by a “secret group of shapeshifting reptilian humanoids”.

Professor Gregory Stanton, the world’s most pre-eminent scholar of genocide, has said that “QAnon is a Nazi cult but rebranded” and draws comparisons between it and the anti-Semitic conspiracy that Nazi propaganda promoted – that a secret Jewish cabal is taking control of the world, kidnapping and killing children to gain power from their blood, while mongrelising and curtailing the white “master race”.

“The world has seen QAnon before,” Stanton added. “It was called Nazism. In QAnon, Nazism wants a comeback. The QAnon conspiracy theory has now spread to neo-Nazis in Germany, where over 200,000 German QAnon accounts infest the internet.”

QAnon is flourishing at the same time as faith and trust in democratic institutions and scientific and academic expertise is declining, alongside the rise of social media algorithms trapping many in a sea of unfiltered disinformation.

“Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterised as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group),” according to a study conducted by the University of Kent.

It is reasonable to conclude that, in a world besieged by a global pandemic, climate change, terrorism, and economic decline, all three of these motives are gaining a foothold.

No democracy can survive when more than half of the voters belonging to one of the two major political parties believes its elected leader is keeping the world safe from Satan-worshipping paedophiles and cannibals and that his defeat represents a biblical Armageddon. 

How will evidence-based centre-left and centre-right political parties in the US, UK and Europe withstand this intellectual onslaught?

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