Donald Trump emerged from the fever swamps of fringe right-wing conspiracy theories on the Internet and talk radio to become the leader of the Obama birtherism movement. Somehow this made him popular enough with Republican voters to win him the GOP nomination in 2016, and even more unbelievably the presidency.
Since then, Donald Trump and his idiot sons, as well as his campaign, has aligned himself with a more pernicious conspiracy at which he is the center of into a cult movement, if not a cult religion: QAnon. “At its most basic, it alleges that there is a secret group of elites working to get President Trump out of office and that Trump will help reveal those pedophilia and Satan-worshiping elites before they can destroy the country.”
The Washington Post recently reported how media is failing in its coverage of QAnon cult members running for political office, and the danger that they pose. The QAnon problem facing local journalism this election season:
The quandary, then, for the Knoxville News Sentinel: How on earth to responsibly explain QAnon — a murky cultlike belief system that, according to law enforcement, has inspired violence among some of its proponents — to the newspaper’s readers?
Ultimately, said executive editor Joel Christopher, the newsroom made a calculation that both candidates were extreme long shots. So they punted on the question entirely — and devoted no ink at all to the QAnon connections. In the end, the two candidates only received 3.3 percent of the total vote.
“But if anyone thinks this is going to vanish, they’re delusional,” Christopher said. “We’re going to have to tackle it at some point.”
Identified by the FBI as a potential terrorism threat, QAnon has spread since 2017 from fringe message boards to more mainstream pro-Trump communities active on some of the largest social networking sites, including Facebook. At the center of the convoluted belief system is the false notion that President Trump is waging war against a cabal of “deep state,” satan-worshipping actors who traffic children for sex, with the promise of mass executions to punish them. The worldview originates from posts by a self-proclaimed government insider using the pseudonym “Q,” whose predictions have repeatedly failed to come to pass.
Charting QAnon’s rapid growth and twisted theories has been challenging enough for the national reporters on the beat. But now that dozens of candidates expressing varying levels of interest in QAnon have mounted political campaigns, journalists at smaller local news outlets across the country are suddenly having to make sense of it, too.
Frequently, it seems, local news outlets deal with a candidate’s QAnon affiliations by mentioning them only fleetingly or not at all.
Liberal watchdog group Media Matters has been tracking these candidates, and by its tally, 21 of them will be on the November ballot. Here are the QAnon supporters running for Congress in 2020. Two of these QAnon cult members are running for Congress in Arizona as Republicans, in “safe” Democratic districts in which they have no chance of winning:
Josh Barnett (Arizona)
Josh Barnett is a Republican candidate running [against Congressman Ruben Gallego] in Arizona’s 7th Congressional District. He won the Republican primary on August 4 by default, running unopposed, and thus will be on the ballot in November’s general election. In July, in response to an NBC News report about Twitter’s announcement that it would take action against the spread of QAnon on the platform, Barnett tweeted, “Weird to be so paranoid about something that is not real, right?” On both Facebook and Instagram, he has shared posts with QAnon hashtags. Despite those posts, Barnett claimed on August 15 he believes QAnon is “nonsense” and “not even a real thing” and that one of his posts with QAnon hashtags was just “retweeting the article.”
Daniel Wood (Arizona)
Daniel Wood is a Republican candidate running [against Congressman Raul Grijalva] in Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District. He won the Republican primary on August 4 by default, running unopposed, and thus will be on the ballot in November’s general election. Wood has repeatedly tweeted the QAnon slogan and tweeted the hashtag “#TheGreatAwakening.” He has also quote-tweeted a major QAnon accountand the Twitter account for a QAnon YouTube channel.
While not included in the Media Matters report, let’s never forget Arizona’s most embarrassing excuse for a human being, Congressman Paul Gosar. This guy lives in the fever swamp of conspiracy theories. ‘He knows he’s screwing with everyone’: Gosar embraces conspiracy theories: “The Prescott Republican made national headlines last week when he tweeted out an elaborate string of messages containing a conspiracy theory about Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and convicted sex offender. The first letters of his 23 tweets about U.S. House impeachment proceedings contained a coded message: “Epstein didn’t kill himself.” More recently, There he Gosars again, spreading conspiracy theories to undermine the 2020 election: “It’s only natural that Gosar would be attracted to Trump like a moth to flame. And so comes the conspiracy to undermine Americans’ trust in the coming election by promoting the debunked claim that that McSally was robbed by mail-in voting in 2018.”
And it’s not just Republicans running for Congress. There are a number of Arizona Republicans serving in the Arizona legislature or running for the legislature who traffic in QAnon posts. Here are just two that the Arizona Mirror reported on. Two GOP lawmakers promote QAnon on social media:
Two Republican legislators used their social media accounts to promote the radical QAnon conspiracy movement over the Independence Day weekend.
On Saturday, Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, posted a cartoon from political cartoonist Ben Garrison depicting President Donald Trump, his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and a figure whose head is a large Q marching and preparing to step on miniature figures labeled as globalists, Marxists and traitors.
That same day, Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, posted a message on his Twitter and Facebook accounts declaring, “Qanon Patriotic Americans who support President Trump.”
Lawrence has since posted an apology on Facebook, saying he knew “practically nothing” about the movement and had seen comments that led him to believe its members were being attacked simply for supporting Trump.
I do not have the time nor the resources (or stomach) to go through the social media accounts of every Republican candidate running for the Arizona legislature, but if you want to be a “citizen journalist” and do the research on candidates in your legislative district, let us know what you find in the comments (with a link).
The Washington Post continues:
Experts worry that journalists can unwittingly legitimize QAnon or minimize its threat in how they approach the conspiracy theory, and not just through campaign stories. Some local TV stations, for instance, have covered “Save the Children” rallies without mentioning the digital QAnon inspiration behind these in-person events.
“Media outlets are struggling everywhere, so they’re understaffed and underesourced with people covering a wide range of news often outside of their expertise,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political science professor who specializes in misinformation and media. “As a result, reporters can get out of their comfort zone and end up trying to cover complicated matters of fact on deadline.”
The stakes are particularly high for local journalism, said Susan Benkelman of the American Press Institute, who wrote a QAnon guide for reporters. “People have more trust in their local news outlets than national ones, so it’s important for local journalists to get this right,” she said via email. “It’s not easy. They face questions about how to describe it precisely, how to get the tone right and how to make sure their audiences know what’s at stake.”
Local reporters may hesitate in directly confronting the contours of QAnon because of “a lack of confidence with the topic” or fear of appearing biased against a particular candidate or party, said Christopher of the Knoxville paper. (Boebert, the Colorado candidate, charged that attempts to label her as a QAnon follower was a “fake attack” by Democrats.)
Still, he said journalists should write about QAnon the way they would any other form of extremism. “It’s a real danger,” he said. “People have to recognize what a threat to the system a group like this can be.”
“At every level, there needs to be more reporting on what this is, and not just specifically what this candidate has said about these things, but that this thing exists,” said Beau Williams, a reporter for Capitol Beat, a nonprofit Georgia news service that provides state government stories to newspapers throughout the state. “We need to do a better job of explaining more about what this is and how much of an influence the QAnon theorizing mind-set has in Georgia, if it’s just a few people or if people have really kind of taken a hold of this.” Just because voters selected a QAnon candidate doesn’t mean they believe in the theory themselves, he said — they might not even know it was part of the candidate’s beliefs.
Buzzfeed News has taken its media coverage of the QAnon cult a step further. Here’s Why BuzzFeed News Is Calling QAnon A “Collective Delusion” From Now On:
What is QAnon?
It’s not easy to describe, but one thing we know to be true: It’s not a conspiracy theory — it’s bigger.
What started as a thread on the anonymous message board 4chan has long since entered the mainstream: Questions about QAnon have been asked in the White House press room, and a Q follower is poised to be voted into Congress later this year.
When QAnon started appearing several years ago, journalists fumbled to concisely explain it to mystified readers, and usually settled on far-right conspiracy theory.
The shorthand largely stuck. But QAnon is much more complicated and convoluted — and dangerous — than other conspiracy theories. The QAnon belief system has inspired violence and crime across the United States, leading the FBI to label it a domestic terrorism threat in 2019.
The editors at BuzzFeed News have become uneasy about using conspiracy theory to describe QAnon, which has grown to encompass a whole alternative world of beliefs and signals. The copydesk has to stay on top of language and note when terms become stale and reductive; QAnon has shifted, and so should how we write about it.
QAnon is a collective delusion, and that’s what BuzzFeed News will be calling it from now on.
The name QAnon itself is a portmanteau: Q refers to the highest level of security clearance a Department of Energy employee can attain — credentials claimed by someone posting as “Q” on anonymous message boards, beginning in 2017 with prognostications about a supposed ring of child abusers and sex offenders in the Democratic Party and the “deep state.” Although their predictions started out very specific, when those were not fulfilled, they became more and more vague.
And when we say vague, we mean incomprehensible.
[T]he nebulous nature of Q’s dispatches has been a blank slate onto which other deeply troubling conspiracies have been projected. “Birthers,” for example, who promoted the easily disproven claim that Barack Obama had been born outside the US and was therefore ineligible to be president (it’s now being applied to another Black aspirant to the White House, Kamala Harris), and anti-vaxxers, who want to deny lifesaving vaccines to children, have entered the QAnon universe. Some QAnon conspiracies are deeply rooted in anti-Semitism, and they have amplified efforts to demonize George Soros.
It has also embraced the dangerous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory — a fixation on a Washington, DC, pizza parlor owned by a Democratic supporter whose name appeared in the infamous WikiLeaks emails. This culminated with a man driving from his North Carolina hometown to the restaurant, determined to investigate the alleged child abuse happening in the parlor’s basement — the building has no basement — and firing an AR-15 rifle inside the pizzeria. “I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way,” the gunman told the New York Times. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”
Some people have even compared it to a religion; it has a savior figure (Trump), prophetic scripture, what they have dubbed a “Great Awakening” (an acknowledgment by the mainstream that what they believe is true), and many followers refer to Q as a saint. “It is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants,” Adrienne LaFrance writes in the Atlantic. “It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. … To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”
See also, Marc-André Argentino, The Church of QAnon: Will conspiracy theories form the basis of a new religious movement?, who explains a faction within the movement has been interpreting the Bible through QAnon conspiracies as a cult religion.
QAnon is … not to be underestimated, and it can’t be treated simply as an online phenomenon. The real-world effects of QAnon have already been made clear: In 2018, a Q believer engaged in an armed standoff at the Hoover Dam. Recently, they’ve worked to hijack legitimate attempts to fight child sex trafficking.
Not everyone who subscribes to parts of the QAnon mass delusion believes in all of it. Some people could be sharing the material in ignorance of its true depth. Others could be using it to carry out identity signaling — disenfranchised people seizing on a bizarre narrative to show that they are “Patriots,” regardless of the content of the messages. And with such a mess of entry points, someone could very well pass along parts of the QAnon narrative without realizing what the whole entails — just look at the recent false rumors that Wayfair was involved in sex trafficking.
The copydesk wanted to focus on QAnon for this issue of Quibbles & Bits to emphasize that there’s more to the convoluted entity than the average reader might realize. The term we’ve decided to use — a mass or collective delusion — is not ideal; delusion could be interpreted as too sympathetic to Q believers, or as taking away their agency. (The word could also be related to a mental disorder, though that is not the context in which we’re using it here.)
But delusion does illustrate the reality better than conspiracy theory does. We are discussing a mass of people who subscribe to a shared set of values and debunked ideas, which inform their beliefs and actions. The impact of QAnon is an example of “the real-world consequences of our broken information ecosystem,” the New York Times recently wrote. The proliferation of this delusion is in part a media literacy problem — which has become a reality problem.
The questions which must be asked of every candidate running for political office in Arizona is whether they have posted or reposted QAnon posts in their social media; and whether they are a supporter of the QAnon cult. If so, this is a litmus test for disqualification from ever serving in public office. Don’t elect domestic terrorists.
And that goes double for the QAnon conspiracy-theorist-in-chief, Donald Trump.