Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.
The words of the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire above have often, in recent years, been used to explain the madness of religious terrorism. By getting lost in a belief system, one can often lose their moral compass (or perhaps more correctly, have it ‘re-aligned’), and by submitting to that belief system, also surrender their agency.
In the last couple of years, however, Voltaire’s statement has often come to my mind as I have watched the viral takeover of certain sections of the political spectrum by outlandish conspiracy theories. A number of readers of the Grail have criticized my focus in recent months on broadcaster Alex Jones, and the somewhat linked Pizzagate and Qanon conspiracy theories. But that focus comes from both a deep interest, and concern, at what has been unfolding over the past 10 to 15 years in the conspiracy scene.
While there have been other prominent conspiracy theories embraced by conservative supporters over the past decade (e.g. Birtherism), since slightly before the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 the Pizzagate and Qanon phenomena have ‘upped the game’ in terms of both the number of active believers, and the level of incitement to action they have engendered – much of which comes from the addition of crucial, anger-inducing elements such as pedophilia.
Now I love a good conspiracy theory, but the fact is that both Pizzagate and Qanon are absolute rubbish, with ‘plot holes’ you could drive a truck through and bonkers scenarios that any right-minded person would realise are nonsense. So why are so many people so heavily invested in them?
At some level, I’m sure people get a thrill out of LARPing as ‘crime-fighting detectives’, in which they think they are solving clues in order to save children/civilization. At another, perhaps it’s the need for some on the right to explain the paradox of how the system they thought was supposedly rigged and controlled by the Deep State allowed Donald Trump to get elected. It’s a shelter for people that want to continue to feel that they are the ones who are persecuted, despite the fact that the party they support holds all arms of government…so they create a shadowy cabal that still needs to be conquered.
But mostly, I think the blind acceptance is well-explained by the same theories that apply to internet cults. Conspiracypsychology.com points out these commonalities in a post titled “Internet prophecy cults 101: QAnon and his predecessors” (well worth reading in full), which is helpfully illustrated with previous examples of internet cults.
In short: first, you find an audience, and tell them what they want to hear – that they are the good guys, and there are bad guys out there against them. Then make some prophecies about what’s going to happen – when the date passes without anything happening, make an excuse. Those that remain are your ‘true believers’. You can now make vague, Barnum-statements, contradict yourself, disappear for weeks at a time if you wish – and your followers will just make it all fit their narrative.
For many non-believers, the pure batshit-craziness of these conspiracy theories has led to them largely being treated as a joke, a good side-laugh to the serious business of politics. I believe this is a massive under-estimation of what they have become. Where things get dangerous, with Pizzagate and Qanon, is (a) in the number of fanatical believers in these dumb conspiracy theories, and (b) in the promotion of them as being a battle between literal forces of good and evil… because now it’s religious, and we all know where that can lead.
On the first point: literally hundreds of thousands of people are now actively following these theories, among them the likes of high-profile right-wing ‘influencers’ such as Roseanne Barr and the creator of Minecraft, ‘Notch’. A recent Qanon video now has over a million views on YouTube; meanwhile, a mobile app that disseminated the Qanon ‘drops’ to fans was near the top of both Apple and Google’s app store charts for months. And a book promoting QAnon became a bestseller on Amazon, reaching a peak of #2. This stuff is not the ravings of a few people on an obscure messageboard – it is *mainstream*.
On the second point, by telling these hundreds of thousands of adherents that everything they believe is right and good, and everything they disagree with is evil, hurting innocents, and ultimately out to get them, these conspiracy theories have turned a whacky LARP-style scenario into a cultish-movement that I believe could be moved to ‘commit atrocities’, as Voltaire said (while thinking themselves that they are doing good).
To illustrate my point here, I want you to look at the above image that accompanied mainstream news stories earlier this month: it’s a whacky ‘Q’ supporter at a Trump rally, wearing a big-ass Q around his neck. What nobody seemed to pick up on in these mainstream stories though is what’s on his t-shirt: a noose. This isn’t just symbolic – I’ve seen many, many Pizzagate and Qanon posts and comments where people have been calling for Hillary, John Podesta and others to literally hang from the gallows. This is a call to action.
And we have already seen real-world manifestations of Pizzagate and Qanon discussion pushing people into action, with believers involved in incidents relatively recently that thankfully ended up with no-one hurt, though they could have gone very wrong: Edgar Welch, the ‘Pizzagate shooter’ who fired off rounds with an AR-15 inside the pizzeria Comet Ping Pong because he believed the claims that children were being held inside against their will; and Matthew Wright, who was arrested after a stand-off on a bridge near the Hoover Dam where he blocked traffic while parked in an armored truck with weapons inside, demanding action against the ‘criminals’ exposed by Qanon.
Now I’d like you to put yourself in the mind of a ‘believer’ and watch the Qanon video below that has had over a million views. Pay attention to the changes in the dramatic music and the use of imagery, and its timing with the voiceover (“…some good people still held positions of power”, with Michael Flynn imagery; “It would involve alliances with multiple countries”, as Putin is shown). Understand the cultish/religious language used in the voiceover: providing simple answers to the ills of the world, that we are in a state of tribulation as good battles evil, and ultimately that belief in and support for ‘the great leader’ who has emerged to fight that battle will ultimately lead to a promised land.
And take special note of the reactions by Qanon believers in the comments: that they were getting chills and crying while watching it – evidence of the emotional investment in the idea it puts forward, that the Qanon group are righteous and on the side of good, and that they are in an ‘end-times’ type battle to defeat the ‘cabal’ which brings evil into the world:
Have you ever wondered why we go to war, or why you never seem to be able to get out of debt? Why there is poverty, division, or crime? What if I told you there was a reason for it all?
…what if I told you that those who were corrupting the world, poisoning our food, and igniting conflict, were about to be permanently eradicated from the Earth.
These criminals are known as the Deep State, or Cabal…every president after Reagan was one of these Deep State criminals and their empire got even stronger…the world collapsed into darkness.
…The world is currently experiencing a dramatic covert war of Biblical proportions. Literally the fight for Earth, between the forces of good and evil.
So how is this battle between good and evil going to play out? Here’s the answer:
It came down to two choice for America. Launch a military coup to seize the government from whichever cabal puppet was in the White House at the time. Or win legitimately, take control of the NSA, expose the criminals for what they are, and arrest them all.
…It is about to begin a much more important and necessary phase: keeping the public informed when the Deep State war breaks out onto the surface. By this I mean high-profile arrests….the criminals I am referring to are famous politicians, actors, singers, CEOs and celebrities…they have done very bad things…and they will be severely punished.
Those of us who have followed Q since the beginning will be here to help you make sense of the coming events.
That’s right, the Qanon conspiracy is literally laying the groundwork for a military coup in what is supposedly the world’s greatest democracy – and has primed its believers to actually *cheer* when that happens.
Is that a possibility? It seems unlikely – for a start, it would require the Trump administration to actually have a plan to do that, and even if that scenario were true one would hope that rest of the American government, and people, would not allow such a thing to happen. But it does give a window into how something like Qanon could be used to do such a thing: imagine if Qanon caught on even more than it has, and the majority of the Republican base believed it? Or if this was all playing out in a country with more history of non-democratic takeovers, rather than the U.S.
What is perhaps more concerning, is what all this ‘priming’ might result in, in the scenario of Donald Trump being ‘taken down’ (in any way, from impeachment – which this week the odds have certainly got shorter on – through to the hopefully less likely chance that a lone nutter might commit a violent act against him). All of these people now have a deep belief that forces of evil are conspiring against their saviour Donald Trump – so what will they do if they feel like evil is now winning? Will there be acts of violence by Pizzagate and Qanon believers that go beyond the actions of the Edgar Welch and Matthew Wright?
Some elements of Donald Trump’s political support base have already been seeding this idea. Trump’s long-time friend and advisor, Roger Stone, has warned that if the President is impeached there will be “a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen; that “both sides are heavily armed” and that any politician in favour of impeachment “would be endangering their own life.”.
This constant priming of believers in a conspiracy to take up arms is fraught with danger. It’s one of my primary criticisms of Alex Jones and company: if you are going to speculate, especially on highly-volatile topics like this, then you need to be very careful in how you frame it, with an understanding of your audience. Many conspiracy believers have high levels of paranoia and/or anger – especially if they are submerged in the constant stream of fear-porn bullshit that you find on Infowars every day – and a tendency to see patterns that aren’t always there. There must be a duty of care with any broadcaster promoting these highly emotive conspiracy theories.
And Alex Jones fails in his duty of care all the time. For instance:
Just recently he called for viewers to get their “battle rifles” ready to battle Antifa.
Last week, after a man was arrested for starting fires in California, it was discovered that he posted many conspiracy videos to his Facebook page including some from Alex Jones and Infowars correspondent Paul Joseph Watson.
Alex Jones’s coverage of Pizzagate was reportedly the spark for the Comet Ping Pong incident where Edgar Welch fired off a round inside a family restaurant.
In 2014, Jerad and Amanda Miller killed three people after ambushing police officers in Las Vegas as part of an attempt to start an anti-government revolution. The pair were regular commenters on Infowars, and “embraced the site’s conspiracy theories about government mind-control, “chemtrails” and the notion that the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks”.
In 2011, 22-year-old Jared Loughner opened fire on a crowd in Tucson, Arizona, killing six and seriously wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Loughner was reported to be a fan of the Alex Jones-produced film Loose Change.
In 2011, Oscar Ortega shot a semi-automatic weapon at the White House after watching The Obama Deception: The Mask Comes Off, a film written and directed by Alex Jones that claims Obama is helping create a “New World Order”.
A relative of Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev said that before the 2013 bombings, which killed 3 people and injured more than 260, Tsarnaev was an Infowars listener.
Obviously, there are more factors and influences at work in these cases than simply Alex Jones. But even if you don’t believe he can be blamed for the above despicable incidents, you would think most decent people would look at that list, and be chastened enough to have a deep think about their presentation style and content, and the effects it might be having. Jones doesn’t seem to care.
So it’s important for the rest of us – from conspiracy believer through to hardcore skeptic – to realise how conspiracy theories can push us to ‘commit atrocities’. That doesn’t mean we should make discussion of conspiracy theories a forbidden topic – conspiracies happen all the time, and it’s important they can be brought to light. But this shows us the importance of staying rational, understanding that certain people might be pushing agendas rather than a search for truth, and perhaps most importantly of all, retaining our moral compass.
And anybody not willing to do so should be made a pariah and excluded as a source of information. I’m looking at you Alex Jones.