In early December of 2016, a gunman opened fire in a D.C. restaurant, under the belief that children were being held in its basement as a part of a pedophilia ring involving Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta. This conspiracy theory, known as Pizzagate, made its way into the political discourse of right-wing extremists, claiming Podesta used coded language to hide his plans surrounding human trafficking and pedophilia.
The next year, an anonymous user “Q”, who claimed to have “Q” level US Security clearance, posted on the infamously radical website 4chan that Donald Trump was secretly fighting a war against Satan-worshipping Democrats engaged in pedophilia and human trafficking. Known as “QAnon”, the conspiracy has gained popularity through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and 4chan as Q continues to deliver new pieces of information. This year, QAnon theories have been emboldened by influential political actors like the President, and now, supporters of the conspiracy are heading to the halls of Congress.
Conspiracy theories have long been a part of fringe, extremist politics, from the belief that George Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks, or that the moon landing never happened. With the present conditions of rapid polarization and the unconstrained spread of disinformation in the age of social media, conspiracy theories are not only more easily spread, but pose direct threats to the strength of American democracy.
The polarization of the United States has reached its highest level since the Civil War, presenting both an important framework to understand the emergence of political conspiracies like QAnon, but also magnifying the social and political effects of them. On a general level, polarization plays a significant role in eroding democracy as it makes people question the moral legitimacy of elected leaders, undercuts compromise, and turns politics into a zero-sum game. For QAnon specifically, its base is deeply partisan, with 41% of Republicans who have heard of the conspiracy believing it is good for the country, as opposed to 7% of Democrats. The partisan divide is not surprising given demonizing Democrats is the basic premise of QAnon, but what is surprising is the proliferation of the movement into more mainstream channels, aided by lax social media regulations that allow for the spread of disinformation.
Disinformation in politics has long been an issue, but the rise of social media has rendered it nearly impossible to eradicate. In conjunction with polarization, confrontation of disinformation becomes especially difficult, as objectivity and facts become increasingly partisan. As such, disinformation can easily spread through social media as a result of confirmation bias, or a person’s tendency to believe a piece of information that confirms what they already believe. Additionally, as popularized by Eli Parisoner, online “filter bubbles” create environments in which people only see posts and opinions of those who agree with them and reinforce their already established views. Social media companies thrive off of the algorithms that create filter bubbles, making platforms like Facebook and Twitter cesspools for disinformation and conspiracy theories.
The culture of disinformation perpetuated through pockets of the internet becomes even more concerning when it spreads to influential actors in the political sphere. The most prolific actor in legitimizing such claims comes from the soon-to-be former President Donald Trump. In a town hall with NBC, Trump refused to disavow the QAnon conspiracy, ironically saying that he agrees with their “anti-pedophlia stance.” Moreover, Trump has retweeted a number of QAnon supporters, even retweeting fourteen of them in one single day.
On November 3rd, we saw this develop even further. In Georgia, QAnon supporter and radical right-wing Congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene was elected in a landslide victory, bringing QAnon into the halls of Congress. In Facebook videos released in 2017, Greene referred to “Q” as a “patriot” and declared “There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.” Greene, who also said that Muslim-Americans should be barred from political office, will now contribute to the creation of federal legislation. Legitimizing these conspiracy theories and extremists through electoral victories is a fundamental failure of our dispersion of information and ability to contain fringe actors in our political system.
In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt call on political parties to act as the gatekeepers of democracy and keep extremists out of our political system. However, a combination of democratizing the primary process and the uncontrollable constraint of dark money in politics has lessened parties’ ability to gatekeep, resulting in elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene. The Republican party is consistently unable to root out extremists like Greene, as the polarized political bases that view the other as an existential threat—or worse, as Satan-worshipping pedophiles—often prefer extremists in their party than voting for the other party. Additionally, as politics becomes increasingly a zero-sum game, political parties themselves rely on supporting extremists to pass political agendas, given that one lost election could make all the difference in passing legislation.
Much like rooting out extremists, the United States faces unfortunate roadblocks confronting the toxic culture of polarization and disinformation in order to contain the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories. One is that major social media companies like Facebook and Twitter inherently value profit over the preservation of democracy. Though the conspiracy made waves in 2017 via 4chan, Facebook and Twitter did not begin to crack down on its spread to their platforms until 2020. And even still, their “cracking down” only amounted to, removing accounts, which leaves ample room for QAnon to spread. The delayed or, in other cases, nonexistent response by these companies can have damaging effects on our democracy.
Additionally, given the deep-rooted and personal nature of politics in people’s everyday lives, eradicating polarization entirely proves even more difficult, as partisan divides increasingly fall along moral lines; people aren’t disagreeing about policy, but human rights. Even still, some suggest political reforms to decrease polarization could benefit Americans, including ending partisan gerrymandering to make districts less extreme or implementing ranked choice voting to ensure political opponents respect voters on both sides of an issue. Though noble, their lasting effects are uncertain.
Ultimately, political conditions that create such conspiracy theories are hard to eradicate in their entirety. However, it is imperative to understand the vulnerability of our democracy as a result. When Trump and his web of disinformation and conspiracies leaves office, there will still be people with fringe radical beliefs making our laws. If or when “Q” disappears from the shadows of an anonymous 4chan channel, disinformation and polarization will still exist.
Since conspiracies are often an inevitable consequence of free expression, and can be beneficial to democracy when they accurately expose corruption or abuse by the government, the challenge becomes containing harmful, partisan disinformation that erodes democratic norms. By strengthening norms that have rooted out harmful extremism and demagoguery in the past, we can create a political environment less susceptible to disinformation and radical right-wing conspiracies.