As my previous post made clear, Donald Trump, while President of the USA, was an integral part of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory. When Trump was defeated in the 2020 US Presidential Election, many commentators wondered what would become of QAnon and its huge number of supporters. It may have been thought that the conspiracy theory could not possibly continue, but some were more pessimistic. For example, Alex Bradley Newhouse, research lead at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies' Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism was quoted as saying “The growth of QAnon has pretty fundamentally changed the entire landscape of American conservatism, and I would say international right-wing politics as well, by completely desensitizing wide swaths of the populace to these conspiracy theories that have taken on a life of their own outside of QAnon itself.”.
One of the major negative effects of social media services is that they have provided excellent channels for the spread of various strange conspiracy theories. QAnon is one of the most bizarre of these, but many people in the UK were probably not too aware of it until the crowd invading the US Capitol on 6 January included the horned, face-painted figure of Jake Angeli, the so-called “QAnon Shaman”. For those who still haven’t heard of it, QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory which alleges that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic paedophiles (The Deep State) is running a global child sex-trafficking ring. This group was apparently plotting against Donald Trump who was, in turn, fighting against it. According to many QAnon adherents, before losing the Presidency Trump had been planning a day of reckoning called “The Storm”, when thousands of members of the cabal would be arrested. The followers accused many liberal Hollywood actors, Democratic politicians, and high-ranking government officials of being members of the cabal. The conspiracy theory included allegations of a planned coup involving Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the billionaire George Soros. That is the basic structure, but there are so many offshoots, detours and internal debates between followers that the full list of QAnon claims is huge. Followers draw on news stories, historical facts and numerology to reach their own, often far-fetched, conclusions.
So, how does a conspiracy theory like this arise, and how does it spread? How many people believe in it, and where are they?
The current Coronavirus Pandemic has brought misery to many, and death to over 1.5 million people worldwide. A huge number of businesses are under severe financial strain, or have ceased to trade. The major exceptions are tech companies who conduct all of their business online especially, as I have mentioned earlier, Amazon. As the World has gone into lockdown of various degrees, some other tech winners in the pandemic have been the providers of videoconferencing services, especially the omnipresent Zoom. I suspect most people had never heard of Zoom before 2020, but widespread use has led the company’s revenues to leap 355% to $663.5 million for the quarter ending 31 July, exceeding analysts’ expectations of $500.5 million. In the same period profits soared to $186 million, while customer growth was up 458% compared with the same period in 2019.
My last post dealt with the richest man in the World, and the fact that to qualify as being ultra-rich one would “only” need a net worth of $30 million: a tiny fraction of Jeff Bezos’ $200 billion fortune. We live in a World where millions of people still live in extreme poverty, without access to the very basics of existence. In the UK, one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, an increasing number of families rely on food banks. Even those who have work in this country often have no savings and, as the current pandemic has shown, are one pay cheque away from financial disaster. At the other end of the scale, globally there is an increasing number of millionaires, billionaires, and indeed centibillionaires! What must it be like to go through life never having to worry about how to put food on the table, how the bills are going to be paid, and how you are going to set aside enough money for your retirement (if you live that long)?
I first wrote a blog post about schadenfreude on 31 May 2007 (see “Die reinste freude ist die schadenfreude”). As I stated then, a good translation of the German word is “the malicious glee experienced as a result of someone else’s misfortune”. I made the point that it was, at that time, by far the most popular word listed on Wordie (a fabulous website devoted to words and language which, sadly, no longer exists), and that it forms the basis of much of what we think of as humour. I also expressed the opinion that schadenfreude is one of the main reasons that people still buy our doom laden newspapers.
I recently came across an article on npr.org entitled “Your Doomscrolling Breeds Anxiety. Here’s How To Stop The Cycle.” It refers to the habit that many of us have on social media where we flit on our phones from one depressing news story to another, almost compulsively. It makes the point that the COVID Pandemic has produced a virtually endless supply of bad news stories, and that lockdown has given many of us even more time to doomscroll. When done before bedtime, it is probably a significant contributor to the recent increase in insomnia.
“The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory.
The truth is far more frightening - Nobody is in control.
The world is rudderless.”
I previously made the point that social media platforms can provide an invaluable means of spreading useful public health information about the coronavirus crisis. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also generated a variety of bizarre beliefs, and these have spread throughout the World, largely through social media. Social media services have also allowed individuals to denigrate effective measures, such as social distancing, and to promote totally ineffective coronavirus “cures”.