"On Second Thought" host Virginia Prescott speaks with Tia Mitchell and Dr. Dror Walter.

A male protester in a red shirt holds up a large Q-shaped sign, which is colored in with the design and colors of the American flag. Other protesters in the background are wearing red MAGA hats.
Caption
A man holds up a "Q" sign at a Trump rally in August 2018. While QAnon began as a far-right conspiracy theory forged in a dark corner of the internet, it is now creeping into the mainstream political arena.
Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A congressional primary runoff election in Georgia features a woman who sends racist videos and supports the QAnon conspiracy theory against a neurosurgeon who campaigned on his experience to improve health care. Tuesday's results in northwest Georgia could show just how far GOP candidates are able to push the limits of political rhetoric in the age of President Donald Trump before risking voter backlash. Businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has received national attention for her social media positions. 

Greene is running for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican in Georgia’s 14th district – where Donald Trump secured 75% of the vote in 2016 – and won the nine-way primary election with 40 percent of the vote.Greene's actions have led some officials to condemn her campaign and raised opponent John Cowan’s profile. Both position themselves as staunch Trump supporters.

QAnon is an amalgamation of conspiracy theories that have spread widely within the dark corners of the internet since 2017. Cryptic posts by a user who calls himself “Q” – which some have interpreted as an indication of their high-level government security clearance – have been used to build theories centered around the idea of an international child sex trafficking ring that Donald Trump is trying to dismantle. These theories have repeatedly been debunked by reputable news organizations.

Facebook has been key to QAnon's growth, in large part due to the platform's Groups feature, which has also seen a significant uptick in use since the social network began emphasizing it in 2017. According to NBC News, "Facebook has removed 35 Facebook accounts, three pages and 88 Instagram accounts that operated from Romania and pushed pro-Trump messages, including the promotion of QAnon" in the past week. 

But beyond the screen, QAnon signs have appeared at Trump rallies and on billboards, including one in north Georgia in 2018. Now, at least 11 QAnon-affiliated candidates are running for public office across the country.

On Second Thought sat down with Tia Mitchell, Washington reporter for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and Dr. Dror Walter, assistant professor at Georgia State University, to learn more.

“This is one of those instances where there is a difference between the Republican establishment and President Trump, but the Republican establishment has avoided making that distinction,” Mitchell said. While Trump has liked and retweeted QAnon theories on his personal Twitter, Mitchell explained that most establishment Republicans have tried to ignore the spread of the theory among the far-right.

However, that came to a head when Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has publicly used QAnon language, hashtags and shared QAnon-affiliated content to her Facebook page, was featured in a Politico article last month, exposing previous racist and xenophobic comments.

“Once that [Politico] article came out, that’s when you saw Republicans distancing themselves from her,” Mitchell said.

However, Mitchell pointed out that the Republican Party is in a bind when it comes to candidates espousing racist or xenophobic views.

“Establishment Republicans know that some of those extremists still help comprise the Republican base,” she said. “They are very concerned about alienating their base and losing support in a way that will make it harder to win elections.”

Greene is unique in that she has neither denied nor apologized for her comments. Other QAnon-linked candidates, like Rich McCormick, have approached their races differently. McCormick is running as a Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s 7th district, and Mitchell says that while he has done interviews for QAnon-affiliated YouTube channels and shared conspiratorial content, he maintains he doesn’t know what QAnon is.

I think being aware of QAnon is something that now has to be part of being an informed voter. You need to understand QAnon because it’ll help you understand the candidates that are going to be on the ballot.

Walter, who researches how misinformation spreads online, said that the nature of Q’s difficult-to-decipher posts are part of what makes the theory so appealing to some.

“First, it makes it much harder to argue [against], because it has all these ambiguities – every new information that you introduce can always only support you,” he said. “On the other hand, it is also much more participatory. So there is an empowerment factor, because the purpose of this whole community is [that] you have to do your own research. You don’t just accept things that they tell you. You follow the hints; you follow all the breadcrumbs that they leave, and that makes this theory something you can tailor to fit whatever you want it to be.”

Dror said it’s possible to draw on research from the spread and success of previous conspiracy theories, like the panic over the dramatized radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” in 1938, to understand why QAnon is taking hold today. As Dror explained, the broadcast came at a time of widespread anxiety in between the Great Depression and World War II. Radio was a relatively new medium at the time, and people had come to trust it as a reliable source for factual information.

Dror also noted some personal variables that made people susceptible to believing the “War of the Worlds” broadcast was real, including emotional insecurity, a phobic personality, and low self-confidence.

Since COVID-19 lockdown began, Dror says his researchers have picked up on an increase in QAnon activity online. He offered several explanations as to why this might be the case, including the fact that more people are isolated at home with time to surf the internet – and that in a time of isolation, conspiracy theories might offer a sense of camaraderie.

“It also might be that COVID-19 is such a global calamity, that it really fits well into this mosaic, this tapestry, this tableau of QAnon beliefs,” he said.

A Pew Research poll published in March found that three-quarters of Americans know nothing about QAnon and its theories, which means they also likely do not know these theories have been found to have no basis in truth by several sources. But Mitchell said that learning about QAnon has to become part of our civic duty.

“I think being aware of QAnon is something that now has to be part of being an informed voter,” she said. “You need to understand QAnon because it’ll help you understand the candidates that are going to be on the ballot.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On what QAnon stands for

Walter: QAnon is a popular far-right conspiracy theory. The longer answer is that QAnon is a collection of various conspiracy theories that fit together and converge on one basic premise: the existence of a deep state or a satanic cabal of influential elites, from Hollywood [and] from politics who are actually running the world. And they are trafficking in children, either as the goal of this whole conspiracy or as a way to serve their dark organization. For example, some believe that they sacrifice children to stay young.

And [QAnon] is related to previous conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and other similar theories. But officially QAnon, this iteration of the theory, can be traced to a series of posts that were made by a user which is called "Q" on web forums such as 4Chan, 8Chan and later 8kun. "Q" refers to his security clearance, and is someone from the military or the government or from intelligence kind-of operations. And he has confidential access to all kinds of cryptic information that relates to this cabal, to this conspiracy to traffic children and the fight against it. According to this theory, Donald Trump is actually someone that was enlisted by this intelligence operations to destroy the secret society. And lastly, all of this leads to "the storm," which is a cataclysmic event and mass arrests, the final vanquishing of this whole child trafficking ring by Trump.

On the appeal of QAnon to voters in Georgia's 14th district

Mitchell: Well, there are voters in the district who are very aligned with President Trump. And particularly when it comes to the QAnon conspiracy theories, they might not be deeply versed in QAnon, but there are a lot of Trump Republicans who do feel like there has been concerted efforts to undermine him in his presidency. And so therefore, I think that the QAnon conspiracy theories are less troubling to those voters. 

Now, when it comes to the racism and xenophobia, as we know, the Republican Party has had trouble distancing itself from the more extremist parts of its party, because establishment Republicans know that some of those extremists still help comprise the Republican base. And so they are very concerned about alienating their base and losing support in a way that will make it harder to win elections. And that's why the Republican Party, many people say, is in trouble. Because as the electorate in a more general sense moves away from those extremist views, when the Republican Party is hesitant to call out those voices for political reasons, that puts them out of step with the mainstream. And that's something that the Republican Party just is really struggling with.

As the electorate in a more general sense moves away from those extremist views, when the Republican Party is hesitant to call out those voices for political reasons, that puts them out of step with the mainstream.

On how politicians navigate public support for QAnon

Mitchell: Dr. McCormick, he's an emergency room doctor. He says that, "I don't know what QAnon is." But what his critics, particularly his opponents, the Democrats — what they're saying is he denies it, but he sends little signs that he's aligned. For example, Dr. McCormick has appeared on a QAnon Internet radio show. He's been on there twice. If you research the show he appeared on, it's very clear that the network itself and the show hosts specifically are aligned with QAnon. But when I spoke to Dr. McCormick, he says, "Oh, well, I don't know that. Someone wanted me to come, and I'd take all invitations because I want to talk about my campaign."

And then during his appearance on that show once, he repeated a conspiracy theory that George Soros had been donating money through the Democratic Party's online apparatus to benefit Black Lives Matter, which is true. But McCormick went on to say, [Soros donated] to sow discord, to sow unrest and violence. And that's where it goes from the ounce of truth into a conspiracy theory that George Soros is trying to use his money to back violence and unrest in the streets. But again, when I asked [McCormick] about it, he said, "Well, I'm just repeating what I read. Is it not true? I'm not sure. I just read it somewhere." So he distances himself and doesn't take full ownership, but there are little clues that are dropped that if you're aligned with QAnon, you'll say, "Oh, he's speaking my language."

On how to combat the spread of misinformation and responsibly discuss QAnon

Walter: We have to do better; we have to promote rational analytical thinking and we have to give people media literacy skills. And then it will be both making them into citizens who are still critical of the government, but ones that can also evaluate conspiracies and information rationally and see that this is a conspiracy.

So when we present QAnon, we do need to actually make corrections detailed. So every time we talk about it, we also need to explain why it is false. We need to disseminate them widely together with the misinformation. The main problem is that even if we do all that, we do know that these kind of conspiracies and hoaxes and fake news have a lasting impression even after you've debunked them. We call this "belief echoes." You learn the negative information about the candidate and that makes you hate them a little bit more, but then when you learn that the information that you've got is actually not true, you don't go back to your original stance. You are a bit more negative towards that candidate. So question is: when you give people information about QAnon, how much are you actually in danger of indoctrinating — or how they called it in the QAnon circles, "redpilling" — people into this kind of belief system?

We have to promote rational analytical thinking and we have to give people media literacy skills. And then it will be both making them into citizens who are still critical of the government, but ones that can also evaluate conspiracies and information rationally and see that this is a conspiracy.

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