I naively thought that the whole QAnon movement would fall apart after Trump lost his bid for re-election. For those who have somehow not heard about QAnon before, it’s a conspiracy that started in the US a few years, and is supposed to be the writings of a high-level government insider who leaks secrets via hidden meaning and codes in his messages. However, it’s been obvious since the start that QAnon is not an insider, but just a made up persona used to promote right wing ideas and Donald Trump in particular. As Wikipedia says:
"QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory and movement centered on false claims made by an anonymous individual or individuals, known by the name "Q", that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former president Donald Trump during his term in office."
Sadly many people are still following QAnon - not just the posts themselves, but the online groups and forums that have grown around efforts to "decode" Q’s messages. These are echo chambers that feed people nonsense, and leave them confused about what’s real and what’s not.
At the harmless end of this delusion are ideas like that Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler's granddaughter, or that the elite in the US are printing clones (opens new window) of themselves, just like in the recent (fictional) TV show Westworld. Supposedly Tom Cruise has a backup clone in case he’s assassinated, and Mike Pence is two people - a good clone and a bad clone. Even president Joe Biden isn’t the real Biden in QAnon world:
But at the other end, people are actually dying because of QAnon. The January 6th attack in Washington is one example that ended with the loss of several lives. And Rolling Stone magazine has recently published a harrowing story (opens new window) about Matthew Taylor, a surf instructor and religious man who started following QAnon only recently.
Somehow in the mess of QAnon messaging that he read online, Matthew became convinced that his children had "serpent DNA" and decided that he needed to end their lives to save them. And he’s not the first - others have murdered loved ones in the US in the last two years because of their heartfelt belief in nonsense ideas. QAnon followers often use a legitimate sounding cause of "Save the Children", with a back story about child trafficking, adrenochrome, antarctic bases and the evil global elite, to push their ideas onto unsuspecting people, and one Californian woman drowned her three children because of her concerns that they would be trafficked.
I often focus on the light-hearted end of conspiracies - wacky beliefs and silly ideas - but sadly these half-baked notions seem to be capable of instilling real fear in people that makes them do irrational things. I’m sure that Matthew thought that he was saving his children from something worse by taking their lives, and I’m sure that those who spread conspiracy theories about children being in danger really believe they are helping. But that’s part of the problem - people who don’t stop to fact check their beliefs, or who choose the wrong people to trust as an authority.
I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but I think at least part of it is to teach more critical thinking at school. Kids need to know how to spot nonsense, and how to ask the right questions to find out whether there’s good quality evidence for the things they’re told. It sometimes feels a little boring to be a skeptic, calling into question other people’s assertions. But better to be a party pooper than a super-spreader of dangerous nonsense, I think.