Last January sixth in Washington DC a political earthquake shook the entire world. That day, a violent insurrection, stoked by losing Presidential candidate Trump brought together white nationalist militias, QAnon conspiracy theorists and lots of “just regular folks”, all turbo-charged by Trump’s lies about a stolen election. People were killed, many police were injured while defending the Capital, and the seat of American government was attacked and defiled, delaying, but thankfully, not stopping the Congress from approving the new president. What happened on January 6 of this year was that, for the first time in history, America’s tradition of the peaceful transfer of power was breached. The very pillars of American democracy were attacked and damaged by what was done that day. Among the lasting damage done is the fact that there is now a widespread and growing mistrust of the electoral process in the United States.
A country can reach a tipping point when enough people, say, 25% change their minds and their behavior concerning something socially significant. If just 25% of Americans support violent political solutions, for whatever reason, and therefore reject democracy, it could be enough to flip the U.S. into an autocracy. If enough people believe Trump’s lies about the election being “rigged”, the trust that candidates win or lose fairly, or even that they ought to win fairly, dissolves into thin air. This means that no matter who wins the next Presidential election the results will be disputed and there’s a good chance of violence and chaos in the streets of America in 2024.
If we in Canada want to ensure that this road to violence is not replicated here we need to better understand what is driving this phenomenon. One of the most important reasons that this is happening is former President Trump and his dissemination of Conspiracy theories. Recall that just before Trump ran for President he helped popularize “Birtherism” a racist conspiracy theory that claims that former President Obama was born in Kenya, and is thus not a legitimate President. During his Presidency Trump disseminated many conspiracy theories, the most notorious of which were the claims that global warming is a Chinese hoax, that Covid is a hoax, and that the 2020 Presidential election, which he lost, was rigged against him.
There are lots of conspiracy theories floating around on the internet. What’s new and alarming about the one I first mentioned, QAnon, is that it has already lead to multiple shootings and violent incidents involving weapons. QAnon followers, who all consider Donald Trump to be their savior, were present and prominent on January sixth. What is different about QAnon is the massive level of participation from “just regular folks”. If it is a cult, it is one that does not have a powerful leader that controls what everyone does and says. Instead it works from the bottom up, as all the participants share their findings with each other, while above them, popular “influencers” with bigger followings spread the message over the internet.
If it is a conspiracy theory, it isn’t a theory that can be easily summarized, nor one that has a stable meaning. It’s a conspiracy theory that grows like an amoeba, searching out and engulfing new conspiracy theories as it grows and mutates. It’s growth is so powerful that it has given new life to old conspiracy theories like Flat Earth and the “Blood Libel” as the ever-growing body of QAnon followers get introduced to them.
QAnon followers follow a prophet who calls himself “Q”, which is short for “Q Clearance patriot”. Q claimed to be working with members of the Trump administration, and he published his “Q drops” on the explicitly racist message boards: 4chan, 8chan, and 8kun. Since 2017 Q has issued thousands of cryptic sayings over the internet. But he stopped issuing his prophecies right after the January sixth Insurrection occurred. Perhaps he had second thoughts about how his movement was turning out. At any rate he hasn’t returned to say he’s had a change of mind, as of yet.
Q is not the only online problem. But this online hate has a lot to do with conspiracy theories, a lot to do with them. In the prelude to the second world war, the German Nazi party popularized conspiracy theories about the Jews - that Jews were outsiders who were trying to control the world through the banking system. A conspiracy theory is usually a story about dangerous people who are secretly controlling things. Anyone who comes to believe these stories will then come to see the designated people (often: Jews, dark skinned people, Muslims, or liberals) as evil. QAnon followers actually believe that liberal politicians and Hollywood actors are secretly abusing children, even killing them and harvesting their blood for nefarious purposes. This is a modern version of an old medieval anti-semitic conspiracy called the “Blood Libel”. You can imagine how this can easily lead to dehumanization of the target group, and that’s exactly what happened in Nazi Germany. Jews were portrayed extremely negatively in the party controlled media, and the ground was then paved for expelling Jews from civic organizations, schools, universities, etc; the next step was open persecution, and the last was the death camps.
That is the problem with hate messaging and online conspiracy theories. First they depersonalize and dehumanize the target group by portraying them as evil or subhuman. Then they spread disinformation - lies about the target group. These lies spread fast and wide because they play on believers’ fear and prejudice, motivating still stronger feelings; and social media are, sadly, deliberately designed to pick up on these feelings and magnify them through the magic of their money making algorithms.
So it’s not the hatred by itself that is the problem, it’s the way that so many people can be manipulated through their own fears into willingly spreading misinformation. We can always keep our negative feelings to ourselves, but the more that we see another group as evil and inhuman, the more motivated we will be to believe lies about them that confirm our prejudices. The social media algorithms are then designed to pick up on our strongest feelings and egg them on, funnelling more and more of the same divisive content our way. That this is a huge ongoing problem can be seen from the events of January sixth. That’s why Trump was kicked off of Facebook and Twitter immediately after the attack. Because of his legion of social media followers, Trump was literally the biggest spreader of disinformation in the world.
The problem here in Canada is twofold. In spite of the fact that no major Canadian politician has followed in Trump’s footsteps and started disseminating conspiracy theories, there is no internet barrier to conspiracy theories, so they can take hold here, as they have already for a significant minority in the United States. As Canadians, what we do have going for us is a more equitable social safety net, especially with universal medicare. It’s the ones who are desperate or on the edge of despair who tend to gravitate to conspiracy theories, and there’s more of these people in the U.S., because of their inadequate safety net. Secondly, the likelihood of an Authoritarian takeover of the U.S. is now much greater than it has ever been before. Major American media companies such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting are politically allied with Trump, they are implicated in spreading propaganda and lies that are fuelling growth in conspiracy theories and directly undermining democratic norms. This is creating a self-sustaining trend where every day more Americans seem to be drawn to conspiracy theories and to the related idea that violence is a viable strategy. With enough people OK with violence, the stage is set for an authoritarian takeover (history shows you don’t need a majority to make this happen). I believe the chances are good that this will happen in the U.S. in the near future. And if it does, Canadians will be in peril. We have a problem on our doorstep and if we don’t do something here to guard against it, it could destroy our country too.