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The threat of the QAnon delusion

A man wearing a Q Anon vest held

A man wearing a Q Anon vest held a flag during a No Mandatory Flu Shot Massachusetts rally held outside of the State House in Boston on Aug. 30. Credit: Boston Globe via Getty Images/Boston Globe

The premise is terrifying. A cabal including some of the nation’s top politicians and actors are involved in a child-trafficking sex scheme, a cabal which President Donald Trump is secretly working to destroy even as a deep state tries to destroy him. Since 2017, clues about this conspiracy have been leaked to the public in cryptic messages from Q, a supposed government insider.

It is entirely untrue.

This fantasy too wild even for Hollywood is the gist of the QAnon phenomenon. Its adherents often pull in other branches of long-standing nonsense, like ridiculous theories about the 9/11 terror attacks. The delusions have been amplified dangerously on social media by the president and some of his most ardent supporters. Trump has conspicuously refused to denounce the pot of crock, saying in August that "they like me." Earlier this month during an NBC News town hall, he continued the embrace, saying that "they are very much against pedophilia."

This appeasement of conspiracy theorists blindly loyal to him is alarming, not only because the loose group of adherents has been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat but also because these conspiracies threaten to destabilize the shared reality that is fundamental to a democracy. The conspiracy has only gained in power during the pandemic, and the election is bringing out more of the worst. Recently, conspiracy theorists magnified the lies, spreading a piece called "The Coming Coup," which accuses Democrats of stealing the upcoming election.

Beyond a conspiracy theory

Those blindly following the twisted postings of Q are all across the country, including here on Long Island, where a congressional candidate has retweeted QAnon slogans and where Long Islanders with those slogans in their Twitter accounts tweet and retweet questionable material about voter fraud and obvious mistruths, like the idea that Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (very much living) has somehow died or been arrested.

The depth of the unreality has metastasized beyond the ranks of hard-core American conspiracy theorists, who always have and always will exist. Now, candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives are included among the vocal followers. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose primary win in Georgia was boosted by the QAnon network, is likely to win. Polling from the Pew Research Center shows partisan divides in feelings about QAnon, including approximately 4 in 10 Republicans who have heard of QAnon saying it is a good thing for the country.

With the webs of social media, the crumbling of trusted institutions that provided factual information, and the pandemic’s isolating pressures, these conspiracies are popping up on the feeds of your friends and family members. Rallying tags include #TakeTheOath and #WWG1WGA, a QAnon abbreviation standing for Where We Go One We Go All. Look for them and be aware of the risks this delusion poses to mental health. Your friends don’t need to scroll message boards researching clues.

Even those who are along for the entertainment, or aren’t QAnon addicts at all, can end up contributing to its spread. Take those retweets from the Long Island congressional candidate, George Santos, Republican hopeful for the 3rd District. The retweets were of an Indiana candidate who included a QAnon slogan while warning about Democrats’ politics. Santos told the editorial board he did not know what QAnon was but "retweeted fellow candidates to help boost them as they do me." In this way, QAnon gets normalized and candidates rely on its fervor as a boost.

The fervor can have real effects. To see what political content gets boosted by QAnon on Long Island, Newsday Opinion checked more than 43,000 Twitter accounts that, over the course of more than a year, retweeted the original tweets or quote tweets of local politicians, including the Island’s congressional delegation and county executives. We filtered for accounts with profiles displaying QAnon hashtags, and found that those QAnon profiles retweeted the @repleezeldin and @leezeldin accounts most, with 431 and 72, respectively. For context, Rep. Pete King’s accounts had 14 retweets, and @SteveBellone, @KathleenRice and @NassauExecutive each had only two retweets from QAnon supporters. Most accounts had none. Retweets do not necessarily mean that QAnon supporters agree with the tweet, and the Zeldin content itself was not tagged with QAnon hashtags. Moreover, Zeldin was among the House members who voted overwhelmingly for an October resolution condemning QAnon. But the Shirley Republican is a key Trump ally and his tweets appear to have gotten the attention of QAnon adherents.

Absurd suggestions

Beyond slogans, the QAnon conspiracy has raised the serious issue of sex trafficking beyond all proportion to its actual existence, and a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows how widespread the focus on child sex trafficking has become. You may have seen content imploring you to help "save the children" without realizing the conspiracy theories underneath.

Viewers of such content also may not have realized the political dirty tricks at play, including particularly wild views about Hunter Biden or the false and absurd suggestion that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is a pedophile. This suggestion is not based in fact, court records, reportage, direct knowledge, or any of the usual ways we as a society verify reality.

We all must play a role in quashing this kind of garbage, a role that the president has scandalously abdicated. First and foremost are the popular social media companies that control the platforms where this gets normalized. Behemoths like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and even e-commerce site Etsy (where handcrafted Q-emblazoned merchandise has been sold) have begun to see the problem and are attempting to crack down on or remove some accounts. More is needed, including a reckoning and perhaps regulation of how these platforms function as a public square.

The world is complicated enough in our actual reality, our challenges sufficiently grave. Focus on and debate them all you want — leave the conspiracies for the movies.

— The editorial board