QAnon used to exist only in whispers and obscure corners of the internet, but as the movement gains steam, it’s made its presence known in Western North Carolina.

It all began in 2017 on the website 4chan, where an anonymous writer known only as “Q” began posting coded messages eluding to a worldwide satanic child trafficking ring involving celebrities and the political elite all tied to the “deep state.”

The theory quickly evolved to include President Donald Trump, who QAnon believers contend is the one man who can break up the dark cult. There is no evidence to support any of these claims, which have been widely disavowed by most prominent political figures.

The flames of the movement were stoked by the uncovering of Jeffery Epstein’s criminal sex ring, and by early 2020, the ideas espoused by QAnon were perpetuated on social media and eventually became mainstream. Concerns about the seriousness of the movement were heightened when Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a QAnon supporter, won her congressional primary. She is expected to easily win the general election, meaning the conspiracy theories will soon reach Congress.

Even in Western North Carolina at rallies for Congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn, QAnon fanatics made their presence known. Most recently, rallies in Waynesville and Franklin were attended by numerous individuals who espoused such beliefs, but a recent New York Times story discussed how QAnon has hijacked the legitimate movement to curb the actual human trafficking problem.

Two department heads from Western Carolina University weighed in on QAnon, its roots and its impact on society — political science department head Chris Cooper, and Peter Neickarz, who runs the sociology and anthropology departments.

Neickarz teaches classes on social movements and media and popular culture and wrote 15 years ago about the rise of online communities. He said the biggest difference between now and when he wrote that is the ubiquitous availability of the internet, if not in people’s homes, in their pockets.

“When you look at the recent numbers, you will find that the percentage of people with internet access is higher than the people who have a computer in their homes, and that’s because of phones,” he said.

“I think these have just become more prevalent because of the internet,” he added.

This leads to not only unlimited access to information, but disinformation, as well.

“It’s no longer about people reading information; they’re also creating information,” Neickarz said. “There are so many sources of information out there that it becomes difficult for many people to really understand what is worthwhile and what is not worthwhile and what is not credible.”

Neickarz said we have come to value blogs and smaller independent news sources that exist solely because modern technology makes it possible.

“The notion of the citizen journalist is great, in theory,” he said. “We love that people can put their ideas out there, but the danger is that a lot of these folks don’t understand what it means to be a journalist and the ethics and what’s valid information.”

Conspiracy theories can go viral

This makes the rise of a social media driven conspiracy theory possible — enter QAnon.

“This QAnon thing is so frustrating to me,” Neickarz said. “People are concerned about Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres being cannibalistic pedophiles. But there is real human trafficking to be concerned about. It’s a thing, especially in Macon County. People traveling from Atlanta into Western North Carolina bring drugs through there, and there is human trafficking.”

For Neickarz, one of the biggest concerns is simply the negative impact such prevalent misinformation can have in the fight against the actual human trafficking problem that exists.

While a lot of people point to the far-fetched theory that Wayfair was trafficking children through its furniture delivery service when criticizing QAnon, Neickarz had a more current examples of misinformation to cite.

“The whole thing about the 39 children found in a double-wide in Georgia is a bad one,” he said. “It’s not true. What happened was there was an operation in Georgia where U.S. Marshalls found those children in various locations. It’s still an important story and it was a great operation, but its misrepresents the story.”

To Neickarz, the real issue is overshadowed foremost by the conspiracy theory regarding the alleged trafficking ring made up of high-profile celebrities.

“If people understood the problem more directly, they would be better able to help these children,” he said.

“The same thing with the Plandemic documentary that came out in May,” he added. “They say Bill Gates and big pharma have manufactured COVID-19 to get us to take vaccinations. It just frustrates me. Because of the Plandemic, over 37 percent of Americans plan to not take the vaccine when and if it becomes available.”

There’s a political element to QAnon, as well. Neickarz said he found it interesting that President Donald Trump, when offered the opportunity, didn’t disavow QAnon. Even prior to that, many in the movement believed President Trump is the one who will finally dismantle the deep state.

“I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump said. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”

Trump also expressed his respect for Taylor Greene.

”Congratulations to future Republican Star Marjorie Taylor Greene on a big Congressional primary win in Georgia against a very tough and smart opponent,” he tweeted. “Marjorie is strong on everything and never gives up — a real WINNER!”

“Here is an opportunity for someone who is supposed to be our leader to say something that would be like, let people know of course that’s not true. HE chose to allow that QAnon conspiracy theory to exist,” Neickarz said.

Local ties

In recent weeks, there have been questions regarding congressional hopeful Madison Cawthorn’s connections to those who have bought into the QAnon conspiracy theories.

Cawthorn, the Republican candidate running to represent Western North Carolina in Congress, traveled to Texas in July, where he visited the border wall and echoed claims about human trafficking promoted by conspiracy theorists that, like others, have been proven false.

“Sure, there are children being human-trafficked across our border north into our country for sex slavery and many things that are unspeakable and terrible to think of,” he said in a campaign video filmed at the wall. “But what’s really going on is we are having a large group of cartels coming into our country, kidnapping our American children and then taking them to sell them on a slave market, on the sex slave market.”

“It’s worth asking for follow-up when he drops kernels of the QAnon story here and there,” Cooper said. “Any time any politician says something that is consistent with the QAnon story, they need to be asked about that.”

In recent weeks, AVL Watchdog has done just that. In a story from the online publication, Cawthorn spokesman John Hart said the Cawthorn “categorically disavows ‘QAnon.’”

Cooper said that Cawthorn should be given credit for disavowing QAnon and that there is power in people like Cawthorn who have drawn the respect of those folks in taking that kind of stand.

“There have been QAnon supporters at his events,” Cooper said. “The rally that Cawthorn was at in Sylva the other week, there were QAnon supporters on the corner of Schulman and Mill Street.”

Cooper said the moment he realized QAnon might be more than just a flash in the pan was about six months ago.

“I had heard about them before, but it didn’t seem like it was a movement but more just a bunch of isolated mentions here and there,” he said. “That was the first time I thought this was a sustained movement.”

“Other folks have used social media, but I don’t recall a sustained movement that is also a conspiracy theory that uses social media so successfully,” he added.

Sign of the times

Like Neickarz, Cooper was quick to point out that the rapid emergence of QAnon is a symptom of the “larger illness of political polarization.” He also said that although social media perpetuates conspiracy theories in a way that was impossible not long ago, these kinds of conspiracy theories are nothing new.

While Neickarz pointed out that people still talk about certain popular conspiracy theories, such as chem trails and ones rooted in antisemitism, Cooper said conspiracy theories that play on people’s fears regarding children have been around for hundreds of years.

In addition to thinking the President’s comments helped the movement gain steam, Neickarz pointed out that folks who have openly perpetuated and bought into the conspiracy theory, thus making it more mainstream than he ever thought it would be.

“It goes to show that our elected officials even are not practicing good media literacy,” he said. “We want the people who are making our policy to make good evidence-based decisions and it’s obvious they aren’t.”

Cooper talked about how those on the left and the right may use such a conspiracy theory while campaigning.

“On the right, certainly people can wink at QAnon without espousing the beliefs to try to bring along QAnon supporters without alienating the rest of the electorate,” he said.

Cooper said that on the left, QAnon can be a “scarlet letter” to pin someone with.

“If a right-leaning candidate says anything that can be construed as part of the QAnon narrative, a left-leaning candidate will try to use that against them,” he said.

Perhaps most concerning is that bad political actors, such as those in Russia who tried to influence the 2016 Presidential election, can use the misinformation from QAnon to influence American politics.

“It’s a powerful tool,” he said. “Politicians are about gaining power. It’s absolutely possible and probable that groups will attempt to weaponize the QAnon community because the information isn’t verifiable. These are breadcrumbs left on the internet by an anonymous person or people.”

Neickarz added that a key tactic of conspiracy theorists pushing these false narratives adopt is weaving small slivers of proven facts in with the bogus information to provide a thin veil of credibility.

“I’ve seen other things similar to this,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ve seen a conspiracy theory that was so prevalent.”

Of course, because those who adhere to conspiracy theories do so with such fervor, it can be hard to bridge the chasm between those people and skeptics to create meaningful discourse.

“It’s polarizing because people are so willing to shut out somebody, anything somebody has to say that isn’t fitting into whatever their world view is,” Neickarz said. “Trying to reason with somebody with facts doesn’t work because we’ve become so polarized. QAnon is just one more thing on top of it.”

Although not in his area of expertise, Neickarz cited psychological research that talks about the type of people that might be drawn to conspiracy theories.

“Part of the belief in conspiracy theories is there is a sense of identity and belonging,” he said. “They feel special because they’re in on some sort of information that all the other ‘sheeple’ out there are not.”

“The number one reason is that people want to have explanations for the unexplainable,” he added. “The world is so complex, and the explanations and answers to things are never as simple as people want them to be. You can think about that with something like COVID. Should we open everything or shut down? That’s not an easy choice, but people want to see it as an easy choice. Conspiracy theories make things seem very simple and clear, and I think in some ways they find it comforting.”

Neickarz said something like QAnon differs from more legitimate social movements he’s studied in one key way — other movements have clear-cut goals.

“The QAnon belief, as far as I understand it, is the President is taking care of all of this,” he said. “But what do they actually want in the short-term?”

“It’s definitely a movement, but social movements have become so different in the internet era,” he added. “QAnon is generally not organized in the way, say, the Tea Party or the Occupy movement was organized. I’m not sure there’s a lot of organization behind QAnon as much as it’s this subculture. Movements are becoming less formally organized.”

For Neickarz, the issue goes back to a topic he’s all too familiar with, and it’s something he’s seen among the fringes on both the left and right.

“This sort of hatred and mistrust of professional journalism is it, that to me is the scary thing,” he said. “There’s an erosion of people’s understanding of what professional journalism is. That’s a threat to our democracy.”

“The heart of this thing is how media illiterate people are,” he said. “They watch a 20 minutes YouTube video not understanding that it may not be quality information. I don’t think people understand how seriously real journalists take their jobs. I don’t think people realize how important it is for them to get it right.”

Check the weekend edition of The Mountaineer for an in-depth look at the facts and myths regarding the human trafficking problem in Western North Carolina.

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