Save the Children: From #QAnon to #CRT

The infodemic rages on as the pandemic subsides, but there are reasons to be hopeful, too.

As the Great Pandemic recedes in America, will the infodemic wane too? Longtime readers of The Connector know that one of my ongoing concerns here is the tenuous state of American democracy. As 100 leading scholars of democracy warned earlier this week, Republican-led state legislatures are in the process of implementing “radical changes to core electoral procedures” that are turning those states “that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.” But politics follows culture; if there wasn’t such a large number of Republican voters who believe versions of the Big Lie, this wouldn’t be happening.

So I read Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko’s new book, Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, with a great deal of interest. Bloom is an international security fellow at New America; Moskalenko is a psychologist who studies mass identity, inter-group conflict and conspiracy theories. Their analysis is sobering, but offers some reasons for hope.

First, the bad news. A March survey by PRRI, released late last month, found that 15% of Americans believe “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” Twenty percent believe “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power” and 15% believe “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” These are all core QAnon tenets. Among self-identified Republicans, the percentages agreeing are 23%, 28% and 28% respectively.

Bloom and Moskalenko offer a complex theory for why so many people have become untethered from conventional reality and embraced these conspiratorial beliefs. It starts with people becoming “unfrozen,” meaning, no longer believing in core social norms and values. “This can happen, for example, if a war destroys families and possessions, weakens the government, and challenges survival,” they write. “Or a personal crisis like mental illness or substance abuse may tear an individual away from family and friends, may cause the person to lose their job and to experience firsthand government inadequacies and the indifference of the community. In this situation, personal distress is compounded by an unraveling of social norms that tether us to reality. As a result, ideas of right and wrong, of life’s goals and meaning, are all upended.” Such people are vulnerable to radically different world views because they are motivated to connect and “feel their life moving in a meaningful direction again.”

Thus the rise of belief in QAnon (as well as related theories, like the notion that “Jews are replacing us” with a Black-led dictatorship or that Communists running the Democratic party are coming to take your guns) is rooted in the collapse of the American Dream, Bloom and Moskalenko argue. And not just the idea that America is the land of opportunity. Also beliefs in benevolent government, truthful science, moral religion—all of these have been upended by real betrayals. After Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky, Bill Cosby, the Catholic Church’s coverup of child abuse, the list goes on. Add to that ongoing challenges to traditional gender and racial hierarchies which are unsettling many people, especially whites.

The pandemic accelerated the process of radicalization for many people, especially women, in part because health care is often more their domain, Bloom and Moskalenko note. Women still do more of the food-buying and cooking, child-raising and care-taking in America, and in all of these arenas, it has gotten harder to know what is safe to trust. Scientific advice about food and chemicals, and what is safe for young children, keeps changing. “In the United States, with very little help from community or government, the burden (and the guilt) for anything going wrong with a child is almost entirely on the mother,” they write. With the stakes sky high, it’s easy for mothers to become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety about conflicting and insidious science in their children’s lives.” And they add, “Where science made women feel dumb, QAnon makes them feel clever for ‘connecting the dots’ of an all-encompassing conspiracy theory.”

The easing of the pandemic, along with the collapse of QAnon’s key belief—that Trump would never leave the White House—may lead to some positive changes. Bloom and Moskalenko point out that the isolation and stress of the last year led to a rise in depression and anxiety among Americans; as things open up and people reconnect beyond their online networks, some QAnoners may quietly let go of their unfound beliefs. QAnon “defectors,” people who figure out on their own that they’ve been victims of a huge scam, may be effective messengers to “doubters.” Online resources like IGotOut.org and FreedomofMind.com, as well as Reddit forums Qult_Headquarters and ReQovery are useful hubs of information and support. And efforts to reduce exposure to QAnon theories, by deplatforming or limiting how much platforms automatically amplify engaging disinformation, can only help. As I wrote in an earlier edition of The Connector, we need more concerted attention on helping people out of QAnon, an issue that keeps cropping up in people’s personal networks but one that no progressive organization of any scale currently focuses on.

Unfortunately, political entrepreneurs on the right are constantly probing the same volatile mix that birthed QAnon for new causes to organize around and profit from. The current frenzy of opposition to the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools, which came on the heels of a frenzy against transgender kids competing in school sports, is indicative. Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma have recently passed laws against the teaching of CRT and Florida’s Republican governor is moving to prohibit it as well. At least fifteen states are debating such moves. New groups claiming to be “national grassroots” organizations working on this issue are cropping up like mushrooms on a decaying log. For example, “Parents Defending Education” has popped up with a staff of five and a flabby national “Indoctrination Map” claiming to show all the places where our kids are being brainwashed. The group is led by Nicole Niely, who has deep ties to the Koch network.

God forbid American children should learn that their country has flawed origins and still falls short of its democratic promises. The backlash against teaching about race and racism in America has deep, deep roots, of course. But I’m actually kind of hopeful about this latest spasm of “parents” trying to keep their kids from learning. If there’s one thing we know about children, it’s this: if you tell them there’s something they can’t have, they’re going to want it even more.

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Odds and Ends:

-Here are my most interesting take-aways from Catalist’s big new report on “What Happened in 2020.” Millennials and Gen Z now account for 31% of voters, up from 14% in 2008. Baby Boomers and their elders only made up 44% in 2020. And there’s a lot of turnover in the electorate, with 29% of the people who voted in 2020 being new presidential voters in their state.

-Brave New World, indeed. The Guardian has begun a major series on “automating care” that looks at how AI and other tech is increasingly being used to fill the senior care gap in America. For example, Alexandra Mateescu and Virginia Eubanks report, “CarePredict, a watch-like device worn on the dominant arm, can track the specific activity that a person is likely to be engaged in by considering the patterns in their gestures, among other data. If repetitive eating motions aren’t detected as expected, a carer is alerted. If the system identifies someone as being in the bathroom and it detects a sitting posture, it can be inferred that the person ‘is using the toilet’.” I’ll tell you what else can be inferred. One piece of good news—some of these automated systems are running into resistance from the very people they are meant to help, seniors who just don’t like technology.

-Hybrid work, continued: A Conference Board survey of 231 human resource leaders at mostly large businesses finds that nearly 4/5 of them expect that at least 10% of their employees will be allowed to work from home at least three days a week, even after they reopen their regular offices, Paul Davidson reports for USA Today. 38% of the businesses said they expected they would allow 40% or more of their workers to work remotely, a number that has doubled since last year’s Conference Board survey.

-Related: Bloomberg’s Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou report that only about 28% of U.S. office workers are back in their buildings, and many people are quitting in the face of inflexible demands that they show up for face-to-face meetings. Not having to commute is the top reason remote workers say they prefer their current situation. Vive La Resistance!

-Big news in the world of money and politics: The two leading organizations that have long tracked campaign donations, spending and lobbying at the federal and state levels, respectively, The Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in Politics, have announced their merger. The new organization will be called OpenSecrets and led by CRP’s executive director Sheila Krumholz, with NIMP’s Ed Bender staying on as executive adviser. The current URL OpenSecrets.org will eventually become the home for both groups’ combined data, which hopefully will make it easier for researchers and watchdogs to understand how big money players are behaving across the whole federal system. Kudos to Sheila and Ed for your years of service to democracy and transparency!