Student Opinion: QAnon and the Spread of Bad Ideas

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By Jacob Derin

Last Sunday, HBO’s “Q: Into The Storm” aired its final episode, leaving me somewhat disappointed but also happy that I no longer had an excuse to indulge my fascination with the Q phenomenon. With some time and space to reflect, it’s become clear that the QAnon saga is a perfect microcosm of American political insanity in the wake of Trumpism.

For those unfamiliar with Q and their anonymous persona, here’s a brief primer. Q is a user on the online forum 8Kun (formerly 8Chan) who claims to have a high-level security clearance in the American government. Through a series of posts (known as “drops”), Q has claimed to have insider knowledge of a Satanic, pedophilic cabal operating at the highest levels of left-wing politics and culture in the United States. 

The details are wilder than we need to discuss here, though for a taste of the insanity, consider the mind which fully believes the following. Inducing sufficient terror and suffering in a child causes the production of “adrenochrome,” an entirely fictional substance that QAnon adherents believe people like Hilary Clinton consume to extend their lives. 

The “Q: Into The Storm” documentary concludes that Q is probably Ron Watkins, a former site administrator at 8Kun. However, I think it spends far too much time trying to figure out who Q is rather than what he represents. As absurd as his claims have been, Q has found a sizable audience of adherents in American politics and society and even found support in the halls of Congress.

QAnon is not the first conspiracy theory to spread widely in American society, but it is arguably the least connected to reality. Much ink has already been spilled over the influence of social media and the internet in this regard, but there’s a more sinister part of the story. It seems to me like our sense of reality is beginning to come apart at the seams.

Q’s adherents simply live in a different world than those who start their day with NPR and end it by reading an article from the New York Times. A solid majority of Republicans believe that the election was fraudulent. That’s a serious threat to democracy, particularly in the wake of the storming of the Capitol. 

Right-wing political violence is not the only threat we’re experiencing, of course. After the riots which occurred last summer, there’s an ominous air hanging over the Derek Chauvin trial. There are no guarantees in a criminal prosecution, and an acquittal is likely to lead to further and perhaps worse mob violence.

As I argued in a previous article for the Davis Vanguard, this is the inevitable result of a breakdown in political communication. Violence is the last and only recourse to people who can’t or won’t communicate with words.

QAnon and 8Chan are potent arguments against allowing people to spread misinformation at will under the auspices of freedom of speech. This was one of the primary arguments of “Q: Into The Storm.” 

However, this is not the lesson I draw from it. The darkest corners of the internet are difficult and nearly impossible to police effectively. Powerful actors have been trying to shut down 8Chan and QAnon for years. Yet, they both persist.

The antidote to toxic ideas can’t be censorship. That only serves to validate the victim complex inherent to such beliefs. Only good ideas and effective communication can stop the spread of these beliefs.

Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.


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16 thoughts on “Student Opinion: QAnon and the Spread of Bad Ideas”

  1. Keith Olsen

    After the riots which occurred last summer, there’s an ominous air hanging over the Derek Chauvin trial. There are no guarantees in a criminal prosecution, and an acquittal is likely to lead to further and perhaps worse mob violence.

    It’s not looked upon kindly to refer to any social justice riots in terms of mob violence here on the Vanguard.  Though I happen to agree with you.

  2. David Greenwald

    Ironically I was just thinking about this issue as I was reading about the Supreme Court struggling mightily with obscenity in the 60s and early 70s.  Thurgood Marshall in Stanley v. Georgia for example wrote: “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he must watch.”

    I tend to be a First Amendment absolutist and I was troubled in 2017 when Milo was shut down from speaking at UCD.

    On the other hand, I am equally troubled by what I saw on Facebook where meme after meme was posted where the information was verifiably and objectively false.  I clearly see the difference between government censorship and Facebook and Twitter – for example – attempting to prevent their platforms transmitting objectively false information.  I can see that is just as destructive to democracy and censorship.  And unlike Jacob, I don’t have a good answer for how to address it.

    1. Ron Oertel

      On the other hand, I am equally troubled by what I saw on Facebook where meme after meme was posted where the information was verifiably and objectively false.

      Memes are not normally viewed as sources of objective information.

      Neither are shows such as Colbert’s.

      They are for amusement, which sometimes contain an element of truth. Other times, they may be poking fun at (or “with”) non-truths.

      1. David Greenwald

        “Memes are not normally viewed as sources of objective information.”

        You don’t even use social media, I don’t think you’re in a position to comment.

        1. Ron Oertel

          You’re making an assumption which may, or may not be true.

          Regardless, social media is not the only place to see memes.  For example, there’s a rather-conservative young guy on YouTube, who “reviews” social media posts for amusement.  (Interestingly enough, he sometimes alludes to the possibility that YouTube might also take exception to his videos, as I recall).

          But he also discusses whether or not the various posts would be allowed on social media sites (such as Facebook). And I’ve been surprised, regarding what he suggests would not be “allowed”. I’ve seen more potentially-offensive stuff on TV.

          One of his main targets is what might only be described as the social justice warriors, on campuses throughout the country. (Just straight-out videos of incidents, rather than memes.)

        2. Alan Miller

          You don’t even use social media, I don’t think you’re in a position to comment.

          I think such evidence of high intelligence makes such a person quite worthy to comment.

          I tend to be a First Amendment absolutist and I was troubled in 2017 when Milo was shut down from speaking at UCD.

          One thing we have always agreed upon.

          On the other hand, I am equally troubled by what I saw on Facebook where meme after meme was posted where the information was verifiably and objectively false.

          I am troubled by false information, as I am by comments under articles in Fox News that are decidedly racist – partially because they reinforce the incorrect notion that all conservatives are racist arseholes.  But it a way it simply shows the darkness of the soul of far too many people.

          attempting to prevent their platforms transmitting objectively false information.

          One persons truth is another persons fiction.  To a degree.  To too much of a degree.

          I can see that is just as destructive to democracy and censorship.

          Honestly, if we are such deluded people that we can’t handle uncensored bullshˆt and it destroys our country, we deserved to be destroyed.  Experiment over.

    2. Keith Olsen

      On the other hand, I am equally troubled by what I saw on Facebook where meme after meme was posted where the information was verifiably and objectively false.  I clearly see the difference between government censorship and Facebook and Twitter – for example – attempting to prevent their platforms transmitting objectively false information.  I can see that is just as destructive to democracy and censorship. 

      There were as many fake BS memes from the left as there was from the right.  The problem was FB and Twitter pretty much only shut down the right.  Now I have a huge problem with that.  Either ALL fake memes get shut down or none at all, but it can’t be selectively done according to a company’s political leanings.

      1. Richard_McCann

        Yes, many memes are false. (And I point this out to folks on FB with whom I share a political viewpoint.) However, there appears to be a strong difference in how those with different political perspectives respond those memes and then act on them. There are many key differences in how those who have a conservative or reactionary outlook process information and experiences compared to those who have a liberal or progressive outlook. We saw that in the January 6 uprising.

        1. Keith Olsen

          I remember seeing memes during the Michael Brown incident saying “Hands up, Don’t shoot” which was false and a lie and helped incite the Ferguson rioters to loot and burn Ferguson leading to the deaths of police officers and several others.  This is just one example of many.  How many of you on the left denounced these false memes and asked that they be censored?

          1. David Greenwald

            I got to the point last summer where I was fact checking everything posted on Facebook – a huge percentage were completely false on both sides.

  3. Alan Miller

    The antidote to toxic ideas can’t be censorship. That only serves to validate the victim complex inherent to such beliefs.

    Thank you for saying that, sir.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Je d’accord, avec Alan M… “victim complex” is real… creates ‘martyrs’…

      If false narrative, perhaps best to ‘not engage’ uber-strongly… or, might be better to derisively laugh at… actually works for most bullies, (those without serious MH issues, un-armed with WMD’s), as well… Charlie Chaplin, the ‘Three Stooges” parodies of Hitler, Tojo actually helped the US getting involved in WWII, and helping to end the atrocities in China, and Europe… ‘logic’ was not particularly effective… the Japanese Empire made a stupid mistake in attacking Pearl, at Hitler did even a bigger stupid by shortly thereafter declaring war on the US…

      We should never forget the ‘Rape of Nanking’, Bataan Death March, the Holocaust (involving not just Jews, but ‘gays’, Gypsies, Catholic clergy, etc.)… there are times to ‘turn the other cheek’, and times to say, ‘thus far, but no farther’…

      Yet, it is/was the true victims who became ‘martyrs’ and mobilized the entire world… my opinion, only…  sometimes, being a ‘pacifist’ is the most immoral position one can take…  hard truth… what if someone attacked the officers who murdered Floyd, before they ‘succeeded’?  An act of aggression, major risk… but, what if?

      I don’t know what I would have done at that scene, but don’t think I’d have just watched…

  4. Tia Will

    On a different note, in 2001 I watched the movie Monster’s, Inc. The premise was an evil cabal sending monsters into children’s bedrooms to terrify them into screaming. The energy from the children’s terror was used to power the head monster’s plans for hegemony. That was fiction.

    Fortunately so are the rantings of believers in QAnon but unfortunately with very real-world consequences. It isn’t just that those who start their day with NPR and end with the NYT live in a different world from the Qers. It is that one world is reality ( if not always truth-based) while the other is spun out of pure  ( but dangerous) fantasy.

    1. Keith Olsen

       It is that one world is reality ( if not always truth-based) 

      I would think being truth based is at the core of the definition of reality.

  5. Richard_McCann

    This commentary naively buys into the false premise that we are all rational actors to take in information and process it carefully in our considerations. This naïve perspective lies at heart of conservative economic philosophy as well. Instead, we should be asking “yes, there’s a rational ideal, but how do we diverge from that ideal and what is that we need to do to address the problems arising from that divergence?” As the Supreme Court said a century ago, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Knowingly spreading lies that threaten our democratic institutions is a case of yelling “fire” and should be dealt with appropriately.

    1. Jacob Derin

      I would say that rather than naively buying into that idea I’m simply very concerned about the consequences of the alternative. Allowing people to speak freely is dangerous, but I think it’s less dangerous than not letting them speak freely.

      The fire in a crowded theater example is not a very good analog to conspiracy theories spread over the internet. That sort of speech has imminent and direct consequences. It’s formally considered a “speech act” whereas the mere expression of opinions is treated very differently by the law and moral philosophy.

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