On the eve of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, conspiracy theories have abounded online amid the global pandemic and a polarized political climate. Journalists covering nearly every beat grapple with misinformation, which is false but may be spread by mistake, as well as disinformation, when falsehoods are shared intentionally.
QAnon has emerged as one of the most all-encompassing set of conspiracy theories. As news outlets report, it centers on false claims that a Satanic cabal of businesspeople, government officials, and members of the media are working to undermine President Donald Trump—though its proponents have also posted false information about COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the election. In a town hall debate on October 15, the president refused to disavow the group, according to the Guardian newspaper.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations has identified conspiracy theories as domestic terror threats, specifically naming QAnon, according to official documents published by Yahoo News.
CPJ spoke with Dr. Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, about why and how conspiracy theories spread and the implications for journalists. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
For more information on safety around the U.S. Elections, check out CPJ’s journalist safety kit.
Why are we seeing so many conspiracy theories now—is the public paying more attention, or has the volume of theories increased?
We’re in a situation where there is quantitatively more information about conspiracy theories and misinformation, and as a result conspiracy theorists are benefiting. The theories are featured topics sometimes on [social media] platforms because conspiracy theorists are very good at capturing online attention. This serves as a feedback loop where more mainstream media has to cover the conspiracy theory, if only to debunk it. It’s a really unfortunate situation.
At the onset of the pandemic I was very concerned with the amount of attention that people were going to be paying to the internet in order to get information about COVID-19. The internet, and especially social media, is very bad at delivering timely local and relevant information. It’s not a substitute for local news; it’s not a substitute for television and radio. As a result, when many people are going to be looking up information about COVID there was a big opportunity for conspiracists, as well as grifters, to capture the attention on that topic.
It seems like this would place an extra burden on local news reporters who have to parse through all of the mis- and dis-information that is flying at them. Would you say that’s accurate?
Yes, not just local news, but doctors, public health professionals, anybody who is responsible for health and well-being, even law enforcement. The way in which social media is designed has really made it easy for these conspiracies and disinformation to take shape in ways that may end up having downstream effects in our journalism.
With local news there are very few resources for training on how to look into disinformation campaigns. This is the fundamental problem with disinformation: it’s everybody else’s problem. The people creating disinformation have many incentives to continue to do so, and there is zero threat of sanctions, other than losing a social media account.
How does QAnon fit into the disinformation ecosphere?
It’s been around a while and researchers were trying to get people to pay attention to some of the more anti-Semitic pieces of it. Because QAnon had been focused primarily on public figures, it was hard to say “this is a harassment campaign,” or “this is disinformation,” because the public has a right to criticize public figures.
We’re in this predicament because early on there was no action taken [against] these groups. As they started to take on different targets, show up in different places, and started to push medical misinformation, platform companies decided to start removing some of the affiliated accounts, pages and groups.
But QAnon has not relied on any single platform. They had often talked about what they would do in the event of being removed and have a rudimentary plan in place to camouflage. Recently, they quickly morphed into “Save the Children” groups. [They] have really diversified their tactics, their recruitment strategy, and are paying extra careful attention to how they behave online.
Are QAnon adherents a real, physical threat to journalists?
Yes, definitely. The tagline itself of the QAnon faction is “we are the media now.” For them, mainstream media isn’t just a group of independent organizations whose job it is to broadcast news, but they are a densely networked group of people controlled by “globalists” and when they do confront journalists in public, the tone, the smearing, the spitting, it is all very real.
You have a few different instances of violence in Pizzagate, an early iteration of QAnon which culminated at Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor.
[Editor’s Note: In 2017, a man was sentenced to four years in prison for firing an assault rifle in the pizza parlour in 2016 while investigating an online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate,” according to Reuters.]
If they become fixated on a particular journalist or activist, the potential for violence is high.
If you look at the way in which the media is confronted at what appear to be Save the Children or MAGA [“Make America Great Again” Trump campaign] rallies, those people are part of what I call adversarial media movements.
We’re in the midst of the rise of militia and vigilante violence. Within the QAnon groups, there is talk of second amendment rights, insurrectionary activity, and of the government, to some degree, being in a state of disarray. All of these things do resonate in some ways with anti-government militia groups who also don’t think that the government is acting in the interest of citizens.
We have seen these sorts of groups to coalesce and come together, particularly in the calls to reopen [after coronavirus lockdowns], but I also think in the case of the wildfires. We have to be really cognizant of what’s driving their motivation, especially if they’re doing things like stopping the public and asking for identification and illegally fulfilling some of the functions of law enforcement.
Stalking, intimidation, these kinds of things are all on the table, especially for journalists that are covering QAnon. [You get] a barrage of comments on your accounts if you mention them, and if you have any personally available information, they will create a dossier on you and make that public. The targeted harassment is another reason why platform companies took action.
But there are many non-public spaces that [Q adherents] these journalists congregate in, so it’s very difficult for someone to even potentially know that they’re a target of a group like this until they are being attacked.
The ways in which harassment works online, whether its death threats or other threats against you, sometimes they spider web out into other threatening friends and family or people in your networks. Another tactic is calling your employer and trying to get your employer to question you or fire you. Sometimes they’ll try to go through your chat or tweet history and dig up some kind of joke out of context.
There are many more risks than there is payoff for exposing these groups at this stage. As you work in this beat of disinformation and hate speech, and conspiracy, you realize you are dealing with a bunch of people who are very motivated to stay online, to engage those that are reporting on them in a way that is really dangerous and grotesque.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory—have you seen an analogous far-left conspiracy theory?
Let’s put it this way, there are some conspiracy theories that are not going to hurt anyone if they believe them. If you believe that the NASA space landing is a hoax, if you believe the earth is flat—these conspiracy theories are circulated every day, but they don’t have the potential for danger.
The things that make QAnon particularly dangerous at this stage are the medical misinformation that is causing people to change their health behavior, and the relationship that it’s had to some of these protests that are in public. People are going out because they don’t think there is a risk for coronavirus. This is different from other conspiracies that might be considered non-political.
Do you have any advice for journalists who are covering breaking news and trying to parse through the deluge of misinformation out there?
Journalists have to be extra careful about their sourcing materials and then being handed a honey pot, which is to say that sometimes the story feels too good to be true, or feels too scandalous not to cover.
It’s really important to restate the facts several times in your story, even though word counts are what they are. If you have to keep it short, you should use the model of “the truth sandwich” which is fact-fallacy-fact, so you state up front what is true and what the misinformation is, and then you have to state what is true again so that your reader comes away with greater understanding.
Editor’s Note: The dates of the Pizzagate attack and sentencing have been corrected.