Regrettably, the ‘Q’ in the placard being held aloft by ‘QAnon shaman’ Jacob Chansley in the above photograph, does not stand for the Quartermaster whose role in life was to equip James Bond with ever more sophisticated technological devices with which to outwit and, where necessary, try to kill Blofeld and the other evil villains of Ian Fleming’s fictional world. Problematic as the delusion that he had been sent by Fleming’s Q might be in a United States absurdly awash with semi-automatic rifles and other assorted lethal hardware, the delusion for which Chansley is a figurehead is not just the isolated delusion of a single deranged individual, but a bizarre moral panic shared by a very significant number of people. What its adherents believe is, for those less delusional, literally unbelievable: President Trump is waging a secret war against an elite of Satan-worshipping paedophiles led by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton who have a nasty habit of drinking children’s blood and will at some point, preferably very soon, have to be arrested and executed. It is almost as unbelievable, but in this instance true, that nearly 75 million people voted for Donald Trump in November, an unknown but not insignificant number of whom are QAnon conspiracy theorists whom Trump has approvingly described as ‘people who love our country.’
The absurdity of the QAnon conspiracy would be laughable were the belief not to have been held fervently enough to have motivated a significant portion of the rabble who stormed the Capitol on November 6th in what has been described as the most significant assault on democracy in the US in the past two hundred years. QAnon came to mind yesterday evening as I watched the Channel 4 news coverage of the online abuse to which NHS staff in UK are being subjected by equally delusional Covid-19-deniers. Nurses working themselves into the ground, in some instances all too literally, enduring 14 hour shifts in their efforts to keep Covid patients alive in ICUs, traumatised by the deaths of the very many who are beyond saving, are being accused of being lying prostitutes, and worse, whose comments on social media about what they are going through are held to be nothing more than crude attempts to cover up the fact that, in reality, the hospitals are empty. Consultants who go public about the difficulties the hospitals are facing are being sent abusive death threats. This is several stages beyond the level of insanity needed to believe that 5G phone masts are responsible for causing Covid-19, and potentially far more damaging in the long term than going out and trying to burn down a few 5G masts: many of the staff in our underfunded and overstretched NHS have already been pushed to, and beyond, their limit, and being rewarded for their sacrifices by vicious abuse seems likely to result, as soon as the immediate crisis is over, in a exodus of the staff essential to the survival of the NHS.
So what is going on? What is it that not only enables such delusions to gather momentum and infect so many people, but also that allows so many of those people to feel free to direct virulent and ignorant abuse at professional people who know what they are talking about? Recent OECD figures indicate that 91% of US citizens between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed high school education, and 47% have a post-secondary degree; the equivalent figures for the UK are 79% and 46%. QAnon believers in the US are not confined to the 9% who didn’t complete higher education, as exemplified by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a recently elected Republican Congresswoman graduate of the University of Georgia, who is an outspoken QAnon supporter who apparently has a habit of ‘liking’ social-media posts calling for violence against elected Democrats and claiming that both 9/11 and the multiple school shootings in US are staged events. I cannot pretend to know what going on, but it is clear that ‘universal’ education, as currently practiced, is not succeeding in vaccinating enough of the population of either the USA or UK with sufficient rationality to protect against infection from wholly irrational and potentially extremely damaging conspiracy theories.
This being the case, what can be done to protect the vulnerable, and try to preempt the long-term damage that social media, feeding off deranged conspiracy theories, can do to individuals, and through them to precious and indispensable institutions like our NHS? Freedom of speech is precious, but it isn’t an absolute right: nobody has a right to stand up in a crowded theatre and shout ‘Fire!’ when there isn’t a fire. One safeguard against that happening lies in the fact that shouting ‘Fire!’ in those circumstances could hardly help but draw very immediate attention to the person doing the shouting. Twitter-handles and Facebook accounts, by contrast, can be linked to made-up email accounts that enable trolls to retain their anonymity. Is there any reason in a democratic society, where the rule of law is respected, for social media companies not to require verifiable identification from their users? Those companies are currently investing substantial resources in taking down offensive posts, but usually only after they have already done their damage to the recipients. Why should people who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression in ‘free’ societies not be expected to be held accountable for what they say?
Trying to find ways of making sure trolls can be held accountable for their media posts is, however, a case of trying to lock the stable door long after the horse has bolted. The prior question must be what could those of us who have spent their lives as educators have done, and what can our successors now do, to try to instill in our students some kind of rational defence against the siren attractions of ever more deranged conspiracy theories?