From David Maughan Brown in York: Beyond reason

February 6th

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.’

Not an orderly queue

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%.[1]  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?


[1] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cac.asp

From David Maughan Brown in York: Taking Back Control

July15th 

Another day, two more U-turns.   Michael Gove’s libertarian assertion a couple of days ago that he wouldn’t favour making face-coverings compulsory for people entering shops because it is ‘common courtesy’, and the great British public can implicitly be relied to exercise that courtesy, has been overruled.  Whoever makes this government’s decisions in the shadowy depths of 10 Downing Street – usually Dominic Cummings – appears to have rather less confidence in our collective courtesy, and face coverings are now, very belatedly, going to be compulsory for anyone visiting shops after all.  But, fair play, it is important to be even-handed, and common courtesy needs to be exercised towards the virus as well:  it needs to be given a chance to infect people for at least one more week, so face coverings don’t need be worn in shops until 24th July.  This will give the government time to ask the police, who are going to have to work out how to enforce the law, whether they think making it compulsory and making people who don’t wear face coverings eligible for £100 fines was a good idea in the first place.  They don’t.   But we shouldn’t bank on there not being another rapid U-turn, as the Tory backwoodsmen don’t like the idea of having to wear face coverings any more than Michael Gove does.   Desmond Swayne, of deepest and darkest backwoods fame, declared in parliament yesterday that the new regulation was a ‘monstrous imposition’ that would deter him from going shopping.  So goodbye to the V-shaped recovery then.

The other U-turn, much more dramatic and with the potential for vastly more serious long-term consequences, sees our government performing an abrupt about-turn and reneging on its previous commitment to allow the Chinese private company Huawei to be involved in the 35% of the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network that isn’t security sensitive.   Not only is any future involvement arbitrarily ruled out, but all Huawei- manufactured components of the existing 3G and 4G networks need to be stripped out by 2027.  Now there’s common courtesy for you.  It isn’t as if Johnson and company have suddenly unearthed the fact that Huawei is a Chinese company and that China has a communist government with some very unsavoury propensities.  Nor have they suddenly discovered that Huawei poses a more serious security threat than they had realised in January when they made their original commitment.   It is unlikely that even Dominic Cummings, radical thinker that he is, has been influenced by the deranged conspiracy theorists who think that 5G masts are responsible for Covid-19.   A conservative estimate suggests that the sudden volte-face will involve picking another £2 billion from the magic-money tree, and up to two years delay in the roll-out of 5G.   Any pretence that this U-turn has anything to do with China’s new stance on Hong Kong or its treatment of the Uighur Muslims would have to be based on the assumption that Tories have even the first remotest interest in Human Rights which (with a few honourable minority exceptions) is entirely belied by, among other things, the Windrush scandal, and the government’s persistence in maintaining Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ with its appalling attitude towards immigrants.   The Huawei U-turn can be laid entirely at the door of Johnson and cronies’ cringing subservience to the erratic whims of Donald Trump, so desperate are they to feast on the crumbs under his trade table. Trump, needless to say, has no qualms about making it embarrassingly clear what he thinks of them by boasting to the world about having persuaded them to do turn their backs on their commitments to Huawei.

The English Nationalists have taken control of the ship – otherwise known as hi-jacking – that had been comfortably and productively docked in a European harbour for the better part of 50 years.   They didn’t like having to pay harbour fees and there were too many pesky foreigners around for their liking – foreigners who for the most part couldn’t even speak proper English.  So, after spending three years blundering around in the engine-room before finally managing to get the engines started, they have set sail and headed out into the unforgiving ocean towards the Americas, following in the wakes of heroes like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, their eyes alight with the prospect of fresh riches and empire.  Regrettably, unlike those plundering knights of the realm, they haven’t the first idea about how to sail a ship, nor have they the faintest notion about where they are going or how to navigate the way to get there.   So they go round and round in circles, not catching the faintest stirring of a trade wind but caught in a trade war between the world’s two major economic powers, China and the USA.  They had hoped that China would be a source of riches, at it used to be, but the trade war, over which they have no control, has crushed all hope of that.   They are tempted to seek safe harbour on the other side of the Atlantic to replenish their supplies, of chicken in particular, but that would make it a bit too embarrassingly obvious that they are, in fact, handing control to the mad Donald Trump. So much for taking back control.