At some point in their careers, just about everyone is likely to work for a boss or company that believes in Mushroom Management—keeping employees in the dark and feeding them bullshit. For companies, the result is a corporate culture riddled with rumors and fear. The same thing works on a larger scale—only worse. As Russia (and a million Reddit subgroups) demonstrated so thoroughly in 2016, the sheer scale of the internet makes it possible to drown every crumb of fact under a thousands competing false claims. Dedicated use of misinformation makes it perfectly possible to provide an endless stream of lies—and a media prone to inserting “both sides” and “opposing views” into every article, no matter how straightforward, making a point of contention.
That kind of informational poison—the deliberate introduction of false statements and contrafactual arguments—has been deployed for a long time. As historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway laid out in their book Merchants of Doubt, tobacco companies and oil companies are only among the latest to employ the technique of exploiting the tendency of media to refuse to filter out bad information.
But QAnon isn’t informational poison. It’s informational cancer. Its malignant growth is consuming the Republican Party in a tumorous mass of not just lies, but pure nonsense connected together by the tenuous strands of ugly make-believe. And it can’t be cured by ignoring it.
The very first message from the supposed “Q-source” was one announcing that Hillary Clinton was going to be arrested on Oct. 30. That would be Oct. 30, 2017. Every other pronouncement from this modern Oracle of Delphi has been just as completely, utterly, and absolutely wrong. Perversely, the response to each of these absolute misses hasn’t been to weaken the QAnon base, but to grow the tumor into something even more complex, multitentacled, and invasive.
As The New York Times reports, the Texas Republican Party has now consciously adopted QAnon phrases and mythology as the motto of the party and the theme for the coming election. And why not? Trump has retweeted QAnon claims over 200 times.
Even as the Democratic convention was underway, Trump answered a question from a White House reporter about whether he is “secretly saving the world from this Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals.” Trump’s reply was one that generated a million virtual, and increasingly non-virtual, high fives among the group’s still-growing supporters. “Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” said Trump. “If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are actually, we’re saving the world.” QAnon supporters took this as confirmation of everything from the pizza parlor child trafficking rings to underground Bigfoot hives.
The Biden campaign pointed out that far from being people who love America, QAnon followers are the new “very fine people,” in that, just like white nationalists, the FBI has identified them as a domestic terrorism threat. Considering that QAnon followers have explained that their conspiracy theory encouraged them to block the road across the Hoover Dam, plan a kidnapping, and carry out a murder, it isn’t hard to believe that this expanding web of ignorance and suspicion constitutes a grave threat.
At the moment, there are still Republicans in the House and Senate who are speaking out against QAnon … in exactly the same way they spoke out against Donald Trump before the 2016 election. Those Republicans can be defined simply as: people who no longer know their own party. They’re also people who have happily ridden the whirlwind of “fake news” and “deep state” so long as it was carrying them along. Now that they find themselves in an unfamiliar country, it’s far, far too late for them to get off.
QAnon may have gotten an “official” start with some internet posts in 2017, but that’s not where it began. It’s the absolutely foreseeable outcome of Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh, and the Tea Party, and Donald Trump. For decades, Republican backers have poured billions into talk radio, the Tea Party, and the assault on experts, scientists, journalist, and facts. This is where that journey was always going: into darkness.
On Thursday night, Joe Biden made a call to deploy the light of learning and compassion to push back the tide of darkness and hate. We had better work to make that happen. Because history shows that darkness, once it has entered, can take centuries to dispel.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
— from “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold (1867)