One of the most important themes we uncovered over the course of this project was the realization that different people live in different realities constructed by their differential media consumption. This in itself is not a novel finding, but its relation to the social environment propagated by the COVID – 19 pandemic is something worth examining. We argue that the abrupt isolation caused by coronavirus restrictions has caused a reality fracture akin to a population – dividing speciation event in ecology. The combination of diverse news sources with wildly different takes on events with the isolation caused by the pandemic has generated a series of populations with different understandings of what is “real” based on their news intake. It is this environment that has caused disinformation groups like Qanon to propagate.
Another common theme that links the two parts of the project is the focus on partisanship. Partisanship is a contributing factor towards health protective behaviors and COVID-19 compliance to institutional mandates and recommendations. By considering reality speciation, we can connect partisanship to the different realities that people live in, which then shapes their susceptibility to misinformation.
In general, Qanon posts reflect an adherence to the far right and conservative ideologies, where disinformation and misinformation is being propagated. Alternately, the participants in our focus group reflect an adherence to progressive and liberal stances, and thus they identify mainstream media and social media as sources of information, where COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations are routinely discussed. Although this is not true for all cases, and requires more study, our findings reflect that people are susceptible to the information that aligns with their reality as shaped by their political ideologies. Qanon and the right reflect a deep distrust of the Democratic party and in undermining the Trump presidency. Covid compliant university students also are wary and critical of the government and shortcomings in dealing with the pandemic, but are accepting of guidelines presented by science-backed institutions.
Another prolific theme that we’ve uncovered is information uncertainty. Since the beginning of the pandemic the information and knowledge of the virus has been in constant flux. In the United States we were initially told that face masks are not necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but most states have recently mandated the wearing of masks in public spaces. The way the virus has spread was at one time thought to be air born, but is now understood to be similar to the flu and is transmitted via coughing or sneezing on water droplets. These are just some examples, but it demonstrates the difficulty in determining which information is correct.
In the focus groups, when asked where the virus originated, were unable to come to an agreement. They were willing to admit that they didn’t know where the virus came from. This differs from Qanon, who regularly state that the virus was orchestrated by a left-winged cabal to thwart President Trump’s chances at reelection. In this way, it might be understood that people similar to those in the focus group would be less likely to spread misinformation in stating “I don’t know.”
As the virus has continued, so has media influence, but based on the focus group response people are becoming less inclined to believe what they are being told because of the back-and-forth nature of the information. This appears to be evident in younger generations specifically. As a result, protective behaviors, like wearing a mask and isolating, are being ignored. Similarly, Qanon followers view these regulations as inhibitions to American rights. Both of these have propagated because of a lack of information certainty, where no information seems to be 100% true. Such responses will likely have a cyclical effect as COVID cases rise, as less protective measures are taken.
It’s clear that conspiracy theories aren’t going away anytime soon. To attempt to get rid of them would most likely be as fruitless as attempting to prevent people from breathing. What can be done, however, is attempt to limit the most virulent and lethal strains of conspiracies within the public at large. Believing in secret aliens is one thing, believing that your political figure is anointed by God to act against and smite your enemies is quite another.
In the future, more research should go into the people who are vulnerable to these conspiracies and high demand movements. Most people who enter into the belief system are isolated, cut off from their traditional social connections. Qanon can be used to fill that gap, coming with a built-in social support system. One of the common phrases used by believers in response to new affiliates losing family connections is “we’re your family now,” a phrase that very directly shows the general intent in proselytizing the virtues of Q. Within the belief system, only those who truly believe can be trusted. Another common Q phrase, “trust in the plan,” is a direct response to crises of faith that regularly ripple throughout the Q community (or Qommunity, if you will) due to a lack of payoff from a supposedly prophesied revelation.
One of the most important tools to combat the appeal of conspiracy theories is just outreach. People who feel judged, who hear everyone calling them crazy and insane, who think that the world is an awful scary place and continually have that belief affirmed, double down. They retreat further into the world that makes them feel safe, where some distant outside force is valiantly protecting them and they have a purpose in struggle. The purveyors of Qanon offer pain, struggle, and death, sweetened by the idea that all of the pain will eventually mean something. Whether or not the harsh light of reality is enough to dissuade people from it is debated, but given the accrued evidence it seems likely this isn’t the case. If cold and uncomfortable truth can’t work to bend people towards consensus reality, then other routes of constructing coherent and comfortable realities need to be investigated.
Finally, on an individual level (because it is possible for anybody to fall into the same traps Qanon uses, even if not in the same specific format) there are two skills that are vital to keeping out of the conspiracy trap. First, your critical thinking and ability to self examine. Look at the format our presentation; we set it up as a source of information as a website. How are you judging our credibility? Are you checking our methods, our sources? Is the layout and website format conducive to information flow? Take our presentation as an example and see how easy it is to manipulate aesthetics in a day and age where there are low barriers of entry to create and post information online.
Secondly, there’s flexibility. People fall into conspiracy theories because they chase information and get baited with convenient answers, but they stay there because it is difficult to reconcile the fact that they clung so strongly to something so incorrect. Pride becomes a chain, and rationality becomes a title for the loyal rather than a system for analysis. How attached are you to your conclusions and to your political figures? How far would you be willing to twist the truth to say you weren’t wrong? If the people surrounding you started criticizing your beliefs and calling you crazy, how seriously would you take them? Most likely you already have a belief or two others around you find odd, or strange. Are you so immune to the caprice of disinformation and convenient answers as to be categorically separate from the people we’ve examined here?