Joan Donovan, research director for Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said Wednesday that our increasingly polarized political climate and the poor regulation of online spaces has contributed to an "entangled web" of disinformation that bad actors can weaponize and amplify. This has enabled conspiracy theories like QAnon to spread from isolated fringe groups all the way to the White House, she added.
"Some of these theories definitely originate online, then in a kind of marketing move they’re A-B tested, and different audiences will pick up different pieces of the conspiracy theory, then eventually if something seems to be sticky and is resonating with a large crowd, we’ll start to see media pundits, amateur journalists, YouTubers, and other influencers start to pick that up," she told Boston Public Radio.
"And other times, the propaganda comes straight from the top," she said.
QAnon refers to a sprawling set of conspiracy theories that allege that there exists a vast web of powerful people who are pedophiles, operate a global sex-trafficking ring, and are anti-Trump. The conspiracy alleges that this web includes Democratic politicians and Hollywood stars.
President Donald Trump has refused to denounce the conspiracy theory, saying in a recent town hall that he knows "very little" about them, besides that they "fight pedophilia very hard."
Donovan said the lack of regulation around online content combined with a pandemic that has forced people into their homes and online, has contributed to the mainstreaming of QAnon.
"As the conspiracy theory scales online and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube really do nothing to dampen it, we end up in this situation where, I think the pandemic plays a huge role, where most of us are at home, isolated, looking for information, and we end up finding these what we call rabbit holes," she said.
In addition to spreading unsubstantiated claims about pedophilia and sex trafficking rings, QAnon emerged during the pandemic as a platform to spread false narrativesabout COVID-19 and vaccines.
In addition to QAnon likely gaining traction for its very participatory aspects, with its anonymous leader dropping clues for followers to hunt down, Donovan said it is particularly pathological because it hits a trigger point for many people who have felt wronged in the past.
"When people are sharing conspiracy content, and especially some of the stuff around QAnon and child abuse, that is a trigger for some people, because they themselves either experienced abuse or know people who have, and felt like nobody protected them or their friend, so they feel a sense of duty to uncover this history," she said.
Donovan and her team publishes their research about how conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns can effectively manipulate and weaponize media narratives via The Media Manipulation Casebook.