Wells: Do conspiracy theories like QAnon or Plandemic have consequences? Why do they matter?
LaFrance: They matter because they represent a mass rejection of reason and Enlightenment values and empiricism. They discount all of the ways we’ve learned to understand our world. It’s a rejection of reality, and it’s dangerous when we can’t agree on a common set of facts that make up the world we share.
For Plandemic, the extent to which it’s challenging science and the efficacy of vaccines is extraordinarily dangerous because people will decide not to get vaccinated or get their children vaccinated. That presents a very real public-health threat.
With QAnon, I think a lot about Pizzagate, which was a precursor to QAnon that shares a lot of the same core beliefs about a secret cabal of elite, high-profile politicians, celebrities, and CEOs abusing children ritualistically. Someone who had been really drawn into this conspiracy theory drove from his house in North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and took weapons into a local pizza shop, ready to uncover what he thought was the secret child-abuse ring. Of course, he didn’t find it, because it didn’t exist. But he did fire his weapon, and there were families and kids sitting there eating pizza. No one was hurt, but that’s obviously still a very frightening and real outcome.
Hamblin: Obviously, we all want answers. It’s much nicer to have things wrapped up in a nice little package, but Plandemic is not even a nice little package. It doesn’t even provide a motive. It makes less sense than what I’m hearing on the news. What do you think is drawing people to things like this?
LaFrance: When I talked to the QAnon true believers, I kept language that borrowed from an end-times worldview. There’s a lot of picking apart the Book of Revelation and talking about a battle between good and evil and casting Donald Trump as a savior. There is this very strong spiritual aspect of it that I wasn’t aware of before I started following it really closely.
Hamblin: Do you have a solution?
LaFrance: I hope journalism will help a little. It’s especially tricky for the people who see their loved ones sharing stuff that is so patently absurd and dangerous, because we know that just confronting someone doesn’t work. You can’t just tell someone how ridiculous they’re being and expect them to trust you more.
Wells: A listener actually wrote in about experiencing this, because her mom is being sucked into coronavirus conspiracy theories. When she tried to send her mom accurate journalism about the pandemic, her mom texted, “The media needs to shut down and then 80 percent of the world’s problems would be gone” and then two pink heart emojis.
LaFrance: In the course of my reporting, I talked to Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science who has been studying conspiracy theories for ages. It came up in one of our conversations that his mom had started believing in QAnon.