A man attends a gathering of coronavirus sceptics before a planned protest march last week in Berlin, Germany
A man attends a gathering of coronavirus sceptics before a planned march last week in Berlin, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty

Asking “Who is Q?’ was once the preserve of a select view. Increasingly, the question should bother the broader public too. With lockdowns keeping people indoors, interest in QAnon, a conspiracy theory dating back to 2017 that claims President Donald Trump is secretly fighting an elite paedophile ring, has spread as fast as the virus itself. Other sources of online disinformation, meanwhile, have helped to fuel anti-vaxx campaigns, propagating lies that mass immunisation programmes would hand Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates the power to insert microchips into people to track them.

While both theories might sound absurd to the vast majority, their adherents are playing an increasingly large role in public protests against lockdowns that have taken place across Europe this week. In Berlin recently, those protests featured tens of thousands of people and led to a storming of the Reichstag, which houses the German parliament.

While disinformation has always affected politics, the appeal of conspiracy theories is particularly acute when many people are spending much more time alone and online. Such an environment make theories such as QAnon all the more seductive and dangerous. It rewards followers for their efforts in uncovering evidence that purports to support the group’s tenets by making them “bakers”, and fosters a sense of community with slogans such as, “Where we go one, we go all!”

Throughout history, undermining truth has created the conditions in which lies have thrived. Even before the pandemic a divided landscape, with calls of “fake news” on either side of the political spectrum, had led to an erosion of trust in institutions.

Social media groups have taken measures to contain the spread of disinformation. With QAnon in particular, networks such as Facebook, TikTok and Twitter have shut down hundreds of groups and sought to remove any reference to the conspiracy. Facebook said last week, meanwhile, it would prohibit new political advertisements in the week before the US presidential election. Yet such a response fails to acknowledge the role social media groups’ algorithms — central to their business models — play in sending the vulnerable down ever deeper rabbit holes and spurring discontent.

There is no easy fix. Attempting to deploy armies of fact-checkers to ban lies is limited too; it will merely drive the groups on to other platforms that are, in some cases, more difficult to police. The encrypted Telegram app was reported last week to have become a nest for conspiracy theories in Germany, for instance. Banning Telegram, or making it less private, would make little sense — the app has been used to good effect to co-ordinate opposition protests in Belarus too. Intelligence agencies should devote more resources to uncovering the sources and amplifiers of disinformation. Yet, as the effort to stamp out ever more sophisticated deep fakes shows, the better the defence becomes, the smarter the offence grows.

The explosion in irrational beliefs stemming from online conspiracies and deep fakes is a very modern phenomenon in that it is enabled by technology. Yet the will to believe theories that impose a phoney sense of order on a chaotic world is as old as humanity. That is what makes such phenomena so difficult to counter. But history is full of moments when rationality has prevailed too. Education and debate were — and remain — vital means of fighting for truth. Mass digital literacy and forums that foster debate, not confrontation, are the best chance we have to quash Q.

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