Hi all, it’s Eric. Facebook Inc. shocked the world this week when it actually took substantive action against a noxious conspiracy theory on its platform. Less than two months after shutting down about 3,000 QAnon groups pages that flirted with violence, on Tuesday the company banned the group from its platform altogether.
The about-face was in equal parts mystifying and gratifying. In August, Facebook removed hundreds of the most extreme QAnon groups as part of a broader sweep of troubling American Facebook pages that used violent language, including far-right militia groups. But QAnon didn’t go away. The movement wrapped itself in the more innocuous sounding #SaveTheChildren hashtag, while becoming a source for dangerous conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
Now, individuals can still post about the conspiracy on Facebook, but the groups and pages where the movement gets most of its traction have been banned. The action should severely limit the reach of the conspiracy theory, which advances an unhinged fantasy in which a coordinated, elite cabal prey on children.
The day after Facebook’s ban, the online store Etsy Inc. nixed QAnon-related merchandise, making it harder for the conspiracy theorists to profit off their fear-mongering.
It’s not clear what took them so long. Reporters have been documenting the rise of QAnon for many months. And while it makes sense that everyone is on high-alert with the election less than a month away, the time to deprogram a conspiracy-minded electorate was before it spread to America’s aunts and uncles.
Whether or not you blame the internet, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that conspiratorial thinking has been on the rise. In this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, my colleagues exposed the workings of a once-popular QAnon website. It was run by a man named Jason Gelinas who was comfortably employed at Citigroup.
Gelinas’s magic was to simplify QAnon for the masses. The conspiracy theory’s dictates can be hard to follow and are posted on obscure, difficult-to-navigate internet forums. His website attempted to aggregate the drops and make the incomprehensible easy to understand.
The resulting story is a terrifying reminder that conspiracy theorists walk among us. Gelinas was an average guy who played recreational soccer and liked Game of Thrones. He registered as a Democrat in 2008, but within a few years was calling President Barack Obama the Antichrist, his friends said.
Today, conspiratorial thinking isn’t limited to the dark corners of the internet. Gelinas, a basically normal Citigroup employee, was so successful because he knew how to speak to other basically normal people. On Facebook, misinformation often spreads in much the same way.
This week, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose argued that conspiracies have a wider reach in the age of social media-bound truth-seeking. Roose wrote, “It is notable how easily the conspiracist’s creed—that the official narrative is always a lie, and that the truth is out there for those willing to dig for it themselves—has penetrated our national psyche.” That’s worth keeping in mind as the election gets closer, and even real news gets increasingly hard to believe. —Eric Newcomer
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