It seemed I might be washed away. It was mid December, three weeks before rioters stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. I was driving through the Northern Rivers region, just south of the Queensland border, and listening to podcasts by Pete Evans, Australia’s most prominent proponent of QAnon conspiracy theories.
The rain was like an assault. I had come here because this is Australia’s heartland of alternative thinking. I had come to try to understand people who, to paraphrase Alice in Wonderland, believe six impossible things before breakfast. But now the vegetation loomed at me through walls of water and fogged-up windows. The hills and the rivers made this a journey in obscurity.
There was a lot going on. I had been in Byron Bay, where the beach was being carried away as record ocean swells attacked the coast. Houses were left hanging, footings eroded. There I had listened to Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, who was on a tour of the region. As the rain slammed into the roof of the Marvell Hall, he had appealed to Donald Trump to pardon his son.
After the meeting, I drove a few kilo- metres through the rain to the outskirts of town to see Pete Evans’ recently established ‘health lab’. It is, says Evans, ‘a new-era wellbeing centre’, with a cryo chamber, a hyperbaric chamber, ‘red light treatments’ and a ‘bio-charger’ or ‘hybrid subtle energy revitalisation platform’. Evans had copped a fine from the health authorities for claiming that the bio-charger could be used to treat ‘Wuhan coronavirus’. On his podcast Evans ridiculed the fine. He had just been reading from the instruction book, he said.
Evans lives about 40 kilometres to the north of Byron Bay on a farm where he and his wife wander naked most of the time, he has told interviewers. They have been photographed massaging the faces of their horses with their feet. ‘Hang with a Horse’, Evans advises in one of his most recent books, Heal. ‘Horses can facilitate healing like no other animal.’
The month before my trip, Evans lost almost all his celebrity endorsements after he posted on social media a cartoon showing a butterfly with wings displaying the black sun—a neo-Nazi symbol. The cartoon showed a caterpillar wearing a Make America Great Again hat saying to the butterfly, ‘You’ve changed.’ The butterfly replied, ‘We’re supposed to.’ The implication was that the natural evolution of Trumpism was Nazism. Evans said—in a YouTube video featuring those horses—that he hadn’t meant that at all. He had had to look up the term ‘neo-Nazi’ because he didn’t know what it meant. All he wanted was sustainable good health for all.
I had asked Evans for an interview. I told him I wanted to understand his path from celebrity chef to paleo diet enthusiast to Trump supporter and proponent of QAnon. He did not reply. But others had agreed to talk.
Now I was driving towards Nimbin, the home of gentle hippies who settled here 47 years ago after the Aquarius Festival, which took its name from the famous song in the musical Hair.
When the moon is in the Seventh House And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
The hippies, everyone I spoke to agreed, had been the beginning of this region’s reputation as a place for those prepared to question authority, to seek new answers, to think outside the box. Or as one naturopath and QAnon conspiracy theorist put it to me, to ‘seek their own truth’.
Evans posts several new episodes of his Evolve podcast each week. He starts with advertisements for water filters before what he describes as ‘a conversation about my favourite ingredients for a healthy human experience … nutritional and emotional wellbeing as well as expanded consciousness’. He asks you to listen with ‘an open mind and heart’.
I listened to him interview a former Victorian public servant, Sanjeev Sabhlok, who resigned from the Victorian public service because of Premier Daniel Andrews’ coronavirus lockdown—which Sabhlok described as ‘the great hysteria’. Another interview was with British ‘teacher, mystic and award-winning poet’ Richard Rudd, who told Evans the world was self-regulating by culling itself and that our own times were part of an infinite cycle of rebirth. Rudd, almost as a throwaway line, described democracy as ‘mob rule’. Future versions of humanity would not be able to credit we had thought it was a good thing.
Then another with British QAnon ‘influencer’ Dr Charlie Ward, who told Evans that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated because he was fighting against secretive groups who had manipulated the political system in a grand struggle for power. And with Californian Dr Bernhard Guenther, whose ‘path of self-discovery has led him to many healing arts and practices, including Qigong, meditation, dance, psychology, shamanism, as well as various spiritual and ancient esoteric teachings’.
Guenther told Evans that he had been neutral towards Donald Trump at first, and sceptical of QAnon, but he now believed Trump was the only world leader who was not a psychopath, and that there was ‘very strong evidence’ that Q—the key figure in the QAnon movement—was close to Trump, and probably had psychic powers as well. Liberals hated Trump because they had yet to come to terms with their own ‘shadow’.
Evans also interviewed local Indigenous man Gunham Badi Jakamarra, who wrapped together talk of ‘Sovereign Citizens’ with land rights activism. ‘As the land was taken without consent, Gunham and others reject the sovereignty of the Queen and don’t recognise the English monarch,’ said Evans.
For the most part, Evans adopted the stance of the wide-eyed student, albeit one convinced that nothing mainstream media or most politicians said could be trusted. He said he ‘glances’ at QAnon, just as he ‘glances’ at mainstream media.
But as December progressed and Donald Trump escalated his claims about a stolen election, Evans became more explicit. On 6 January 2021—the day of the Capitol riots in Washington—he interviewed ‘Dave’, who puts out one of the most popular US QAnon podcasts, introducing him as a ‘truthseeker’. Dave said Biden would never be president. Trump had won the election.
The next day, after the riots, Evans posted a video to Instagram. There he was, in all his blue-eyed muscular wellness. He was wearing a wetsuit in camouflage colours. He jerked a thumb to his chest and asked: ‘Are we going into battle? Maybe. Seems that way.’ And by now he had added a new phrase to his customary sign-off. He used to say things like ‘Keep shining. Live life fully. Stay healthy.’ Now he added, ‘Be prepared.’
Mixed in with all this was the material that made Pete Evans famous: recipes. A really good pork rillette, which I made. He advised growing sprouts in a jar—and I already was. A few days after the Capitol riots, amid the wholesale action by social media platforms to rein in QAnon misinformation, Spotify suspended the Pete Evans podcasts.
But back in early December, as I listened to him, the roads were disappearing under water. My heart was through the floor, my throat tight, my vision fogged. They say not to drive through floodwaters, but what counts? Two centimetres, three? At what point do you abandon your journey? How far in can you go before you are captured and carried away?
* * *
The starting point for this essay was a throw- away line in an article I wrote about Kevin Rudd’s petition to parliament, calling for a royal commission into News Corporation. I wrote about how, over the last 15 years, the nature of News Corporation’s influence had changed. The 2019 Queensland state election was the latest in a string of contests where the Murdoch press has campaigned flat out against Labor, with no discernible impact on the vote. Political scientist Rod Tiffen has documented the trend. He says that because mainstream media audiences skew older, and Murdoch audiences skew conservative, the partisanship of the coverage changes no votes.
On top of this, surveys over 30 years have found only about half the readers of the Murdoch tabloids trust their content. The former Fairfax papers, now owned by Nine, do better in some surveys, but only the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reliably scores above 50 per cent on trust.
Murdoch’s influence no longer works through raw vote-pulling power, but the Murdoch press, due to its dominance, can still set the agenda. Views that are no longer intellectually respectable—such as climate change scepticism—are still part of Australian public debate because his outlets make them so.
I finished with the line that perhaps, given the decline of mainstream media, we should be more worried about the ways in which public opinion was being formed out of public view—in the bubbles of social media, the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and extremism.
There have always been cults, fringe groups and extremists. But over just three years, QAnon has grown enormous, with millions of active participants, most studies suggest. It has sucked up pre-existing cults and conspiracy theories, interacting with the falsehoods and delusions of Trump and swaying the politics of the most powerful nation, and therefore the world.
According to a study by the US NGO The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), by the middle of last year Australia had become the fourth-biggest country in the world for QAnon social media content and discussion, and while the United States still overwhelmingly dominates, the Australian footprint is growing in leaps and bounds—as it is in Britain and Canada.
Elliot Brennan, research associate at the United States Studies Centre, a research centre at the University of Sydney, has identified QAnon theories spreading through parenting websites and the ‘wellness’ movement—which includes the Pete Evans network. ‘If the current global conspiracy theory landscape were like a bath, QAnon would be the drain around which the entire body of water is spiralling,’ he writes.
Surging through the COVID pandemic, the QAnon movement has swallowed up virus denialism, suspicions about 5G (which some believe causes COVID) and parts of the anti-vaccination movement, as well as ancient, almost archetypal tropes, of anti-Semitism, of evil enemies eating babies.
By mid 2020 there were more than 170 QAnon group pages and accounts across Facebook and Instagram with more than 4.5 million followers. Last August the FBI identified QAnon as a domestic terrorism risk.
The Washington Post has described QAnon as reshaping America’s Republican Party. QAnon believers have been elected to Congress. Meanwhile, a new ecosystem of media and influencers has been created— podcasts, vodcasts, video ‘documentaries’ and books, some of them lame, some with the kind of production polish that suggests money. This world overlaps with the main- stream media. According to the Institute, the two most popular websites linked to by Australian QAnon posters are those of Sky News and the Australian, both owned by Murdoch. The third most popular is the ABC.
There were many different groups among the mob that stormed the US Capitol Building on 6 January—including pre- existing white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys and the veteran-dominated right-wing militia the Oath Keepers. But why did tens of thousands of ordinary Americans spend time and money answering Trump’s call to come to Washington? The vibe, the linking idea, the evangelism and the binding network, was QAnon.
The ISD found in an October 2020 survey that although only a minority of Americans knew much about QAnon, about one in five believed in at least one of its central conspiracy claims. The next month, after the November US election, Trump’s claim that the election result had been rigged became one of those central beliefs, and the QAnon movement gave it power—constructing elaborate narratives about rigged voting machines and corrupt officials.
It’s best to put aside, so far as you are able, rigid ideas of left and right in trying to understand QAnon.
Think that organic food is something inner-city lefties worry about? When the so-called ‘QAnon shaman’—the man in the horned head dress arrested after the Capitol Hill riots—requested organic food in prison, he was true to type. Organic food is big with QAnon—part of its suspicion of big business and chemical companies in particular. In the USA there is a left-wing movement that focusses on farmers’ markets. Its motto: ‘Don’t buy veggies from Nazis’.
It is hard to discern a consistent political philosophy in QAnon. Large parts are racist, particularly anti-Semitic. But it is also a core belief that racial and gender divides are part of a conspiracy to divide the population. QAnon is anti-communist: it tends not to distinguish communism from liberalism. But it also anti big business. It is against ‘senseless’ wars. It sees itself as defending democracy, while supporting a military coup if it helps bring Trump back to power. It has strong crossovers with evangelical Christianity—#godalwayswins is a QAnon hashtag. But the pope is believed to be part of the criminal deep state.
If there is a central thread, it is a belief in freedom. By that, it seems, they mean either no government at all—a kind of libertarianism—or even anarchy. Simultaneously they want a Trump dictatorship. Perhaps it is a mistake to look for a central thread. Perhaps it is too soon. Or, if we are very lucky, after the events of the last few months, too late.
QAnon is often called a cult, but that implies something limited and small. Others suggest it is better understood as a new religion, or a new political movement. It could be both. It wouldn’t be the first time. Lutheranism was both, when Martin Luther was able to spread his ideas through Europe thanks to the revolutionary media technology of his times—the printing press. The pope was not a fan when the Bible was able to be printed, translated and read by people who previously depended on priests for their understanding of God.
The Catholic Church, on this metaphor, was the mainstream media of its times. Best not to push the comparison too far, but there is something medieval about QAnon. It has brought myths and the fantastical back to the centre of public life, after the printed word and the Enlightenment pushed them to the fringes.
It has been able to do so because of the disruptive media technologies of our times. Now, the first time in human history, anyone with an internet connection can publish to the world within minutes of deciding to do so. There is lots to celebrate. Voices once excluded from public debate can now be heard. And there is lots to fear. Voices once excluded from public debate can now be heard.
Can we still talk about ‘the public’—if by that we mean people who don’t know each other, but who are bound by access to common information, shared interests and concerns?
I am not a technological determinist. Human beings make technologies, and human beings decide how to use them, but we can see what the academics call the ‘affordances’ of social media in the great looping cult of QAnon, with its own ecology of influencers, sources and ‘facts’. We see it in the characteristic claim of its followers— ‘I have done my own research’—when that means accessing online sources. Don’t tell a conspiracy theorist that they need to look at the evidence. They have been. They have lots of evidence, just different evidence from you.
One of the great hopes of social media was that it might be self-correcting—that the wisdom of the crowd would call out missteps and falsehoods in a giant Socratic process of enquiry. But that only works if we are all in the same crowd. If we are ‘the public’. Instead, the algorithms of social media feed us the views of people we are likely to find interesting and congenial—or at least those who are interested in the same topics.
If you want to see what the QAnon people are saying, you have to seek it out—searching on hashtags or tracking back through individual feeds. It will change your idea of what social media is. Think Twitter skews left? Not necessarily, and also not particularly relevant.
* * *
On the morning I was meant to interview Tashi Lhamo there was a raging river over the causeway that leads to her driveway in the inland town of Mullumbimby—20 kilometres north-west of Byron Bay. So we talked by Zoom—Lhamo with a LAN connection, because she will not use wi-fi.
Mullumbimby is probably best known as Australia’s centre of opposition to vaccination. Only 52 per cent of five-year-olds in the area were fully immunised in 2015–16, compared with 92.9 per cent nationally. Lhamo agrees with me that ‘this part of Australia has a long history of thinking for itself, standing up to big corporations’, starting with the Nimbin hippies and the Age of Aquarius festival in 1973.
Lhamo, a high school teacher and mother of small children, is intelligent, easy to like and clearly an effective campaigner and lobbyist. She doesn’t want to talk about vaccination. Her focus is on 5G technology. Thanks to the passionate campaign Lhamo has led, so far the Byron Shire has blocked the rollout of 5G.
Lhamo quickly and emphatically assures me that she does not believe 5G causes COVID. She doesn’t think many people really believe that. Rather, she thinks the ‘crazy’ idea has been put about by the main-stream media and telecommunications companies to discredit people like her, who have legitimate concerns.
Lhamo hates the term ‘conspiracy theory’. That is another way people discredit those, such as herself, who question mainstream media and its distortions. But she admits some of her ideas ‘can sound like conspiracy theories’.
She is not impressed with Australia’s former chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, who has put out statements saying that 5G is safe. She sees significance in the fact that Telstra holds shares in ‘the Murdoch press’, and also in the fact that Murphy’s wife—whom she calls Sally Fletcher—is a lawyer who has worked for media companies. (Telstra owns about 35 per cent of Murdoch’s Foxtel pay television company. Murphy’s wife is called Sally Walker. She is a professor specialising in media law, and a member of the SBS Board.)
Lhamo sees little difference between social media and mainstream media, particularly since Facebook and Twitter began to take down and mute sites like hers. ‘Zuckerberg has a certain narrative that he is going to put forward just as you do with the Murdoch press. If people can’t think critically and do their own research, I guess it’s a bit of an echo chamber.’
Her activism on 5G began about 18 months ago after a friend encouraged her to watch a documentary—distributed through YouTube—called 5G Apocalypse. It made a frightening set of allegations, including that 5G would damage DNA and increase autism. This chimed with Lhamo’s instincts. She had always thought herself sensitive to radiation from mobile phones. She never left hers next to her bed.
‘I started to look into it … and I started to read about the Internet of Things that 5G is going to allow. I thought, wow, they are talking about antennas in babies’ nappies to tell the mum if they’ve done a wee or a poo. They’re talking about milk cartons speaking from the fridge to order replacements. And I just thought our exposure to wireless radiation has increased a quintillion times in our lifetime and it’s going to go up again. It’s not a future that I would like my children to be left with.’
She began to lobby her local councillors, and found support among the Greens, who held four of nine places on the council. In the early days she asked Pete Evans for help because his Facebook page had more than one million followers, and ‘he was the only celebrity in Australia that was having the conversation’. He posted some of her 5G information, ‘which really helped’.
She contacted him again recently, when the controversy broke over his black-sun butterfly. He told her he had had no idea what it meant, and she believed him. He said he had been drawn only to the caterpillar wearing the MAGA hat. ‘He is a Trump supporter,’ she says. ‘But I don’t know how he feels about Trump rolling out the COVID vaccine now.’ Lhamo doesn’t want to lose her focus on the 5G campaign, but says she has seen evidence that COVID is not as much of a threat as the mainstream media is making out.
Lhamo is aware of QAnon. ‘When it first came on the horizon, I saw it in my periphery, and I was like, let’s have a look at what they’re on about … now I give it no weight at all.’ She has no interest in engaging with QAnon. ‘I am flat out lobbying local council.’
Lhamo has parsed the statements by Murphy and speaks about more than 2000 scientific papers talking about the dangers of mobile phone radiation. The penny ‘really dropped’ for her, she says, when she realised that mobile phones are tested on plastic dummy heads filled with liquid. They are being tested not for biological safety, but only for thermal effects—whether they heated the head.
Sarah Ndiaye is one of the Greens Byron Shire councillors who has helped Lhamo. Ndiaye is not a 5G sceptic, nor anti-vaccination, but she understands why people don’t trust government.
Tony Abbott said he wouldn’t cut funding to the ABC, and then he did. Doctors are prevented from telling the truth about how we treat refugees in detention. The government raids journalists and locks up whistleblowers, and they ignore climate change science.
‘Why should people like Tashi trust them? I’m not as cynical as people like her are. I have a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of governance, but I don’t resent their distrust.’
Ndiaye sometimes finds herself ‘between a rock and a hard place’ trying to represent the 5G opponents while sticking to her own views of the facts. But she thinks there are good questions to ask about the 5G rollout, such as who is liable if it all goes wrong, and why so much money is being spent so shortly after the National Broadband Network. So far, she has trod that line.
Meanwhile, people Ndiaye knows have been drawn into QAnon. There is a crossover with the campaign to free Julian Assange—which she supports. Young people—boys in particular—are passionate about combating paedophilia. In the lead-up to the US election, there were others who were ‘sucked down the rabbit hole—putting Trump as some sort of saviour or hero when there is so much evidence to the contrary’.
So what’s the difference between someone like Lhamo and the followers of QAnon? Ndiaye has a background as a journalist. She says it is about critical thinking—going to original sources, triangulating information, being prepared to question. These skills, she says, should be taught in schools. But critical thinking is what QAnon people say they are doing—and the rest of us are failing to do. They call us #sheeple—people like sheep, because of our trust in authority.
I wonder why I believe differently to Lhamo. It’s not true to say it’s about scientific evidence. It’s more about authority—accepting the word of an elite. I am not a climate change scientist, nor an expert in infectious diseases, nor knowledgeable about radiation, yet I believe in COVID as a real threat, and in human-induced climate change, and am calm about 5G. I trust in certain kinds of qualifications, certain kinds of consensus, certain kinds of authority.
If I lose that, then the water rises, and all the roads disappear.
* * *
QAnon began in October 2017 when a series of posts from an anonymous account appeared on the internet message board 4chan. The user signed off as ‘Q’—which they said was a reference to their level of US government security clearance. There had been predecessors to Q—an FBIanon and a CIAanon and others—but Q took hold, promoted by influencers, in particular Ronald Watkins, the administrator of 4chan’s successor 8chan. There is some evidence to suggest that Watkins is the real operator of the Q account—but nobody really knows.
Q continued to post. At the time of writing there have been 4953 posts, known as ‘Q-Drops’, with the most recent on 8 December 2020. There are many offshoots of the QAnon belief system. Clearly, not everyone believes all of it. Many are ‘lurkers’—reading and sometimes sharing but not contributing.
But there is a core narrative. It was summed up on a video, ‘Q: The Plan to Save the World’, posted on the Rumble platform in November in the lead-up to the US election, and described as a primer to prepare the world for the coming ‘storm’ and ‘great awakening’—that is, the day that Trump would move to arrest the criminals and claim his second term.
The video began by asking if you had ever considered there might be a reason for the troubles of the world. Closed factories, lost jobs, children gone astray, ‘senseless wars’, the use of harmful chemicals on crops, child abuse by the Catholic Church, the collapse of the banking system. Why was it that you could work hard yet never get ahead?
The answer, the video said, was that powerful criminals had decades ago taken over government, the media and big business. Even the Vatican and the British Crown were involved. This was ‘the deep state’. Reagan was a good guy—hence the attempt to assassinate him. Since then, every US president had been a deep-state criminal—until Trump.
Good men survived in the military. They had considered mounting a coup, but realised that would be opposed by the deluded public and therefore fail. So they devised ‘the plan’. They asked Trump to run for president, believing he had such integrity and was so loved by the American people that he would be able to win, even in a rigged system. Meanwhile the ‘Q program’ began with the aim of recruiting and educating #digitalsoldiers to help prepare the population for #thegreatawakening.
One of the people at the centre of this plan is taken to be retired lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn, who was Trump’s first national security adviser, and later pardoned by Trump for charges of lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador. Some think Flynn is Q.
In the second half of 2020, Flynn and other real-life members of Trump’s circle— lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood—were engaging intensely with QAnon, encouraging the ‘patriots’ to prepare for #thestorm and #thegreatawakening. On 4 July Flynn led the so-called ‘digital soldiers’ in an oath, and finished the video with the words ‘Where we go one, we go all!’ which is a core QAnon motto—usually abbreviated to #wwg1wga. This, surely, is one of the reasons QAnon grew so powerful. It was being confirmed and encouraged by real people, in real positions of authority. The water rose. The roads disappeared.
QAnon resonated with strong threads in US culture. In the talk of a great awakening, a coming storm or judgement day, it crossed over with evangelical religion. Some churches bought in. Others fought it.
Q offered ‘proofs’ that he was indeed part of Trump’s inner circle. In the early days they were obscure. The anons used Gematria—an ancient system of assigning numerical values to names, words and phrases—to make connections between the time of Trump’s tweets, to particular words in them, and particular Q-Drops. Every Trump typo was taken as significant. ‘Covfefe’ was not a mistake. It was code. But by mid 2020, the myth had begun to form the reality. Trump explicitly endorsed QAnon’s central thesis at a press conference, when he said he ‘appreciated very much’ QAnon’s support. A reporter asked him to respond to the central belief—that he was combating a global conspiracy of paedophile criminals. ‘Is that meant to be a bad thing?’ responded Trump, before saying he would be glad to help combat such evils.
The QAnons adopted a metaphor from the movie The Matrix. The central character, Neo, is given a choice of taking a blue pill, and maintaining his comfortable delusions, or a red pill, and accepting the awful truth. ‘The Matrix was a documentary,’ one Q follower said to me. The role of the QAnon ‘patriots’ was to ‘red pill’ their families and friends and the rest of the world, to prepare for #thegreatawakening. Being a follower of Q brought the sweet seduction of being part of something bigger than yourself—not disempowered but at the centre of history’s narrative.
Reed Berkowitz, a professional game designer, has described QAnon as ‘a game that plays people’. He gives an example. One Q-Drop read:
Their need for symbolism will be their downfall.
Follow the Owl & Y head around the world.
Identify and list.
They don’t hide it.
They don’t fear you.
You are sheep to them.
You are feeders.
That sent the anons on a hunt for public figures making occult signs—particularly owls. There were hundreds of them, thousands: Hillary Clinton holding up two fingers; Baroness Rothschild (the Rothschilds being chief QAnon villains) at a fancy dress party in a weird mask; celebrities making the hand sign usually understood to mean ‘all okay’, but which was in fact the digit 6— with triple six being the devil’s number; any number of suggestive head-dresses; Beyonce, holding a microphone, her hands forming a shape supposedly associated with the Illuminati.
Once you have seen the pattern, it is everywhere. Proof. In the lead-up to 6 January, the anons had found the pattern of an owl in the aerial view of the gardens on Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill.
I have heard many stories of Australians pulled into QAnon. There is the senior accountant—once part of an Australian state anti-corruption body—who has cut off contact with friends who will not be red-pilled, and who now spends most of his time interpreting Q-Drops. Another I heard of was also an investigator by training— once employed in an intelligence agency. There are doctors and lawyers and journalists of all ages and localities. I searched for common threads. Often there was some kind of trauma—a harsh experience of life’s unfairness. Some of the converts had been heavy marijuana users, and their friends suspected it fed their paranoia. Some were white males unsettled by diversity and feminism. But there were also—and Pete Evans interviewed one of these—Aboriginal people who had melded their fury about the invasion of their land with Sovereign Citizen rhetoric, which in turn blended into the edges of the QAnon myth.
The wellness industry—naturopathy, homeopathy—is a recognised ‘soft’ path into the QAnon world. And who of us has not taken a vitamin supplement for which there is no, or only dubious, scientific evidence?
And then there is reality. There is corruption. There are reasons to worry about big pharmaceutical and chemical companies, and their power. There are abusers in Hollywood. There are paedophiles in the Churches. There is Harvey Weinstein. There is Jeffrey Epstein. Evidence. Proof.
Why are you still resisting taking the red pill? Researchers in cults have told us for years that anyone is susceptible—your intelligence, your life experience, does not automatically protect you. In The Matrix, characters are summoned between the worlds—the illusion of the matrix and the grim reality—by phone calls. In our own world, the barrier is more porous.
* * *
I got rained in at Nimbin—the town where the Northern Rivers’ history as a centre of alternative thinking began. I was stuck for two days, the town dripping, the rivers rising all around. All over town there were posters about Julian Assange, a petition to Trump on the counter in one of the shops. I sat with aging hippies—long grey hair, missing teeth, missing strands of thought, joints in hand— yarning on verandas with old coffee tins collecting the drips. ‘Nature is crying,’ they said. But that’s only one part of Nimbin— the most visible part.
What I learned in Nimbin is that, despite popular belief, the hippies never dropped out. They were angry, some of them. Alienated. They had high hopes and many of these were dashed. The dismissal of the Whitlam government felt like a betrayal. They believed conspiracy theories about it. Many still do. And yet they stayed engaged. They changed things—though not as much as they had hoped. And they were themselves changed.
I think there is a lesson here. Perhaps a hope. Perhaps an antidote.
Arguably, the Australian environment movement started here when some of the recently settled hippies heard the Terania Creek rainforest was to be clear-felled. They mounted the first physical blockade to protect rainforest in Australia. They won. Neville Wran’s government saved the forest, and today it is part of the Nightcap National Park. After Terania, there were the Franklin River protests in Tasmania, the saving of the forests at Eden on the NSW south coast, and then the Greens party and Bob Brown. It is clear you can draw a line from the Aquarius Festival and all its mysticism, anger and hope to today’s protests against coal seam gas and the Adani mine.
Through protest, through petitions, through public-speaking tours, for causes both local and global, powerful and hopeless, the hippies continued to engage. They are still doing it today. It is hard to imagine a more politically engaged country town than Nimbin.
When they succeeded, it was not on their own but because the other institutions of liberal democracy also acted. Neville Wran’s government for the Terania Creek forest. The High Court in the Tasmanian Dams case. Bob Hawke and the Daintree Forest.
The hippies changed things, but they were also changed. Once rejected by and rejecting of the town’s institutions—the CWA, the council—the children of Aquarius, in their seventies, now run both. But who will be the inheritors of this legacy?
Compare the hippies to the mob that raided the Capitol in Washington. The latter had no list of demands, no proposed program for bringing about change. Inflamed by myth, they were responding to the demands of a single man—Trump. Some of the militia organisations apparently had plans—to capture and maybe even kill lawmakers—but when Trump failed to lead them, most of the QAnon mob had no idea what to do. They milled about vandalising, thieving and taking selfies until the security services cleared them out.
This is not what revolutions are made of, nor political change. Will this movement, this religion, this cult, now fade away? Or will its followers remain—disconnected, angry, beyond the reach of the rest of the world—waiting for a more effective leader?
I think about Tashi Lhamo. She is dabbling on the edge of conspiracy theories, selecting evidence to fit her views. She is on the outer reaches of Pete Evans’ circle, and therefore on the outer reaches of QAnon, though she is not attracted to its more florid beliefs.
But, much more intensely, she is engaged with the democratic process. Her energies go on lobbying council, on demonstrations, on trying to persuade. Councillor Sarah Ndiaye represents the challenges faced by politicians in a representative democracy when some of their electors are ‘finding their own truth’. It is the trajectory of people like Lhamo—towards or away from democratic participation and engagement—that will determine the future of this political problem. Engaged, changing and changed, like the hippies—or isolated, distrusting, perhaps dangerous?
* * *
I was frightened when I went to bed on 6 January, Australian time. It was clear to me, from my tracking of QAnon chat, that there would likely be violence at the Trump rally in Washington. I woke to news that the mob was invading the Capitol Building.
If I knew this was likely to happen, how did the FBI, the CIA, the police force in Washington not know? One of the things the United States now has to assess is how far the police, military and security forces have been compromised. Biden has ordered a review of the US domestic extremism threat. His inauguration speech included references to this disease at the centre of US democracy. He said, ‘We must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured … each of us has a duty and responsibility … to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.’
In the shock of the days that followed, social media companies, which had for years been protesting they were not publishers, implicitly accepted the reverse—that they should and could curate content and prevent publication. Twitter banned Trump, and after that tens of thousands of QAnon accounts were taken down. Other digital platforms did likewise.
Meanwhile, QAnon was in disarray. It started when some of the anons said it had been Antifa, not ‘the patriots’, who had stormed the Capitol. That was confusing. One anon said: ‘But that was me. I was there … #wtf #wwg1wga.’
It got worse for anons when Trump belatedly condemned the violence. Some felt betrayed. ‘You called us all to Washington DC on January 6th. Told us it would be WILD. Then you roll over like a fucking bitch … We are being called Terrorists because of your Jan 6th stunt.’ Others urged #trusttheplan.
Pete Evans, on Parler, reposted an allegation from Lin Wood that Trump would shortly address the nation using the emergency broadcast system, but that Apple was going to do a software update that would prevent iPhone users from hearing it. Patriots should turn off updates. ‘Be prepared. More to come,’ Evans told his Instagram followers. ‘You don’t have to think too hard to understand what this whole censorship issue is about. You may also have come to the conclusion that the last 10–12 months have not been about a virus either. If it smells as fishy as all of this does, then you know, it is rotten to the CORE.’
Q was silent. The last drop—a link to a propaganda video—had been on 8 December. Since the election, there had been only four drops.
The inauguration, the #trusttheplan #patriots said, would be the moment. That non-scalable fence all around the Capitol Building? That was a cunning trick of Trump’s. The presence of the National Guard? The need for security was a fine pretence. On inauguration day, the arrests would happen. Watch them run! #nothingcanstopwhatiscoming #godalwayswins #thestormiscoming.
Whoever was behind Q apparently pulled back. All the QAnon boards contained a banner warning. Patriots should stay out of Washington, DC, and state capitals on inauguration day. ‘Patriots are not planning any action.’ But, they were assured, the plan was working out just fine. Then Biden was sworn in.
People posted videos of themselves praying to Trump, to God, to save them from the devil. ‘Eating babies will be normal now,’ said one boy, in tears. Ronald Watkins, the head of the 8chan message board and chief Q promoter, posted on Telegram: ‘We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able … please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.’
Wisely, he had turned off comments. The fury unleashed on other threads. Clearly, QAnon is weakened. But, as I write, new beliefs are forming. It was never part of the plan, they say, for Trump to serve a second term. That was a misinterpretation of Q. Instead, the military will take over—probably around March—and impose martial law while they arrest Biden then conduct fresh elections.
There is also ‘Sovereign Citizen’ rhetoric. Trump was stepping down as the head of the United States ‘corporation’ but would soon become head of a restored republic. And some claim that Biden was, after all, not a baby-eating paedophile but in on the plan the whole time.
Is it a measure of how warped my mind has become that I see hope in this new belief about Biden? That perhaps it means the hatreds are intense, but have shallow roots? That they can be changed?
Some of the disillusioned declared they would never vote again because the system is broken. Good for the Democrats in the short term, perhaps, but a huge problem for the United States in the long term. Meanwhile, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers are moving to recruit the QAnon disaffected.
Things are shifting. After November’s election, public opinion polls showed that only 22 per cent of Republican voters believed that Biden had won a fair election. At the time of writing—the day after the inauguration—that figure has lifted to 36 per cent. Dismal figures, but there is thin hope in the trajectory.
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Associate Professor Aaron Martin is a political scientist at the University of Melbourne and Co-Director of the Policy Lab. He believes there are real differences between the United States and Australia—and that means groups such as QAnon are less likely to become mainstream here. Why the differences?
Martin theorises that they are rooted in history. European Australia was founded as a ‘pragmatic exercise’ by the British. We never had the revolutionary fervour, or the passion of the pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. We remain, says Martin, a largely pragmatic society, and a largely compliant one. On this account, the things that so often disappoint about Australia—its lack of idealism, its middle-of-the-road blandness—may be strengths.
Martin draws another lesson. ‘One thing the US experience has taught me is how important elites are.’ Elites—in politics, in journalism—can act to suppress public opinion. They also powerfully steer it—as Trump has done.
Once media editors and their staff would have discussed what was important, and what the public agenda should be. Social media has destroyed much of that power. Martin says: ‘I think it has unleashed something that the social media companies themselves don’t understand. I think it has to be heavily regulated.’ He admits his optimistic view of Australia is challenged by our political failure to deal with climate change policy. There, public policy has not followed the science. He also worries about the impact if one of our far-right parties displays more competence than has been the case so far.
And against Martin’s optimism, there is the clear evidence that QAnon has a fast-growing local following. National Party federal MP George Christensen has backed Trump’s claims that the US presidential election was stolen. Liberal MP Craig Kelly has too, together with endorsing unproven treatments for COVID and questioning the need to vaccinate. Neither has been slapped down by Prime Minister Morrison. In Victoria, Liberal MP Bernie Finn posted to his Facebook page claims that the deep state was behind Trump’s removal. Finn, Kelly and Christensen are despised by their colleagues and most political journalists. But in the QAnon world that fact is entirely irrelevant. Nor would a condemnation from Morrison have much effect.
I struggle with Martin’s emphasis on elites. This is an old debate in journalism studies—between those who think journalists should be part of a governing elite, and those who see their job as being to enable the voice of the people. Historically the debate is personified by two 1920s philosophers—John Dewey and Walter Lippmann.
Lippmann was not persuaded by the soaring rhetoric of American democracy. He did not trust the public. The average citizen was simply not engaged, intelligent or interested enough to make popular opinion a reliable means of leading the nation, he believed. What was needed were well- informed experts, including journalists, to tell people both what they should be thinking about, and also how they might be thinking. He saw the public as Plato did, a great beast or a bewildered herd. A journalist’s purpose was to seek facts from policymakers and transmit them to citizens. Thus journalists were properly part of the ‘governing class’.
Dewey, on the other hand, defined democracy not as a system of government but as a society organised around the principle that people were capable of making their own decisions, and of knowing and understanding the world. Journalists should empower the people—bring them more tightly into democratic decision-making.
For my entire journalistic career, I have been more with Dewey than with Lippmann. That made me an optimist about the advent of social media. I saw social media, for all its faults, as potentially forming a Fifth Estate, holding the Fourth Estate to account. Part of this was because I was depressed by the leadership of our commercial media companies.
Responding to the social media challenge, mainstream media companies first went for clickbait, thinking the advertising revenue would follow if they could only attract audiences through titillation. Because social media dealt in opinion, they thought that was what people wanted from their journalism. Also, opinion was cheap—in every sense of the word. Clickbait failed. Opinion flourished.
The dollars went to the digital platforms of Google and Facebook.
Now the strategy has changed. Media organisations aim to attract paying subscribers. There are some signs of success, but with smaller paying audiences, influence over public opinion has been lost.
The one possible exception here is the ABC, which retains high audience trust. There is research from overseas that suggests public broadcasting acts as an antidote to extremism, because partisans from both sides access at least some of its content. But the ABC, like other mainstream media, has an ageing audience. Nevertheless, a failure to invest in it is a failure to invest in keeping our country governable.
Perhaps it would have made no difference—technological change might well have been irresistible, but the fact is that through all this the leadership of our commercial media companies has failed, morally and intellectually. They have worn anti-intellectualism as a medal. Meanwhile, academics have also failed, shunning the kind of industry under- standing that might have allowed them to be of practical help.
Even in a partisan mainstream media, there is a line and it has to do with facts, and verification. Most journalists will not knowingly publish falsehood. Or so I thought. But the Murdoch press dances on the blurry line between partisan presentation and outright falsehood. With Fox News in the United States it has frequently crossed that line. In Australia, the most obvious example is its climate change denialism—mostly in opinion columns, but also in the pitch of the news. Other examples include its vitriolic campaigns against public figures, which include gross distortions. With this, it surrenders the right to be part of Lippmann’s governing class. Rather, it belongs with one segment of the blundering herd, nipping its heels and chivvying it towards the cliff.
As the US experience shows—as the burgeoning alternative media created by the conspiracy theorists demonstrates—Fox News is now not leading that herd, but struggling to keep up with the stampede.
In Australia, other media companies also fall short. Lack of context, gotcha journalism, failure to correct errors of fact and judgement, covering politics as though it were a spectator sport, not something in which we all have a stake—these faults, too, lead to a kind of deception and a distorted view of reality. And, as the figures I quoted earlier demonstrate, it is not as though the media had great wells of public trust to draw on in the first place.
But now this is barely relevant. The public influence of mainstream media is largely gone. I thought social media might help refresh journalists’ sense of mission— and could be powerful when combined with the newsroom virtues of disinterest and verification. I still think social media offers opportunities for a better journalism, but the truth is the democratic story is playing out most intensely elsewhere, out of the reach of professional journalists and their dwindling audiences. My research and my encounters with those on the fringes have taken away my optimism. I am frightened by what I have seen.
Social media is clearly at a turning point. Facebook and the others have acted before—when accused of helping to spread misinformation in developing-world democracies, for example. But the last few months in the United States means that they can no longer escape accepting at least some of the responsibilities that come with publishing. If they can’t self-regulate, it will probably be done for them.
Could we arrive at a time when the new media are more responsible custodians of the public conversation than the owners of the printing presses and broadcasting licences? How will the decisions be made, and who will make them? Easy to say the line should be drawn at incitement to violence and the spread of lies. But even the prohibition of incitement to violence leaves us with difficult calls. The suffragettes used violence. So did Nelson Mandela, once he became convinced there was no hope of negotiation. History judges those movements kindly. Would Twitter have blocked them?
If we want to applaud the Hong Kong demonstrators when they plan protests against the Chinese Communist Party, but condemn the demonstrators on Capitol Hill, we have to be able to articulate what the difference is. If we say it is wrong for the CCP to censor WeChat, but right for Twitter to censor Trump, we must be able to say why.
I have one thing in common with QAnon. I would have been content if Assange had been pardoned. I am conflicted about him. His personal failings are well documented. But leaving that aside, his radical acts of disclosure overlap with what journalists are meant to do. If we promote the role of the governing class as including media, do we also accept that governments will never again lose control of what gets disclosed and how, and of who gets to weave meaning from the facts?
Or, to peg back this social media–enabled disease, will we have to accept the very thing QAnon warns of—government mind control? Nimbin people remember a magic moment in their history. In 1978 there was still a hostility, even hatred, between the old townsfolk and the ‘alternatives’. Then one of the originators of the festival met Slim Dusty and persuaded him to come to Nimbin Hall to sing. Everyone in the town was there—old settlers on one side, new settlers on the other.
One of the hippies started the evening with a rendition of ‘I’m a Dope Smoking Bi-sexual Hippy’. Tensions escalated. Then two others sang the Irish folksong ‘The Wild Mountain Thyme’. The entire audience joined in.
And we’ll all go together
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the bloomin’ heather …
‘It melted everyone’s hearts,’ I was told. By the time Slim Dusty finished his performance, everyone was friends.
A common melody. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were more than a saccharin anecdote to end on?
Margaret Simons is a freelance journalist, author and honorary principal fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. For more information, visit www.margaretsimons.com.au>.