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Opinion | I Spoke to a Scholar of Conspiracy Theories and I’m Scared for Us

But the war since has been one of attrition. Propagandists keep discovering new ways to spread misinformation; researchers like Donovan and her colleagues keep sussing them out, and, usually quite late, media and tech companies move to fix the flaws — by which time the bad guys have moved on to some other way of spreading untruths.

While the media ecosystem has wised up in some ways: Note how the story supposedly revealing the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop landed with a splat last week, quite different from the breathlessly irresponsible reporting on the Democrats’ hacked emails in 2016. But our society remains profoundly susceptible to mendacity.

Donovan worries about two factors in particular. One is the social isolation caused by the pandemic. Lots of Americans are stuck at home, many economically bereft and cut off from friends and relatives who might temper their passions — a perfect audience for peddlers of conspiracy theories.

Her other major worry is the conspiracy lollapalooza known as QAnon. It’s often short-handed the way Savannah Guthrie did at her town hall takedown of Donald Trump last week — as a nutty conspiracy theory in which a heroic Trump is prosecuting a secret war against a satanic pedophile ring of lefty elites.

But that undersells QAnon’s danger. To people who have been “Q-pilled,” QAnon plays a much deeper role in their lives; it has elements of a support group, a political party, a lifestyle brand, a collective delusion, a religion, a cult, a huge multiplayer game and an extremist network.

Donovan thinks QAnon represents a new, flexible infrastructure for conspiracy. QAnon has origins in a tinfoil-hat story about a D.C.-area pizza shop, but over the years it has adapted to include theories about the “deep state” and the Mueller probe, Jeffrey Epstein, and a wild variety of misinformation about face masks, miracle cures, and other hoaxes regarding the coronavirus. QAnon has been linked to many instances of violence, and law enforcement and terrorism researchers discuss it as a growing security threat.

“We now have a densely networked conspiracy theory that is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to take down,” Donovan said of QAnon. It’s a very internet story, analogous to the way Amazon expanded from an online bookstore into a general-purpose system for selling anything to anyone.

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