Conspiracy theories used to be a joke in society, fun stories that tried to explain world events in a convoluted way that assigned meaning to trivial details. People who believed in things that weren’t based on facts or science, such as a flat Earth or fake moon landings, were ignored and shunned from the mainstream, only showing up as punchlines. Yet with the rise of the internet their voices have gotten louder and dangerous theories have eclipsed fun ones.
Conspiracies that allege things ranging from the absurd, like the world is run by a cult of pedophilic billionaires, Democrats, and celebrities that traffic people and drink children’s blood or that the novel coronavirus gripping the world was created to depopulate the earth, to the insidious, such as assertions that the 2020 presidential election was rife with massive voter fraud.
These are by no means the only theories that pose a threat to public health or societal structure–for instance, the anti-vax movement is built on conspiracies of Big Pharma injecting poison and microchips into people for profit–but they are the three most important as 2020 draws to a close.
In a typical election year, Joe Biden would have already been roundly recognized as the President-Elect. He would have begun the transition process and been getting daily briefings. In 2016 Donald Trump received that honor on election night: within seven days he was meeting with Obama in the White house.
This time around there has been no such civility. Instead, conspiracy theories spouted from the highest office in the land have prevented Biden, and the country, from moving forward.
Trump’s refusal to face reality has trickled down to his supporters: Seven in 10 Republicans believe the election was not free and fair, while 38% of Republicans believe the results of the election will be overturned and Trump will claim a second term. Additionally over two-thirds of Republicans also believe that mail in ballots are the source of widespread voter fraud that helped turn the election for Biden–this despite a growing pile of failed court cases that have brushed aside each and every falsity propped up by Trump.
The fact that many Republicans refuse to address what the rest of the country sees as reality is a problem for Joe Biden. He will have to contend with a large portion of the country viewing him as an illegitimate president, something he has already seen first hand when Trump boosted the Birtherism conspiracy that Barack Obama was not an American citizen.
False voter fraud claims denigrate American elections, undermining faith in democratic institutions even as they uphold the truth, in this case a Biden win, but disappoint millions of voters who were promised that fraud did occur. Violence in retribution for the perceived failing of the courts and legislations to, in the mind of conspirators, rightfully overturn the election is a real possibility and a long-term concern for democratically elected officials who will struggle to close the Pandora’s box.
COVID-19 has been ravaging the world for just over a year and yet there have already been dozens of conspiracy theories that have gripped portions of the population.
One theory holds that the United Nations unleashed the virus to depopulate the earth, which polling shows nearly a fifth of the American population believes to be true. Even if the polling was off by more than half it would constitute over thirty million people.
Other theories about the virus’s origin maintain that it was a planned outbreak, with what is likely the most well known conspiracy being the so called Plandemic. Plandemic is a video that claims, among other things, that wearing a mask activates your own innate coronavirus, flu vaccines contain coronavirus, if you had a flu shot you are 36% more likely to be infected with COVID, and that Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates are some of the individuals behind the release of the virus, in part to make money off vaccines for it.
The damage these and similar theories have done is visible in the way the country is divided about things as simple as mask usage and the likelihood that a person will not get the coronavirus vaccine (which is a depressingly high 23%).
Some skepticism of the scientific community is valid; At the onset of the pandemic the CDC actually recommended against facemask usage, but that skepticism has to be tempered by both data and reality. The reality is that the United States leads the world in daily new cases before we even had Thanksgiving and the data says that before the vaccine comes out more than 471,000 Americans are likely to die.
Coronavirus conspiracies are likely to lose relevance quicker and with more finality than the other two in this article, in large part because a forthcoming vaccine will render most of the population immune. Yet, so many refuse to take basic precautions to protect themselves and their community highlights the growing disdain for science and experts.
Removing that strain of anti-intellectualism from the mainstream could be an impossible task, as the decorated science fiction author Isaac Asimov noted: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
QAnon is a theory that has been lingering in the shadows since its inception, about 9 months into the Trump presidency.
The conspiracy claims that the entire world is run by a Satanic sex cult of Democractic lawmakers, celebrities, and billionaires that engage in human trafficking, pedophilia, and drinking the blood of children. It goes on to claim that Donald Trump is waging a holy war against this cabal and the Deep State that they’ve created to entrench their powers. An Anti-Defamation League report also found that Anti-semitism is rampant within QAnon.
Accusations of Jews of controlling both the media and the Deep State are rampant and there exists a belief that the Rothschilds–the preeminent wealthy Jewish family–bankrolled the 9/11 terrorists, the British war effort during the American revolution, and the Nazi regime, to name a few.
The percentage of Americans who have heard of QAnon doubled between March and September, from 23% to 47% according to polling done by Pew Research Center. Its pertinence to the political discussion has exploded since then as the president has personally retweeted numerous tweets regarding the theory and has refused to condemn it, despite the FBI labelling the group as a domestic terrorist threat in 2019.
In fact, Trump has praised supporters of the conspiracy, focusing mainly on their apparent affection for him. This would make sense, as a YouGov poll found that about half of Trump supporters believe in the conspiracy and so disowning them would be disastrous for his popularity and, at the time of the comments, his election chances.
QAnon will be hard to remove from politics for some time. While 2020 saw the defeat of Donald Trump it also saw two firm Q believers elected to the House of Representatives, Lauren Boebert of Colorado’s 3rd district and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia’s 14th district Boebert by a tight margin and Greene in a deep red district. They are just two of 435, but they represent a broader trend of conspiracies finding a home in the Republican party and a place in government.
Additionally, the specter of a 2024 Trump presidential run will keep the man QAnon regards as key to defeating the cabal in the headlines and public conscience. At the same time, Trump’s loss of the election could push some supporters to live up to the domestic terror threat designation the FBI gave them.
Joe Biden has his work cut out for him. He will come into office with what might amount to a full fourth of the country believing he is any combination of a Satanic pedophile, an illegitimate president, or a beneficiary of a global pandemic hoax. And while his first order of business will obviously be to end the pandemic as expeditiously as he can, his second should be to invest in education, the country clearly needs it.