A little truth is a dangerous thing...

Eddy Canfor-Dumas


February 2021

I saw a US TV interview last weekend with Ashley Vanderbilt, a former believer in QAnon, the conspiracy theory that asserts that former President Trump has been/is ‘waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.’

Considering that the source of this conspiracy theory is unknown – the clue’s in the name – and the bizarre nature of its claims, many question why anyone would ever believe it, let alone the millions who still seem to give it credence in the USA.

The answer is in Ashley’s interview.

The journey to belief starts with something that’s credible – a little truth – and builds, step-by-step, towards something progressively more extreme. A Big Lie.

Even then, it seems inconceivable that anyone could think QAnon is anything other than the product of a malign imagination (probably several). So something else must be going on here to convince so many people to buy into the belief – but what?

Well, it might seem a bit of a detour but consider this scenario.

There’s been an accident

A police constable comes to your door with the terrible news that someone you love has been killed in an accident. You immediately react with shock and grief.

But then she hears on her radio that your loved one isn’t dead after all – it’s a case of mistaken identity. At once you’re relieved, then furious that she’s put you through this emotional roller-coaster.

So why did you initially believe her?

There’s no mystery. It’s because in your world a police officer would never not tell the truth about something so serious. You trusted her. She in turn trusted the source of her information – as did everyone involved in passing it on, all the way back to the original incident. Everyone believed and trusted in good faith – until the information was revealed to be incorrect.

Our reaction to any information, any news, is ultimately based on our degree of trust in its source. In fact, this is largely what our entire sense of reality is based on, since so much of what we know and understand about life is beyond our direct experience. We have to rely on what trusted others tell us.

Put another way, what we believe is our reality. The two are one. And the more people who believe what we do, the more that reality is confirmed.

Ashley’s conversion

With that in mind, listen again to how Ashley explains the process of her conversion. She talks about growing up in a strongly pro-Republican environment – 'great people, wonderful people’; which led to her supporting Trump’s re-election campaign; which led to an online QAnon algorithm finding her (she didn’t know initially 

that QAnon was the source) and sending her credible information about child trafficking – the little truth which, as a mother, piqued her concern and her interest; which prompted the algorithm to send her more hardcore QAnon material; which led to her ‘asking people that I trusted about this information’, after which ‘it snowballed’ and eventually she believed it all. And all in just a few months. ‘But it didn’t start that way.’

No. It started with – and was sustained by – trust in ‘great people, wonderful people’. And it was also sustained by mistrust, since converts are strongly encouraged to doubt anything that threatens to undermine their growing belief in QAnon.

Gain trust, start small, then build

This process is something that the unscrupulous understand very well – gain trust, start small, then build. As more and more people are taken in they amplify the deceit and defend it against all attack – and all in good faith. In fact, the perception that more and more people believe it becomes evidence in itself of its truth, further fuelling its growth.

Meanwhile, the job of the unscrupulous is to keep feeding the Big Lie just long enough to achieve whatever it is they’re after.

On which point, there’s no evidence that Trump has been directly involved in QAnon – but he certainly didn’t disavow it. Indeed, through nods and winks, he actively encouraged it.

During the re-election campaign, for example, when asked by a journalist whether he was secretly saving the world from a satanic cult of paedophiles and cannibals, Trump replied, ‘Well, I haven’t heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there.’

As a cynic might say, ‘It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be believed.’ As a cynic did say, in fact, since these were the exact words – caught on hidden camera – of Alexander Nix, then CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm used by the Trump campaign in 2016. He was talking about how to spread disinformation to discredit political opponents.

It all falls apart – till next time

But Cambridge Analytica is no more and Trump lost the 2020 election – which points to A Big Truth. Eventually, fantasy collides with fact and the Big Lie falls apart – though not until a lot of damage has been done to a lot of people.

We’ve seen it time and again – but it keeps on happening. And these days magnified in scale and accelerated in time by the power of the internet and social media.

Bottom line – QAnon hasn’t gone away and neither has the Big Lie, in all its malicious forms, present and future.

So what can be done to counter this malignancy?

That’s the subject of my next blog.

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