Los Angeles Times

QAnon is sowing chaos in places like Shasta County

Trickle-down conspiracy theorists are disrupting local government­s with objections to voting machines and more.

- By Mia Bloom Mia Bloom is a professor of communicat­ion and Middle East studies at Georgia State University, a fellow with New America’s Internatio­nal Security Program and a co-author of “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon.”

The Shasta County Board of Supervisor­s has “upended the county’s election process,” the Los Angeles Times reported last week, “canceling its contract with Dominion Voting Systems.” The county could opt to hand-count ballots instead, which would likely delay results and promote more suspicion of elections. One supervisor said he had explored seeking the services of Mike Lindell, the pillow purveyor and prominent conspiracy theorist.

Shasta, a deep-red county in California’s far north, has proved vulnerable to causes that are on the national fringe but being pushed by the forces that supported Donald Trump’s false election fraud allegation­s. Militia members and other hard-right activists led a recall of a member of the all-Republican county board last year and have since attained a majority, leading to last week’s official endorsemen­t of baseless suspicions about Dominion.

The current state of QAnon and related conspiracy theories is no exception to the old axiom that all politics is local. Since President Biden’s inaugurati­on put an end to efforts to keep Trump in office, these theories have trickled down from national to local politics, influencin­g local officials responsibl­e for crucial policymaki­ng on voting, education and more.

The wide-ranging, baseless set of beliefs known as QAnon portrays Trump as a messianic figure fighting an evil cabal of Democratic elites and Hollywood celebritie­s who rule the world and molest and murder children. In 2020, adherents coalesced around “stop the steal” allegation­s that machines manufactur­ed by Dominion had somehow changed the results in key states. The allegation­s surfaced in a few states in which Dominion machines were never even used.

A focus on Dominion’s nefarious ballot alteration­s and the company’s supposed origins in Venezuela — it’s actually Canadian — became a mainstay of Trump’s refusal to accept the election results. More than two years later, such conspiraci­es continue to pervade right-wing politics below the national level. At last weekend’s Conservati­ve Political Action Conference, for example, featured speaker and Arizona gubernator­ial race loser Kari Lake continued to argue that the 2022 election was stolen from her.

Such conspiracy beliefs have been promoted by far-right figures such as Lindell and Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and amplified by right-wing media. Research I conducted found 97 QAnon-supporting candidates in the 2020 primaries, with California, Florida, Texas and Arizona leading the country.

The campaigns and their supporters have been shockingly successful at promoting the belief at the grassroots level. Polls by the Public Religion Research Institute and NPR/Ipsos have found that as many as 1 in 3 Americans believes key tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Far-right media echo chambers played a crucial role in achieving this level of acceptance of fringe beliefs. We know more about that thanks to Dominion’s $1.6-billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News.

After Jan. 6, 2021, QAnon influencer­s pivoted to propaganda on local wedge issues such as the content of K-12 education (especially “critical race theory”) and trans rights, implying that studying race caused homosexual­ity and sexual dysmorphia, as I and Sophia Moskalenko describe in our recent book on QAnon. Much of this propaganda appeals to a Republican base comprising groups in which QAnon theories have been enthusiast­ically embraced, including evangelica­ls.

Devotees were encouraged to act locally for greatest impact. In particular, they were encouraged to run for local offices, including city and county positions and especially school boards, which entice conspiracy theorists with the promise of extending their influence to future generation­s. From Michigan to California, dozens of elected local officials have promoted QAnon conspiracy theories like the one surroundin­g Dominion. Another California county, Kern, kept its Dominion machines last week only after much deliberati­on.

School boards all over the country are now occupied by people whose social media feeds are packed with calls to “patriots” and “digital soldiers” to join the movement and prophecies that nothing can “stop what is coming.”

Time magazine investigat­ed school boards in Michigan and Nevada and found, as one student put it, “far-right conspiraci­sts or radicals to be infiltrati­ng the most basic unit of American government.” Beyond their impact at the local level, these offices often serve as springboar­ds for state and national candidacie­s.

And beyond hurting children’s education and the rights of trans people and other minorities, these theories undermine our democratic institutio­ns. It should come as no surprise that since its beginnings in 2017, QAnon was amplified by U.S. adversarie­s such as Russia and China. Conspiracy theories about Dominion, stolen elections and an evil cabal spread at the local level are mirrored by Russian disinforma­tion campaigns at home and abroad. The theories have much the same effect as some of Russia’s tactics during the 2016 presidenti­al campaign, when its agents created fake Facebook accounts to pit neighbor against neighbor, encourage protests and violence on both sides of controvers­ies, and weaken public trust.

QAnon’s infiltrati­on of local politics furthers the global goals of malign foreign actors over the long term. It’s only by recognizin­g the hidden motivation­s and roots of these conspiracy theories that we may begin to inoculate ourselves against them.

 ?? Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times ?? A SHASTA COUNTY resident expressing concerns about voter fraud before the Board of Supervisor­s last fall.
Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times A SHASTA COUNTY resident expressing concerns about voter fraud before the Board of Supervisor­s last fall.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States