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The Endurance of Conspiracy

UMD Expert Explains the 2020 Election’s Influence on Extremism and the Challenges for Tech and a New White House

By Liam Farrell

Man carries QAnon sign

Photo by DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

A man carries QAnon conspiracy theory signage as President Donald Trump supporters rally in Beverly Hills, Calif., during the last weekend before the Election Day. A UMD expert on domestic radicalization says the false narrative of a stolen election will be a complication the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will have to contend with in coming years.

It’s been more than 50 years since a seminal essay in Harper’s Magazine essay described the “paranoid style” of American politics, but the 2020 election—from baseless allegations of electoral fraud to QAnon’s theory of a liberal cabal engaging in child abuse and cannibalism—made it feel very relevant.

Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, is an expert on domestic radicalization and manages data collection for the Global Terrorism Database. Maryland Today spoke to him about the endurance of conspiracy theories, the response of tech companies and what Joe Biden’s presidential administration can expect from the political margins. 

What is the landscape of extremism in the election’s aftermath, particularly in regard to the unsupported claims of tampered ballots?
President Donald Trump had been outright telling us he wasn’t going to accept any election outcome that cast him as the loser. We knew this would be a contested election and that could potentially stir up his base of supporters. What happens when the legal proceedings don’t change the outcome? What do his supporters in Congress do and say? Do they call into question our legal institutions and say they are fraudulent, or do they back down? That’s where we could see a troubling outcome.

Will a Biden administration face an increasing amount of extremism and radicalization?
The appeal of conspiracy theories really transcends presidential administrations. For the most part, these conspiracies are not terribly creative in coming up with things completely out of the blue. This QAnon conspiracy is a narrative that has been a core of conspiracy theories all the way back to early Christianity. Same thing with narratives of government takeovers on public lands, government restrictions on firearms.

Do bans of accounts that spread conspiracy theories by Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms help or just confirm suspicions of “knowing the truth”?
It’s one thing for the message to be on the platform in obscure areas and it’s another through the use of algorithms and monetization and ad revenue to push those narratives to users who otherwise would never come across them. That’s where the failure with QAnon really has been. We’ve seen QAnon in the yoga community and mom self-help groups and mindfulness groups because of the ways these social media platforms work.

QAnon has maintained relevance and approval—with one supporter even just winning a congressional seat—despite years of failing to live up to its promises of arrests and executions of high-profile Democrats. Why doesn’t that matter?
It has morphed itself into an umbrella conspiracy theory. They brought in virtually every conspiracy theory you can think of and tied it back into this network. We didn’t get strong condemnation of the conspiracy theory from political leadership. (President Donald Trump) retweeted QAnon supporters over 200 times. The narrative was really getting pushed at a time when people were looking for answers to difficult problems (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and the anxiety they were facing.

What could happen if the Biden administration takes a stronger approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as nationally mandating masks or business closures?
We already saw it the first time around under a Trump administration. In many ways, it was the militias on the far right who were leading many of those protest challenges, and there’s no reason they wouldn’t be players in that again. If you see anything that looks like April 2020-type restrictions on business and schools and public and religious gatherings, I think we’d see a pretty strong reaction.

This narrative of a stolen election isn’t going to just go away overnight. It would all get mixed together. Not only is that dangerous for our democratic institutions, but there are individuals attracted to these movements that are susceptible to being mobilized for acts of violence.



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