As social media platforms scramble to suppress rapidly spreading misinformation ahead of Election Day, a massive nationwide poll finds widespread support for conspiracy theories, as the 2020 presidential election galvanises a “dangerous mix of political polarisation, alienation and anger in US society.”
US polling from UK-based non-profit HOPE not hate found a “depressingly high awareness and support” for conspiracy theories in the US, including those threaded by the QAnon delusion that has been embraced by dozens of congressional candidates and thousands of voters across the US.
The report found that roughly one in 10 Americans are engaged with QAnon beliefs, with 4.6 per cent of respondents explicitly identifying as “strong supporters” and 5.4 per cent as “soft supporters”.
Among those supporters, 82 per cent believe using violence is justified to defend something they believe in – compared to only 13 per cent of the general public.
A third of Americans surveyed believe that “elites in Hollywood, government, the media and other powerful positions are secretly engaging in large-scale child trafficking and abuse,” while 19 per cent of respondents believe the Covid-19 crisis was engineered as part of “depopulation" plan orchestrated by the United Nations or a “New World Order” and 15 per cent believe a vaccine will be “used maliciously to infect people with poison” – theories embedded in QAnon beliefs.
More than 20 per cent of Donald Trump supporters identify with QAnon – a statistically strong voting bloc that the report suggests explains his reluctance to denounce the movement, which the president and his sons, along with other prominent allies, have promoted.
“Despite claiming to not have heard of it, President Trump is increasingly courting QAnon as a key support base,” said Gregory Davis, from HOPE not hate’s conspiracy theory and disinformation unit.
“The hundreds of thousands of active QAnon supporters across the US identify themselves closely with the president and say they are willing to follow their leader, who they view as their country’s saviour, into battle,” he told The Independent.
The group said its findings “throw into question what QAnon supporters will do in the event that Trump loses the election but refuses to accept the result”.
“For the followers of a conspiracy that believes in the existence of an international cabal of paedophiles, drawn from the ranks of the Democrat, Hollywood and business elites, the fact that they perceive Trump as their leader and saviour means some might resort to violence if he is ousted and contests the election’s legitimacy."
HOPE not hate polled 15,500 Americans on a range of social and political issues, including an initial poll of 4,000 people with 80 questions and a 1,000 over-sample in Pennsylvania and a 500 oversample in Oregon.
The report relied on a multilevel regression with poststratification (MRP) analysis to build up its sample size, followed by another survey of 4,000 people and sample polling including 2,000 people nationally, followed by 2,000 people each from Florida and Pennsylvania. MRP estimates public opinion in small geographic areas or sub-groups using national opinion surveys.
Nearly four in 10 people “have read an article or seen a video in the last six months” about similar child abuse conspiracies, while one third of people have have heard about Covid-19 conspiracies, according to their report.
HOPE not hate found that younger people are far more likely to have heard about those conspiracies, while African-Americans and young people believe in these conspiracies more than any one racial group.
Among 19- to 25-year-olds, more than 18 per cent support QAnon, with 8 per cent claiming to be “strong supporters” of the conspiracy, their reseach found.
Those numbers dip only slightly to 17.9 per cent and 13.7 per cent, respectively, among 35- to 44-year-olds.
Among people aged 65 and older, less than 1 per cent support the conspiracy.
Latinos in Florida believe QAnon and related conspiracies more than Latinos generally, according to the report, which noted that the spike in support is largely due to right-wing and anti-communist beliefs in the state among Latinos.
“There’s a lot of people in South Florida who have been victims of a totalitarian regime back home and they are more sensitive to that type of messaging,” according to Florida-based political strategist Jose Parra.
“Living in those countries has meant, especially in the age of social media, that you get your information from friends and close associates, and you don’t get it through the traditional media because the traditional media is controlled by their governments,” he said in the report.
“So there is a deficit of trust for the mainstream media and an over-reliance on social media to get information,” he added. “So when they arrive here they are more likely to believe a WhatsApp chain that somebody forwarded accusing Biden of being a paedophile – as I have seen in many instances – than they are to believe the Miami Herald, which they will see as a socialist newspaper and in the pocket of the left.”
Strong supporters of QAnon identify themselves slightly more as “very conservative” and “conservative” than they do “moderate and liberal”, while “soft supporters” identify as “moderate” more than anything else.
Support for the movement most likely suggests beliefs in other conspiracies related to the coronavirus crisis.
Eighty-eight per cent of QAnon believers also believe a Covid-19 vaccine will be used to infect people with poison, and 81 per cent believe China will use a vaccine against Americans as a bio-weapon to weaken Western economies.
Among supporters, 82 per cent believe a “global elite” is using the coronavirus pandemic to reshape the world order.
“Despite the outlandishness of this conspiracy movement it would be a mistake to not take its possible danger seriously – our findings on QAnon supporters’ acceptance of violence raise the possibility that a disputed election result could become a flashpoint,” Mr Davis said. "Now that social media companies have belatedly taken action and started removing this movement from their platforms, we can only hope that some of the danger will be defused, and that QAnon will one day fade back to the fringes.”