“The emotion that founds QAnon is mistrust of institutions and elites”

Ethan Zuckerman is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and former director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. He is considered one of America’s best social media specialists. He notably worked on the development, in the United States, of the conspiracy theory QAnon – based on anonymous messages published by a certain “Q”, which denounces a plot of corrupt elites and pedophiles against which Donald Trump would fight.

Seen from Europe, one wonders: how could a theory as convoluted and incoherent as QAnon have gained so many followers?

Ethan Zuckerman: This is not just a question that Europeans ask themselves; in the United States, this success questioned the media in the same way. The first reactions consisted in making fun of this theory: nobody took seriously this completely crazy movement, which followed other similar movements which never succeeded in gaining a lasting foothold. The mistake was to focus on the details of the conspiracy theory, and neglect the basic emotions on which it is based.

The emotion that founds QAnon is mistrust of institutions and elites, whatever they may be. It is a feeling that is very powerful, in the United States as in France and in other Western countries. My next book, which comes out in January, is called Mistrust (“Mistrust”), because I believe that this mistrust of institutions is the most powerful political force of the last twenty years.

In 1964, 77% of Americans trusted their government to make the right decisions. When Barack Obama became president, they were down to 30%. This is the dominant ideology, and QAnon says precisely that: you cannot trust the government. There is a “deep state”, the Obamas and the Clintons are “pedophile satanists” … It is this same lack of confidence that made Donald Trump elected, and led the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also QAnon: at the roots of the conspiracy theory that contaminates America

However, after a sensational debut, QAnon was asleep, before experiencing in 2020 an impressive resurgence of interest, to such an extent that Republican candidates for the Senate are claiming it today …

In early 2019, the movement was very weak, losing momentum. “Q” predictions had turned out to be wrong, and activists in the movement struggled to understand why. The first phase of QAnon centered on the theory that [le procureur spécial chargé de l’enquête sur l’ingérence russe] Robert Mueller was not investigating Donald Trump, but working with him hand in hand to fight the “big plot”. Everything was to be revealed when the Mueller report was released, but the report was released, and the promised “storm” never came.

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