Misinformation in the Aftermath of Trump
QAnon, "Stop the Steal," and everything in between
Does any event encapsulate the anxiety, disillusionment, and chaos of the Trump presidency more effectively than the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 of this year?
You know the story already. After months of unsubstantiated claims about a rigged election, Trump supporters gathered for a "March to Save America" on the National Mall. In the words of the former president, they came together to "demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated." At the end of a characteristically unscripted speech, Trump encouraged his supporters to set off for the Capitol building "to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard."
What followed was anything but peaceful — you've undoubtedly seen the pictures of QAnon conspiracists, Proud Boys, neo-Confederates, and armed vigilantes storming their way into Congress by now. By day's end, five people were dead, over a hundred were injured, and Trump was no closer to reclaiming his office than he was on the morning after Biden's election.
It's not just the sense of alarm I felt on that day that seemed so emblematic of our historical moment. It was also the sense of futility. For all of its tragedy and chaos, the insurrection didn't end with a Great Awakening, or a coup d'etat, or even an election recount. It ended with middle-aged men shooting selfies in Nancy Pelosi's office. And two weeks later, the vice president of the Obama administration took office with little fanfare. It's this rinse-and-repeat cycle of anxiety and pointlessness that seems so demonstrative of pandemic life during a time of unprecedented misinformation. And I'm not sure where it's headed next.
What follows is an attempt to map out the paths of misinformation as they seep into our discourse, both locally and nationally.
The QAnon spectrum
First, some good news.
Most of our local elected officials (and candidates for office) shy away from openly supporting QAnon, the conspiracy theory claiming that Donald Trump is secretly working to bring down a cabal of elite pedophiles with direct ties to the Democratic Party and Hollywood.
But the broader influence of the conspiracy is still alarmingly widespread. Some high-profile supporters include former national security advisor Michael Flynn, Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel, and comedian Roseanne Barr. More alarmingly, a February report from the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that 29 percent of Republicans found the claim "Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that includes prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites" to be either mostly (17 percent) or completely (12 percent) accurate . In December, an NPR/Ipsos poll found that less than 47 percent of the inquiry's participants could identify the following statement as false: "A group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media"  The same inquiry also found that 39 percent of Americans believe in a "deep state" working to undermine Trump. Other data shows declining support for QAnon, such as a Morning Consult poll from late January, indicating a 14-point decrease since October. But even after factoring in that decrease, the poll indicated that 24 percent of Republicans found QAnon's claims "at least somewhat accurate" 
Obviously, polls can be misleading. And the grab-bag of false claims we label as "QAnon" is very multifaceted. For example, not everyone who suspects elite-level pedophilia necessarily believes that kidnapped "mole children" were being rescued from underground tunnels in Central Park last spring . Not everyone who thinks a "deep state" controls our government also believes that Vincent Fusca, a fortysomething financial advisor from Pittsburgh, is secretly JFK, Jr.  QAnon beliefs circulate across a constantly-changing, always-contradictory spectrum. This may be why they're so dangerous.
The conspiracy has led to political campaigns in Pennsylvania as well. Last year, a QAnon supporter named Bobby Jeffries ran for our 10th congressional district as well as the state House of Representatives (unsuccessfully in both cases) . Until a few weeks ago, state Sen. Doug Mastriano and Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidate Paula Patrick were both scheduled to speak at a Q-affiliated conference in Gettysburg  . Both backed out when the event's conspiratorial agenda became clear, but both have also appeared on podcasts supportive of the conspiracy . Finally, when the House of Representatives passed legislation condemning QAnon last fall, 17 members voted against the measure, including Central PA's Scott Perry and our own representative, Mike Kelly .
Saving the children?
Last summer, my fascination with QAnon shifted from morbid curiosity to genuine concern when its ideologues began infiltrating good-faith efforts to fight child abuse. In late August, a series of marches were organized across the country under the hashtag #SaveTheChildren. Ostensibly coordinated to draw attention to the "800,000 children who go missing each year," the demonstrations were a mix of concerned allies, abuse survivors, and QAnon conspiracists. In fact, as the Q-sympathetic agenda became clear, the hashtag switched to #SaveOurChildren to avoid association with the Save the Children Fund, a legitimate U.K.-based non-government organization.
So let's talk about that agenda, if you have the stomach for it. One of the strangest parts of the QAnon worldview is its obsession with something called "adrenochrome." Many QAnon believers don't simply believe that the global elites are abusing children — they claim they're actually drinking the adrenaline-rich blood of terrified, dying infants to ensure personal longevity (or even immortality) .
The "adrenochrome theory" is essentially a repurposed variation on antisemitic "blood libel" propaganda dating as far back as 12th century England. Though the specifics obviously vary, the basic outline remains intact across centuries — a secret cabal of elites (or Jews, in its most racist version) kidnap, abuse, and extract blood from innocent white children. In 13th century France, they supposedly mixed this blood into their Passover bread; by 2016, it became Hillary Clinton and George Soros dining like vampires.
I learned about a #SaveOurChildren gathering in Erie from a left-leaning Facebook group, of all places. Thankfully, the event came and went with little excitement. In fact, I suspect that the event page was shared by someone unfamiliar with adrenochrome or the imaginary cabal of Democrat Satanists. More likely, it was the "800,000 missing children" that set off their sense of alarm. And why wouldn't it?
But that number is also incredibly misleading. The Huffington Post's Michael Hobbes traced the origin of the statistic last September to a 2002 survey from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which asked parents if they had reported their children as runaways the previous year . The "800,000 children" mentioned in this nearly 20-year-old text referred only to the number of reports, not the total number of children. Meaning that if you filed a dozen reports about the same child in a year, the number increased by 12. Furthermore, Hobbes found that the vast majority of children (nearly 99 percent) who were reported missing returned home within hours or days — and about half of the cases were related to custody battles rather than nefarious child abduction.
Since child sex trafficking is obviously awful, you might find these numbers beside the point if they're raising awareness. Unfortunately, there's evidence that legitimate anti-trafficking organizations were flooded with unfounded theories in response to these gatherings . This sudden attention distracted from more legitimate abuse inquiries, often by looking in the wrong places for the wrong signs. For example, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 93 percent of juvenile victims know the perpetrator of sexual violence . Instead of demanding vigilante justice at the Democratic Convention, we should probably be examining relationships with coaches, teachers, parents, and priests.
How did we get here?
Every era has its conspiracies. I'm old enough to remember the "9/11 Truth" movement of the Bush-era, while my parents' generation watched the John Birch Society accuse President Eisenhower of being a Communist. So what's different about QAnon?
To rhetorical theorist Colleen Kelley, a colleague of mine at Penn State Behrend, a key difference is technological. In a recent talk on the subject for the Jefferson Educational Society, she noted that "Q is fundamentally a digitally-based, hyper-connected coalition that rhetorically operates in a different way — and on a different scale — than much of what we've seen before." She also notes its ability to cultivate community quickly: "It is highly participative in a way that few other conspiracy theories have ever been. You get together, you code, you play the game, and you bond with fellow travelers and believers."
In a follow-up conversation I conducted with Dr. Kelley, she stressed that Trump's base will play a key role "well into the next rotation of the presidency." Though she is quick to assert that she doesn't see our former president as the mastermind of QAnon, she claims that "Trump's secular, 'I-am-the-greatest' ideas, draw out of the recesses not only folks who are desperately and legitimately looking for a way out of their misery, but also the folks at the peripheries of antisocial society."
It's the latter group — the image board moderators, the crypto-fascists, the failed Instagram influencers, and the Roger Stones of the world  — that seem especially well-suited to amplifying and profiting from chaos, often through well-timed emotional appeals and a very sophisticated understanding of the internet's algorithms.
As I write this at the tail end of April, I'm reminded of the futility I mentioned at the start of this piece.
Q believers must certainly be feeling futile as hopes for a second Trump term slowly die. It's hard to predict Trump's future legacy, but his presidency strikes me as memorable for three things beyond the shallowness of his personal character: the normalization of overt bigotry, the consolidation of right-wing ideologues in our judicial system, and the half-million people who died of COVID, due in large part to his incompetence.
In the end, Trump turned out to be "a small boy's idea of a tough guy," to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler . He could wind up the liberals with his Twitter account and he could express anger in a way that was cathartic to those who agreed with him. He could orchestrate misinformation with astonishing success, but he certainly couldn't change much on a day-to-day level. Obamacare is still the law of the land, his border wall is more of a symbol than a functional barrier, opioid overdoses are worse than ever , education and health care are as expensive as ever, and massive ecological destruction almost certainly awaits us.
The question that really alarms me is this — what happens when the antisocial media manipulators truly internalize this futility? Do they double down? Do they change their ways? Do they get Trump back in office and start all over again?
I have no idea what the answer is.
Dan Schank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org