“Garbage in, garbage out” is an idiom I often used in my days working for technology companies. Basically, a computer system is only as good as the information flowing into it. After spending a few hours with anti-lockdown / anti-mask protestors, AKA Covidiots, it’s clear the human brain operates in exactly the same way.
For the last few weeks, a small but steadily growing group has been protesting in Nottingham every Saturday trying to convince people that, well … I don’t know. It defies easy answers.
The demographic mix of the protests is impressive – a broad spread of ages, a good mix of educational levels and class, and a really strong mix of ethnic backgrounds. There is a better cross-section of Nottingham at these protests than you often see at left-wing demos. They are also enthusiastic and inventive in their tactics, which are not centrally organised but operate in a loose, cooperative manner reminiscent of the “be water” approach of Hong Kong activists.
What brings these disparate people together is a belief that there is a shadowy cabal of powerful people who are running the world. Each person I spoke to called these people different things – ‘deep state’, ‘illuminati’, ‘the Council of 300’, ‘new world order’ – and individuals named include people like Bill Gates, George Soros and the Rothschilds alongside the Queen and the Pope. As a left-winger, I have no problems in believing rich, powerful people are fucking up the world for their own ends but the Crazy-Right believe there is a unified, all-knowing, all-powerful cabal which is behind every world-event.
Like many things, the internet is to blame. Back in the day, potential victims would have had to read books or travel to meetings to find out about conspiracy theories. Now the disinformation is on your phone, 24 hours a day, occupying the same mental parking space as credible news sources and this hasn’t happened by chance. It took major news agencies years to get online while the nutters have been there since the beginning. For the last 30 years, conspiracy theorists have evolved and morphed in a symbiotic relationship with technology.
We cannot dismiss these people as harmless fools. Their beliefs may be off-the-charts level of crazy but they are dangerous. Numerous children have died because of the spread of anti-vax disinformation on Mumsnet and social media. Nor can we consider these nutters as hateful or malicious. Most of the anti-vax rubbish is shared by well-meaning people who believe they are helping, not hurting, others.
And now QAnon has turned conspiracy theories into a weapon of the far-right.
QAnon is a well-funded campaign to spread disinformation and destabilise society. Who is behind it is uncertained and a nest of conspiracy theories all to itself but it grew out of the birther movement, who claimed Obama wasn’t born in the USA, and satanic child abuse claims against the Clintons and other prominent figures. Like everything to do with conspiracy theories, it’s hard to define what QAnon is, what it wants or who is behind it but it is unashamedly far-right.
In the run up to the US Elections, QAnon is actively hijacking legitimate groups and causes, notably those relating to child-protection/abuse. The flood of disinformation is muddying the waters and providing cover for far-right activists. This was notable in Nottingham on the 22nd August when a “Protect the Kiddies” rally organised by the far-right attracted around 500 people – ten times the amount compared to the last time the far-right came to the city. Since then QAnon flags have been seen at anti-migrant protests in Dover and elsewhere.
The crazy-right are dangerous, but it is not appropriate to counter-protest them in the way we do the far-right. Yet, what strategy is best remains unclear. Just ignoring them, leaving them to spread disinformation and poison the well of public trust is not acceptable. But highlighting their claims or treating the protests seriously may just bring them credibility, turning it into a debate between two equal world views.
Ultimately it comes back to garbage in, garbage out because inverse is also true – information in, information out. Individually and collectively me must aid the spread of good information as we cannot rely on the Government or the mainstream media to do their job. We may be witnessing the end of the culture wars and the start of the truth wars where all of us are on the frontline.
[All photos by Chris Tregenza, used with permission]