My Unpopular Opinion: Social Distancing Contributed To The Capitol

COVID Restrictions Nearly Led Me Down A Dark Path, How Many Others Got Caught In That Trap?
Trump supporters storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 Photo by Blink O’Fanaye/Flickr

Back in August, I published my most popular blog entry on here, about how I nearly got sucked into the QAnon wormhole that clearly millions of other Americans, including at least two members of Congress, have gotten lost in. I consider myself pretty cynical and able to spot bullshit pretty quickly, but even I found myself captivated by the allegations that there was a worldwide child sex trafficking ring going on. It seemed plausible, coming at the heels of Jerry Epstein, R. Kelly and the NXIVM cult stories, the latter of which sounds awfully familiar to what QAnon is alleging.

When my grammar school friend, Jen, invited me to join the “Precious Lives Movement” on Facebook, I thought about it for a few minutes and agreed. Jen, which is not her real name, unfortunately has some history with the topic. She was sexually abused as a child, something she shared with me later on as an adult, and had recently expressed concern that her own children were danger of being abused by their father’s uncle. Bored and looking for involvement four months into the pandemic and the restrictions on social life – and on a social justice high coming out of the summer of Black Lives Matter – I was happy to join in.

I scoured the Facebook page and looked at some of the postings, expecting to find links to charities or organizations that I could help out with, or any other information I could find about NXIVM and other sex trafficking stories I already knew about. To my surprise, there was nothing on any of those true things, just post after post of people talking about how they “woke up” and how they believe “Americans are waking up” to the “truth,” and endless false allegations.

That “truth” that they alleged? That Hollywood, the media, academia and other “elitist” organizations are secretly running a Satanic cult trying to destroy Christianity and “the American way of life,” and secretly kidnapping and selling children into sex cults, and the Democratic Party was giving them political cover, and working to protect them from political consequences. Donald Trump, they explained, was the only force standing against them and trying to stop them, and that’s why so many people were trying to destroy him. Even COVID, they alleged, was a hoax created to destroy Trump and stop him from breaking up this “globalist Satanic child rape cult.” That’s why the first celebrity to catch COVID was Tom Hanks. He’s one fo the ringleaders, they allege.

I told Jen that this was a conspiracy theory, but she didn’t believe me, just telling me that I needed to “wake up,” and trying to connect to me by saying she used to think like me, but that these groups made her “see the truth,” and if I opened my mind, I’d see it too. I tried to coax her out of it, by sharing the actual real stories, like NXIVM and Epstein, but she first said those stories made her believe the conspiracy more, and then stopped responding to me after a while. In the end, I reported her to Facebook for making threats after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

She not only believed the central tenants of QAnon – that Democrats were part of a Satanic cult out to murder Christians and were part of a child sex trafficking ring and also dabbled in cannibalism – she also believed the election was stolen from Donald Trump, who previous to this year she did not openly support. The child sex cult conspiracy made her believe that Trump was actually an ally to the cause and she began to throw her support behind him. Trump, she said, was just about to arrest them all, so they had to rig the election against him.

Some might say she was headed down that dark road anyway, pandemic or not, but I don’t believe it. She was never politically active before, and to the extent she was, she seemed to lean liberal. Plus, she openly said to me “I’m glad for social distancing, because otherwise my eyes wouldn’t have been open to all this.”

Now I know what you’re thinking – these are people who would flout COVID-19 guidelines anyway. But that really isn’t the point. The Spring lockdowns FORCED them to social distance, they weren’t given the option at first. We took away people’s normal social lives – the jobs, the parties, the bar nights, the weddings, funerals, sporting events and holidays, where they see family and friends. We’ve forced them into a state of indefinite social isolation and disruption, leaving them scared and alone and looking for answers. We then told them to find socialization online, where its safe; on social media, on Zoom.

So they did. Feeling rejected by family and friends and coworkers who were following guidelines by isolating and distancing from them, they found like-minded individuals online who satisfied their basic human need for socialization, and assimilated to their worldviews.

“I’m glad for social distancing, because otherwise my eyes wouldn’t have been open to all this.”

My grammar school friend Jen

Another former friend of mine, Kate, who fell down the conspiracy theory path, had the same trajectory. Everything was fine until the pandemic. Her sister told me that while she was always radically pro-Trump and far right, “family and friends always seemed to be a moderating influence on her.”

A month or so into the pandemic, as the situation in Florida, where they live, seemed to be getting better, Kate started to get angry that her family and friends were still avoiding her and sticking to social distancing.

“It made her feel like we had abandoned her,” her sister explained. “So she sought out people who affirmed her feelings, and that opened the door I think.”

There is growing evidence the lockdowns and social isolation enacted to slow or stop COVID-19 helped fuel the rising interest and growth in QAnon support. According to a study done by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, A UK-based think tank that studies extremists ideologies, while QAnon-related social media saw gradual growth since it first appeared in 2017, there was a tremendous increase in traffic to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages of QAnon-aligned groups starting in March 2020, when lockdowns began. With the United States leading the way, traffic dropped by June, when the lockdowns in the US and Europe were lifted.

Traffic to QAnon-related social media, especially Facebook, skyrocketed during the pandemic lockdowns in the Spring. Source: Institute for Strategic Dialogue

The most striking increase, in March 2020, saw the number of Facebook users
increase from an average of 344 unique users per day between March 2 and 8, to 898 between March 22 and 29. (Lockdowns in the UK and United States began around March 14). Similarly, average Twitter users grew from 37,302 in the first week to 89,338 in the last, ” the report, linked here, read. “Both Facebook group membership and engagement rates within those Facebook groups increased significantly in March 2020. Membership of QAnon groups on Facebook increased by 120% in March and engagement rates increased by 91%”

The report goes on to suggest that the first COVID-19 lockdowns were a possible explanation for the rise.

“Further research is required into why the QAnon community is growing so rapidly,” it read, “but possible explanations include that this is a by-product of people spending more time on social media as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns, or evidence of a coordinated push to amplify the QAnon theory.”

From my point of view, both are feasible, and perhaps connected. I don’t think a coordinated push, if that’s what did it, just coincidentally happened to occur right as the pandemic was beginning and we were telling people to stay home and socially isolate. If there was a coordinated push by QAnon instigators at that time, I would bet they saw the lockdowns as something that would work in their favor.

Indeed, Donald Trump saw a massive increase in support in November in big cities and locations that had tough lockdowns, from places like the Bronx, Detroit and Los Angeles, to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Some of that may very well be the influence of QAnon.

The idea that massive social disruption breeds conspiracy theories is not a new theory. It has existed and been well documented throughout history. Typically, though, the phenomenon is limited to just an individual person, someone who gets trapped in conspiracy theories because of something life altering happening to them – a job loss, a death of a close relative or family member, a disease. What we’re seeing here is a collective trauma, one hitting an entire population, and nestled inside that, billions of individual traumas. Those are the perfect conditions for a mass movement to develop.

The far right isn’t alone here. Even Black Lives Matter organizers acknowledged that social distancing helped fuel a lot of new support for their cause last summer after the death of George Floyd. It’s perhaps also responsible for the record turnout in last year’s election. Taking away distractions, like jobs, vacations, sports, theater, parties, holidays, etc. leaves an entire population with nothing to do, looking for something to give this weird time meaning, and searching for answers – easy answers – for what is happening to them. Many found it in QAnon conspiracy theories, which helped amplify the “Big Lie,” – that Joe Biden did not defeat Donald Trump last November. That led thousands to D.C. on January 6th to storm the Capitol.

If not for social distancing and the disruption it has caused, I do not believe there would never have been a big enough turnout in Washington two weeks ago to storm the Capitol. There are many ways to combat the problem of far-right domestic terrorism. I’m an advocate for deplatforming: I’ll have a diary on that soon. The quickest way to starve it of more support though, is to get our society back to a normal left of socializing soon, so friends and family and coworkers can have a moderating influence on people susceptible to these conspiracy theories.

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