The Democrats have decided to use the QAnon conspiracy theory as a political weapon against the Republicans, but their demonization of the cult’s followers, and dismissal of them as uneducated, threatens to further radicalize believers.
QAnon followers don’t need any more incentive to hate the Democrats, whom they already believe are cannibalistic, child sex trafficking, Satan worshippers. But a new attack ad campaign from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee could make the situation even worse, at a time when the threat from the conspiracy movement is at an all-time high.
On Tuesday the DCCC rolled out a $500,000 ad campaign targeting the 2022 midterms, tying the Republican Party to the QAnon movement.
In a series of television ads, the campaign seeks to demonize QAnon supporters, saying that “Trump whipped them into a murderous frenzy.”
With ominous music playing in the background, the narrator says, “QAnon, a conspiracy theory born online, took over the Republican Party, sent followers to Congress, and with Donald Trump, incited a mob that attacked the Capitol and murdered a cop.” There is no evidence to suggest it was a QAnon supporter who caused the death of a Capitol Police officer during the Jan. 6 riots.
As well as demonizing QAnon supporters, the Democrats are also labeling them “crazy” and uneducated.
"They can do QAnon, or they can do college-educated voters. They cannot do both,” DCCC chair Rep. Sean Maloney told Politico, adding that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was taking his party to “crazytown.”
Not only is the assertion that QAnon supporters are uneducated completely inaccurate, it also threatens to send followers who already believe the Democrats are lying to them even further down the rabbit hole — and possibly bring more people with them.
“QAnon believers are not uneducated or stupid,” tweeted Mike Rothschild, a researcher who’s writing a book about the cult. “They're misguided and have given in to their worst impulses and fears. But everyone is capable of that. Casting them as drooling morons is a bad idea that will backfire.”
Maloney need only look across the aisle at Congress’ biggest QAnon proponent, Marjorie Taylor Greene, to see his theory was wrong. Green graduated from the University of Georgia with a Bachelor of Business Administration in 1996 and recently ran a successful CrossFit business before being elected to Congress.
And none of that has stopped her from embracing some of QAnon’s most deranged and dangerous conspiracies.
“Labelling QAnon followers as uneducated, stupid or crazy does nothing to help unravel or challenge the polarizing effect of these movements that have had such devastating real-world impacts in recent weeks,” Aoife Gallagher, an analyst who tracks QAnon at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), told VICE News.
“We know that QAnon followers come from all walks of life — they are liberals, conservatives, PhDs, lawyers, doctors. There are highly educated people that fall into these movements and it is dangerous and remiss to pigeon-hole QAnon followers according to educational attainment or social status.”
There are many other examples that show QAnon supporters do not align with a single socio-economic or educational background. Take Jason Gelinas for example. He was a high-flying Citigroup executive who in his spare time ran the QMap website, which helped funnel people into the QAnon conspiracy.
Or Ashli Babbit, the Trump supporter who was shot and killed during the Capitol riots. Prior to falling down the QAnon rabbit hole, she was a staunch supporter of Barack Obama.
Or simply scroll through the heartbreaking testimonies posted on the Reddit thread called QAnonCasualties, where people detail how their seemingly normal and well-educated family members and friends are being radicalized by QAnon.
The rise of QAnon within the Republican party — first through former President Donald Trump and now with Greene — is clearly a concern for many inside the party, but experts say that just as the GOP shouldn’t embrace QAnon, Democrats should not use it as a political cudgel.
“I get there is some political tactic here, but leveraging an extremist movement should not be used as a political tool by the Dems,” Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University who studies QAnon, tweeted.
“If it is unacceptable for the GOP to do so then it should be unacceptable for any party.”
QAnon began life on the fringes of the internet, on obscure message boards like 4chan and 8chan. But in the last 12 months, QAnon has moved from the fringes of the internet to the center, radicalizing millions of people on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
While those platforms have now tried to remove the QAnon accounts and groups, the cult has firmly established itself in the mainstream, a point highlighted by the central role QAnon followers played in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
By ignoring that reality, the Democrats risk increasing the threat from QAnon.
“Can we stop saying these are uneducated people, that they are crazy and wear tinfoil hats? Argentino said. “We need to respect the threat posed by QAnon and recognize that this is not limited to the fringes of society, but it is embedded into the mainstream of our communities.”
The DCCC did not respond to a request for comment about criticisms of its campaign.