In the early 2000’s when I was Communications Director for the United Church of Christ, I was often asked, “what is the greatest challenge facing the UCC?” Expected responses included: world peace, systemic racism, nuclear non-proliferation, the environment. But I’d often confound people with the response: “to develop tools of discernment.”
The internet was emerging as a major communications vehicle with little guidance as to how to determine the veracity of specific, so-called “facts.” The democratization of media—basically a good thing—fostered an unintended by-product, resulting in what one colleague stated as, “the sage on the stage is dead.” In short, trusted voices—the Walter Cronkites of the world–were disappearing and internet pronouncements had the same appearance on-line as those from reputable sources. Our job, as faith-based communicators—was, in part, to provide members with communications tools to help them make informed decisions, and thereby become more responsible citizens.
Fast forward almost two decades and this issue has come home in dramatic fashion. I was struck this week by the rancorous venom expressed by participants at President Trump’s Tampa rally who—without prompting from the President—harassed and berated reporters in the room. As I watched, I thought, “in the end, this can only lead to violence.”
I was also struck by the appearance of signs, tee-shirts and other rally-oriented paraphernalia sporting the letter “Q.” I confess that I was not up-to-speed on the latest conspiracy theories and so I did a little research. What I discovered was both unbelievable and profoundly disturbing. For you who are equally uninitiated, CBSNews has a helpful summary:
Those who subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory believe that a person who posts messages on…internet message boards under the name “Q” is a high-ranking government official. And according to Q, Mr. Trump is on the verge of exposing a cabal of pedophiles, globalists, and celebrities who secretly control America.
QAnon exists as a kind of parallel history which a “deep state” took over decades ago…The military, eager to see the deep state overthrown, recruited Mr. Trump to run for president. But the deep state, which controls the media, quickly tried to smear him through “fake news” and unfounded allegations of collusion with Russia.
Despite the deep state’s best efforts, however, Mr. Trump is winning. Q is releasing sanctioned leaks to the public in order to galvanize them ahead of “The Storm,” which is the moment when the deep state’s leaders are arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Q’s adherents have called this process “the great awakening.”…The storm takes its name from Mr. Trump enigmatic comment last October about “the calm before the storm.”
(In a related story, The Guardian carried an amazingly detailed account of how YouTube algorithms are created, fostering fake news. It is a long article, and chilling; I recommend its reading.)
As Johnny Carson would say, “this is wild stuff; weird, wild stuff!” But the video footage from President Trump’s recent Tampa rally shows that this outrageous movement, totally unmoored from reality, has shifted from the radical fringe to mainstream American politics. When the number of QAnon supporters in Tampa was pointed out by legitimate journalists, neither the President, nor his press secretary, explicitly discredited them or their movement.
This is no longer about the lunatic fringe—left or right. As we develop our perspectives and formulate our actions, we must hone our “tools of discernment” and examine the sources of the information we gather. Failure to do so has fatal consequences for our democracy. Once we lose the bright line between fact and fancy, between real news and fake accounts, we can no longer distinguish between pathways that genuinely lead to peace, justice and human dignity and those that wander blind alleyways of bigotry and fear.