Born in Nashville and having lived there for several years, I’ve been following the recent bombing very closely. The two blocks that were bombed look more like a street in downtown Aleppo than music city. Some of our family as far south as Murfreesboro could not make contact during Christmas and for forty-eight hours afterward because they’re AT&T customers. My Verizon friends there tell me that you had to have cash to make any payments in local stores because credit card machines had no internet across the city. This issue apparently stretched into Kentucky, Alabama, and as far south as Texas. And in many locales even emergency numbers were out of service during the deadliest year in American history in the very location where coronavirus is currently worse than it is anywhere else on the entire planet.
If that’s not maddening enough, the mayor has suggested that the RV parked next to the AT&T building was no coincidence and may have had something to do with online conspiracy theories that 5G is responsible for coronavirus, one of many different theories noted domestic terror group QAnon has fabricated that are floating around the internet despite being deadly and dangerous.
I’ve written about this before. In fact, not twelve days before Christmas, I referred to it as “a sick culture, a ‘pandemic’ of disinformation and conspiracy theories that preceded the novel coronavirus and was the wind beneath its wings.”
I’ve made it no secret that I’ve been worried about this for some time–about the presence of paramilitary forces, the growth of fascism, the erosion of our democracy and its institutions, online disinformation and “fake news.” I was relieved when we didn’t see more violence around the time of the U.S. election, but I also attribute this to false hope: with few Trump supporters being forced to accept the reality that he’s lost the election, they’re still clinging to some wild dream that he will remain president come January 20, and I think that false hope has staved off significant conflict.
But the Nashville bombing may very well be a glance at what’s to come, if the mayor is right that this act of domestic terrorism was in any way ideologically motivated.
The rise of QAnon is different from, say, smaller white supremacy groups that operated with an online presence throughout the nineties and early 2000s. It’s different in that it’s no longer relegated to obscure dark corners of the internet but has really gone mainstream.
I thought the best way to illustrate this was to give you a couple of recent, real-life examples from people I know. They aren’t hiding in some corner. They are very publicly sharing disinformation, and it’s not always from people you would expect.
I. The Former Census Bureau employee and Local GOP Chairman
This individual has always been conservative but in recent years that’s moved from traditional conservative politics to what I would say is merely hatred for Democrats. He is, himself, a former Tennessee politician who is deeply evangelical in his faith and has sent his grandkids to moderate church camps locally. He has a large online following because of his political background, which is part of what makes someone like him particularly dangerous. To that point, he feeds the following heavily, posting constantly on Facebook (it took me longer to scroll through one week of his newsfeed than it did to write this entire post).
In the wake of the Nashville bombing, he quickly picked up and shared a false claim that the Dominion voting machines were scheduled for an audit at AT&T. This has been proven false repeatedly. But he’s also made up his own claims–as in the screenshot above–which was shared widely, indicating that while much “fake news” may begin in the dark corners where “Q” resides, these dark corners have also generated a culture where people now actively create their own fake content, and run with it.
In this sense, “Q” is not just one, or a few, mysterious online entities but has been propagated by everyday citizens who are trying to act as their own source of conspiratorial truth.
One of this individual’s friends, for example, has a post indicating that the RV in the bombing is not the same as the RV parked at the house owned by Anthony Q. Warner. He “proves” this with Google Street View, which I was able to debunk in less than two minutes, by going to the same location in Street View, and then just moving to get a different angle on the vehicle. You can easily see in the different angle that it’s very clearly the same RV.
All that said, what worries me most with this person is less his content-sharing behaviors and more the comments section. And it’s not just the fact that many of the commenters speak in hivemind, repeating phrases like, “So true!” or “Amen!” These people are ready to murder; they are out for blood, even though these folks were all normal, everyday Tennesseans prior to Trump’s election in 2016. You can see here just how much they’ve been radicalized when they respond to a simple question asked, “What penalty would be fair and just for election fraud?”
These calls for death or torture are deeply worrying, but it’s not just conservatives pushing this insanity.
II. The Vegan Permaculturist who does Yoga.
It was important to me to tell you about this guy, in part because he used to be a good friend, and in part because I don’t think you would expect, perhaps, a fairly liberally-minded, everyday American who hates Trump, is pro-Black Lives Matter, and generally loves people to also have been brainwashed by right-wing conspiracy theories.
But he was, and if you think you’re immune to the soaring propaganda, think again!
This is admittedly different in nature from the death threats above. I don’t worry about this guy plotting to murder anyone. But there’s something equally sinister happening in that his frequent sharing of QAnon conspiracy theories indicated that he’d lost his grip on reality just enough that he’d have no problem justifying horrific things others might do in the name of the lies he has grown to believe.
This story begins after he shared a seemingly innocuous post from a seemingly liberal Instagram (see above) called @seekthetruth, which–for the record–anything that calls itself “seek the truth,” should raise your alarm bells right there. But mixed in with posts about justice and equality for BIPOC, you’ll find rampant anti-vaccination conspiracies, as well as posts promoting #savethechildren, a seemingly harmless hashtag shared with a well-known and respected nonprofit of the same name that QAnon co-opted in its effort to convince everyone that Donald Trump was rounding up Democrats responsible for a worldwide Deep State child sex ring. This is the same conspiracy that inspired #Pizzagate, in which a Trump supporter shot up a pizza restaurant on false claims, believing he was there to end Hillary Clinton’s child sex ring.
This is why, in some ways, this is just as if not more dangerous than a Facebook profile like the one I shared above. It’s almost easier to dismiss when it’s political post after political post of obviously verifiable lies that can be debunked with a quick search of Google Maps, but when you mix those lies in with well-intentioned justice campaigns, mental health advocacy, or genuine concern for human rights, what’s “true” suddenly becomes less obvious, and it can be difficult to navigate this more complex world. How do you know which posts are inspired by “Q” and which posts aren’t? You don’t.
And it wasn’t just that one Instagram. He was also a follower of @greenmediainfo, which describes itself as “world’s largest, evidence-based, open access, natural health resource,” but is mostly–at least these days–a site that spreads COVID-19 anti-mask propaganda and anti-vaxx disinformation. Again, this was a friend; we worked at the same camp together; I cared about this guy, and we shared many of the same views. But even though I raised concerns privately, it didn’t go well. Here’s just a snapshot from one of our conversations in which he was trying to explain to me that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had harvested the drug adrenochrome when performing a satanic ritual on child abductees.
You can tell from my responses that I don’t really know how to respond. I was completely caught off-guard, shocked, and had no idea how to counter someone whose mind was made up and also this deep into it:
I sometimes step back and question whether he was just, like, the greatest troll I’ve ever encountered, and the whole thing was a big joke. But he has since blocked me entirely.
All that is to say, the media we consume or share and what we believe about its veracity is important. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, long held staples of American media, don’t always get it right, and I’ll be the first to tell you how frustrated I can be with some of their reporting. But there’s a big difference between a nationally-recognized news outlet that independently verifies its multiple sources before publication versus armchair journalism, void of editors and source-checking, much of it blatant propaganda or mis/disinformation.
The “mainstream media” long stood as not just a staple but as gatekeepers that provided us with a shared reality, something the social media sphere has striped away from us entirely. The moment you and I believe ourselves and our friends–or complete strangers in a Facebook group or, yes, bloggers on WordPress like myself–to be just as credible as a major, respected news outlet, is also the moment we no longer share reality but suddenly exist in a world of multiple realities, which like mini-cultures, augment our already violent “culture wars.”
Worse is the fact that these are just two examples of a liberal and conservative who have been brainwashed; but this problem is not confined to a handful of people; it’s widespread. What’s unraveling, along with our democracy and our shared reality, is the problem of mass radicalization. What Americans are coming to believe, in large swaths of the population, is not simply different points of view, different opinions on the same political agendas, but the shaping of unhinged, insane, impossible viewpoints. Government cabals, Hollywood and Democratic child sex rings, and even alien invasions. Once you convince people that things are that extreme, that desperate, convincing them to commit violent acts isn’t really that hard anymore.
And if, indeed, the incident in Nashville, is the result of online radicalization–not that different from what we have seen out of al Qaeda or ISIS–then we should brace ourselves for what’s next. Anthony Q. Warner will not be the last of these attempts to further divide our society. The American ISIS is here to stay.