Combatting QAnon will require building a country where rumors that the government is harming children have no basis in fact.
The conspiracy theory movement QAnon has recently gained national prominence and political power, particularly after the Capitol riots. Its central conspiracy is that Satanic politicians are kidnapping children. QAnon is based on lies—but it makes sense that people are listening, given the U.S. government has harmed so many of its children.
As an anthropologist, I am trained to take rumors seriously. Satanic politicians are not stealing children. But why have these specific lies gained social power now?
I first encountered rumors of Satanic kidnappers 20 years ago when I arrived in Guatemala for fieldwork just after a public lynching. In the preceding days, rumors circulated of a Satanic cult stealing babies. Schools had closed and rural towns were barricading their highways for protection when a busload of tourists drove to visit a scenic morning market. The crowd mistook the tourists for the rumored-Satanists. Chaos ensued, and by the end, two innocent people were dead.
International media presented the crowd as a hysterical angry mob acting without cause. Yet over the next two decades, a different story emerged.
At the time of the lynching, illegal adoption rings in Guatemala were profiting from the Catholic church’s opposition to contraception and an adoption industry that sold one out of every 100 babies to families in the United States. Investigative journalists have since revealed that many of the tens of thousands of Guatemalan children adopted between
Today, it appears Guatemalans were not irrational in their fear that strangers were taking and harming their babies. This was happening all around them. In important ways, the rumors were true.
Now, QAnon is manufacturing and promoting child abduction rumors within the U.S., leveraging the pain of people of color to spread fear for the benefit of conservative and white supremacist causes.
It is no coincidence that QAnon’s rise corresponds directly with the rollout of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, which took thousands of children from their asylum-seeking parents, holding them in cages where several have died.
This cruel policy was implemented in the context of a broader political culture willing to sacrifice children’s well-being. The U.S. ranks worse than dozens of countries in terms of basic infant survival statistics. There is no guaranteed parental leave and decent daycare is prohibitively expensive for many. Even before COVID, public school funding was under attack. Now, some states have abdicated their responsibility to children by closing schools while opening their economies (many countries have prioritized schooling). Other states have ignored high rates of COVID, forcing children into unsafe classrooms.
When it comes to school safety, U.S. children have to fear shootings in ways no other countries tolerate. More than 60,000 U.S. children are locked in adult prisons. Child suicide rates are rising. Negligent political responses to global warming cast a dark shadow on children’s futures. And child trafficking? While it does not generally take the form of stranger kidnapping as in QAnon’s rumors, it is a real issue—not a conspiracy—that politicians largely overlook.
A society that allows its government to harm its children so publicly lays the foundation for false theories that government officials are taking even worse actions in secret. The sanctioned harm of children allows dangerous conspiracy scenarios to emerge.
After the lynching in Guatemala, many people told me they had known the rumors of Satanists were false and had ignored them. But in the fearful days before the event, local officials spoke out publicly, denying the presence of Satanists. Unfortunately, giving voice to the rumors granted them authority, arousing the crowd. Giving QAnon even negative attention comes with similar risks.
Yet one of the lessons from Guatemala is that naming or ignoring the rumors did not stop them. Conspiracy theories are difficult to prove or disprove. To put an end to a conspiracy, it must be cut off from its source.
How Can the Biden Administration Put an End to QAnon and Other Conspiracies?
Biden’s economic plans must prioritize comprehensive social welfare programs targeting children and their caregivers, including parental leave, public daycare and schools, childhood disability care, and universal health care. We need family reunification and trauma-informed counseling services to counteract the damage caused by separating families and jailing children. We must expand family planning and contraception services to ensure reproductive choice.
These improvements in the welfare of children will deprive QAnon of the widespread social insecurity that allows extremist lies to grow.
The U.S. government must also, finally, face its long history of government-backed child abduction and abuse in and outside the United States. It haunts us today and allows lies and distortions to damage our civic life. Combatting QAnon will require building a country where rumors that the government is harming children have no basis in fact.
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