Ashli Babbitt and Rosanne Boyland both lost their lives during the January 6th attack on the Capitol.
Thirty-five-year-old Babbitt, an Air Force Veteran, was shot and killed by a police officer as she tried to make her way through a smashed Capitol window. Investigators say 34-year-old Boyland collapsed inside the Capitol Rotunda. A family member reportedly says Boyland was trampled upon in a stampede.
The two women had one thing in common. Their social media pages indicate they were steeped in QAnon conspiracy theories. QAnon followers falsely believe a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government and Hollywood is operating a global child sex-trafficking ring, and that former President Donald Trump was chosen to bring the predators to justice. The cult-like followers believe the “cabal” is mostly comprised of Democrats and those in it are constantly plotting against Trump.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of New York and New Jersey says since the summer, QAnon has been vigorously trying to recruit more women into its cabal of lies. Many of them from the suburbs.
“We’ve seen ‘Save the Children’ rallies all through the summer, and we’ve seen women at the heart of this,” said Scott Richman, ADL’s Regional Director. “Women are trying to save their children, and somehow, this is resonating with women attending these rallies, and they’re using ’Save the Children’ hashtags on social media.”
“Saving children” is a noble cause but many agree QAnon’s baseless accusations are hampering the efforts of child advocacy groups that work tirelessly to protect children. In fact, the real Save the Children organization, which has been globally fighting the exploitation of children for 100 years, released a statement in the summer saying the QAnon-inspired hashtags have nothing to do with them.
QAnon-like theories have been around for years but the delusional movement seems to have started in 2017 when an anonymous user claiming to have U.S. Government Q-level National Security Clearance posted on the 4chan message board. The mysterious figure came to be known as Q and claimed to be a high-ranking Military official in the Trump Administration. Q gained a large following by leaking a deluge of lies, masking them as top-secret information. The bulk of the fake information ended up on other message boards, the websites and video platforms of right-wing influencers, social media and eventually on some conservative networks.
Babbitt showed her support for QAnon online. In a picture obtained by NBC News, Babbitt and a friend are seen wearing t-shirts displaying the QAnon motto, “where we go one, we go all.” The phrase’s abbreviation, WWG1WGA, is also the caption of the photo.
In a video posted on social media some time before her death, Babbitt lashed out against Democrats in her state of California. “I am really heated,” said a frantic Babbitt while behind the wheel of a car. “I am telling you now, I am putting all of you on notice, every single one of you politicians —Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown, Maxine Water, Duncan Hunter.”
The Anti-Defamation League has also labeled QAnon an “anti-Semitic global conspiracy” movement. The ADL monitors both left and right-leaning hate groups in order to stop the defamation of Jewish people. While tracking the movement, the ADL noticed QAnon’s child sex-trafficking conspiracy theory eerily resembles the “blood libel” lie that throughout history falsely accused Jews of murdering Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals.
“They (QAnon supporters) hate George Soros and they are pushing the idea Jews are controlling or pulling the strings behind the scene,” Richman said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all anti-Semitic but they are bearing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
QAnon also peddles in a variety of other conspiracies. One theory claims the Coronavirus was manufactured in China to steal the 2020 Election from Trump. Online posts indicate it’s a theory Boyland supported. Another QAnon falsehood claims the Covid-19 vaccine is an attempt to inject Americans with microchips so that “Big Brother” can keep an eye on them. The latter has resonated with some in the anti-vaccination movement, some of them suburban moms.
A monitor of social media starting in the spring, indicates the far-fetched movement’s theories started to gain more traction with women in late May. At the time, the nation was more than a month into the Coronavirus pandemic and was amid a reckoning on racial justice.
Police say during the spring and summer of 2020, several women were literally driven to commit violent crimes because of QAnon conspiracy theories.
According to the NYPD, in early spring, QAnon falsehoods inspired 37-year-old Jessica Prim to threaten to kill then Vice-President Joe Biden. QAnon was spreading videos of Biden around children during swearing-in ceremonies and intentionally making them look creepy. The videos not only got reposted on social media but they also found a home on conservative television shows.
Investigators said Prim drove to Manhattan with knives, then live-streamed her bizarre journey on social media. On the video, Prim can be heard ranting about “saving children from a cabal of pedophile Democrats.” Then, in August, another QAnon believer allegedly drove her car into a group of people she thought were “pedophiles.”
New Jersey Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski says social media companies must do more to stop the spread of disinformation.
Malinowski, himself a target of QAnon threats and disinformation, has co-sponsored a bill that holds social media companies accountable for their “algorithmic amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to off-line violence.”
In a recent letter, Malinowski, along with dozens of colleagues, urged the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to “re-examine their policy maximizing user engagement as the basis for algorithmic sorting and promotion of news and information, and to make permanent and platform-wide design changes to limit the spread of harmful, conspiratorial content.”
To put in layman’s terms, lawmakers say social media algorithms indicate what users are likely to agree with and then acquaint them with more baseless conspiratorial sites.
“Social media platforms’ algorithms are designed to feed each of us increasingly hateful version of what we already hate, and fearful versions of what we already fear, so that we stay glued to our screens for as long as possible,” Malinowski said. “In this way, they regularly promote and recommend white Supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, and other conspiracy-oriented material to the very people who are most susceptible to it.”
Said his colleague, U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11):
“Congress should consider the range of policy options at our disposal – from public awareness campaigns to rebut QAnon’s blatant lies, to legislation that combats online extremism and ends the amplification of harmful misinformation. I am deeply disappointed in some of my colleagues who embrace QAnon conspiracy theories, either explicitly or tacitly. Each member of Congress has a responsibility to lead on this issue by standing up for the truth and calling out toxic lies. As reporting indicates, people who have bought into many of the conspiracy theories put forth by QAnon are now questioning them. This is a time to help pull them back from the fringe.”
After the storming of the Capitol, the ADL called on Twitter to suspend QAnon-supporting accounts because they promoted violence, undermined democracy and spread misinformation.
As a result, Twitter suspended the accounts of prominent QAnon supporters, including Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell. Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but was pardoned by the former President. Powell publicly engaged with Trump’s legal team to promote bizarre disinformation about the 2020 Election. Twitter also yanked Trump’s account after some Republicans and Democrats accused him of using his platform for weeks to spread lies he won the election.
“Companies (social media) are free to do what they want, and you have to agree to those terms when you open a Facebook account. People may think they have a right to Freedom of Speech but that right doesn’t give them the right to incite violence. There are limits with our laws.”
Brian Boyd, who spent decades as an intelligence analyst and counter terrorism specialist, says social media companies are not applying suspension rules fairly. For instance, Boyd says Twitter suspended Trump’s account while it allowed Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stay on the platform. Ironically, Khamenei’s Islamic regime has blocked Twitter and Facebook from its own people. Human Rights groups also say Iran’s government has been responsible for the torture and murder of countless dissidents. Boyd says social media company double-standards are creating more division within the U.S. and inadvertently reinforcing conspiracy theories.
“People are turning to these sites because they are looking for information they’re not seeing on mainstream news,” said Boyd, who believes Trump was unfairly treated by the mainstream media. “If you are relatively educated, I don’t think you’ll buy into that (conspiracy theories). I feel the more transparency in the government, there’s less of a chance conspiracy theories will take hold.”
But First Amendment Attorney Bruce Rosen says social media companies should have been cracking down on accounts that were inciting violence way before the election. “These platforms have not been enforcing the violation of terms services and didn’t find them crazy enough early to shut them down,” Rosen added.
Twitter recently took down what is believed to be a “fake” Khamenei account that ran a threatening image of Trump. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has also addressed concerns, tweeting, “Yes, we all need to look critically at inconsistencies of our policy and enforcement. Yes, we need to look at how our service might incentivize distraction and harm. Yes, we need more transparency in our moderation operations. All this can’t erode a free open global internet.”
Republicans like Boyd believe Big Tech is targeting average American conservatives, who aren’t inciting violence but having online political conversations. He points to Parler as an example of Big Tech overreach. Google and Apple removed Parler from their app stores after the Capitol riots. Amazon parted ways with the social media company, as well. Proponents of the take down say Parler was slow to remove posts that incited violence, including one by Trump’s attorney Lin Wood. Wood called for the execution of former Vice President Pence. Later, he apologized for the post and called it hyperbole.
Parler CEO John Matze said his small company suddenly got a surge of people signing up and tried its best to eliminate violence-provoking posts. He tells “Fox News” the company continues to explore legal action against Amazon. A Federal judge recently denied Parler’s request to have its service reinstated on Amazon Web Services.
Right-wing influencer Simon Parkes continued to share several of Wood’s posts on Parler before the site was taken down. Parkes also spread QAnon disinformation on his website and BitChute, a video hosting service. Parkes, is a former low-level British politician who claims his real mother was an alien. He’s garnered a large female audience in the United States — some commenting how calming it is to watch his video updates because he picks up his cat and dog as he spews outlandish information.
The day before President Biden’s inauguration, Parkes falsely said Trump wasn’t conceding and that the 25,000 National Guard members at the Capitol were there to arrest child sex-traffickers. He wrongly claimed Trump was considering taking on Flynn as Vice-President. Parkes then lied, saying, the “Military Operation” would be connected to the timing of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Tweets. Parkes had been alluding to these unsubstantiated lies for some time. We checked and found a lot of Trump female supporters believing the conspiracy theories and commenting on Pompeo’s Twitter accounts. There’s no evidence whatsoever Pompeo had any knowledge of the conspiracy theories. Hundreds of people were commenting on both his official and personal accounts.
A woman named Windy, wrote, “Transition of power … meaning the military will take over. People are going to go to jail. It’s not over!” Another follower by the name of Becky, added, “Mike, I hope something will happen soon. I have grown children who are feeling desperate right now.” “Laura” saying “They were 15 earlier and then went back to 30. ?? I don’t know what’s going on.”
But a lot of disillusioned Trump supporters were not buying into the crazy theories anymore. One woman said she had carefully looked at Pompeo’s official account and his Tweet pattern has been the same since December.
Parkes provided another video update after the inauguration, claiming that “something went wrong” with the supposed operation. He asked supporters to continue watching because something big was going to happen March 4th or in mid-April. “These Satanic Cabals are crazy,” Parkes lied, “you can’t negotiate with them, they had to pull the operation.” Parkes also released what looked like a fake letter he claimed Trump left for Biden. It read, “Joe, you know I won.”
But in recent days, Parkes has been focusing on the “Collective Consciousness” side of his alternate reality business, helping Trump supporters deal with their feelings.
Fringe right-wing influencer activity is kind of similar to the way illegal vendors selling fake designer bags operated on the streets of New York City. They sold as many bags as they could until they got busted. Citations rarely held them back. They’d return the next day and find new spots and more creative ways to entice women into their imitation-driven world.
There are no clear-cut answers on how to ultimately deal with baseless internet lies that have literally torn the nation and families apart. Solutions, like legislation and civic education, are driving supporters of parallel universe conspiracy theories to believe other false claims that “the government wants to send them to re-education camps,” and stifle their First Amendment rights and turn the U.S. into a “Communist state.”
The ADL’s Richman says the best way to control hate and disinformation is for people to stand up and marginalize extreme and hateful points of view.
“They need to say ‘that’s’ not how I want to be treated, that’s not how I want my neighbor treated.’”