Friday, August 28, 2020

Is Q-Anon A Virus Specifically Designed For The Evangelical Mind?

technologyreview  |   The first family to quit Pastor Clark Frailey’s church during the pandemic did it by text message. It felt to Frailey like a heartbreaking and incomplete way to end a years-long relationship. When a second young couple said they were doubting his leadership a week later, Frailey decided to risk seeing them in person, despite the threat of covid-19. 

It was late May, and things were starting to reopen in Oklahoma, so Frailey and the couple met in a near-empty fast food restaurant to talk it over. 

The congregants were worried about Frailey’s intentions. At Coffee Creek, his evangelical church outside Oklahoma City, he had preached on racial justice for the past three weeks. He says the couple didn’t appreciate his most recent sermon, which urged Christians to call out and challenge racism anywhere they saw it, including in their own church. Though Frailey tries to keep Coffee Creek from feeling too traditional—he wears jeans, and the church has a modern band and uses chairs instead of pews—he considers himself a theologically conservative Southern Baptist pastor. But at one point, the couple Frailey spoke to said they believed that he was becoming a “social justice warrior.” 

Pastors and congregants disagree all the time, and Frailey doesn’t want to be the sort of Christian leader whom people feel afraid to challenge. But in that restaurant, it felt to him as if he and they had read two different sacred texts. It was as if the couple were “believing internet memes over someone they’d had a relationship with for over five years,” Frailey says. 

At one point he brought up QAnon, the conspiracy theory holding that Donald Trump is fighting a secret Satanic pedophile ring run by liberal elites. When he asked what they thought about it, the response was worryingly ambiguous. “It wasn’t like, ‘I fully believe this,’” he says. “It was like, ‘I find it interesting.’ These people are dear to me and I love them. It’s just—it felt like there was someone else in the conversation that I didn’t know who they were.”

Frailey told me about another young person who used to regularly attend his church. She was sharing conspiracy-laden misinformation on Facebook “like it’s the gospel truth,” he said, including a quote falsely attributed to Senator Kamala Harris. He saw another post from this woman promoting the wild claim that Tom Hanks and other Hollywood celebrities are eating babies. 

Before the pandemic, Frailey knew a little bit about QAnon, but he hadn’t given such an easily debunked fringe theory much of his time. The posts he started seeing felt familiar, though: they reminded him of the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 1990s, when rumors of secret occult rituals tormenting children in day-care centers spread quickly among conservative religious believers who were already anxious about changes in family structures. “The pedophile stuff, the Satanic stuff, the eating babies—that’s all from the 1980s,” he says. 

That conspiracy-fueled frenzy was propelled in part by credulous mainstream news coverage, and by false accusations and even convictions of day-care owners. But evangelicals, in particular, embraced the claims, tuning in to a wave of televangelists who promised to help viewers spot secret satanic symbols and rituals in the secular world. 

If the panic was back with fresh branding as QAnon, it had a new ally in Facebook. And Frailey wasn’t sure where to turn for help. He posted in a private Facebook group for Oklahoma Baptist pastors, asking if anyone else was seeing what he was. The answer, repeatedly, was yes. 

The pastors traded links. Frailey read everything he could about QAnon. He listened to every episode of the New York Times podcast series Rabbit Hole, on “what happens when our lives move online,” and devoured a story in the Atlantic that framed QAnon as a new religion infused with the language of Christianity. To Frailey, it felt more like a cult. 

He began to look further back into the Facebook history of the young former member who had posted the fake Harris quote. In the past, he remembered, she had posted about her kids every day. In June and July, he saw, that had shifted. Instead of talking about her family, she was now promoting QAnon—and one member of the couple that had met with him in May was there in the comments, posting in solidarity. 

Suddenly he understood that his efforts to protect his congregation from covid-19 had contributed to a different sort of infection. Like thousands of other church leaders across the United States, Frailey had shut down in-person services in March to help prevent the spread of the virus. Without these gatherings, some of his churchgoers had turned instead to Facebook, podcasts, and viral memes for guidance. And QAnon, a movement with its own equivalents of scripture, prophecies, and clergy, was there waiting for them.