CPJ spoke with Dr. Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, about why and how conspiracy theories spread and the implications for journalists.
Are QAnon adherents a real, physical threat to journalists?
Yes, definitely. The tagline itself of the QAnon faction is “we are the media now.” For them, mainstream media isn’t just a group of independent organizations whose job it is to broadcast news, but they are a densely networked group of people controlled by “globalists” and when they do confront journalists in public, the tone, the smearing, the spitting, it is all very real. You have a few different instances of violence in Pizzagate, an early iteration of QAnon which culminated at Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor…If they become fixated on a particular journalist or activist, the potential for violence is high.
We’re in the midst of the rise of militia and vigilante violence. Within the QAnon groups, there is talk of second amendment rights, insurrectionary activity, and of the government, to some degree, being in a state of disarray. All of these things do resonate in some ways with anti-government militia groups who also don’t think that the government is acting in the interest of citizens. We have seen these sorts of groups to coalesce and come together, particularly in the calls to reopen [after coronavirus lockdowns], but I also think in the case of the wildfires. We have to be really cognizant of what’s driving their motivation, especially if they’re doing things like stopping the public and asking for identification and illegally fulfilling some of the functions of law enforcement. Stalking, intimidation, these kinds of things are all on the table, especially for journalists that are covering QAnon. [You get] a barrage of comments on your accounts if you mention them, and if you have any personally available information, they will create a dossier on you and make that public. The targeted harassment is another reason why platform companies took action.
But there are many non-public spaces that [Q adherents] these journalists congregate in, so it’s very difficult for someone to even potentially know that they’re a target of a group like this until they are being attacked. The ways in which harassment works online, whether its death threats or other threats against you, sometimes they spider web out into other threatening friends and family or people in your networks. Another tactic is calling your employer and trying to get your employer to question you or fire you. Sometimes they’ll try to go through your chat or tweet history and dig up some kind of joke out of context. There are many more risks than there is payoff for exposing these groups at this stage. As you work in this beat of disinformation and hate speech, and conspiracy, you realize you are dealing with a bunch of people who are very motivated to stay online, to engage those that are reporting on them in a way that is really dangerous and grotesque.