10 18 2020
| By Jackson Webster
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of what has now become the only reliably pandemic-proof part of my social life: BYOB on Sunday afternoons in my friend’s backyard. Through conversational circumstances that a few hazies prevent me from recalling in detail, we ended up talking about 1980s Satanic Panic. My friend’s mom had dropped by, and began telling the story of the McMartin Preschool.
In 1983, a group of parents in Manhattan Beach began making allegations of pedophilia and assault against a teacher at McMartin Preschool, Ray Buckey. Buckey, who also happened to be the grandson of the school’s founder, was placed under investigation by the local police. After the initial allegations couldn’t be corroborated, detectives sent out a now-infamous letter to parents disclosing the alleged behavior, and telling parents to ask their children to recount any odd behavior by preschool staff.
In a textbook example of how leading questions compromise witness testimony, police and social workers questioned hundreds of students who made increasingly fantastical accusations.
They had been touched, prodded, beat, abused. Not only that, but the McMartins had engaged in animal cruelty. In fact, they had a system of tunnels under Manhattan Beach where they hid animals. Elephants! Giraffes! They engaged in satanic rituals. Ray Buckley and his mother were witches who could levitate.
The original accuser, Judy Johnson, was later institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia, and clinical psychiatrists dismissed the interrogations as “improper and coerced”, but many parents took the students’ testimonials at face value. My friend’s parents had lived here in Manhattan Beach during the McMartin affair, and told of droves of homes and cars sporting lawn signs and bumper stickers declaring that “We Believe The Children”. Panic consumed the community for months, and the city even went so far as to excavate the preschool’s lot in search of tunnels full of tortured zoo animals.
Somehow, I’d grown up only a few blocks away from the excavation sites, yet I’d never heard of the McMartin Preschool allegations, nor of its trial, one of the longest in American history. Unlike my friend’s parents, and unlike my own parents, I hadn’t been around during the height of 1980s satanic hysteria. But I had grown up in the 1990s, when Satanic Panic’s lite version, “Stranger Danger”, was still alive and well. Local news stations frequently regaled viewers with tales of men in unmarked white vans tricking children into being abducted. Both phenomena are now understood to have been a wave of “moral panic” in reaction to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s.
The problem is that Americans’ popular conception of what child abduction and disappearance look like are far off from reality. For example, 78% of missing minors cases are actually a part of custody battles, where one spouse absconds with the couple’s child. 1.5m children run away every year, 99% of them return home, the majority of whom return the same week. Moreover, the majority of runaways are fleeing some kind of emotional or physical abuse. In most cases, law enforcement is notified, finds the child, and either returns them to the abusive home from they’d run away from, or funnels them into America’s broken and underfunded foster care system.
The sad truth belied by these statistics is that there are indeed many young Americans who are forced to endure horrible circumstances, and our system utterly fails them. However, because truly combatting these abuses would inherently require Americans to reconsider their own priors on family, gender, sexuality, religiosity, and the sanctity of marriage and the home, we tend to prefer simpler outlier narratives to hard truths. We want to believe that most “normal” people are essentially good, and that we can trust our families, communities, and law enforcement. We want to believe that the real threat to our loved ones’ safety comes from some evil outsider in a white murdervan. We Americans want the simplicity of a fight between light and dark. Of course, things are rarely that black and white; but truth is often hard to swallow.
What the McMartin case, Stranger Danger, and the statistics above tell us about American society is that it is particularly susceptible to moral panics when three criteria are present. Firstly, the perceived victims of the panic must be or at least potentially include white, suburban, affluent Americans, usually wronged by some kind of “othered” group. Secondly, the narrative of the panic must align with conservative axioms about what kinds of behavior are and are not morally acceptable. Thirdly — and most importantly for the purposes of this article — the era’s predominant mass media must join in the frenzy by amplifying stories that fit the first two criteria.
Even if these stories are not statistically representative of the reality of the problem, the emotive quality of affecting Good Average Citizens and mapping onto existing conservative talking points will propel the panic onto the national policy agenda through the awesome political power of suburbia. American local TV coverage, a key trusted news source for millions of Americans, leans heavily on covering crime for content, leaving relatively little programming time for reporting on subjects that put that crime in context, like city government, the economy, or social issues.
In 1985 at the height of the Satanic Panic, the prominent mainstream news program 20/20 ran an “investigative piece” called “The Devil Worshipers”. The episode presents a number of rumors as serious possibilities, notably the idea that a satanic cult “could be in your hometown”, and advancing the claim that targeted violence and sex crimes were being organized on a national scale by a satanic cabal. Despite presenting itself as a piece of Serious Journalism run by a Serious Journalism Show, the 20/20 episode repeated talking points of the satanic panic conspirators without providing the necessary context, namely the fact that the claims made are demonstrably false. When a large, mainstream media platform takes a fringe movement’s ideas seriously, it lends them an air of legitimacy, even if the media source does not explicitly endorse the movement. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the supposed threats of satanism and stranger danger abduction were taken seriously as an extremist risk by communities and law enforcement.
The national conversation on online extremism has become focused on the QAnon movement, a bizarre set of interlocking conspiracy theories based on the claim that the world is ruled by a satanic cabal that abducts and abuses children. The movement is essentially an elaborate modern fan-fiction based on age-old medieval “blood libel” conspiracies that regained traction with antisemitic reactionaries in early-twentieth century Europe and America. Its alternate reality grew out of Pizzagate, and was built around the cryptic 4Chan posts of “Q”, supposedly a high-ranking intelligence analyst. The movement considers the entire government to be part of the “Deep State” and compromised by the global cabal, with the exception of law enforcement, the military, and President Donald Trump, who the movement venerates as the liberator of mankind from cosmopolitan oppression. Followers look to “The Storm”, a series of mass arrests of cabal members they claim is imminent, and which will bring about “The Great Awakening”, a sort of evangelical rebirth of humanity.
QAnon conspiracies have spun off into several communities, from the right-wing militia movement to anti-vaxxers, to wellness influencers. Tech platforms have come under pressure to act, with the movement’s violent rhetoric occasionally translating into real world violence. Incidents of armed violence and attempted kidnapping have been linked to the movement’s ideology as promoted across multiple social media sites.
As more platforms have begun banning explicitly Q-promoting accounts and pages, the movement has begun to obfuscate. The slate of pro-Q marches in July and August around the world pitched themselves as “Save the Children”, claiming to be promoting awareness around child sex trafficking. Save the Children posts mainly originate on Instagram, where a series of accounts with a distinctly millennial beauty brand influencer aesthetic boosted #SaveTheChildren in July. Many of these influencers’ accounts follow or comment on QAnon or Pizzagate posts, and their awareness campaigns around child trafficking repeat many of the Q movement’s inflated statistical claims.
The claims on child trafficking made by these influencer accounts are often accompanied by other forms of misinformation. Though many are likely just concerned parents motivated by misleading statistics, several influential Save The Children promoters also have posts promoting “Plandemic” conspiracies about Covid-19, anti-vaccine claims, anti-government sentiment, 9/11 trutherism and a litany of other online theory tropes. The account @informedmothers, apparently run by a young African American mother, posts typical internet conspiracies around Covid response and vaccines, and on August 3rd posted a photo of Tom Hank’s Walk of Fame star defaced with the word “pedophile” following the LA Save the Children march on July 30th — Hanks is often a target of QAnon harassment along with other celebrities, notably model and outspoken Trump critic Chrissy Teigen. Experts on social media have pointed out that Save the Children’s claims about child trafficking act as a kind of gateway drug to the conspiracy movement, attracting new recruits by using moral panic to send them down an increasingly radical rabbit hole.
On October 6th, Facebook effectively banished QAnon from its platform. It removed pages, groups, and profiles across Facebook and Instagram that promote the conspiracy movement. Other platforms followed Facebook’s lead, include merchandise marketplace Etsy, which many influential QAnon promoters have used to financially support themselves.
According to online radicalization researcher Marc-André Argentino, Facebook’s purge was extremely effective. All the major Q-promoting pages he had been tracking were removed within 24 hours of the announcement of the new policy, and the only pages remaining were groups or communities that may have members who engage in Q-type rhetoric, but that are not explicitly promoting the conspiracy theory. Of course it’s nearly impossible to remove radical elements from a platform entirely, especially a platform with over two billion members. But, as Argentino points out, by forcing hardcore members to hide their affiliations or leave, the movement becomes less able to advertise its views, and the radicalization cycle slows down.
Unlike its approach to disinformation campaigns like those around elections and Covid-19, Facebook’s response treats QAnon as a “militarized social movement”, a new category with an entirely new set of associated policies. Facebook’s thinking was most influenced by Brian Fishman, an expert on jihadist online radicalism and the company’s Head of Counter Terrorism and Dangerous Organizations. The new “militarized social movement” category was created to address both the QAnon movement and the litany of “militia” movements across the United States and Canada. Despite relative dormancy in the 2000s, right-wing violent self-described militia groups were treated by the FBI as a serious domestic terror threat in the 1990s, and have seen a growing resurgence in recent years.
The success of save the children shows that the effects of de-platforming, at least as portrayed in the discourse, are poorly understood. When it was banned from Reddit in 2018, the Q community didn’t up and move to 8Kun or Parler or Gab. It didn’t retreat to the dark extremities of the web. It stayed on large platforms where it could maintain contact with “the normies”. Mass movements need mass, and the masses are not on dark web forums — suburban moms and B-list influencers do not hang out on 8chan, they’re on Facebook and Instagram. Without large social networks’ tolerance of the expanding Q base on their platforms, the success of the broader Save the Children movement would have been impossible.
The irony is that, whereas episodes like the Today Show’s Stranger Danger obsession and the Satanic Panic 20/20 piece were the result of conscious editorial decision-making, our new panic was not knowingly endorsed in the same way. Today’s social media companies may have been willfully ignorant of QAnon’s prominence on their platforms, but they never actively decided to promote it. Instead, we see the inherent weaknesses of engagement-based algorithmic content distribution that have become tropes of tech critiques: that they favor knee-jerk emotionalism, outrage, and conflict. That said, Facebook, Twitter, and others did get the moral panic ratings boost, wittingly or not. Negligence yielded the same result as complicity.
I would concede that Facebook has indeed done the right thing by blanket banning the movement very broadly, but at this point it’s too little too late. The barbarians are inside the gates and Facebook is doing damage control. Their nuclear option response is an acknowledgment of how ineffective their more tolerant approaches have been. The link between conspiracy theories and online radicalization has been out in the discourse for decades, and disinformation and extremism experts have been pointing to QAnon as a possible source of violence and radicalism for at least a year now. But action wasn’t taken until the movement had already gotten what it needed out of these platforms: recruits and exposure.
The QAnon movement has reached a fever pitch. We don’t have reliable estimates on the number of adherents, but the fact that dozens of candidates across the country have won Republican primaries while publicly endorsing QAnon means the movement’s conspiratorial ideas have become a part of the mainstream discourse. Major social platforms could have enforced their own rules in a stricter sense and forced the movement back from the shitposting boards from whence it came, but too many chose inaction over controversy.
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