Before I became the center of a QAnon conspiracy theory, I followed the news about this internet cult with alarm, but also from afar. I saw it as a scary thing happening to people I didn’t know. Then QAnon followers sent me over a thousand death threats.
What happened to me was a perfect QAnon storm: I’m a progressive, gay, Jewish Democrat working to end discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people. I’m just the right target for an internet cult obsessed with pinning pedophilia and child trafficking on progressives, gays, Jews and Democrats. As tens of thousands of slanderous and hate-filled comments about me proliferated on Facebook and Twitter, the companies did little to stop them.
How did I become a QAnon target? Last year, I introduced Senate Bill 145 in the California State Senate to end discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. young people on California’s sex offender registry. California law treated “gay” sex — oral and anal — much more harshly than it treated vaginal sex, allowing straight young people to stay off the registry while forcing L.G.B.T.Q. young people onto it. This discriminatory distinction existed because when California created its sex offender registry in 1947, gay sex was illegal and anti-sodomy laws were still on the books. Even though these anti-sodomy laws were overturned in the 1970s, part of the sex offender registry law was never updated and was still destroying the lives of L.G.B.T.Q. young people.
If a 17-year-old and 19-year-old of the same gender had consensual oral or anal sex and the younger party’s parents made the decision to press charges for homophobic reasons, a judge would have no choice but to put the older teenager on the sex offender registry. But if a straight couple had vaginal intercourse, the judge would have discretion regarding whether or not the 19-year-old belonged on the registry.
This bill simply provided that all forms of sex should be treated the same way. It was supported by a broad coalition of law enforcement, civil rights and sexual assault survivor groups, and was signed into law last month.
But because SB 145 dealt with the sex offender registry, QAnon supporters latched on and began posting wildly inaccurate statements about it, including that it legalized sex with children. I woke up one morning in August to find that I had hundreds of messages from people I’d never met, with names like NoMaskMama29. They used hashtags I’d never encountered and anti-gay taunts I hadn’t heard in decades. We had to tell our interns to stop answering the phones because we were getting death threats by the minute.
People have sent me the vilest messages imaginable. One threatened to send my decapitated head to my mother. Another told me I’d be lynched like Leo Frank, perhaps not realizing that Frank was lynched for a crime he did not commit because Jews were stereotyped as deviant.
I was concerned for my personal safety, but I’m even more concerned about what this means for the country.
QAnon is gaining followers because people are feeling hopeless, anxious and mistrustful of traditional institutions. The middle class has been shrinking for decades. Covid-19 has made Americans’ suffering even worse, and everyone’s stuck at home, clicking refresh on their devices. People are looking for something — or someone — to blame. Many want a good-versus-evil cause to which they can attach themselves. QAnon has smartly made child trafficking and pedophilia its “cause.” After all, who doesn’t want to #SaveTheChildren? Sharing this outrage on social media has become a release for so many.
Given the long and slanderous history of society accusing gay men and Jews of harming children, we are the easiest targets.
Many prominent Republicans are fanning the flames. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. tweeted false information about SB 145, scaring millions into thinking pedophilia was being legalized in California. Rush Limbaugh covered it extensively, spending the entire time repeating lies about the bill. Even several of my Republican California State Senate colleagues — who I know were familiar with the truth of this bill — have tweeted outright falsehoods, using QAnon hashtags.
Most QAnon followers are fans of President Trump. Knowing this, he has refused to condemn (and has even embraced) QAnon. At his town hall last week, when pushed to disavow QAnon, he lied and said he didn’t know much about the group, refusing to distance himself or denounce it. “I know nothing about it,” he said. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”
All this is a great way for Republicans to distract their base: gesture frantically toward a made-up enemy and hope voters won’t realize they’re the ones who have hurt the American people by refusing to take a deadly pandemic seriously. Or take income inequality seriously. Or racism. Or any number of things that the Republicans in power in this country have actively ignored or made worse.
Many die-hard QAnon adherents are hateful beyond repair. They and the opportunistic public officials who sic angry mobs on innocent people deserve to be held to account. But not everyone in my DMs is threatening or hateful; some just believe what they’re told on social media. Those are the people with whom we must engage.
QAnon isn’t simply a misinformation problem. It’s an outgrowth of our troubled times, when people who have survived decades of extreme income inequality are now suffering through a horrific pandemic. They are turning to conspiracy theories because they think there’s nowhere else to turn.
If we want QAnon to go away, yes, we must increase people’s media literacy and hold social media platforms accountable. But we also need to make people’s lives better. That’s the hard truth of 2020.
Scott Wiener represents San Francisco and northern San Mateo County in the California State Senate.
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