Book Review- The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World

By Searchlight Team

Martyn Lester reviews James Ball’s account of the crazy world of QAnon and conspiracy theories

The ‘wellness-to-fascism pipeline’. It was a phrase almost guaranteed to catch our attention, and when we spotted it in the headline of a Guardian feature (‘”Everything you’ve been told is a lie!” Inside the wellness-to-fascism pipeline’) back in August, it certainly did that.

What could healthy living and hailing the swastika possibly have in common, we wondered. Might this be sketchily based on Hitler’s anti-smoking stance and supposed vegetarianism? Surely nothing like such thin gruel, considering the article was bylined James Ball – a highly respected and multiple award-winning journalist.

We don’t often regard ourselves as naive at Searchlight, but as we dived into Ball’s feature, we quickly found our jaws dropping at a series of examples of wellness enthusiasts of various types encountering attempts to draw them in – through meditation, yoga or reiki groups, for example – to increasingly disturbing right-wing arguments and/or conspiracy theories.

It’s not all going on through the internet – some report being hit on in person by their physiotherapist or personal trainer. For example, a physio who insisted on ‘[explaining] how the CIA was covering up evidence of aliens, and [offering] tips on avoiding alien abduction’ or a pole-dancing instructor who ‘muttered darkly about the Rothschilds’. But it is a predominantly online phenomenon, and although they are not always directly visible, QAnon seem to have a lot to do with it.

For more enlightenment, I procured a copy of Ball’s latest book – The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World – and I was not disappointed.

Almost all of us have heard of QAnon and have at least some idea what it is – a right-wing, conspiracist and often barking mad mega-forum. And we have a vague sense that it was heavily represented in the goings-on at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 – that bare-chested loon with the spear and cow-horns is even commonly referred to as ‘The QAnon Shaman’! But most of us tend to know little more than that, not least because we don’t loiter on the sordid internet servers where much of the Q action takes place.

Ball straightens a lot of this out for us. As a top drawer investigative journalist (he nailed a Pulitzer while with the Guardian US) he has navigated those mean cyberstreets for some years and knows this stuff chapter and verse.

The author has a thesis to sell us, but we’ll come to that in a moment, because the backbone of the book is (thankfully, for those of us only half-aware of the story) a pretty comprehensive history of QAnon, from the very first online posting by ‘Q’ to the movement’s current, global incarnation. It has been both intensively and extensively researched, with the kind of catalogue of citations that one rarely sees outside of purely academic publications. When Ball feels that a point he’s making needs its provenance establishing, he index-numbers it. At the back of the book there’s a whopping 35-page section of accompanying notes. Considering many of these are just URLs of where you can find the full story that supports a small quote in the main text, that’s a hell of a lot of background reference material.

The thesis that runs in parallel with this very useful chronology is not just that the internet has changed communication almost beyond recognition (we already knew that, I think) but that it has virtually become a lifeform, with the reproductive and (especially) disease-prone characteristics that one would associate with a living organism. In this, the author might be seen as picking up the ball that Richard Dawkins set in play with his memes-and-genes analogy and running with it.

When Ball refers to QAnon as being a ‘pandemic’, he doesn’t really want us to see this as a fanciful metaphor or allegory but as being more or less literally the truth. That if we don’t understand QAnon and its strains, mutations and offshoots as functioning like a rampaging virus, we have no chance of progressing towards a treatment let alone a cure. Reported in as few words as I have used here, that probably sounds more than a little batty, but follow the well-structured argument throughout the book and there’s a good chance that you will find it quite compelling.

Woven into this history/thesis structure is what is not really a third thread (even though I’m going to treat it as one for convenience) but an intrinsic and recurrent narrative, which is that of how more or less normal and rational people get sucked in by QAnon (in various guises) in a way that very rarely happened pre-internet.

Hence the ‘wellness’ people discussed in the Guardian piece. Anyone mildly off-centre – yes, even a yoga enthusiast! – is considered by conspiracists to be a potential target for step-by-step radicalisation. By the time you get on to reiki, crystal therapy or homeopathy fans you’re talking about people who may be tired of being regarded as ‘nutters’ and quite possibly self-primed to be drawn into, say, vaccine conspiracy theories – and onwards from there.

Especially fertile ground is the disaffected or not much more than grumpy. Anyone who is even slightly paranoid is relatively easy prey for QAnon and adjacent groups. Once someone believes in one conspiracy, however petty, it’s no great leap to convince them of another. A discussion group where people offer opinions such as ‘speed limits only exist as a pretext for collecting speeding fines’ is very likely to contain people who can be persuaded by the mischievous that low emission zones are there just to persecute motorists, and from there to the ‘evils’ of 15-minute cities – and almost before you know it your man angry about his speeding ticket is swallowing guff about global heating being a hoax perpetrated by a shadowy international cabal.

There are important offline spin-offs from this cyberspace recruitment. While much of the far right is exactly as it used to be – the lager-swilling, football-shirted knuckle-draggers who turned out to ‘protect’ the Cenotaph in November well illustrate that – you are increasingly likely to see less obviously bone-headed characters turning out for events such as pickets of hotels housing asylum seekers. Whether they were drawn into these circles via yoga or parking fines, they are not really the same kind of animals as the usual ‘paki-basher’ crowd, and anti-fascists would be foolish not to apply at least some thought to whether tactics and arguments should be adapted to take this into account.

The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World is an engrossing work. It has the intellectual heft of a textbook but is much more witty and engagingly written than a purely academic work. It is published by Bloomsbury at £20. A paperback edition is slated for release this July and can be pre-ordered at about half that price.

For a flavour of Ball’s writing style and quality (and for some really eye-opening tales) you could do much worse than pop over to the Guardian’s website and read the ‘wellness-to-fascism pipeline’ feature that first caught our interest.