Van Badham's dive into the world of conspiracy theorists is a wild ride

Conspiracy cults feature in Van Badham's QAnon and On. Picture: Getty Images
Conspiracy cults feature in Van Badham's QAnon and On. Picture: Getty Images

What is truth? said jesting Pilot; and would not stay for an answer," wrote the English Philosopher, Francis Bacon, in a timeless essay. Four hundred years later, the question is still causing trouble. As a human species we have always favoured - subconsciously, at least - mythology over reality, and sadly, technology appears to have made us credulous rather than wise.

The abundant growth of knowledge since Tennyson's day has stretched the evolutionary gap between our biology and technology to a possibly untenable degree, with the effects of this dangerous disparity reflected in the mirror of our psychology. The facile futility of recent so-called freedom rallies tempts me to quote Tennyson again, as he warns us - from a distantly different world - about unintended consequence: "Freedom free to slay herself and dying while they shout her name."

Internationally respected journalist and widely published essayist and social justice advocate, Van Badham, has researched and delivered a valuable and timely take on the profound irony of how technology clever enough to create the internet could have also facilitated the vicious banality of QAnon, the prince of conspiracy theories. It's been a wild ride. From the hopeful, innocent days of a promised new age of "clean, fresh air" and democratised information, to the tangled webs of opportunistic cyber cruelties of a self-perpetuating digital disaster.

Her exhaustive research involved "enmeshing" herself among people "who wilfully believe things that are hatefully - dangerously - false". Beliefs that are grotesque beyond the stuff of nightmares. Such as elite cabals of paedophiles who imprison slave children for their own unspeakably sadistic appetites, including thousands of victims hidden under the streets of Melbourne!

Like many serious problems, QAnon's destructive deceptions appear to have grown from relatively innocent origins, fostered by the youthfully robust enthusiasm of internet gaming, with its competitively challenging puzzles and adrenalin-boosting rewards. The message boards, twitter feeds and "free speech" bulletin boards soon morphed into an evolving network of websites and channels where anonymity was guaranteed, and aggressively active participation encouraged.

Badham moves smoothly across the Trump election, with its Russian narrative designed to damage US democracy, while domestic right-wing conspiracists weave a vicious net of accusations against Hilary Clinton, involving supposed crimes against young children imprisoned beneath a Washington pizza parlour, of all places! And much more of similarly whacky improbability, leading to the 2017 internet post warily identified as coming from Q him or herself, whose identity - as a lone or collective voice - remains a mystery.

It seems amazing that such extravagant nonsense doesn't appear to have been doubted by those responsible, who possess the weird ability to ignore easily verifiable facts as an integral part of their programmed mindset. Research suggests that when people "need to exert control over their environment to feel safe and secure" they are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. It is of course so much easier - even if also an absurd example of self-deception - to see the world configured in ways that comfort and support personal expectations, rather than accept the awkward reality of evidence-based and collectively accepted truth, but QAnon is taking this mad dive down the "rabbit hole" of escapist illusion to an entirely new dimension.

Badham packs a lot of detail into her "short history" of conspiracy cults to produce a book that deserves - or perhaps, more pointedly, demands - to be widely read. The extent of her fluently chronicled journey spans rich swathes of cultural, social, and political conspiracy-linked moments, such as the patently misplaced anger displayed by Capitol rioters following Trump's well-deserved defeat. Sad vignettes of family despair and distress, and then yes, some hope, by "recognising that cult participation might start with a psychological provocation, but it has a sociological solution." In other words, having the patience and time to talk without accusation and allow glimpses of normality. QAnon was recently described as "an American invention but is now a global plague". This book isn't a vaccine, but it does make a moving cry for reason in the chaos of a twilight world.

Many of our persistent problems are caused by failures of the imagination, and personally, I've always believed that literature, including poetry, can offer possible redemption. But a watchfully patient approach is required. I began this review with a relevant thought from Tennyson and it might be appropriate to conclude with a cautionary line from another of my favourite poets, this time Auden: "Truth, like love and sleep, resents approaches that are too intense."

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This story The grand irony of the internet first appeared on The Canberra Times.