0 8 min 1 yr

(First published on October 24th, 2020)

In 2018, when little Zainab’s tragic case surfaced, a rather astonishing debate took hold of the media discourse. A doctor turned televangelist turned media executive and political commentator was adamant that the perpetrator of this heinous crime was the head of a child pornography ring. These were emotionally charged times. The slain child’s hometown was up in arms. Houses of the local lawmakers were under attack. To express solidarity with the victim and her family a news anchor had brought her little daughter to the studio and hosted a transmission in her presence.

Call it my naiveté or some fundamental problem with my processing capacity but I utterly fail to convert a public tragedy into a media spectacle that could earn plaudits. My issue was that things did not add up. Odious and disgusting as the perpetrator was, he did not seem educated, tech savvy or affluent enough to be a part of, let alone head, an international ring of any sort. Given that he came from a religious background was it possible that the conservative TV investigators were spinning a yarn to deflect from a serious crime? I made some calls.

Meanwhile, the pandemonium was threatening to explode. The countdown to the election had started and the outrage over this tragedy could easily mix with other political protests and harm the body politic. Meanwhile the good doctor was constantly insisting that he had gone to the dark web and there he had found evidence to support his thesis. Apparently, there were such portals in the dark recesses of the internet which were showcasing such content.

Now if you know anything about the dark web you know such elements exist there even if they are not the main purpose of its creation. Was it possible that the gentleman was conflating the two disparate things? When I finally heard from friends in the relevant circles, no doubt was left in my mind that he was mixing the two things. And that’s what I pointed out in my subsequent work.

What most of us missed at that time was that the doctor was not alone in his assertion. That an international movement against child exploitation was growing. Not just any international movement but a movement based on a lethal conspiracy theory. QAnon as it is now known.

Later, some random developments and acts of violence in the United States would bring the movement to the surface. But in this relatively small period it has grown into a full-fledged cult and threatens to be a religion. Law enforcement in the US is already flagging it as a serious domestic terror threat. The origin and evolution of this theory leaves little doubt in my mind that it stems from the polarised US presidential elections in 2016.

Although the story has transformed into an allegorical world of much complexity its central points are fairly simple. There exists an international cabal of child-raping and child-eating individuals. These monsters often called the elite or puppet masters are present in the highest echelons of power and influence. To disband this cabal the US military intelligence convinced Donald Trump to run for president. And Robert Mueller is in on the plot and secretly helping Trump.

With me so far? Now the problem with conspiracy theories is that they do not care much for the causal links. A world populated with 7.5 billion people with the abilities to think, cheat and plot is bound to be a dangerous place. Hence random acts of crime and conspiracies must exist. But to prove a broader theory you need to show that A leads to B which then takes things to C, a dangerous outcome which needs to be stopped at any cost. Conspiracy theorists take care of the problem not by providing evidence but by undermining the process by which we get information. If everything is rigged, how on earth are you likely to get to the truth? Hence the conspiracy theory. The Jeffrey Epstein saga has further worked to build consensus that something strange is indeed going on. But here is the problem. To make life and death decisions you need some evidence. If you start thinking that everything is compromised, society is likely to fall apart. You do not need a very deep conspiracy for a cover up. A few guilty individuals are enough to try to cover up a crime. Let’s say that Epstein was as wealthy and compromised as he is said to be. This then would involve a group of surrogates and associates. Naturally they would go an extra mile to ensure that they are not exposed. But does that mean there exists a global elite that slays children to extract a particular chemical from their blood?

The story, as I mentioned in a previous piece, started after the 2016 election and Trump inauguration. When a character claiming to be a high clearance insider Q appeared on redoubtable online imageboard. The purported insider claimed that Hillary Clinton was soon to be arrested, which never happened. But something about that moment when moved by a savage impulse of triumph where you want all your enemies destroyed, took hold of the pro-Trump online community and this story has been growing ever since.

The problem with this movement is that it seems to have been held hostage by a lot of fantasy fiction. For instance, it uses The Matrix trilogy’s blue pill red pill metaphor to draw a distinction between their own and others. The Matrix trilogy was already swaying many in the Muslim world before 9/11 when Harun Yahya wrote on the spiritual meaning of the lore. In the current political climate when America is returning to elections the problem is growing rapidly. But even when the elections are over it is unlikely to stop. At the beginning I gave you an example of how this complicated the discourse in Pakistan too.

As a journalist I have come across enough victims of conspiracy theories to know what such a deadly proliferation can mean. An entire decade of the War on Terror was obscured by conspiracy theories. We could have effectively defeated terrorism much earlier in their absence. Before 9/11, conspiracy theories were proliferating against anti-Islam satanic cults. Then we saw terrorism around the world as a misguided reaction. This movement too, if not checked in time, can have similar devastating results. There is no dearth of impressionable minds in Pakistan or the world over.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.