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Ahmed Skali: QAnon is destructive in the realms of health and politics

Date:08 November 2022
Assistant Professor Ahmed Skali
Assistant Professor Ahmed Skali

Assistant Professor Ahmed Skali (FEB’s Global Economics and Management department) has always been interested in political economy and whether and how humans cooperate. Particularly, his research focuses on the interplay of culture, institutions, and human behavior. With his research Skali aims to discover what triggers the rise of destructive social movements (and linked conspiracy theories) that threaten our social and political institutions and what motivates people to participate in these movements. Together with co-authors Ho Fai Chan (Queensland University of Technology), Stephanie Rizio (FEB) and Benno Torgler (Queensland University of Technology), Skali investigates whether social distancing restrictions are met with conspiratorial backlash, and if so, why, and whether there are public health consequences.

With the qualifier that this is work in progress, the most important thing Skali and co-authors found so far is that, in 2020, the announcement of social distancing measures in the United States led to a sharp rise in people searching for QAnon on Google. ‘People appear to respond very negatively to restrictions on civil liberties. In isolation, skepticism of authority is a good thing: we are not advocating that people should just do as they are told. Evidence-based skepticism should for sure be encouraged’, the assistant professor states. But that is not what happened: people turned in large numbers towards a set of conspiratorial ideas whose original claim to fame was that Democrat politicians ran a satanic-pedophile child trafficking ring from the basement of a pizzeria in Washington DC.  Skali: ‘There is zero evidence for that. Of course, searching for a conspiracy theory is not the same as believing it, but we also show that Google searches for non-mainstream political ideas predict actual voting behavior. So, there is cause for concern here.’

Distrust in medical institutions

Though they cannot say for certain, Skali and co-authors think these results are transferable to conspiracy theories and other types of health misinformation regarding other diseases. ‘Perhaps the single defining message of QAnon in its relation to COVID-19 is that the whole pandemic is a scam orchestrated by shadowy elites in order to remove civil liberties. If one accepts that message, then one’s trust in government and medical institutions is damaged for some time. We think this could likely lead to distrust of COVID-19 vaccines, which then might become distrust of vaccines in general.’ In this light, It is interesting to note that QAnon turned out to be quite popular among the wellness and spirituality community,  as an example from California illustrates, where distrust of evidence-based medicine was already high.

The assistant professor emphasizes that it is very important to understand what triggers the rise of destructive social movements. ‘While we must stress that this result is correlational, we show that QAnon can explain approximately 7,500 deaths in the United States alone between the period March – May 2020. Again, we have no way to isolate causality, but it is not far-fetched to think that, if you believe the pandemic is a scam, you do not practice any form of social distancing or additional hygiene. Beyond health, QAnon has also been destructive in the political realm: the Capitol attack of January 6, 2021, where the QAnon shaman featured prominently, should serve as a stark reminder of just how destructive false beliefs can be.

Bill Gates, Google and social media

An interesting detail Skali and colleagues discovered from their research is that Bill Gates has never been as ‘popular’ (most searched for), in the entire history of Google searches (from 2004 onwards), as he was immediately after social distancing measures were introduced. ‘That is because Bill Gates is an often-targeted scapegoat of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, with various claims ranging from micro-chipping all of humanity to forced sterilizations. Even someone who spends as much time under the public eye as Gates can come under much more intense scrutiny when rumors are spread about them.’

Studying whether and how humans cooperate has been a research focus of Skali and his co-authors for a long time now. When early in the pandemic, they saw signs on social media (and in the physical world, in Australia) that a non-trivial number of people did not seem keen to cooperate with the various health measures, they wanted to understand this on a deeper level. ’Indeed some did not appear to believe there was a significant health crisis at all. Then we came across media reports talking about the stance of QAnon vis-à-vis COVID-19, and we thought: how can we know what people are thinking? The answer was: ask Google.’

Global health outcomes

As we live in a globalized world, Skali would like to further investigate the health outcomes QAnon had on a global level in the pandemic. ‘While we have some preliminary results that show that interest in QAnon rose around the world, we do not yet know if health outcomes were also affected. Early in the pandemic, protesters in Australia chanted “arrest Bill Gates”; here in the Netherlands, I have seen people at Albert Heijn walking around without a mask (when it was compulsory) loudly saying “Er is geen pandemie” (There is no pandemic). The reach of these ideas is thus clearly global and there is much we need to understand.’

For more information, please contact  Ahmed Skali.