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The first time sociologist Mary de Young heard of QAnon, she thought, “Here we are again.”
De Young has spent his career studying moral panics – in particular, what came to be known as the ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980s, when false accusations of child abuse in satanic rituals spread throughout the world. across the United States.
Decades later, echoes of that same fear had emerged within QAnon. The seemingly new conspiracy theory has been developing in far-right political circles since November 2017. Followers of QAnon believe a dark cabal is kidnapping children, torturing them, and using their blood in satanic rituals. The alleged perpetrators of the QAnon conspiracy theory are Democratic politicians – not preschool teachers, as they were in the 1980s – but the accusations are eerily similar.
“Any moral panic must have a popular devil,” says de Young, the author of The moral panic of the ritual abuse of the daycare. “There has to be a person – or more likely a group of people, whether they’re real or fantasized individuals – who are the demons in the middle of it all.”
One of the first warning signs of satanic panic came in 1980 with the publication of Michelle remembers, a dissertation co-authored by Canadian psychologist Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith. The book graphically details the abuse Smith claimed to have suffered as a child at the hands of a satanic cult – abuse she allegedly forgot but ultimately recovered through her work with Pazder.
The book was a bestseller, and Pazder became the leading academic voice warning of the dangers of “ritual abuse.” He has also started consulting with prosecutors in criminal trials, including the case that is said to raise fears of satanic abuse even further in the country: the McMartin Kindergarten trial.
âI thought it was today,â said Danny Davis, lawyer for defendant Ray Buckey. Buckey, a teacher at Virginia McMartin Kindergarten in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Was charged with abusing one of his students in 1983. By the following spring, the charges had grown to include hundreds of children. children and rumors were circulating that the students had been abused. in satanic rituals in cemeteries and in the tunnels under the school.
âEither way, it was a social contagion, and it’s that simple,â Davis says.
Davis decided to study historical examples of witch hunts and allegations of satanic behavior in order to prepare his defense. “I saw clearly that there was a process on a timeline that begins with some sort of scandal or change in society that develops a very forceful and concerted accusation against a target or a scapegoat. And the scapegoat is then quickly destroyed, “he said.
Attempts to find tunnels under the preschool have failed and, since the trials, several of the students who accused Buckey of abuse have admitted their stories were fabricated.
But the lack of physical evidence in cases like the McMartin Pre-School trial did not stop allegations of satanic ritual abuse from spreading throughout the 1980s. 20/20 aired lengthy specials featuring children claiming to have been abused by Satanists. University conferences have discussed regained memory and Satanic abuse, and psychologists like Pazder have begun training law enforcement to recognize the warning signs in their communities.
âIt was a postal mail approach to instigate moral panic,â says de Young.
In contrast, QAnon’s rise to power was entirely digital. In November 2017, an anonymous user named “Q Clearance Patriot” first posted to the 4chan forum. A NBC News survey later found out that three other users had originally promoted and spread those early posts, beginning QAnon’s transformation from an obscure online forum into an influential conspiracy theory rooted in far-right US politics.
As QAnon spread, the belief among its adherents that a cabal of elite Satan-worshiping politicians ritually mistreated children – and, more specifically, emptied them of a chemical compound called adrenochrome, which they claim is then ingested as medicine.
âThese are the same types of tropes that come up over and over and over again,â says Eleanor Janega, a historian at the London School of Economics who has studied moral and religious panics over Satanism throughout history. “This idea that there is this kind of dark realm of people who control the world secretly and that they all come together to plot and really enjoy this kind of torture and sacrifice.”
There are, however, clear differences between QAnon and the Satanic Panic of the 80s, the biggest being the political nature of QAnon’s conspiracy theories, which target Democratic politicians and view former President Donald Trump as a savior.
But Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote a satanic panic book, says there is still some commonality among believers in every movement – even setting aside fears of Satanism.
âThey see themselves as heroic,â says Wright. âAnd how can you be heroic in today’s world? Well, you protect the children – you protect the children from this cabal that wants to turn them into sex slaves. How could there be anything more important than that? “
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It’s unclear how much support QAnon will continue to receive with Trump outside the White House – vote is mixed on the degree of favorability enjoyed by conspiracy theory among the American electorate. But de Young believes the moral panic eventually subsides as hard evidence for their claims does not materialize.
“The best weapon we have is to counter information with facts, it is to keep asking for more information, because it is in the realm of facts that moral panics tend to collapse,” says de Young. “They are just getting ridiculous, except perhaps for a very small number of true believers who can tolerate a tremendous amount of dissonance.”
Noah Caldwell, Mia Venkat and Patrick Jarenwattananon produced and edited the audio story. Noah Caldwell adapted it for the web.