How many Americans believe in the QAnon plot? A recent June poll shows it’s around 15 percent. But wait, a poll from last October found it was 7 percent. But even that is high compared to an ongoing investigation which set it at 4% earlier this month.
Why the disparity? Perhaps, in an attempt to downplay QAnon’s power, a secret clique of electoral elites signed a contract with Satan and Marina Abramović to offer very different poll results… or maybe it’s just difficult to poll on QAnon.
As much as QAnon feels like a distinctly modern phenomenon, much of its tradition is rooted in conspiracy theories that have been around for decades or, in some cases, centuries (the main one is that an elite global cabal runs a satanic network of child sex trafficking and cannabilism). It’s part of what helped QAnon gain as much traction as it did, a sort of big tent conspiracy movement that combines aspects of many different beliefs. But that’s also what makes it hard to measure.
What if someone thinks a few Q ideas seem plausible? Should a poll see them as “believers?” What about Americans who endorse QAnon’s beliefs without realizing that they are associated with QAnon?
It’s hard to fathom how many people believe in QAnon
Pollsters have strategies for solving these dilemmas, but it is difficult to solve them all at once. Considering a dilemma – for example, avoiding the term “QAnon” so as not to scare people who are reluctant to share their affiliation – opens the door to another (capturing people who are not affiliated with QAnon at all) . As a result, each individual survey asks very different questions and ultimately measures different things.
Consider a recent poll of the PRRI. He asked Americans if they agreed with three separate statements, each part of the QAnon belief system, but he did not mention QAnon by name. Fifteen percent of Americans agreed with the statement “the government, media and financial world in the United States are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” This statement is the central tenet of QAnon, but it is also not a belief unique to the movement. Fears about Satan-worshiping pedophiles predate entirely QAnon, so belief in this statement is not limited to people who follow – or have even heard of – Q, according to Mary deYoung, professor emeritus of sociology at the Grand Valley State University in Michigan. DeYoung studied the so-called ‘satanic panic’, the popular misconception in the 1980s that satanic ritual abuse of children was widespread in this country. A 1986 ABC News Poll found 63% of Americans believed members of religious sects had “too much influence in this country,” and 54% of Americans believed there should be laws against worshiping Satan, poll finds from 1987 Williamsburg Charter Foundation survey.
The other statements polled by PRRI, about a “coming storm” to “sweep the power elites” (20%) and that “the patriots could resort to violence” (15%) are not either specific to QAnon. The prediction of the “storm” mimics the apocalyptic language of evangelical Christianity, and the use of violence is said to be endorsed by a number of right-wing militias or extremists.
Natalie Jackson, PRRI’s research director, said the company had existing conspiracy theories in mind when designing the investigation and carefully crafted the statements to match what they have. found in QAnon sources. She also said that the extent of QAnon’s conspiracy topics is part of the reason PRRI focused on the beliefs themselves, rather than asking respondents to identify themselves as QAnon supporters. Someone could potentially buy into QAnon’s ideas without realizing that he is part of the movement, and PRRI wanted to capture those people’s beliefs as well. (Other polling firms have focused on beliefs rather than QAnon affiliation, and they have found similar rate at the PRRI survey.)
“The big picture here is less about QAnon himself than the people who believe in such a savage conspiracy theory. I never thought I would write a poll question like this in my career, ”Jackson said. “At this point, does it really matter that you are officially affiliated with QAnon, or is the most important thing that you think it’s a real possibility? ”
But in addition to the possibility of attributing belief in QAnon to non-QAnon conspiracy theorists, asking questions about specific beliefs can present another probing risk: expressive responses, a phenomenon where people sometimes answer questions. ‘survey with what feels closer to their opinions, rather than to what they believe to be true. Take a 2016 survey by UMass Lowell / Odyssey, where nearly a quarter of millennials said they would rather “have a giant meteor strike Earth, instantly extinguishing all human life” than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump winning the election. In a 2020 version of the New Hampshire poll, a majority of Democrats chose the meteor on Trump winning a second term.
Joshua Dyck, associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, explained that they never believed those respondents were sincere. “The reason we asked the question is because it’s funny, and because it’s a measure of negative partisanship and expressive response – people will say something crazy!” said Dyck. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do with the QAnon response. Do people really believe in the global conspiracy, the pedophile ring, or is it just that they hate Hillary Clinton so much?
Dyck said it was difficult to get around the expressive response dilemma, but that studies have shown that offering people money, for example, can improve their ability to give factual answers and reduce the impact of expressive answers and partisan bias.
But overcoming a set of dilemmas sometimes opens the door to a new one. Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who has polled Americans about QAnon since 2018, chooses to focus on the movement’s explicit name, even if that means missing some “shy” QAnon followers.
Each of its QAnon polls asks respondents to rate conspiracy theory on a “sentiment thermometer,” from 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating more positive feelings. QAnon systematically notes in the mid 20s, which makes it one of the political groups least appreciated by Uscinski and his colleagues.
Uscinski points out that when Americans are asked point blank if they have heard of or believe in QAnon, the results are also consistent. In August 2019, an Emerson poll found that 5% of voters answered “yes” when asked simply, “Do you believe in QAnon? Among Americans who had heard of QAnon, 7 percent said they believed it was true, according to an October 2020 Yahoo / YouGov poll. Likewise, a Civiqs rolling tracker found that less than 10% of Americans consistently say they support QAnon and that number has declined over the past year (from 7% in September 2020 to 4% this week).
“The good news is that QAnon is not that big,” Uscinski said. “The bad news is that a lot of the wacky ideas that dominate with QAnon are huge, and they probably were long before QAnon came along.”
Asking respondents directly whether they believe or support QAnon avoids finding unrelated conspiracy theorists, but it also risks being another pitfall of polls: social desirability bias, that is, when respondents give the answer they think they sincerely believe. Jackson said some Q believers may be skeptical of pollsters to begin with, and are less likely to admit their affiliation when asked directly. Not mentioning QAnon directly may mitigate this effect. Uscinski, for his part, believes that the risk of social desirability bias with QAnon is minimal, given the shameless zeal with which the supporters seem to show their support.
The best strategy for disentangling all of these issues is to ask many types of questions, according to Dyck. Ideally, this would be done in a survey and repeated regularly with the same set of questions, but resource constraints mean this is not often practical.
Instead, these different types of questions measuring different aspects of QAnon support are spread across many different surveys. This makes it harder to draw any conclusions, but when you add up all the polls it becomes clear that the number of Americans who are really in the QAnon rabbit hole is likely low, and the number of those individuals who would be willing to act. violently on behalf of the movement is a tiny fraction of the total population. That’s not to say that QAnon isn’t a problem – it is. But the number of Americans who make up the population of True Believers is probably smaller than it sometimes appears.
Confidence Interval: QAnon is Going Nowhere | FiveThirtyEight
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