In my two years representing the 5th Congressional District I’ve witnessed a tumultuous era on Capitol Hill: the longest partial shutdown of the federal government in history (I voted to end it), an impeachment (I voted against impeachment), and a pandemic (I voted for the CARES Act and the latest stimulus bill).
As my term comes to an end, I am focused on another crisis facing our country: QAnon, an encroaching and insidious digital virus. I was the only Republican member of Congress to speak out against this ever-growing group of conspiracy theories on the House floor. I remain committed to countering the harm it reaps on individuals and our society.
There is a long list of the various theories that nest under the QAnon banner. Democrats, believers say, participate in a “deep state” cabal, members of which worship Satan and are pedophiles who harvest adrenochrome from children. There is an ever-growing list of absurd claims about the 2020 presidential election, too. And the pandemic has birthed a corresponding outbreak of outlandish claims about a secret plan to impose socialism on U.S. citizens. The litany of bizarre pronouncements and fantasies seems to be endless.
I was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force and then the CEO of a company that worked with the federal government on cybersecurity. I’m uniquely qualified to refute conspiracy theories like QAnon. What I found is that the technical repudiation of many of these theories doesn’t matter to those who believe with heart and soul in a massive “deep state” plot against President Trump.
Therefore, I’ve recently focused less on the (overwhelming) technical and analytical case against conspiracy theories like QAnon. Instead, I’ve turned my attention to understanding the substantial harm to personal relationships that occur when a loved one is radicalized online. Progressively more far-fetched, artificial and unsubstantiated claims percolate in digital spaces and reinforce a person’s commitment to the cult-like structure of QAnon, gradually tearing individuals away from their family and friends –and reality.
In one recent message to me, for instance, an individual spouted off, with great conviction, about secret watermarks on ballots only observable with UV light or “military night vision goggles” and a supposed attempt by the Biden campaign to store forged ballots in a Chinese consulate. The message was incoherent and technically improbable. But that person has the hallmarks of a true believer, parroting the distinctive language and ideas that have spread and metastasized in QAnon circles online, often forming even more extremist offshoots.
The vitriol from QAnon believers to those outside the belief system is often harsh, and I have not been immune to the fallout. My outspoken position against QAnon and similar conspiracy theories has already caused the loss of dear friendships and an incredible strain with some family members. I’ve been called a “traitor,” “[George] Soros-backer,” “pedophile,” “liar,” “deep state stooge,” “member of the ZOG,” (“Zionist Occupied Government,” an anti-Semitic slur), “RINO” (“Republican in name only”) — and the very worst of all — “not on the Trump team!”
When ideas or fantasies are weaponized, they transform from harmless, bizarre theories and bloom into tribalism and dehumanization of others. This bloom spreads digitally from person to person, creating a tribe that adheres to an alternate reality that is based on a stream of algorithmically and microtargeted data, ignorant analytic white papers, memes, ideas, and coded language. When people, like myself, reject ideas pushed by the tribe, they are ostracized and ridiculed. Suddenly, one finds themselves “tribe-less”.
Ultimately, I believe presenting facts in an objective, politically independent manner is a vitally important tool in engaging friends and loved ones who are vulnerable to succumbing to harmful belief systems like QAnon. That is why I co-authored a report about QAnon and its devastating effects on the fabric of our society. The report, published by the Network Contagion Research Institute in partnership with the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, can be found here.
It has been the highest honor to serve the people of the 5th Congressional District these past two years. I have always strived to act not on propaganda but on truth, facts, and the principles I hold dear – even when it has been politically inconvenient. I hope that by continuing to shed light on conspiracy theories we can move toward a society in which truth and facts are the foundation for a bright future for our country.