A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.

(Mark Twain)

Paul Hoffman is the former editor of Discover magazine. He tells how in the April 1995 issue, the magazine announced a startling development in the world of science. Respected wildlife biologist Dr. Aprile Pazzo found a news species of mammal he named the Hotheaded Naked Ice Borer. It was a hairless mole-like creature that lived in tunnels under the Antarctic ice shelf. The top of its head was covered with bony plates fed by blood vessels that could turn the plates red-hot.

The Hotheaded Borer's favorite food was penguins, which is caught by using its head to melt holes in the ice. Borers devoured the Penguins when they fell through these holes. Some people theorized that this explained the disappearance of famed Antarctic explorer Philippe Poisson in 1837. Through the ice from below, the Borers could have mistaken Poisson for a penguin.

When news wires picked up this story, the magazine received a record number of inquiries from readers who wanted to learn more about the Borer. A zoo wrote to request a Borer for its exhibit, but the magazine explained that it would be difficult to ship the animal because its head would set the packing crate on fire.

It took a while for readers to figure out that the name of the biologist who made the discovery, Aprile Pazzo, is Italian for "April Fool." Today, the Hotheaded Naked Ice Borer story is honored in the San Diego Museum of Hoaxes.

Discover magazine was not the first hoaxer in the United States, and it won't be the last. Gullible people are in ample worldwide supply, it seems. They believe the Earth is flat, the government faked the Moon landing, and that a secret military hanger contains the bodies of little aliens whose flying saucer crashed in New Mexico back in 1947.

Hoaxes like these are harmless, but others are not. Some are hurtful and even cruel. For example, American radio personality Alex Jones, a notorious conspiracy merchant, broadcast the theory that actors faked the mass shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2017. That allegation tortured the families of the six adults and 20 young children who were shot to death. Jones later apologized, claiming he had suffered a "form of psychosis."

Other conspiracy theories are dangerous. According to the Pew Research Center, a surprising number of people around the world, including one in four Americans, think that Covid-19 is a hoax and that quarantines, distance guidelines, and facemask requirements are the first steps toward totalitarian rule. Some people believe the government plans to inject them with microchips when they receive vaccine shots. It doesn't take many nonbelievers in the virus to spread it, prolong the pandemic and kill more people.

Now comes Q

Another conspiracy theory is spreading around the world today, even more dangerous than paranoia about Covid. An anonymous entity on the Internet, known as Q, claims that leading Democrats and personalities in the United States belong to a "deep state" of Satanic pedophiles who run a child sex-trafficking ring and drink children's blood to obtain a chemical that will keep the pedophiles young. Q says President Donald Trump is trying to expose and destroy this cabal.

Q claims he knows this because he is a highly-placed official in the U.S. intelligence community with access to its greatest secrets. (The highest-level security clearance is called Q in the U.S.)

If anyone knows who or what Q is, they aren't talking. Q could be a person, a hate group, a nefarious foreign hacker, or a plot by some malign entity to spread paranoia, racism, and violence. I'll continue referring to Q as "he."

QAnon is associated with right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism. He posts cryptic messages and predictions on anonymous Internet forums called imageboards. He cloaks himself in the phrases of patriotism and Christian fundamentalism. He predicts a "Great Awakening," for example, and his followers recite a pledge to "support and defend the United States Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic."

Q would be just a curious sidebar in the United States' intense political climate except that he is as virulent as Covid-19. No one knows precisely how many adherents he has in the U.S., but a recent poll found that 56% of Republican voters believe most or part of the Q narrative. Only 13% of Republicans dismissed Q, along with 72% of Democrats. Donald Trump appears to be a fan, as well as several aspiring and incumbent members of the U.S. Congress. Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, appears in an online video reciting the Q pledge.

Q's followers accept without question his cryptic "Q drops" and "breadcrumbs" about what's going on in the alleged war between Trump and the Satanic cabal. When his followers ask him about one of his statements, Q tells them to study it for themselves. Q's devotees are oblivious to criticism of Trump's performance as president, even the criticisms are probably factual. Q's devotees dismiss criticisms as part of the plot against Trump and precisely what critics would say. As Time magazine put it: "They are impervious to messaging, advertising, or data. They aren't just infected with conspiracy; they appear to be inoculated against reality."

This sounds like the plot in a dark comic book, but it has severe manifestations. Q's disciples have been linked to violence. Police have accused one of murdering a Mafia boss and arrested another after he threatened to kill Trump's opponent in the United States' upcoming presidential election. The FBI has classified the movement as a potential domestic terrorism threat.

Now, Q's disciples are trying to influence the U.S. presidential election with information warfare, much like Russia used to support Trump in 2016 and is using again to support his reelection, according to federal intelligence agencies. Q's followers attempt to saturate social media with pro-Trump and anti-Democrat messages, especially targeting Democrats in Congress who voted to impeach Trump last year.

Trump apparently is flattered by the superhero image Q has assigned to him. The president has retweeted messages from Q followers more than 70 times. When a reporter asked him recently what he knew about Q, Trump did not denounce Q's radical theories. "I've heard these are people that love our country," he said. "I don't know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me."

Now, large Q communities are said to be present in more than 40 other countries.

What are we to make of this? First, it proves how subversive the Internet can be despite all its positive potentials. Q is a virtual cult fortified by social media algorithms that diagnose a user's interests and reinforce them with links to other sympathetic content. This technology creates information bubbles that are impervious to unaligned information. The bubbles form the kind of intellectual isolation that traditional cults achieved in physical places like a Branch Davidian home or a Jim Jones commune, where members are indoctrinated without interference from the outside world. It may be that the most dangerous dimensions of social media will not change until the algorithms do.

In societies where freedom of speech is a fundamental right, that right conflicts with the obligation that social media executives might feel to exclude hatefully, racist, patently false, and violent speech. As a result, social media has become what historian Richard Hofstadter calls "an arena for angry minds."

The best defense against outright lies and hate-mongering on social media is a healthy skepticism and a "prove it" mentality among users. Whitney Phillips, a professor at Syracuse who studies online disinformation, points out: "You cannot have a functioning democracy when people are not at the very least occupying the same solar system."

Some believe we are wired to like outrageous ideas. Time quotes Harvard conspiracy expert Nicco Mele's conclusion that "the brain likes crazy."

Nevertheless, we need to challenge the integrity of content, require proof before we accept outrageous claims, consider the sources, and avoid encasing ourselves in information bubbles by checking out what the contrarians are saying from time to time. Fortunately, websites such as Politifact, Snopes, and Factcheck.org's Viral Spiral have taken on the job of fact-checking what we hear in national and international conversations.

Finally, we have to ask why America seems to be such fertile ground for conspiracy theories to take root. Shortly after the 2016 election, writer Stephen Marche wondered in the New Yorker why Russia could get away with influencing America's last presidential election. He says that when Americans make up their minds, facts are not likely to sway them. "Nobody is going to tell Americans what to think," Marche says. "They have to work it out for themselves."

Let's hope that Q's followers work it out real soon.

Since I wrote this article, the United States experienced the power of conspiracy theories to inspire sedition. Two weeks before President Donald Trump was to leave office, tens of thousands of his followers -- among them, Q devotees and members of racist, white supremacist, and militant groups -- stormed the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. and invaded the chambers of the Senate and House of Representatives. Security police were overwhelmed as the protestors vandalized the chambers. Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress were evacuated. Four people died. The insurrection was inspired by Trump's repeated claims that the U.S. presidential election last November was fraudulent, and Democrats had stolen the presidency. The incident, broadcast around the world as it happened, was considered one of the darkest days in the history of America's democracy. It led to calls for Trump's immediate removal from office.