On Monday night, ABC's Four Corners aired a highly anticipated report on QAnon in Australia.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that believes political elites are a cabal of paedophiles running a global sex trafficking ring. The truth of this cabal is supposedly slowly being released online by an anonymous forum poster who calls themself "Q".
As the theory has spread, it has fed divisions and torn apart families - but, while touched upon, that was not the focus of Monday's report.
Instead, Four Corners focused on the links between Australian QAnon activist Tim Stewart and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The implication was that Stewart has undue influence over Morrison.
Conspiracy theories thrive through drawing random links between individuals and events, and then claiming these links mean something suspicious is afoot. QAnon theorists, for example, have searched for coded messages in the hacked e-mails of Democratic operatives, and have claimed the company Wayfair is using cabinets listed with girl's names to secretly sell children as part of child trafficking ring. They take randomly connected events, and turn them into a grand conspiracy.
While not to the same extreme level, if you watch closely you can see much of the reporting on the Stewart/Morrison links replicates this approach. It is true that Morrison is, or at least was, friends with Stewart. Yet, the suspicion that emanates from this is based entirely on this one fact. Morrison is guilty entirely by association.
The ABC's key claim is that Stewart influenced Scott Morrison's apology to victims of child sexual abuse. In the lead up to the apology, Stewart and other QAnon activists wanted the term "ritual abuse" included in the apology speech. Ritual abuse is a key concern for QAnon followers, who believe elites are engaged in the ritual Satanic abuse of children.
Morrison did end up using the term "ritual abuse" in his speech, but Four Corners offers no evidence that this was due to Stewart's influence. Instead it relies on an interview with Eliahi Priest, a man who met Stewart once in 2018 and stayed in touch with him online. Four Corners' own description of Priest paints him as an unreliable source. Morrison himself denies the alleged influence.
It is not surprising that a fantasist like Stewart would boast about his power to acquaintances like Priest. What is surprising is that some people are determined to believe his efforts to big-note himself - and that they are willing to prize innuendo over rational explanations. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was glossed over by the ABC, but it is just as likely that the phrase "ritual abuse" came from a royal commission case study, in which a survivor, "Jacqui", talks about the "ritual" abuse she faced by members of a Catholic organisation.
QAnon is based entirely on the word of an anonymous internet poster who claims to have influence over high-profile figures. There is no evidence of this influence, anywhere, ever. But Q has used this tactic to attract followers, something Stewart is likely to have been influenced by as he campaigns in Australia. Instead of interrogating Stewart's boasts to Priest, Four Corners leaves them unchallenged.
Even more bizarre is the implication that Morrison was using the "ritual abuse" term as a signal to QAnon conspiracy theorists. Again, Four Corners offers nothing to back this up, and again this claim is similar to QAnon's own thinking. Many believers think Donald Trump is sending them coded messages that the "storm" - a mass arrest of cabal leaders - is coming. He is supposed to have dropped these messages throughout his speeches. When QAnon conspiracy theorists make this claim, they are rightly mocked. Now the ABC's flagship investigative program is making a similar claim about Morrison.
This is potentially dangerous. As conspiracy theory expert Timothy Graham argues, the perception that the Prime Minister can easily be influenced by QAnon theorists is payday for spreaders of disinformation. The perception reinforces the beliefs of QAnon followers, boosting their confidence and their arguments at the same time. Moreover, the claims that one man can have such great influence further destabilises trust in government, exactly what these theorists want to happen.
This exposes the danger of relying on conspiracy thinking to report on conspiracy theories. Four Corners does not provide any evidence that Tim Stewart has influenced Scott Morrison. It does not suggest that Morrison is a believer in QAnon. It does not link Morrison to any QAnon conspiracy groups beyond his friendship with Stewart. Instead, it relies on repetition to do the work of fact, and interprets every action as proof of its claim. It even airs a clip featuring a commentator who argues that Morrison should repudiate QAnon and distance himself, followed directly by footage of Morrison doing exactly that. Yet, it barely engages with Morrison's words.
Tying together these links and events is enough to create a sense of suspicion. The conspiracy thinking has been escalating since Monday, with rumours running wild about Stewart's influence. The #QAnonPM hashtag has already emerged on Twitter, with some users speculating Stewart has access to classified secrets.
Implying these groups have the ear of the Prime Minister only emboldens them. Claims like these should only be made if they are plausible.
All of us can be vulnerable to conspiracy thinking - even those who think they are standing up to it. Those calling for admissions from Morrison must also be willing to look at their own claims, and commit to making sure they are critical, rational, and fair.
- Simon Copland is a PhD candidate at ANU's School of Sociology, studying the "manosphere" and digital platforms.