Tuesday, March 29, 2022
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The series of text messages between Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Mark Meadows, the then chief of staff to President Trump, unveiling her active involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, are causing quite a stir. Most of the attention is focused on whether in cases related to January 6 and Trump’s 2020 election challenge Clarence Thomas should have recused himself and whether or not he will do so in the future, given the now public record of his wife’s active involvement in these matters.
The broader value of Ginni Thomas’ texts, however, is that they provide a window into the pervasive damage that the systematic spreading of misinformation and disinformation on the right is doing to the Republican Party, the conservative movement and our democracy as a whole. A long-time conservative activist, Ginni Thomas is a smart and accomplished woman.
Yet her texts show that she embraced aspects of QAnon conspiracy theories, wrongly believed the most outrageous and disproven claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 election and mistakenly believed that Vice President Pence had the power to reject the certified electoral votes of states. The alternative reality she expressed and her active support of and participation in the January 6 protest appears to be a direct result of her marinating in disinformation spread on right wing internet sites and through social media– falsehoods then amplified, echoed or at least “nodded and winked” at by more mainstream right wing news outlets and the former president.
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Here are just a few of the examples provided by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, who were the reporters that first surfaced the texts and secured a confirmation of their accuracy by Thomas’ own lawyer. “Watermarked ballots in over 12 states have been part of a huge Trump & military white hat sting operation in 12 key battleground states,” Thomas texted. As Woodward and Costa point out in their Washington Post article, this is a reference to a false theory, originating from QAnon supporters that “Trump had watermarked mail-in ballots so he could track potential fraud.” In a November 5 text, Thomas approvingly quoted the following nonsense, which was then being spread on right wing websites, “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.”
In similar unhinged fashion, Ginni Thomas sent Meadows her reaction to the then vice-president refusing to act in an illegal and unconstitutional manner on January 6, “We are living through what feels like the end of America. Most of us are disgusted with the VP and are in listening mode to see where to fight with our teams. Those who attacked the Capitol are not representative of our great teams of patriots for DJT!! Amazing times. The end of Liberty.”
Ginni Thomas, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. Twenty-five percent of Republicans go even further than Thomas did in her texts where she referenced certain QAnon false claims: they mostly believe in its main tenets, according to a recently released Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll.
As PRRI aptly summarizes it, “The main threads of QAnon’s core theory are that a network of Satan-worshipping pedophiles control the government and media, and that a coming “storm” will sweep them out of power.” The center of that coming storm, according to QAnon, is Donald Trump who will return to power and rescue the nation.
The poll found that 1-in-4 Republicans and about than 1-in-6 American voters completely or mostly agreed with the following “foundational” components of QAnon.: “1) The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation; 2)There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders; 3) Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
One’s media diet is the “strongest independent predictor” of whether or not one is a QAnon adherent, according to PRRI. “Americans who most trust far-right news outlets like One America News Network (OANN) and Newsmax are nearly five times more likely than those who most trust mainstream news to be QAnon believers.”
The substantial minority of Republicans and other Americans who are QAnon believers demonstrate the power of disinformation and misinformation and the importance of combating it. QAnon theory is plainly “out there where the buses don’t run.” Yet because it is embraced by far right-wing news outlets, nearly never directly refuted on Fox, and distributed widely via social media where because of how the algorithms work, if one indicates an interest in it, more information about it will fill up their newsfeeds, it has gained a disturbing amount of traction.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” famously said Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Ginny Thomas and QAnon may have unintentionally performed a valuable public service by demonstrating how far off the rails we can go, if we don’t more actively work to get back to that standard. It is a foundational one for a functioning democracy.