There’s something going on with Republican women—a troubling feedback loop between these women, their support for the president, and their interest in social media-driven conspiracy theories.
Let’s start with some of the data on the support of Republican women for the president. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted October 6-9 found that, on issues from Trump’s job approval to whether they would accept his defeat on November 3, Republican women are more supportive of the president or his positions than the nation as a whole, often by margins of 2:1 or higher. In a partisan, highly polarized age, that isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that these women are more supportive of Trump than the Republican men who were seen to have powered his victory in 2016.
Here are some of the key data points from the Post/ABC survey:
When it comes to the issue of COVID-19, the Post/ABC poll shows that Republican women are consistently more supportive of the Trump administration’s efforts and tend to believe in the administration’s pronouncements on the issue. Only 41 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the virus; that figure is 89 percent among Republican women. Eighty-six percent of GOP women trust what Trump says about the pandemic while just 38 percent of the rest of the country share in that trust. On matters related to public health and COVID-19, the views of Republican women are distinct—and distinctly tilted toward President Trump. Of additional interest is how reluctant these women are to contemplate the president’s defeat: Over 20 percent of Republican women say they would be unwilling to accept an outcome if their preferred candidate lost compared to 14 percent of the general public and 11 percent of Republican men.
A September survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life in partnership with the Center for American Progress sheds additional light on what may be driving these numbers. In general, Republican women show a greater openness to popular conspiracy theories that are channeled chiefly through social media platforms, some of which President Trump amplifies or justifies through his Twitter account and other public comments.
While the percentage of GOP women who had heard of the QAnon conspiracy was smaller than the percentage among Americans overall, those who have heard of it were more than twice as likely as the general public to believe it. Republican women are also significantly more likely than the general public and Republican men to believe in a range of public health conspiracies, including that GMO foods are harmful to humans, vaccines cause autism, and drug companies withhold information about their products that are important to public health and welfare.
Republican women appear to be far more predisposed to accept conspiracy-related theories and positions than the rest of the public. This doesn’t hold for all conspiracy theories—for instance, Republican women are not more likely than men to believe that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States—but when it comes to QAnon and to information relating to public health, Republican women are more likely to believe unsubstantiated and highly inflammatory information.
Social media platforms and habits appear to be an important factor in feeding women’s interest in conspiracy-related materials. On platforms like Facebook and Instagram, a “pastel QAnon” has emerged that repackages conspiracies in “live, laugh, love” fonts and with softer and more aesthetically pleasing imagery than has been typical for sites that propagate conspiracy theories. This repackaging acts as “breadcrumbs” that first grab women’s attention and then lead them deeper into the QAnon world. Annie Kelly, a researcher at the University of East Anglia, pointed out recently in the New York Times that the use of the #SavetheChildren hashtag has been a key mechanism for introducing mothers to the theory that children are being trafficked by an international cabal of powerful public figures.
The outsized numbers of Republican women who are being influenced by QAnon isn’t a problem that can be ignored. Nationally, almost thirty congressional candidates on the ballot in November have either endorsed the theory or supported it or content related to it—and more than half of them are women, a remarkable number in a field like electoral politics that continues to be largely dominated by men. This includes Marjorie Taylor Green (now a shoo-in for election to Congress in Georgia) and Lauren Boebert, who, after defeating Republican incumbent Scott Tipton, is effectively tied with her Democratic opponent, Diane Mitsch Bush. Taylor Green has amassed sufficient influence that the leading candidate for one of the U.S. Senate seats from Georgia, Kelly Loeffler, sought and received Taylor Green’s endorsement in her primary.
It is easy to discount QAnon—but the reality is it is quickly emerging from the shadows into a full-blown political movement that periodically receives the passive, and at times, active support of the president of the United States. While YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter have all imposed restrictions on QAnon content, it remains to be seen whether those controls will help stem the tide of misinformation, conspiracy-mongering, and the social and political distortions that accompany them.