ON December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch went to a pizza store. He drove across two states to Washington DC from his home in North Carolina. There was nothing remarkable about the pizza – that wasn’t why he went. Welch was looking for child sex slaves.

He believed the store was the HQ of an occult paedophile ring run by Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Podesta. He’d encountered an elaborate conspiracy known as “Pizzagate” gestated on imageboard website 4chan and peddled by disinformation hawker Alex Jones of InfoWars.

Armed with the belief he was serving the common good – as well as a rifle, a handgun and a couple knives – he emptied the busy Comet Ping Pong pizza parlour before firing off rounds inside. No-one was injured and Welch was arrested soon afterwards. He was jailed for four years. Enter QAnon: the right-wing conspiracy theory that has made its way from message boards to Trump rallies. It’s thematically similar to Pizzagate. More satanic paedophile rings. More deep state. More normies waiting to be red-pilled.

Reading it is an outside observer, as someone who is not an American citizen, it’s an elaborate fantasy story, an expanded universe work of fiction created to return their leader to hero status. Conspiracy acts as Polyfilla to fill in the holes and patch up the cracks in an anti-establishment presidency that’s utterly failed to deliver.

Not long ago, the stories spun would have sounded ridiculous. Who would imagine a grown man could believe “cheese pizza” was code for “sex with children”, tool up and drive hundreds of miles? Now it seems entirely in step with the recent political landscape in America where Nazis march with tiki lanterns and the president wants a military presence on the moon. Shonky information spreads online, where amused conspiracy fans mingle with the true believers, and where one’s benign interest legitimises the other’s paranoia. It’s a mercy, yes, that no-one was hurt or killed in Comet Ping Pong, but when wild conspiracies balloon into the real lives of real people we have a serious problem. It doesn’t matter if the half-believers or the curious clickers vastly outnumber those who see “truth” because it only takes one person, some wrong information and access to a gun to cause total devastation.

I first brushed up against this sort of thinking around 2009. It started with a crash course on 9/11: the inside job, then MK Ultra, the Illuminati, hollow moons and a reptilian monarchy. In this community, alternative takes were rarely isolated. Everything that could be a conspiracy was. Encountering alternate truthers opened my eyes to how many people were living integrated lives with the rest of society while also inhabiting paranoid parallel realities.

Paranoid realities confined to the internet are one thing, but I’m less worried about QAnon, Pizzagate and whatever comes next than the conditions that allow elaborate fully formed conspiracies to metastasise with such speed. This is not one thing, but the complex intermeshing of many. It could be argued that American politics has always had a problem with paranoia. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter charted the prominent conspiracy theories that had plagued discourse as far back as the continent’s first colonists. The paranoid style, he says, cuts across time, across continents and shadows movements of suspicious discontent. Save for a few telltale markers, the Hofstatder’s essay could have been written yesterday. It makes for sobering reading.

What’s new is the speed at which impure information propagates. With just a few clicks, a believer can find and connect with another believer online, strengthening their beliefs and the narrative. They might be entirely self-aware of their paranoia but, in connecting with other individuals who share the same ideology or worries, the confidence in their opinion grows.

In an ideal, rational world, our opinions would be like technology – we’d upgrade them when a better version comes along. In a perfect world, our opinions would exist as a layer separate from our identity so we would not be reluctant to surrender them when faced with something better. Beliefs are trickier. Humans are emotional creatures, so we nurture our little discontents and imperfect opinions like household pets. They’re part of us, so we don’t want to give them up or for someone else to tell us that there’s something better and what we think is garbage. But, of course, this is not the rational world. Increasingly, the internet leaches out of the screen and into the streets. The internet self is often disinclined towards clarity of thought thanks to a never-ending stream of barely corralled information.

In the age of post-truth, it doesn’t matter whether Trump succeeds or not because together the believers will find their own troops and together fashion an elaborate narrative that assuages the bitterness of disappointment and being failed once again by the man they believed their hero.

Once you have made your politics your identity, you have to save face when things don’t work out. Rather than be disappointed it’s easier on the brain to self-soothe with an alternative and entirely constructed truth. Rather than be wrong, the brain would instead use its incredible aptitude for pattern recognition to form a less painful reality.

Perhaps one of the saddest takeaways from this mess is the tragedy of the internet. It promised to be the great leveller, offering better information to everyone who should seek it, something that today seems both naive and quaint. We have better access to the facts, and the tools that allow us to establish facts, yet it’s not enough to fight ignorance, deepen understanding or bring people together. Technology has only made it easier to find our tribes and our affirmers, so we content ourselves with enough information to settle on an idea for good.

Even more dispiriting is the unintended role the media play in trafficking potentially harmful information. Something that shocks the conscience happens locally, it gains momentum and is reported. An explosion of interest follows, a mainstreaming, as the subject enters the public conscious, educating some and recruiting others. Reporting, retweets and shares are all the publicity misinformation needs to sustain itself, whether they’re shared positively or negatively.

Dr Whitney Phillips calls this the “oxygen of amplification”, both poison and remedy simultaneously. The best that can be hoped for is damage limitation, reporting as ethically and scrupulously as possible as in cases of suicide, terror attacks and shootings, all known for their copycats. The last thing the media want to do is create a blueprint for malfeasance, but report they must.

Richard Hofstadter called those with paranoid politics a double sufferer; once for suffering the trials of the real world, and secondly for the imagined one. Surely now the internet exists, as both poison and remedy, we can add a third to that list.