One of the major negative effects of social media services is that they have provided excellent channels for the spread of various strange conspiracy theories. QAnon is one of the most bizarre of these, but many people in the UK were probably not too aware of it until the crowd invading the US Capitol on 6 January included the horned, face-painted figure of Jake Angeli, the so-called “QAnon Shaman”. For those who still haven’t heard of it, QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory which alleges that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic paedophiles (The Deep State) is running a global child sex-trafficking ring. This group was apparently plotting against Donald Trump who was, in turn, fighting against it. According to many QAnon adherents, before losing the Presidency Trump had been planning a day of reckoning called “The Storm”, when thousands of members of the cabal would be arrested. The followers accused many liberal Hollywood actors, Democratic politicians, and high-ranking government officials of being members of the cabal. The conspiracy theory included allegations of a planned coup involving Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the billionaire George Soros. That is the basic structure, but there are so many offshoots, detours and internal debates between followers that the full list of QAnon claims is huge. Followers draw on news stories, historical facts and numerology to reach their own, often far-fetched, conclusions.
So, how does a conspiracy theory like this arise, and how does it spread? How many people believe in it, and where are they?
Where Did It All Start?
QAnon started in October 2017 when an anonymous user put a series of posts on the message board 4chan. The user signed off as “Q” and he claimed to have high-level US security clearance known as “Q clearance”. These and subsequent messages became known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs”. They are often written in cryptic language including slogans, pledges and pro-Trump memes. The preceding account is the standard one but, in fact, a lot of the ideas promoted by Q were present in the /pol/ section of 4chan before the Anon called Q made his appearance.
How Has It Spread?
It is difficult to get exact figures for the number of QAnon believers, but there is little doubt that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are involved. Although it started in America, there is now thought to be a considerable QAnon movement outside the USA, including groups in the UK, France, Germany and Japan. QAnon adherents began to appear at Trump reelection campaign rallies in August 2018. Despite the FBI identifying the cult as a potential source of domestic terrorism, Trump was felt to be amplifying their messages by retweeting Twitter accounts affiliated with QAnon. In an interview in August 2020, he claimed not to know very much about the movement, apart from the fact that they liked him!
Following 2017 a vast amount of “information” related to QAnon was spread by social media services including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube. The companies subsequently attempted to suppress QAnon content on their sites. QAnon supporters have co-ordinated online campaigns against their perceived enemies, and a number of them have been arrested after making threats of harm offline. The cult has been linked to several violent acts with QAnon supporters arrested for threatening politicians, breaking into the residence of the Canadian prime minister, an armed standoff near the Hoover dam, a kidnapping plot, two kidnappings, and at least one murder. Following the attempts to suppress communications, QAnon messages began to be spread via the imageboard website 8chan (later called 8kun). Twitter eventually banned thousands of QAnon-affiliated accounts, and both Facebook and Twitter introduced measures to try and purge their sites of the conspiracy theory. Followers subsequently migrated to dedicated message boards.
After Trump’s election defeat, messages from Q decreased markedly. QAnon ideas became part of the campaign to overturn the results of the election and, as we have noted above, there was significant involvement of the cult in the storming of the US Capitol. With Biden’s inauguration some QAnon adherents seemed to have accepted that the game was over, others seemed to believe that the inauguration was “part of the plan”, demonstrating the ability of the conspiracy theory to absorb virtually any event into its twisted narrative!
The Nature Of The Beast
A number of commentators have compared the QAnon phenomenon with alternate reality games (ARGs). The first ARG started in 2001 as part of the publicity for Steven Spielberg’s film “Artificial Intelligence”. A reference on the film’s poster, when Googled, led to a whole network of fictional websites of various types. The image of the poster was posted on Ain’t It Cool News (AICN) with a cryptic message. Within a day the websites had registered 25 million hits. The sites turned out to be part of the first ARG, “The Beast”, created by Microsoft.
One of the main similarities between QAnon and ARGs is that in both cases to “play” you require to, and are strongly encouraged to, “Do your research.”. In the case of QAnon, this leads to the belief that you are going to the source of the information, rather than slavishly believing what the main stream media (MSM) are telling you. The Beast and the ARGs that followed it were enormously complex, including puzzles, escape rooms, and even scientific research. The worlds they created were so enormous that grappling with them required cooperation between players sharing discoveries, solutions and ideas. The resemblance to QAnon is very striking.
QAnon is obviously not the first conspiracy theory, but one thing that is exceptional about it is its ability to absorb other conspiracy theories into itself. This is explored in an article by Anna Merlan called “The Conspiracy Singularity Has Arrived”. The fact that QAnon has come to the fore at the same time as a major pandemic has allowed the cult to embrace other ideas like the notion that lockdowns, mask-wearing and COVID-19 vaccination all form part of the plot by the Satanic Deep State. Isolation caused by lockdowns, and anxiety generated by coronavirus, have also combined to make cult alliances stronger. As Merlan states “The trend towards a kind of disturbing unity is distilled in the hashtag #Covid911, backed by a lot of powerful players in both anti-vaccine and QAnon circles. It holds that what we’re living through—the pandemic and the protests against police brutality alike—is all a massive hoax, designed to sway not just the 2020 elections but usher in the New World Order.”.
Two quotes from Adrian Hon’s article “What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon” I think encapsulate the fundamental features of the cult:
(1) “According to Michael Barkun, emeritus professor of political science at Syracuse University, three core principles characterize most conspiracy theories. Firstly, the belief that nothing happens by accident or coincidence. Secondly, that nothing is as it seems: The ‘appearance of innocence’ is to be suspected. Finally, the belief that everything is connected through a hidden pattern.”
(2) “Q’s followers are starving for information. Their willingness to chase bread crumbs is a symptom of ignorance and powerlessness. There may be something to their belief that the machinery of the state is inaccessible to the people. It’s hard to blame them for resorting to fantasy and esotericism, after all, when accurate information about the government’s current activities is so easily concealed and so woefully incomplete.”.
My next post will deal with the question “What is happening to the followers of QAnon now that Trump is no longer the President of the USA?”.