QAnon: An Ominous Conspiracy Theory

FIgure 1: A woman wearing a top bearing the QAnon logo at a Trump rally.

We have come across the QAnon phenomenon in a couple of earlier blog posts. This shadowy group appeared in our post on Science Denial and the Coronavirus. It also featured in our post on Dr. Judy Mikovits Conspiracy Theorist. We have also reviewed the general features of conspiracy theories, and the personalities of the followers of those beliefs. However, when we first began referring to the QAnon cult, we wondered whether it would continue for any length of time. The beliefs associated with this group are so bizarre, and the number of failed predictions is so great, we assumed this group would soon flame out and its adherents move on to other outlandish notions.

However, in that respect we were quite incorrect. Not only has QAnon grown, but it is currently becoming entrenched in the right wing of the (already right-wing) Trump followers. There are now a number of GOP candidates for Congress this fall who either indicate support for QAnon, or who otherwise include some of the stock phrases associated with QAnon, as a “dog whistle” to indicate their sympathies with this cult, which has moved out of the shadows of the Dark Web and into what passes for the right wing of the Republican Party today. Recently, it has become clear that QAnon beliefs have also been absorbed by both nationalist groups and anarchists in Europe.

As we will show, the QAnon conspiracy theory is ominous in that it contains explicit incitement to violence among its believers. In fact, it is sufficiently outside even the mainstream of conspiracy theories that the FBI has labeled it a domestic terrorist organization, even if the “organizational” aspects of QAnon are pretty nebulous.

Because of the rapid growth of the QAnon group, there are by now some good reviews of the origin of QAnon, its beliefs, and some of its members. We were particularly impressed by the review by Adrienne LaFrance in the June 2020 edition of The Atlantic, and we have used several of her observations in this work. There are also useful reviews of QAnon by Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins for NBC News, and by Julia Carry Wong for The Guardian. As the group is still growing, and QAnon is now becoming more visible in the Republican Party, numerous new reviews, and probably also some books, on the group should be emerging soon. Science denial is only one aspect of QAnon beliefs; we will deal here with predominantly political aspects because, in this period of the coronavirus pandemic, science denial and political fantasy have become disastrously intertwined. We will update this post as needed to include new information on this organization.

The Appearance of Q

The anonymous blogger “Q” did not appear until September 2017. However, a year earlier a conspiracy theory developed that would be incorporated into the set of QAnon beliefs. In October 2016, Wikileaks had released a large number of emails that had been hacked from the account of Democratic operative John Podesta. Podesta had previously been White House Chief of Staff and was at that time the chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Included in that core dump of material were a number of e-mails between Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of DC restaurant Comet Ping Pong.

Figure 2: Washington, DC restaurant Comet Ping Pong, the center of the baseless “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.

Those e-mails were mainly about fund-raising efforts by Podesta, but they also contained references to items on Comet Ping Pong’s menu. This led to new theories from far-right conspiracy theorists, who had for decades accused Hillary and Bill Clinton of everything from money-laundering to murder (e.g., the death of Vince Foster, who had previously worked for Hillary and whose death was ruled a suicide). In this case they spun a story that the Clintons, together with many of their supporters in Hollywood and in the international banking community, were also involved with a child-sex ring. Alex Jones of Infowars was one of the people pushing this theory. The idea was that this group, that was claimed to control most of the world’s governments and financial operations, was also secretly directing a clandestine Satanic cult that involved sex and abuse, and even murder, of young children.

Figure 3: A graphic supporting the utterly false allegation promoted by QAnon that Hillary Clinton was involved in child abductions and sex abuse.

Of course, there is absolutely no evidence that such a ring exists, but in conspiracy-theory circles the lack of evidence only proves how clever and powerful these people are. And such a theory ties together into one gigantic conspiracy theory a large number of people considered villains by right-wingers – liberal Democrats, particularly arch-enemy Hillary Clinton; the mainstream media; effete Hollywood types, who are foisting their homosexual agenda onto the American public; international bankers, which include Jewish financiers and in particular the Rothschilds and George Soros; and powerful wealthy elites such as Bill Gates.

To conspiracy trolls such as Alex Jones, John Podesta’s e-mails constituted proof of this ritualistic child abuse. They claimed that Podesta’s messages to Alefantis were written in code, and referred to the capture and abuse of young children. In their eyes, words such as “pizza” or “pasta” instead referred to “girls” or “young boys.” Supposedly, one purpose for this (non-existent) pedophile ring was to harvest adrenochrome, a chemical derived from adrenaline from the victims, and that drinking this liquid would greatly extend the conspirators’ lifetimes. [By the way, the adrenochrome myth has been around for quite a while; it was mentioned in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas]. These ideas first festered on obscure Internet anonymous message-boards such as 4chan; however, from there they migrated to more conventional sites like Twitter and Facebook. As these baseless allegations were further fleshed out, this conspiracy theory became known as “Pizzagate.”

For many people these theories were sufficiently outrageous that they were treated with amusement, even as they were being shared across social media platforms. However, some people took these allegations seriously. The most infamous such case was Edgar Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina. Welch was an apparently stable father of two who was a volunteer firefighter and had gone on mission trips with his Baptist Men’s Association. However, after reading the “Pizzagate” materials, he had become obsessed with this theory. On December 4, 2016, Welch loaded three guns into his car and drove to DC, where he entered Comet Ping Pong restaurant brandishing an AR-15 assault rifle.

Welch shot several rounds from his rifle into a locked door in an attempt to reach the restaurant’s basement, where it was alleged the abused children were being held. As it turns out, Comet Ping Pong has no basement, and Welch had blasted his way into a computer storage closet. When Welch realized this, he surrendered to police and was sentenced to four years in prison. His comment after this potential disaster? “The Intel on this wasn’t 100 percent” (!)

There have been a string of other anonymous or “Anon” posters, particularly posting on the shady imageboard 4chan, who preceded the QAnon phenomenon. In 2016 a poster who became known as FBIAnon claimed to be a “high level analyst and strategist.” He (we will refer to all of these anonymous posters as “he”) claimed to have secret information on the 2016 investigation into the finances of the Clinton Foundation. Another earlier poster was HLIAnon, an acronym for “High Level Insider.” This person also spewed out various conspiracy theories. One of the more bizarre claims from HLIAnon was that Princess Diana had discovered plans for the 9/11 terrorist attacks before they occurred. This idea was that she had been murdered because she “had tried to stop” the terrorist attacks.

These were soon followed by “CIAAnon” and “CIA Intern” posters. Each of these followed a similar script: they described themselves as people with unique access to high-level secret information revealing a highly improbable conspiracy. In August 2017 a poster called “WH Insider Anon” claimed to have advance information about new developments in the investigations regarding the leaking of information from the Democratic National Committee.

Now fast-forward to October 28, 2017. On that date, a blogger on the right-wing anonymous imageboard 4chan posted the following statement: “HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.”

That involved the claim that Hillary Clinton (HRC) would be arrested on Oct 30 2017 for various unnamed crimes, that this would cause major riots across the country, and simultaneously various elites associated with Hillary would attempt to flee the country. The claimed operation would be carried out by US Marines (M’s), and the National Guard (NG) would be activated. This was followed by a second post on October 30:

“Mockingbird HRC detained, not arrested (yet). Where is Huma? Follow Huma. This has nothing to do w/ Russia (yet). Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals? What is military intelligence? Why go around the 3 letter agencies? What Supreme Court case allows for the use of MI v Congressional assembled and approved agencies? Who has ultimate authority over our branches of military w/o approval conditions unless 90+ in wartime conditions? What is the military code? Where is AW being held? Why? POTUS will not go on tv to address nation. POTUS must isolate himself to prevent negative optics. POTUS knew removing criminal rogue elements as a first step was essential to free and pass legislation. Who has access to everything classified? Do you believe HRC, Soros, Obama etc have more power than Trump? Fantasy. Whoever controls the office of the Presidency controls this great land. They never believed for a moment they (Democrats and Republicans) would lose control. This is not a R v D battle. Why did Soros donate all his money recently? Why would he place all his funds in a RC? Mockingbird 10.30.17 God bless fellow Patriots.”

The anonymous person who uploaded those posts is now called “Q,” because many of his adherents believe him to have a top-secret or Q security clearance. And certainly Q claimed to have access to this secret conspiracy theory. Now, absolutely none of Q’s predictions came true; nevertheless, over the next months the elements of the conspiracy theory were fleshed out. The blogger called Q rapidly moved to another anonymous imageboard 8chan. His posts were often cryptic and produced even more excitement among devotees, as they tried to de-code some of his enigmatic statements and riddles.

The identity of Q remains unknown; in a subsequent section we will discuss the issue “Who is Q?” It is not clear whether Q is a single person, or whether a group of people post as Q. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the posts are intended to convey actual information, or if the Q posts are the work of trolls. Given the amount of online material that has been supplied by Russian hackers, with a number of different motives, it is also unclear whether the posts from Q are being sent by foreigners.

In the past few months, Q has included the COVID-19 pandemic as part of his portfolio. For example, on March 9, 2020 Q weighed in on the coronavirus. He stated that although the epidemic was real, it was part of The Plan, so QAnon adherents should not fear it. He re-tweeted a message sent out by the President that featured a photo of Trump playing a violin on which was superimposed the words “Nothing Can Stop What is Coming,” a statement that has become a catch-phrase for QAnon proponents. A second post that day ended with the statement “The Great Awakening is Worldwide.” A third post on March 9 ended with “GOD WINS.”

Conspiracy theorists are having a field day with the pandemic (see our post on Science Denial and the Coronavirus). Some claim that the entire thing is a massive hoax – one group alleges that COVID-19 is nothing but the flu, and not a very dangerous flu at that. Others claim that the pandemic is the result of harmful electromagnetic (EM) rays from the new 5G technology (some paranoids claim that there is no coronavirus, it is simply harmful effects from 5G; others claim that 5G EM rays weaken the human immune system, making people more susceptible to catching the virus). Still other right-wing analysts claim that the rate of death and serious damage from SARS-COV-2 has been greatly exaggerated by the cabal (the Democrats, the liberal media and the medical profession). Other conspiracy theorists claim that the coronavirus was deliberately released; some accuse the Chinese of releasing it (this group apparently includes White House advisor Peter Navarro, who claims that the Chinese deliberately released a “weaponized virus” to target the U.S.); others claim that the U.S. military released it; still others claim that Bill Gates and Big Pharma released it in order to make massive profits from the vaccine; and others want to pin it on George Soros.

It is worth pointing out that these various conspiracy theories are mutually contradictory. However, it is well documented that people who believe in conspiracy theories are often able to maintain a set of beliefs that contradict each other. Here is another example of mutually contradictory conspiracy theories. One group of QAnon adherents maintains that John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed by Hillary Clinton. A second group believes that JFK Jr. faked his death, that he has been secretly working for Trump since his supposed death, and that he will re-surface and be named Trump’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 2020.

Figure 4: A poster supporting the baseless allegation that the Clintons were involved in John F. Kennedy, Jr’s fatal plane crash.

Q has also included several epigrams that he repeats frequently, and that have become code-phrases that QAnon followers use to identify themselves. One of the most common such statements is “Where we go one, we go all.” This is often abbreviated to WWG1WGA. Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to two felony charges, recently released a video where he and his family and friends repeat this phrase. Trump’s son Eric recently released a Tweet containing this phrase; however it was rapidly deleted. Another Q epigram is “Calm before the storm,” or CBTS; a third is “Enjoy the show.” The phrase “Calm before the storm” was actually used by Trump before the first post from Q on 4chan. On Oct. 5, 2017 Trump was entertaining a group of senior military leaders at the White House. Trump drew a portion of a circle with his hand and asked if the guests knew what it represented. When they expressed their ignorance, Trump said “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” When the guests and the attending press asked Trump what storm he was referring to, he said “You’ll find out.”

Figure 5: The book jacket for “The Calm Before The Storm” by David Hayes.  ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ is a catchphrase used by QAnon followers.

People who become obsessed with the cryptic utterances from Q are said to have “taken the red pill,” or alternatively as having “gone down the rabbit hole.” So, what are the central elements of the conspiracy theory adopted by QAnon adherents? They believe that the entire world political system is controlled by a vast cabal. (See our post on Conspiracy Theory True Believers for evidence that the lasting power of a conspiracy decreases rapidly as the number of co-conspirators increases.) In the U.S., this group controls both political parties, as well as the mainstream media. In addition, they control both Hollywood and the international monetary system. Until Donald Trump’s election, every U.S. president was either a member of this cabal or was controlled by it. In addition to being incredibly wealthy and powerful, the ruling body is made up of a group of pedophiles who worship Satan. So the Q conspiracy theory incorporates the “Pizzagate” theory that preceded it.

The conspiracy theory has now morphed into a predicted series of events known as “The Plan,” which proceeds roughly as follows. There is currently a massive struggle going on behind the scenes between Donald Trump and his followers (who call themselves “white hats”), and members of the cabal (of course, “black hats”). A prediction from Q is that this will eventually precipitate a culminating event called “The Storm.” At this time, there will be mass arrests of the members of the cabal by elements of the U.S. military, who will take over the country. Once the elite are arrested (some believe that they will subsequently be imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay), the result will be a utopian society, called by some The Great Awakening.

Figure 6: A poster referring to the “Great Awakening,” an apocalyptic event predicted by the QAnon group.

Over the past few years, QAnon devotees have spawned a number of offshoot notions. One of them is that “Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had developed a secret “16-year plan” to destroy the United States through a series of orchestrated catastrophes, including mass drought, weaponized disease, food shortages, and nuclear war.” Others have focused on the Jeffrey Epstein case, since this would naturally imply a connection to morally degenerate elites (those pushing this theory are apparently unconcerned by the fact that Donald Trump hung around with Epstein and his young women, or that many of the lawyers who secured favorable treatment for Epstein were Republicans. Perhaps the most striking member of Epstein’s legal team was Kenneth Starr, the prosecutor who relentlessly pursued Bill Clinton through his impeachment hearings).

One conspiracy theory relating to the Pizzagate debacle was that the cabal had diverted millions of dollars collected by the Clinton Foundation for relief following the 2010 Haitian earthquake. That money had been used to fund the (non-existent) massive child-sex ring that was claimed to be operating out of the Comet Ping Pong restaurant. However, Q and his fellow “white hats” within the intelligence community banded together to elect the only politician not controlled by the elites — Donald Trump.

During the investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election, some QAnon followers claimed that Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller were actually working in concert. Their prediction was that the outcome of Mueller’s investigation would not only result in complete exoneration of Trump, but that Mueller’s report would name the members of the “Deep State,” who would be arrested and indicted.

The fact that none of these predictions has come true, and the lack of a shred of actual evidence for any of these claims, has not deterred QAnon adherents (except they have dropped Mueller from their list of “white hats”). They maintain their faith that the cryptic nuggets released by Q represent accurate observations of the nature of our political system, and that they have been posted by someone with deep inside knowledge of this vast international political conspiracy. While it is a general characteristic of conspiracy theory true believers that they perceive causal connections among actual random occurrences, the QAnon adherents go further, to connect invisible dots.

One of the reasons that people worry about the QAnon phenomenon is its incitement to violence. In our currently divided society, many people believe that individuals in the opposite political camp have deep moral failings. I confess that when I watch how immigrants and asylum seekers are subjected to deliberately inhumane treatment (e.g., separating young children from their parents and confining them in prison cells), I wonder at the moral compass of those who create these procedures. But the QAnon conspiracy theory goes far beyond simple disagreements over principles. The claim that members of this cabal are Satan-worshipping pedophiles invites QAnon adherents to retaliate violently against cabal members.

And ‘Q’ has personally stoked these tendencies. In one of his posts he stated “These people ALL need to be ELIMINATED.” In addition, posts on the 4chan and 8chan imageboards associated with QAnon feature anonymous posters who fantasize about gruesome fates they fantasized for Hillary Clinton. As reported by Adrienne LaFrance, “One person wrote: ‘I’m surprised no one has assassinated her yet honestly.’ Another: ’The buzzards rip her rotting corpse to shreds.’ A third: ’I want to see her blood pouring down the gutters.’ Certainly Edgar Welch understood that Q’s posts represented a call to violent retribution. Once he became obsessed with the notion of this child-abuse cult, he sent messages to his friends asking for their help in fighting “a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard.” He wanted their assistance in his quest to sacrifice “the lives of a few for the lives of many.”

In addition to Edgar Welch’s assault-rifle attack on Comet Ping Pong, there have been other violent or potentially violent acts carried out by QAnon adherents. These include:

• In 2018, the FBI arrested a California man who had bomb-making materials in his possession. He admitted that he had planned to attack the Illinois capitol “to make Americans aware of ‘Pizzagate’ and the New World Order who were destroying society.”
• In June 2018, QAnon follower Matthew Wright blocked the road to the Hoover Dam with a homemade armored vehicle. Wright was demanding the release of the inspector general’s report on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. He had more than 900 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle when he was arrested.
• In January 2019, Ryan Jaselkis attempted to set fire to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant, after he posted a QAnon conspiracy video on his parents’ YouTube channel.
• In March 2019, Anthony Comelli shot and killed Gambino family crime boss Francesco Cali in Staten Island, New York. Comelli believed that Cali was part of the “Deep State” trying to oust President Trump.
• In April 2019, members of the United Constitutional Patriots militia held nearly 300 migrants at gunpoint at the US-Mexico border. The militia members are active promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theories.

The FBI agrees that QAnon represents a movement with dangerous potential. In a 2019 internal memo, they classified QAnon as a domestic terror threat. The FBI warned that conspiracies such as QAnon incite people to violence, particularly when individuals “claiming to act as ‘researchers’ or ‘investigators’ single out people, businesses or groups which they falsely accuse of being involved in the imagined scheme.”

The lurid fantasies of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, and their demonization of liberals, the mainstream media, and international bankers, can be viewed in context with other disturbing developments on the far right. The first is that violent acts, particularly mass shootings, have always been predominantly a phenomenon of the right. Reviews of mass shootings have shown that right-wing violence is at least three times more prevalent than mass shootings by leftists. Another disturbing event was that several of the protests against “stay at home” orders in many states due to the coronavirus pandemic featured heavily-armed members of local militias. In Michigan, a group of these armed protesters broke into the State Capitol building.

Another ominous sign is that Donald Trump’s strategy for re-election appears to revolve around demonizing the Democrats in general and Joe Biden in particular. And one of the topics that Trump hammers away at is “Second Amendment rights.” The QAnon conspiracy theories are creating a heightened possibility that armed groups of citizens, like Edgar Welch, will want to “sacrifice the lives of a few to protect the lives of the many.” And we provided examples of cases where QAnon devotees have had armed standoffs with police, or even murdered a crime family member because they believed that he was part of the “Deep State.”

Spreading the QAnon Message

Figure 7: A poster for QAnon containing their catchphrase “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming.”

We pointed out that, initially, the anonymous messages from “Q” were no different from several other social-media posters who claimed to have inside information about vast government conspiracies. So why did the QAnon conspiracy theory gain so much publicity, while quite similar allegations remained buried inside the Dark Web? One answer is that some savvy social-media activists latched onto the messages from Q and provided them much wider distribution. We will review the work of three of these activists.

Tracy Diaz:

Tracy Diaz is an online personality with a considerable presence on social media. She is known online as “TracyBeanz,” and she has nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter and another 100,000 followers on YouTube. At one time Ms. Diaz hosted a talk show on the right-wing Liberty Movement Radio network. She had gained a fair amount of notoriety when she promoted the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that preceded QAnon. She was also known for her analyses of materials dumped by Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In November 2017, Ms. Diaz was contacted by two moderators of the 4chan Web site. Their usernames were Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe. BaruchtheScribe is actually a South African Web programmer named Paul Furber. On Nov. 3, 2017, Ms. Diaz released a YouTube video titled “/POL/- Q Clearance Anon – is it #happening???” She claimed that she did not regularly cover such conspiracy theories, but she was impressed by Q’s “very specific and kind of eerie” predictions. She announced that she would continue to cover Q’s posts “just in case this stuff turns out to be legit, because honestly it kind of seems legit.” [For someone who was convinced by the ridiculous “Pizzagate” allegations, perhaps Q’s rather similar conspiracy theories would “seem legit.”]

In any case, Tracy Diaz’ first YouTube video has by now been viewed 250,000 times. She continued to post videos in which she publicized posts from Q and provided some analysis for her viewers. By now, she has released dozens of Q-related videos; collectively, they have been viewed over 8 million times (!) And Ms. Diaz found a way to monetize her work. Every YouTube video contains a request that viewers contribute to her accounts on Patreon or PayPal. In fact, Ms. Diaz has admitted that donations from viewers now constitute her sole source of income. In this case Ms. Diaz is following in the footsteps of Alex Jones, the proprietor of the “Infowars” franchise. Mr. Jones specializes in lurid, and completely false, conspiracy theories. He is particularly notorious for his claims that various mass shootings in U.S. schools were faked, in order to increase support for gun control legislation. But Jones also profits handsomely from his theories, by hawking ‘survival’ gear that will allow his listeners to survive the coming social upheavals predicted by his conspiracy theories.

Figure 8: A poster summarizes some of the conspiracy theories pushed by QAnon supporters; in this case allegations that George Soros, the Rothschilds and the Saudis are part of the international cabal that controls world affairs.

Ms. Diaz suggested to Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe that they migrate from the more arcane imageboards such as 4chan or 8chan to Reddit, where they could expect to reach a wider audience. They created a new Reddit community called CBTS Stream (for “Calm Before The Storm”), where people would read posts from Q and share their opinions and analyses of their meaning. Apparently the move to Reddit created a thriving group of adherents. It was not unlike an online mystery game: one would receive cryptic messages (called “crumbs” by QAnon devotees) and attempt to extract meaning from them.

The QAnon group subsequently created Facebook pages devoted to similar Q lore. And here the movement really blew up. Participants on Facebook who access certain material will be alerted by Facebook’s algorithms that they might be interested in similar content (this is analogous to the messages from Amazon that “people who purchased your item were also interested in …”) So Facebook drew in to the QAnon sites people who showed any interest in other right-wing conspiracy theories, people who shared posts that accused Democrats of perfidy, gun-rights advocates, etc.

Coleman Rogers:

The anonymous blogger who went by the name Pamphlet Anon was outed by NBC, who determined his identity by tracking financial records and by checking photos on his social media accounts with appearances of Pamphlet Anon on YouTube videos. His name is Coleman Rogers.

As Pamphlet Anon, Rogers and fellow moderator BaruchtheScribe (Paul Furber) had suggested that Tracy Diaz help to amplify the messages from Q. As we noted in the previous segment, the QAnon conspiracy theory had gone viral through Diaz’ YouTube videos and QAnon sites set up on Reddit. Reddit appeared to be a welcoming site for right-wing conspiracy theories; for example, the subreddit r/conspiracy had 1.2 million followers. However, in September 2018 Reddit banned the QAnon groups, based on its rules against content that “incites violence, disseminates personal information or harasses.” As a result, QAnon moved to different platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Shortly after QAnon was banned from Reddit, Rogers and his wife Christina Urso launched a YouTube site called Patriots’ Soapbox. This was a natural for Rogers because of his prior record of support for right-wing causes and for conspiracy theories. During the 2016 presidential elections, Rogers had been quite active in supporting Donald Trump. He posted many ‘memes’ on social-media platforms and posted a significant amount of commentary boosting Trump and demonizing Hillary Clinton. Rogers was also active in promulgating the notion that prominent Democrats were Satan-worshipping pedophiles and child murderers. So the QAnon movement was right up his alley.

The Patriots’ Soapbox is a 24-hour live-streamed YouTube channel that was devoted to reviewing and discussing the QAnon phenomenon. This is accomplished through a rotating cast of volunteers and moderators that includes both Rogers and Urso. As with Tracy Diaz, Rogers tries to monetize his efforts by requesting donations from viewers, who can choose between mailing a check, using PayPal, or paying with cryptocurrencies.

David Hayes:

Figure 9: David Hayes, a personality on YouTube and Twitter who goes by the handle “PrayingMedic.”

David Hayes is currently a social-media star who uses the online handle PrayingMedic (he is a former paramedic). He and his wife Denise produce shows on YouTube and also use Twitter. They have roughly 300,000 followers on each platform. Like many of the QAnon adherents, Hayes and his wife are born-again Christians. In fact, Hayes claims that he was drawn to the QAnon movement by God. On December 2017 he posted “My dreams have suggested that God wants me to keep my attention focused on politics and current events. After some prayer, I’ve decided to do a regular news and current events show on Periscope. I’m trying to do one broadcast a day.”

Through his YouTube and Twitter posts, David Hayes has become one of the most sought-after personalities who push QAnon. His YouTube video Q For Beginners Part I has been viewed over a million times. Like so many other QAnon followers, Hayes denies that he is a conspiracy theorist at all, he’s just a guy who does his own research. And like the other social-media mavens who are pushing QAnon, Hayes is making a living from this work. He and his wife now spend full time publicizing the QAnon phenomenon. Hayes has published a book The Calm Before the Storm, and he suggests that this could be the first in a 10-part series. In addition, Hayes has authored a book called American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare. The book cover below appears to be high on the ‘Warfare’ aspect and low on the ‘Spiritual’ side.

Figure 10: The book American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare, by David Hayes.

One of Hayes’ features that makes him an attractive spokesperson for the QAnon movement is that he does not sound crazy. He also views the Great Awakening in terms derived directly from Christian End-of-Times narratives, with an Armageddon followed by a utopian existence for true believers. Concerning this Great Awakening, Hayes writes “It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.”

In all, David Hayes’ YouTube videos have garnered over 33 million views. His “Q For Beginners” video features ads from The Epoch Times; this is a Trump-friendly newspaper published by the Chinese Falun Gong movement. Hayes’ streams of income include donations from viewers, ads on his YouTube videos, and sales of his books.

Who Is ‘Q’?

Figure 11: A poster depicting a shadowy figure representing the anonymous poster ‘Q.’

It is widely believed by QAnon devotees that Q is a person in the military or intelligence field, with the highest level of security clearance and access to secret intelligence. This is largely because messages from Q are presented in a military-style jargon, and he occasionally states that “I have said too much,” or indicates that he is releasing top-secret material. However, the particular jargon used by Q could be produced by anyone familiar with, say, Tom Clancy novels. And the material released by Q tends to come in two general forms. The first consists of riddles, questions, and epigrams with little to no specific content. QAnon devotees spend great amounts of time speculating on the meaning of these “crumbs,” but they are creating levels of specificity completing lacking in the messages from Q. The second type of information from Q is extremely specific – for example, the prediction in October 2017 that Hillary Clinton would be arrested and her passport confiscated in the next 24 hours. The problem with the specific predictions is that none of them has come true, and they are completely bizarre (viz, the ‘Pizzagate’ narrative). Nevertheless, it is common for QAnon adherents to assert that they are busily doing their own ‘research,’ which is validating the claims made by Q.

There is a relatively small group of QAnon followers who believe that Donald Trump is Q. Adrienne LaFrance interviewed one QAnon adherent who believed that Trump himself was Q. Apparently these people avidly watch Trump, and tax their brain cells creating “information” that would validate their hypothesis. For example, at one of the Coronavirus Task Force briefings, Trump wore a yellow tie. Someone posted on one of the Facebook QAnon sites “He is telling us there is no virus threat because it [Trump’s tie] is the exact same color as the maritime flag that represents the vessel has no infected people on board.” This post was widely shared on social media — it occurred three days before the World Health Organization declared the epidemic a pandemic. Two other statements by Trump elicited similar excitement from this cohort. On March 28, 2020 he tweeted “I am giving consideration to a QUARANTINE.” The following day he tweeted, “I am a great friend and admirer of the Queen & United Kingdom.” This group of QAnon followers excitedly announced, “See! Proof that Trump is Q – if you remove the extraneous words from these statements, you get ‘I am … Q’!” This is what passes for “proof” in QAnon World.

Although the idea of “Trump as Q” seems extremely far-fetched (though perhaps no more unlikely than every other QAnon tenet), there is no doubt that Donald Trump has used his bully platform to amplify the QAnon message. A New York Times article from last November that analyzed Trump’s Twitter messages and re-tweets found that as of November 2019, Trump had re-tweeted from at least 145 Twitter accounts that contained content containing conspiracy theories and/or extremist content. In January 2017, shortly before he was inaugurated, Trump alleged in a 60 Minutes interview that once he was President, he would cut back on his Twitter feeds. “I’m going to do very restrained, if I use it at all,” Trump promised. “I’m going to do very restrained.”

The Times reporters pointed out that Trump has re-tweeted posts from right-wing bloggers such as William Craddick and Jack Posobiec. Both of them had been active in spreading the baseless “Pizzagate” rumors. And the QAnon posts that he re-tweets are only a fraction of the baseless rumors that he circulates, guaranteeing them a much wider audience. There are posts from people pushing the “white replacement” theory that non-whites and Third World peoples are involved in a massive conspiracy to kill and dispossess white people. There are false anti-Muslim tweets and equally false anti-Semitic posts.

Figure 12 below shows the 47 people and groups that Donald Trump followed on social media as of November 2019.  They consisted of one Congressman (Rep. Jim Jordan), several members of his own family, several commentators for Fox News, a number of sites, several current and former members of his administration, various current and former members of his campaign staff, and a few conservative social-media personalities.

Figure 12: The 47 individuals and groups that Donald Trump follows on social media.

Recently, there have been people who decided that Tracy Diaz and/or Coleman Rogers are posting as Q. In particular, various actions by Rogers on his YouTube channel have led some to claim that he is producing the posts attributed to Q. One reason for the controversy over the identity of Q is that his posts contain a “tripcode” to verify their authenticity. However, over time the tripcode has varied, and some critics now believe that either the original Q has been replaced by others, or that Q is not a single individual but a group of people. As we mentioned earlier, it also cannot be ruled out that the ‘Q’ posts could be the work of foreigners who might have some nefarious motives for posting such material.

The controversy over the credibility of “Q” posts has led the largest pro-Trump Reddit community, r/The_Donald, to ban all mention of QAnon. However, the number of Tweets of material from QAnon adherents continues to increase.

Recently, the QAnon conspiracy theories have even spread to Europe. This has been reported by Tara John at CNN. It is rather amazing that a conspiracy theory as American as QAnon, which claims the existence of an international cabal with Democratic politicians at its center, and with Donald Trump as the “white hat” savior fighting against these Satanic elites, should find a sympathetic hearing across the Atlantic.

However, the group NewsGuard finds a dramatic increase in Europeans reading QAnon posts on social media, particularly since the economic lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Apparently the QAnon myth that the world is run by a shadowy group of international elites is appealing to both nationalists and anarchists abroad. The ability of QAnon to soak up older hoaxes (Jews control the monetary system, sinister elites run the political system) and combine them with new ones (the international cabal is composed of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, plus a host of different coronavirus hoax theories) makes QAnon sufficiently elastic that Europeans can combine it with their own local socio-political theories.

Thus NewsGuard reports that European QAnon groups have now gained nearly half a million followers or members, many of them in the past few months. Thus German QAnon members portray portray Chancellor Angela Merkel “as a ‘deep state puppet’ who needs to be overthrown,” the report says. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been dismissed as “a pawn” in French language QAnon posts. And Italian QAnon supporters have lauded the far-right former interior minister Matteo Salvini, but treated the country’s centrist Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte with scorn. In particular, the German QAnon movement began as early as 2018 and has many adherents, including famous vegan chef Attila Hildmann, who claims (with zero evidence) that Angela Merkel is working “together with Gates, the Zionists, transhumanists and communists” to plan “the genocide of the Germans.” And recently members of the French Gilet Jaune (Yellow Vest) protest movement have developed an interest in QAnon posts. It is another ominous sign that the QAnon movement seems to be able to recruit followers in Europe as well as America.

Researchers Analyze the QAnon Phenomenon

Figure 13: At a Trump rally in Florida, David Reinert appears wearing a symbol for QAnon.

Joseph Uscinski is a professor of political science at the University of Miami. He has studied conspiracy theories and their believers for quite a while. Uscinski claims that instead of considering conspiracy theories along political lines, one should consider them as a particular set of beliefs, which can be the same for “true believers” on either side of the political spectrum. According to Uscinski, conspiracy theorists tend to accept a particular set of propositions. “Our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places. Although we ostensibly live in a democracy, a small group of people run everything, but we don’t know who they are. When big events occur—pandemics, recessions, wars, terrorist attacks—it is because that secretive group is working against the rest of us.”

In his effort to decouple conspiracy theorists from the right wing of the political spectrum, Uscinski claims that Democrats also believe in conspiracy theories. Here is his example: he cited Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insistence that the 1% run politics and that his 2016 losses in Democratic presidential primaries showed the system was “rigged.” To me, this is a totally unconvincing analogy. With regard to Sanders’ claim that “the 1% run politics,” there is ample evidence to support this claim. Just look at the influence that a handful of conservative billionaires (e.g., Charles Koch, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Sheldon Adelson, …) have had on our political system ever since the Citizens United Supreme Court case. This is all outlined in the book Dark Money by Jane Mayer. As for Sanders’ claim that the Democratic primaries were “rigged” against him, some of the hacked e-mails from Democratic party leadership show that various supposedly non-partisan officials were actively trying to help Hillary Clinton and hinder Sanders’ chances. And Uscinski is comparing Sanders’ beliefs to a conspiracy theory that claims Democratic leaders, international bankers and Hollywood stars are all Satan-worshipping pedophiles who abduct and murder children?

Uscinski observes that “there is nothing particularly conservative about QAnon.” It is likely that he is trying to differentiate between “conservative” and “right-wing.” A more convincing example of conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political spectrum might be the anti-vaxxers. They subscribe to a number of conspiracy theories that have little or no evidence to support them, and their membership ranges from right-wing fundamentalists to libertarians to alternate-lifestyle hippies. We covered this in our blog posts on vaccination, and on anti-vaxxer Kent Heckentlightly, co-author of a couple of books with conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits.

In any case, we find a great deal of evidence that the QAnon followers are part of a right-wing conspiracy theory. They do have a diverse range of interests and motivations, but they all believe that there is a vast international conspiracy run by Democrats and mainstream politicians and bankers. And they also believe that this gigantic international cabal is made up of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Furthermore, they are convinced that these people will be rounded up and either convicted of crimes, or exiled to somewhere like Guantanamo Bay.

Uscinski also cautions about getting too concerned about the sheer number of people who share QAnon posts. He has carried out polls that compare the level of belief in various conspiracy theories. He claims that QAnon is ”one of the least believed things’ out there, well below belief in theories about Jeffrey Epstein’s death, anti-vaccine hoaxes, and Holocaust denialism.” Furthermore, he points out that various parts of the QAnon conspiracy theories are essentially recycled parts of theories that have been floating around for decades. The fact that conspiracy theories make use of old tropes does not make them less dangerous. For example, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were used to justify Nazi atrocities; and the rise of nationalist regimes around the world is often accompanied by propaganda that demonizes certain minorities.

Will Partin is a research analyst with Data & Society, and Alice Marwick is a professor of communication at the University of North Carolina. They describe QAnon as a “dark participatory society;” that is, this social-media group begins with what could be very positive aspects. It brings a group of like-minded people together, forms them into a community, and has them participate in group discussions, collaboration and ‘research.’ However, Partin and Marwick point out that these energies are directed toward anti-democratic, regressive and even violent ends.

Partin believes that it would be unwise to ban QAnon from Facebook; besides, it is probably too late, as the group would simply migrate to some other platform. However, Partin is in favor of Facebook “taking a more aggressive approach to moderation,” including addressing their recommendation algorithms. Facebook would have a serious issue trying to de-platform QAnon. They are already under some pressure from conservatives, who accuse Facebook of bias whenever they take down right-wing posts for violating their guidelines. Once QAnon supporters are elected to Congress, it will become that much harder for Facebook to take action against those posts.

QAnon as Analogous to a Religion

Figure 14: The Book QAnon and the Dark Agenda, that attempts to link QAnon conspiracy theories with much earlier Illuminati theories.

Adrienne LaFrance emphasizes her belief that the QAnon phenomenon is closely analogous to a religious organization. All conspiracy theories have aspects analogous to religions, in that they require the believer to place absolute faith in the veracity of a set of claims. But as we will show, several of the QAnon theories have direct analogies with fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

First, the “Great Awakening” predicted by QAnon – a military coup followed by a utopian society – has many similarities to the Armageddon predicted by Christian sects. Some fundamentalist preachers scour various phrases from the Bible, particularly those found in Revelations, for evidence that the Second Coming is imminent, or they seek to uncover “God’s Plan for America” in Biblical passages. In similar fashion, QAnon adherents sift through various pronouncements by Q and attempt to decipher their meaning. Indeed, many of the statements from Q consist of lists of obscure questions, and enigmatic comments. QAnon followers spend great amounts of time trying to weave these comments into coherent predictions or claims. In fact, the followers are doing all the work and are essentially creating the “predictions” out of thin air.

Adrienne LaFrance encountered a QAnon follower named Lorrie Shock. She was convinced that her interest in Q was sparked by God. She stated, “I feel God led me to Q. I really feel like God pushed me in this direction. I feel like if it was deceitful, in my spirit, God would be telling me, ‘Enough’s enough.’ But I don’t feel that.” So she attributes divine intervention for her interest in Q; furthermore, she believes that God would send her a sign if this phenomenon was not credible.

As might be expected, Shock and her friends not only do not watch mainstream media news programs, they have migrated from Fox News to the even more right-wing One America News Network. LaFrance asked Shock and a friend to name a single prediction by Q that had come true. Although they could not name one, they expressed confidence that a number of predictions by Q had come true (we know of none). LaFrance pointed out that many of the QAnon adherents she had interviewed insisted that a crucial part of the Q conspiracy theories is that people do their own research. It is curious that this point should be stressed so greatly on behalf of theories where there is zero actual evidence. Perhaps it is the case that by “research,” these people mean combing the Internet for like-minded conspiracy theorists, or for wacky hypotheses that agree with their own prejudices.

Adrienne LaFrance interviewed Arthur Jones, a documentary film-maker who made a film about the influence of Internet memes on the 2016 election. Jones said that he knows many devout people “who are deeply interested in the Book of Revelation, and in trying to unpack ’all of its pretty-hard-to-decipher prophecies. I think the same kind of person would all of a sudden start pulling at the threads of Q and start feeling like everything is starting to fall into place and make sense. If you are an evangelical and you look at Donald Trump on face value, he lies, he steals, he cheats, he’s been married multiple times, he’s clearly a sinner. But you are trying to find a way that he is somehow part of God’s plan.’”

In addition to adopting an apocalyptic vision of the future, QAnon adherents believe that this “Great Awakening” outcome is preordained. Their popular ritual phrase “Nothing can stop what is coming” is analogous to the belief of Christians in the inevitability of the Second Coming. It may help to explain the strong appeal of the QAnon movement to evangelical Christians.

Another way to think of the QAnon movement is to consider it as a paramilitary organization.  The group now has a pledge taken by its members, and it has a song.  The group shares catchphrases that indicate the person using them belongs to QAnon or supports their cause.  In addition, some of their adherents have begun showing up heavily armed at rallies and protests.

Figure 15: The QAnon song. The group also has a pledge and a number of catchphrases used by its adherents.

It seems clear that the QAnon community is essentially a faith-based organization, that is they have faith that the cryptic messages and predictions from Q are accurate. They have a corpus of “revealed wisdom,” the messages purported to come from Q. A number of believers attempt to decipher the hidden messages inside these communications. Although Q issues the messages, and clearly identifies himself as one of the “white hats,” he is not actually the heroic figure to the QAnon believers – Q is more like the “Saint Paul” of this group.

The central figure in this belief system appears to be Donald Trump. He is identified as the one political figure who has not been a member of the vast cabal. Despite the fact that Trump has run the most corrupt administration in history, and that his personal characteristics (his lying, serial infidelity, crooked business deals, bankruptcies, etc) are highly dubious, he is viewed by the QAnon believers as an incorruptible “white hat” who is now in a titanic struggle to oust the cabal members, round them up and imprison them. Thus QAnon operates as essentially a Donald-Trump cult.  Of course, all of this plays into Donald Trump’s constant complaints about how badly he is being treated and how unfairly he is portrayed by his enemies.

GOP Candidates Affiliated with QAnon

Until recently, QAnon conspiracy theories could be considered far outside our political scene. However, this year a number of Republican candidates for Congressional office have either publicly endorsed QAnon views, repeated QAnon stock phrases on social media, or included QAnon posts in materials sent out to their supporters. We will consider four of these GOP candidates here. For a more complete list of GOP candidates who identify with QAnon in some way, see this article by Axios.

Lauren Boebert:

Figure 16: Lauren Boebert, a Republican candidate for Congress from Colorado who has expressed support for QAnon.

The candidate who is most likely to end up in Congress is Lauren Boebert. Ms. Boebert defeated 5-term Republican congressman Scott Tipton in a primary for a Congressional seat in western Colorado. As the candidate in a solidly Republican district, she is expected to win a seat in Congress. Ms. Boebert is a relative neophyte in politics. She is the proprietor of the Shooter’s Grill bar and restaurant in aptly-named Rifle, Colorado. At Ms. Boebert’s establishment, the servers all carry handguns. She gained notoriety a year ago when she issued a strongly-worded statement challenging Beto O’Rourke’s call for banning assault rifles; she subsequently was interviewed on Fox News. She also issued defiant statements against shelter-in-place orders for the coronavirus.

Ms. Boebert initially expressed interest in the sentiments expressed by the QAnon group. Apparently, she heard about the group from her mother. She commented “Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values.” She also added, “If this is real, it could be really great for our country.”

After her upset victory, Ms. Boebert’s campaign has eased up a bit on the QAnon rhetoric. Her campaign manager Sherronna Bishop claimed that her candidate was not going to focus on the QAnon precepts. “We know exactly what we’re about and that’s the Constitution and freedom,” Ms. Bishop stated. “We are not into conspiracy theories.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene:

Figure 17: Marjorie Taylor Greene, a participant in a runoff election for the Republican nomination for Congress in Georgia’s 14th District.

Marjorie Taylor Greene is a Republican candidate from Georgia’s 14th Congressional district. In a primary election, Ms. Greene came in first; however, she did not receive over half the votes so is now in a runoff with neurosurgeon John Cowan for what is considered a relatively safe Republican seat. Unlike other GOP candidates who have backed off support for QAnon once their support for the group was made public, Ms. Greene is openly enthusiastic about this conspiracy theory. She has stated that QAnon is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out.”

However, her candidacy hit a speed bump after Politico released videos showing her making racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic remarks. For example, Ms. Greene claimed that black people “are held slaves to the Democratic party.” She further stated that there was “an Islamic invasion of government offices right now,” and she suggested that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in government. She also threw in numerous anti-Semitic comments. She particularly focused on George Soros; a year ago she forwarded a meme claiming that Soros was part of a secret world government and added “The Nazi himself trying to continue what was not finished.”

Greene’s remarks caused a great deal of consternation, coming on the heels of the protests over the killing of George Floyd. Many Republicans have moved to supporting her runoff opponent; and her opponent John Cowan has publicly criticized Ms. Greene’s statements.

Jo Rae Perkins:

Figure 18: Jo Rae Perkins, Republican candidate for Senate in Oregon, holding a sign representing a QAnon slogan, “Where We Go One, We Go All.”

Jo Rae Perkins is the Republican candidate for Senate in Oregon. In a recent video Ms. Perkins was shown repeating the QAnon oath. She has posted a video in which she supported QAnon; but she then took the video down. However, Ms. Perkins next claimed that she had been “duped” by her campaign staff, and she re-posted the video. She has also had a number of financial and legal issues. She has filed twice for personal bankruptcy, and in 2008 she was “fired from her sales position at an investment company for violating its policy.” She was also charged in 2007 with harassment and hindering prosecution, for which she pleaded no contest. Ms. Perkins is considered an extremely long shot to unseat incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley.

Angela Stanton-King:

Figure 19: Angela Stanton-King, republican candidate for Congress in Georgia’s 5th District. Ms. Stanton has reposted videos from QAnon supporters.

Finally we have Angela Stanton-King, the Republican candidate for Congress in Georgia’s 5th District. On Instagram, Ms. Stanton-King posted a video from a prominent QAnon supporter; that video stated that “those who are corrupting our world will be permanently eradicated from the Earth.” She also refers to QAnon on social media; however she states that she is not a believer in this conspiracy theory.

Because she is the god-daughter of Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr, the former Ms. Stanton now refers to herself as Stanton-King. She was uncontested in the Republican primary. Ms. Stanton-King has a colorful past. In 2004 she was convicted on federal conspiracy charges stemming from her role in a car-theft ring. She served two years in federal prison, where she gave birth to a daughter. In February of this year, she received a pardon from President Trump.

In addition to her frequent posts of QAnon slogans on social media, Ms. Stanton-King has also made statements criticizing LBGTQ groups. She has compared the LGBTQ movement as tantamount to pedophilia. Initially, Ms. Stanton-King was given essentially zero chance to unseat the incumbent, civil rights legend John Lewis. However, after Lewis’ death from cancer in July 2020, the race is somewhat more uncertain.

It now appears that at least one candidate who has indicated support for the QAnon conspiracy theories, Lauren Boebert, is a heavy favorite to win election to Congress. A second candidate, Marjorie Taylor Greene, was at one time the front-runner in her runoff election; however, revelations of deeply prejudiced comments about blacks, Jews and Muslims have damaged her candidacy and have caused her to lose some support in her district. The other candidates appear to be moderate to heavy underdogs. However, as Joseph Uscinski says, “I shouldn’t have to guess if my congressperson believes in satanic, baby-eating child molesters.”


Figure 20: A person attending a Trump rally holds up a placard promoting QAnon.

The anonymous poster ‘Q’ first appeared about three years ago. Outwardly, the postings appeared little different from several other anonymous offerings on obscure imageboards. As we pointed out, none of the specific events predicted by Q have come true. Furthermore, the current entries from this anonymous individual (or group) consist of a few specific predictions, but now more commonly cryptic messages and phrases. Nevertheless, these messages are now read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. And a group QAnon has formed around these messages.

A few people on social media are now making a living presenting this material, decoding it or sharing efforts by others to decode it, and communicating with like-minded individuals. Q claims to be a person with top-secret government clearance, and has outlined a titanic struggle between a small group of insiders (the “white hats”), who are fighting against a vast international cabal. The cabal is claimed to control nearly the entire U.S. political and economic system, but also the international monetary system, the mainstream media, and Hollywood. Although it is asserted that powerful members of both parties are members of the cabal, virtually the entire focus has been on powerful Democrats, particularly centered on the Clintons. It is claimed that not only are these people incredibly powerful, but that they are Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

The QAnon doctrine states that Donald Trump is the only politician who was not a member of, or controlled by, this cabal. Apparently the Trump administration, aided by the “white hats,” will soon arrest these elites. They will be either convicted and jailed, or else exiled. These events will be accompanied by a military coup. The pending rout of the pedophile elites is called the “Great Awakening,” and will be followed by the establishment of a utopian society.

As time has progressed, and because of the great visibility of the QAnon phenomenon, various other conspiracy theories have been incorporated into these beliefs. Now one finds anti-Semitic and racist theories. Various billionaires (e.g., Bill Gates, George Soros and the Rothschild banking family) are also included in the list of corrupt elites in the cabal. Conspiracy theories regarding the deaths of various individuals are also included – notably theories about the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. And a number of the coronavirus hoax theories have also been absorbed.

As time has passed, various people have come into or out of favor with the QAnon group. Initially, it was assumed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a prominent “white hat,” and he was presented as a heroic figure. However, after he recused himself from the Russian “collusion” investigations, and was fired by Trump, he became a “black hat.” A similar fate befell Robert Mueller, the head of the investigation into Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election. An early theory was that Mueller and Trump were secretly collaborating together, and that Mueller’s report would totally exonerate Trump, and “out” the evil elites, who would then be convicted. However, when that failed to materialize, Mueller also was dropped from the “white hats.”

The claims made by the QAnon group are absolutely fantastical, and there is no substantive evidence to suggest that any of it is true. However, that is not the point of a conspiracy theory. All conspiracy theories follow very similar patterns, and QAnon is no different from the rest (see here, here, here, here and here). This group functions much like a religious organization. A basic set of precepts is taken on faith by the members. QAnon has recently developed an oath taken by their believers. They communicate with each other, share ideas and repeat certain stock phrases to communicate to others their membership in this organization. They have a ‘sacred text,’ in this case the posts by Q. Groups of individuals attempt to decode cryptic passages, not unlike people who attempt to interpret predictions from the biblical Book of Revelations. An apocalyptic struggle is foretold, much like Armageddon, to be followed by a utopian society for the believers.

We discussed some of the people who were instrumental in increasing the visibility of these posts, and sharing them on a number of social media platforms. However, that does not explain why QAnon has grown so rapidly, while similar conspiracy theories have remained deep in the Dark Web. Some analysts have pointed out that, although posts from Q are shared widely on YouTube, Facebook and other sites, the number of ‘true believers’ is much smaller than the number who view the posts. Furthermore, although the charges against the elites are even more severe than most conspiracy theories, there is a considerable recycling of old conspiracy theory tropes in QAnon.

However, one disturbing feature of the QAnon theory is its incitement to violence. The claimed behavior of the elite cabal members is so awful – for example, child sexual abuse and abduction and Satanic rituals – that gullible members who believe these absurd stories are led to take violent action against the perpetrators. Some of the material from Q and QAnon adherents is quite explicit, e.g. “These people must ALL be EXTERMINATED.” Certainly this was the case with Edgar Welch. We are very fortunate that he merely blasted holes in a computer storage closet with his assault rifle, rather than killing a number of innocent people. And Anthony Comelli actually killed a crime boss because he was convinced he was involved in this pedophilia ring.

The risk is sufficiently great that the FBI has classified QAnon as a domestic terror threat. At the moment, the QAnon movement is making inroads into the Republican Party. This is exacerbated by the fact that Donald Trump and his family are re-Tweeting messages from any number of right-wing conspiracy theorists. This makes them part of his ‘base’ and facilitates their entry into GOP politics. QAnon is not simply another special-interest group such as advocates for tougher immigration policies or anti-abortion activists. And it is not an otherwise harmless group that merely believes a wacky conspiracy theory, like people who maintain that the U.S. space program was a hoax, or the Flat-Earthers. QAnon shows every sign of being a dangerous and potentially violent group.

This raises the tricky question – what is the best way to deal with QAnon? Various social media platforms have tried to banish QAnon because of its incitement to violence. The best example of this is Reddit, which successfully banned QAnon because it violated their terms for allowing posts. However, QAnon then migrated to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. It now has a sufficiently large number of followers that it would be difficult to ban; attempts to ban it might also backfire, since QAnon could gain sympathy and support from free-speech advocates. Certainly Facebook should undergo a thorough review of their algorithms, as it is evident that they have “steered” people viewing certain sites towards incendiary and violent sites. Facebook deserves some of the blame for the proliferation of groups like QAnon because of their algorithms.

Perhaps the best policy is to have responsible journalists point out that groups such as QAnon are completely detached from reality, and to highlight the dangers of groups that advocate for violent actions. We can only watch to see what happens to QAnon and its followers in the next few years.

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Debunking Denial, Science Denial and the Coronavirus,

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