Three years ago, a new conspiracy theory emerged within the internet’s darkest recesses. Known as QAnon, this outlandish perspective of the world — which includes the claim that countless politicians and celebrities are working in secret with world governments to conceal a rampant international child sex abuse network — has morphed into a movement, making its way into mainstream discourse through targeted messaging to disenfranchised demographics, aligning itself with centuries-old ideological archetypes, engaging in good old fashioned fear-mongering — and systematically targeting Democratic leaders.
While this might seem like a bad electoral strategy to many of us, there are actually over 40 candidates currently running for political office on major party tickets who support QAnon. And, these candidates have experienced landslide voter turnout not in spite of their public support of QAnon, but because of it — making QAnon a serious force in the 2020 US election.
Seeing this unfold has baffled and alarmed experts and observers alike who wonder how a conspiracy theory could become a reputable running platform. But when you take a step back to look at how QAnon emerged, how it captured mass attention, and how it has made its way into the political world, an even darker and more desperate picture of our political landscape emerges.
QAnon’s theories go beyond accusing famous people of paedophilia; the belief is that, even if these household-names are not offenders themselves, they are part of the cabal that's covering it up. But, if this cabal is so clandestine how are its secrets all over the internet? That would be thanks to "Q," the source behind QAnon, who claims to be someone with top security clearance within the US government. And while you might think that someone with the alleged access of "Q" would be a reliable source, QAnon's prognostications have been repeatedly debunked; though, even that hasn’t slowed the spread of the theories.
There's a reason for that, though. Even if nobody knows who the ultra-private "Q" is, the cult of QAnon still has a very public hero: President Donald Trump, who QAnon followers are convinced will arrest all of the alleged wrongdoers and send them to Guantanamo Bay.
If all this sounds like a joke to you, that might be because QAnon was originally never meant to be taken seriously. “QAnon started as a lark on 4Chan where folks were trying to one-up each other pretending to be different public officials, trying to get various conspiracy theories started. To see it actually take hold and become a mass phenomenon was really shocking,” Devin Burghart, President of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, explains.
Burghart and his colleagues have been tracking the rise and spread of conspiracy theories and hate groups for years. Likening the theory’s growth in popularity to a logarithmic scale, he admits that he and fellow researchers didn’t think the incredibly far-fetched QAnon theory would ever gain the traction that it did. “Somehow, out of the depths of the darkest regions of 4Chan comes this political phenomenon that has become something different than it started, but has become really a meme that is driving so much political activity.”
One catalyst that ushered QAnon off 4Chan and onto more mainstream platforms was the surge of pro-Trump nationalism which thrived on the kind of archetypal antisemitic tropes that are QAnon's bread-and-butter. QAnon then used antisemitism as a binding agent to get its other ideas to stick to a wider audience.
“Antisemitism is still an underlying problem in society. It’s been there for hundreds and hundreds of years,” says Burghart. “While we like to think that it’s gone away, all the public polling data suggests that really there’s still a strong undercurrent of antisemitism flowing in the United States today. Some of this is grounded in really, really old school Christian antisemitism. Given that you see a lot of a more evangelical base being drawn to QAnon in this recent cycle, I think that’s part of it as well.”
According to The Guardian, much of the foundation of QAnon is evocative of antisemitic tropes — QAnon's foundational idea of an all-powerful, sinister group calling the shots from the shadows comes straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document purporting to expose a Jewish plot to control the world, which was used throughout the 20th century to justify antisemitism. Another fabrication sowed by QAnon is that members of this deep state sect extract the chemical adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims and ingest it to extend their lives. This, too, is a callback to an old antisemitic trope known as "blood libel," which originated in the 12th century.
However, it isn't only implicit (and explicit) antisemitism that has made the zealous right-wing evangelical community a natural audience for QAnon. There's also the appeal of the messianic imagery of Trump as a god-like figure who wants to eradicate an evil network of child abusers, which fits into the underlying structure of the mythology that right-wing Christians have been taught over the years.
This mimicry is part of QAnon's effectiveness. If a conspiracy can present as something familiar and trusted, at least on the surface, it has a better chance of being accepted by those who might otherwise feel disenfranchised and made voiceless. Much like Trump did in 2016, QAnon exploits and even feeds on some Americans' fear that there is no one championing their interests and protecting them from their enemies — no matter how imaginary.
If a conspiracy can present as something familiar and trusted, at least on the surface, it has a better chance of being accepted by those who might otherwise feel disenfranchised and made voiceless.
Despite its prominence, QAnon lacks leaders, centralised organisation, or a clearly defined network, the very things that researchers use to track the growth of ideas and conspiracy theories. “It is merely the regurgitation of innumerable conspiracy theories. All of which, to one degree or another, are trying to fit into this larger moment,” said Burghart. When a conspiracy theory is so hard to trace, it's next to impossible to predict what will take off and how far it will go — or to stop it.
Another problem with QAnon — and other widespread conspiracy theories — is that it would have benefitted from being addressed head-on much earlier. There's a surprisingly small, but critical juncture between when a random, largely unrecognised theory on the internet becomes a theory supported by dozens of political candidates with millions of followers, who then take those beliefs into the real world, sometimes to violent ends. While, according to a 2019 FBI memo, the spread of QAnon is seen by federal law enforcement as a threat to the public, that's two years after it first emerged on the internet, which doesn't reflect the urgency of the problem at hand. And it is an urgent problem: This document cites instances in which the conspiracy is used by followers as a rationale for violence — a huge concern as social and political tensions rise ahead of the presidential election.
“The big challenge is going to be, irrespective of the results on Election Day, that activated base is still going to see that QAnon conspiracy and look for it to play out one way or the other,” Burghart explains. “Even if Trump loses, it’s not necessarily going away. In fact, should President Trump lose in November, that sets up a perfect storm for them to continue to move the QAnon conspiracies forward. They’ll argue that it was furthermore a deep state plot that tainted the election and made it impossible for Trump to win.”
Election Day aside, it's the general seeping into our political realm that has really given QAnon its most insidious influence. Trump himself has courted the support of QAnon adherents by not clearly stating what he thinks of the theory one way or the other. When first asked, he said, “I heard that these are people that love our country.” And, again, when Savannah Guthrie asked Trump to denounce QAnon during a recently televised town hall, the president said, “What I do hear about it, they are very strongly against pedophilia.”
Okay, but what's more appealing to Trump is probably what QAnon is for — and that means him — which is undoubtedly why he refuses to denounce the conspiracy cult: It benefits him.
“This is not going to happen, but I think this could go away immediately if the president fully, completely, without equivocation, denounced the QAnon stuff as stupid nonsense. That would put an end to it,” said Burghart. Without that, he believes dismantling QAnon would require a concerted effort involving experts unpacking and debunking the disinformation as it emerges, as well as social media platforms being more aggressive in targeting it and similar conspiracies.
But the problem with that approach is: Not everyone wants to dispel rumors and conspiracy theories. For some, it benefits them to either remain silent or even to go as far as overtly promoting them, regardless of their own thoughts on the matter. There are political and financial gains to be made by QAnon remaining unproven but not disproven. The 40-plus candidates running for office, including Trump, benefit from QAnon. It provides additional support and a base that they didn’t have otherwise.
More than just tacit endorsement of QAnon, some candidates openly admit to believing in it, including Marjorie Taylor Green, Republican candidate for US representative of Georgia’s 14th district; Jo Rae Perkins, who won the Republican nomination for US. Senate in Oregon; and the Republican candidate vying to represent California’s 35th district, Mike Cargile. They have all spoken strongly about “Q” and hit upon the conspiracy's talking points while campaigning.
“There is a real-life manifestation of this stuff when people start taking this stuff seriously and start acting out violently in communities,” Burghart explains. “That’s the other side of this. There’s the real potential to see more of that coming down the road.”
Now, this misinformation is turning into real-life violence. One of the most widely publicised examples of this became clear during the trial of Anthony Comello in 2019. Camello was accused of killing Francesco Cali, a Gambino mob boss, in Staten Island, NY. But apparently, Camello didn’t kill Cali because of his mob connections. According to Comello's lawyer, Robert C Gottlieb, Comello believed that Cali was part of the deep state. Furthermore, Comello believed that Trump wanted him to commit the murder.
Then, this April, Jessica Prim was arrested after a series of disturbing live-streams on her Facebook documenting her drive from Illinois to New York City after posting on Facebook that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden “need to be taken out.” She had more than a dozen knives in her car. In her live-stream, Prim referenced “Frazzledrip,” a video QAnon believers say depicts Clinton and former aide Huma Abedin attacking and killing a child. There is no proof that any video like this exists.
There's also the case of Matthew P Wright, who was arrested following a standoff with police on June 15, 2018, after he blocked traffic on a bridge near the Hoover Dam with an armoured truck filled with ammunition. During the incident, Wright reportedly held up a sign that read “Release the OIG report,” a reference to the QAnon theory that there is a hidden report from the Office of Inspector General about former FBI Director James Comey.
These are the people who make up the base of all the candidates running on “Q”-inspired platforms — including the president. They are the reason why QAnon needs to be vanquished in a thorough, systematic way. Doing this will require rethinking the way that we combat misinformation. We will need to recognise the rise of new methods of disseminating conspiracies, as well as simultaneously identify and fight the mimicry of historical lies. After all, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, only this time, spotting the past requires hashtags, dark internet discussion boards, and online misinformation campaigns.
Oh, and maybe making sure we don't have political leadership who are courting conspiracy theorists for more votes.