On January 6th, 2021, the U.S. Capitol steps were occupied by a crowd of hundreds protesting the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. This group included far-right extremists sporting Confederate flags, tactical equipment, and firearms, but the strangest sight were dozens of signs waved in front of the Capitol featuring a single letter: Q.
This refers to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which many people dismissed before January 6th as a movement for “crazies” with little national significance. But in reality, since it first surfaced in 2017, QAnon has become a social movement with millions of online followers and tangible influence on national politics. In order to make sense of the deadly Capitol violence and the meteoric rise of this conspiracy theory, we need to investigate: who is Q and what do they stand for?
Origins & Mythology of QAnon
QAnon originated in 2017 on the popular Internet sites 4chan and 8chan when an anonymous user named “Q Clearance Patriot” flooded right-leaning forums with thousands of cryptic posts. The theory has many different interpretations and gets incredibly convoluted, but most versions boil down to this: Q claims to be a high-ranking military official who’s part of a secret conflict within the U.S. government. On one side stands an insidious “cabal” of politicians have rigged elections since the 1960s, run vast sex trafficking networks, and drink the blood of children. Many QAnon believers (“Anons”) call this faction the Deep State, a secret government which controls the government. Anons view them as an absolute evil that deserves eradication.
Resisting the Deep State are a group of anonymous “patriots,” including Q and President Donald Trump, who conspire to return the government to public control through a coup d’etat. To evade the corrupt government’s surveillance, these patriots communicate through a rich array of coded messages which, in true conspiracy theory fashion, Anons recognize almost anywhere. This all culminates in an event called “The Storm”, where Q and their allies will reveal themselves and publicly arrest the Deep State; Anons believe it’s their responsibility to help the Storm come about through social media activism, support for “patriot” politicians, and most concerningly, violence.
Is QAnon Popular in the United States?
No, but it’s far more widespread than you’d think. A poll by the Economist indicates that around 46% of registered Republicans who have heard of QAnon hold favorable views of the conspiracy— which is almost one-quarter of the party. Q’s messages appeal strongly to the far right, resulting in some GOP representatives like Marjorie Taylor-Greene (Georgia) and Lauren Boebert (Colorado) openly expressing support for QAnon, as well as the adoption of QAnon-style messaging by state Republican parties in Texas and Hawaii. But most notably, President Trump gave QAnon advocates Lin Wood, Sidney Powell, and Michael Flynn prominent positions in his administration, allowing the movement to gain traction.***
***DISCLAIMER: It’s important to note that conspiracy theories affect people across the political spectrum, but often consolidate support in certain ideological groups. My research doesn’t suggest that Republican voters are more gullible to conspiracies at large, only that this particular conspiracy includes many elements that attract conservative believers (ex: a reason to distrust the government, human trafficking) instead of liberal ones.
Also, QAnon is unlike any other mass conspiracy theory because it originated online, and Anons use social media and search engine algorithms to spread their message. Since 2017, millions of pro-QAnon accounts have cropped up on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and other platforms, sometimes under innocuous names and hashtags. For more info about QAnon’s use of social media, check out this informative video from Vox:
Why Does This Matter?
This misinformation published by Q and his followers has real-world consequences— the Capitol riot was the culmination of dozens of smaller incidents and demonstrations against the 2020 election which often ended in violence. The false claims in QAnon, further propagated by elected officials, undermine public faith in the government and increase political polarization.
Additionally, counterterrorism experts believe that far-right extremists and other conspiracy theorists draw support from QAnon. A survey by the Brookings Institute found that Anons are joining militia groups at a frantic pace and often share the same corners of the internet with Neo-Nazis and domestic terrorists surveilled by the FBI. If these groups weaponize QAnon as a conspiracy as a recruitment tool, radical groups might swell in numbers and encourage more violence against alleged “Deep State” collaborators.
Several solutions have already been attempted to curb the online spread of QAnon, with limited success:
- Deplatforming: Immediate removal of all QAnon-affiliated users from social media and the deletion of their accounts. This approach certainly reduces the presence of conspiracy content on the platforms that commit to it (see: Reddit, which deleted all QAnon subreddits in 2019). However, it’s difficult to implement due to accounts “camouflaging” their conspiracy content behind innocuous hashtags like #savethechildren. It also encourages banned users to subscribe to far-right platforms which tolerate hate groups & other conspiracies, like Gab and Parler.
- Altering Algorithms: Changing the recommendation tools for social media to make it more difficult for users to stumble upon QAnon content. This approach requires more systemic changes to platforms that companies often resist; in 2020, Facebook executives opposed changing their algorithm due to the projected loss of ad revenue it would incur. Social media firms are unlikely to change their business model without outside intervention, making this approach more effective but difficult to accomplish.
So…What Can the World Do?
I’d recommend a mixture of de-platforming and altered algorithms that would make certain posts “non-recommendable” if they spread QAnon content or are flagged by users as conspiratorial, similar to the solution rejected by Facebook. These tweaks wouldn’t reduce net ad revenue, since social media companies could easily replace flagged recommendations with non-controversial content instead of allowing the algorithm to run unfettered and plunge users down the QAnon rabbit hole. If users frequently post conspiracy content, their accounts should be suspended indefinitely. There are certainly some ethical considerations about de-platforming and users’ First Amendment Rights to discuss, but for now, these social media companies should exercise their rights as private entities to limit QAnon on their platforms.
On an individual level, you should learn to recognize conspiracy beliefs by conducting research from a variety of sources into any information you read. Conspiracy theories like QAnon rely on hyperbole and speculation to spread, so consuming a diverse news stream is an important first step. Finally, try to cross-check any information you read on social media with a trusted source, print media (which usually vets stories to a higher standard), and wire services like the Associated Press.
Discussion Prompts & Works Cited
Thanks for reading my presentation! If you’ve learned something, I encourage you to comment below with what you found interesting regarding QAnon or conspiracy theories in general. I also invite you to weigh in on the following questions:
- Do social media companies possess the legal right to remove conspiracist accounts? If so, should they? Is there a less disruptive solution?
- Have you ever fallen victim to a hoax or false conspiracy? Relate your experiences in a comment below, then imagine how an Anon could use the insight you learned to question elements of QAnon.
- According to psychologists at the University of Kent, conspiracies reveal information about the believer’s individual social and emotional needs. But historians who study conspiracies contend that they express larger sentiments about a society or time period, just like the infamous Red Scare in the 1950s reflected Americans’ fear of Soviet espionage. Which of these arguments do you find more convincing, and why?
Works Cited: This bibliography was taken from my original research paper, “The Stagnant Storm: QAnon and Conspiracy Politics,” which I’ve summarized in this post. If you’re interested in reading the full paper, send me a note and I’ll happily share it with you!