By now you have heard about QAnon. This is a group of people whose most known conspiracy belief is that Donald Trump was (or still is) battling a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, who kidnap children, torture them, and drink their blood. This cabal is made up of politicians, Hollywood celebrities, company CEOs, billionaires, and other personalities in the US and many other countries. The list even includes the British Royal family and the Pope! The cabal is said to control the world, and its members may not even be human (some in QAnon claim they are lizard people masquerading as humans). The inauguration of Trump into his second term was supposed to be “The Storm”, the day he would arrest these pedophiles and execute them. This event in turn would lead to “The Great Awakening” when everyone would realize QAnon was right. This would usher in a new era for humanity with Trump as president for life.
Even though I consider conspiracy believers like global warming or 911 deniers, creationists, and antivaxxers to be self-deluded, the ideas behind QAnon would have struck me not just merely as deluded, but rather as plain bat crap crazy. If you had asked me if a considerable number of people would believe the QAnon conspiracy, I would have answered that QAnon believers, just like flat Earth proponents, would never go beyond being a fringe of a few hundred people.
QAnon got started in 2017 when someone claiming to be a Department of Energy insider with what is called Q-level clearance started posting anonymous messages (hence QAnon) on an obscure image board website known for its sometimes extreme content called 4chan. Some moderators from the site decided to disseminate the utterances of Q (called Q drops or bread crumbs) to a broader audience, and teamed up with content creators for more mainstream sites. A lot of what would end up being the QAnon dogma was inserted into the analysis of Q’s messages in these early days. QAnon mythology borrows heavily from both recent and centuries-old conspiracy theories (some of them with anti-Semitic roots) as well as lines and plots from fantasy books, movies, and television shows.
As the ranks of QAnon swelled, their social media groups and channels multiplied and gained more members aided by influencers and network algorithms. QAnon was boosted by President Trump who is a central character in their beliefs where he is known as Q+. Mr. Trump never renounced the support of the group, and he also retweeted messages from several QAnon believers or sympathizers to his tens of millions of followers. Some Trump allies and members of his inner circle expressed sympathy in one way or another for the group. QAnon adherents started making their presence felt at Trump rallies, and the group began to be covered by media outlets such as Infowars and befriended by political candidates running for office. With the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of idle people took to the internet for entertainment and many of them found QAnon. The movement gave rise to an industry of QAnon merchandise including books and Apps which became best sellers. In three short years, a conspiracy based on a most absurd set of premises was accepted by millions of people some of whom have been involved in crimes and even participated in the storming of the US Capitol.
What is the allure of QAnon? How is it that people end up believing these things? Everyone is taught about science and the scientific method. Why isn’t this education enough to counter at least these extreme beliefs? It turns out that QAnon is more effective at having many people accept folly than science is effective at having the same people accept facts. This may be rooted in the way human psychology works.
Scientists present a view of reality such as the occurrence of global warming or evolution, the efficacy and safety of vaccines, or that the Earth is round. Scientists then explain what evidence supports these particular views. Many people find the evidence persuasive and accept what the scientists are saying, but quite a number do not, preferring instead to believe things that go contrary to the evidence. Why is this? The problem is that the view presented by the scientists is something external to the inner world of many individuals. These individuals are familiar with their view of reality, and they are reluctant to allow something from the “outside” to come into their minds and replace their views regardless of the evidence.
A superficial analysis of QAnon may suggest that it doesn’t present any view of reality or evidence. To newcomers, Qanon seems to present a body of mysterious sounding tidbits of information (Q drops) and invites people to “do their own research” and find out what these Q drops mean. The people that engage in this activity get the impression that they are in control. They believe they are making sense of this information by themselves on their own terms, and arriving at their own conclusions. This is, of course, not true. The unravelling of the meaning of the messages from Q often occurs within the matrix of a chat board or a group that traffics in information that is heavily biased toward certain interpretations. Therefore, when individuals do their “research” and come to conclusions regarding what the Q drops mean, their conclusions are most of the time not theirs but those of the people they interact with.
But, and here is the key to understanding why QAnon is so incredibly persuasive, the individuals don’t know these conclusions are not theirs. As far as they are concerned, they have come up with these new views by themselves. They feel that these new views are not external to their minds, but rather that they have been generated internally. As a result of this, in those initiated into QAnon these new views, no matter how bizarre, have a very good chance of replacing their old views.
Add to this that the process of “research” is fun. It’s essentially a game such as solving a difficult puzzle. You experience the effort of hard work and the thrill of discovery when you connect the dots and make sense of things. This process, of course, takes place with the encouragement, feedback, and praise of those you interact with. But unlike regular puzzles, the “discoveries” made by QAnon folks are about highly emotional issues such as child abuse, which instill raw outrage, and knowledge of the alleged existence of sinister individuals and organizations who control the world and hide in plain sight, which gives the people “knowing” this information a sense of uniqueness, power, and purpose.
Banned from many social media outlets with its major prophesy as yet unfulfilled, QAnon has retreated in disarray, and a number of its followers have left the group due to exhaustion or disillusionment. The group is down, but not out. I expect not only that we will have to continue to deal with them going forward, but that we will also have to deal with future incarnations of this and other related phenomenons which the internet will spawn.
QAnon banner photograph from flickr by Anthony Crider is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.