QAnon’s Sound and Fury
Where the conspiracy came from and what it means for politics at home—and abroad.
On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it would remove content related to QAnon from its platforms ahead of next month’s U.S. presidential election. The move, which another group might see as a major setback, was quickly wrapped into the movement’s lore: Supporters viewed the ban as a sign, the New York Times reported, that their increasingly complicated conspiracy theory about U.S. President Donald Trump leading a battle against a satanic “deep state” cult was true.
With just weeks until the election, we’ve collected our best reads on how QAnon started, how far it has spread, and what its theories mean for politics at home—and abroad.
QAnon, according to Syracuse University professor emeritus Michael Barkun, first appeared online in 2017. From the start, its claims about a secret plot hatched by the Trump administration fit well within the history of U.S. apocalyptic movements. “It might seem strange to call an online conspiracy theory an apocalyptic movement,” Barkun wrote. “But at the heart of such beliefs, from those who expected the Second Coming in 19th-century America to their counterparts in the Taiping Rebellion across the Pacific, is the idea of revelation. Believers are offered some special insight into the future and the knowledge that a great change is coming. That’s part of what made QAnon so appealing.”
Another part of its appeal, explained Foreign Policy columnist Elisabeth Braw, has to do with the dissolution of American civic life: “Without regular interaction courtesy of a social activity such as volunteering or an amateur bowling league, people are more likely to retreat into a social media-fueled world of egocentric concerns and echo chamber approval.” In many ways, that sense of community is exactly what the movement’s pseudonymous leader Q purports to offer, even as the group’s culture isolates and radicalizes its followers. As Foreign Policy’s James Palmer wrote, “the culture of both 4chan and 8chan,” which host QAnon posts, “is deliberately ironic, over the top, and extreme. This gives cover for users to claim their posts are merely joking. … The dehumanization involved in racist jokes also hardens participants, wearing away any residual empathy for others.”
The group might have remained a fringe movement, but as Foreign Policy’s Elias Groll reported in 2019, the Trump administration embraced QAnon figures—sometimes winkingly and sometimes formally, as when one member was invited to “attend a White House social media summit along with a coterie of right-wing cranks and trolls. That meeting [served] as a who’s who of the right-wing online ecosystem.” It also allowed Trump to “embrace his most ardent supporters and perhaps most effective media operatives.” Since then, the group has been linked to over 40 political candidates running in congressional, state legislature, and mayoral elections in 2020.
QAnon hasn’t just found fertile soil in the United States. The conspiracy has also popped up in Canada, where in July a QAnon follower equipped with a rifle crashed his truck through the gates around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s residence. According to the journalist Justin Ling, the incident shows that the conspiracy “isn’t so much about a particular government or party but rather about a pernicious and dogged distrust in systems of power worldwide.”
Indeed, the German Marshall Fund’s Ariane Tabatabai wrote, “although QAnon’s raison d’être is largely rooted in [U.S.] domestic politics … the conspiracy theory has recently developed an unlikely group of adherents: an Iranian dissident group that calls itself Restart.” Although it is just a tiny group, Restart may have even gotten through to Trump: “Responding to reporters’ questions about U.S.-Iranian relations in June 2019, Trump noted, ‘Let’s make Iran great again. Does that make sense? Make Iran great again.’” Even if the comment was just a coincidence, Tabatabai points out, “it raised the group’s profile among some parts of the president’s base.”
Even Germany isn’t immune to QAnon’s pull. “Germany has the second-highest number of QAnon believers after the United States. NewsGuard has identified more than 448,000 QAnon followers in Europe. On YouTube, Facebook, and Telegram, accounts dealing with the QAnon conspiracy have over 200,000 followers in Germany alone,” Tyson Barker, of the Aspen Institute Germany, explained. But in Germany, he pointed out, such “conspiracist groups risk violating Germany’s constitution, which has limitations on anti-Democratic and pro-Nazi speech owing to the country’s dark past. Bavaria’s Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann pointed at QAnon’s use of anti-Semitic tropes.”
The question, of course, is what all of these followers can accomplish. The group has effectively spread dangerous misinformation, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. “The fragmented nature of social media chops conspiracies into little pieces,” the journalist Elise Thomas noted, “a factoid here, a false claim there—creating a kind of information petri dish for conspiracy cross-propagation, allowing half-true facts, decontextualized narratives, and false beliefs to flow and fold into one another and spread rapidly across the world.” It was QAnon’s promotion of disinformation about the U.S. election that got itself banned from Facebook.
Then there’s the personal cost to the followers themselves—and their families. “On r/QAnonCasualties,” Ling reported, “posters speak of families split apart, relationships ended, friendships canceled. The subreddit offers a painfully instructive window into how conspiracy theories manifest in everyday lives and how social media has become an incredibly powerful diffuser of even the most outlandish and foolish conspiracies.” Moreover, he wrote, “QAnon, perhaps even more so than many cults or online radical movements, has built-in antibodies” to resist efforts to help its adherents. “It teaches its followers that everyone else needs to be deprogrammed. … Fact-checkers are just part of the media conspiracy.”
More than anything, Ling wrote in another piece, QAnon is “the culmination of more than a century in magical thinking, from cults that profess the end of the world to conspiracy theories that tell of a shadow world government to moral panics that warn of dark secrets behind every door. It’s a world where individual people hold the keys to a hidden truth, if only they choose to look for it. This is a reality where everyone in power has a dark purpose, but where the final battle of good versus evil is fast approaching.
“This is the end of history. We’ve never seen a movement that ties together a constellation of delusions and beliefs like this. But the next one could be around the corner.”