The QAnon conspiracy theory has been quietly simmering in the dark corners of the internet for years, largely ignored by the social media giants. Now, it’s beginning to bleed into some very unexpected places, and said giants are desperately attempting to extinguish the fire, having failed to contain the spread.
What is QAnon, exactly?
QAnon is a baseless conspiracy theory which proposes that the world is (and always has been) controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child-murdering pedophiles who are currently engaged in battle against President Trump.
That’s right, Donald Trump, former friend of Jeffrey Epstein, incredibly unlikely ally of sexual abuse victims, is supposedly leading the fight against child trafficking, without ever boasting about it in public. Hmmm.
QAnon managed to connect almost every single existing conspiracy theory into one big, convoluted narrative – think of it as the Marvel Cinematic Universe of conspiracy theories, overpriced merchandise and all.
The conspiracy has so many wild twists and turns, that it’s almost impossible to fully explain. For example, some followers believe that John F. Kennedy Jr. is alive and well, and spends his time hanging out at Trump rallies, for some reason. There’s even an element of vampirism, in the belief that the wealthy elites are harvesting the blood of children and turning it into adrenochrome, a substance that supposedly keeps them young and healthy.
Like a comic book movie, it can be boiled down to a simple battle of good vs. evil, with Trump acting as the superhero of the story, the man destined to take down the cabal and usher in a new age of peace and enlightenment.
However, QAnon followers don’t necessarily agree on the details; the conspiracy theory is fairly flexible, being a crowdsourced narrative which is constantly mutating, with varying “regional differences,” depending on the social media platform and the crowd engaging in it.
Hence, the FBI has designated the movement as a domestic terrorism threat.
Where did QAnon come from?
QAnon originated on 4chan, from an account claiming to be a U.S. government insider, simply known as “Q.” The account would regularly post cryptic messages, along with some specifics, leaving their followers to decode and connect these posts to real-world events.
Think of the way a good horoscope will be just vague enough for a believer to project onto their own personal circumstances, and you’ve got the general idea. Followers have viewed the political melodrama of the last four years through the lens of Q, largely ignoring the many nonsensical or failed predictions.
Indeed, failed predictions are believed by some followers to be a necessary component of Q’s strategy; this isn’t a worldview that concerns itself with facts, or consistency.
How did QAnon spread?
From its birth on 4chan, QAnon moved from one platform to another, staying alive during its developing years by jumping to 8chan and 8kun (the less you know about these websites, the better); at one point, the theory was on Reddit, being spread through a dedicated subreddit, which was eventually banned for inciting violence.
Nowadays, President Trump regularly retweets QAnon content, and has repeatedly refused to condemn the conspiracy theory. Earlier this year, 20 candidates running for U.S. Congress were openly supporting QAnon (although most have either been defeated, or have dropped out).
QAnon has also managed to spread to TikTok teens and Instagram influencers, a very different demographic from the alt-right, mostly male inhabitants of the various “chan” sites.
The conspiracy has managed to widen its appeal by rebranding itself as “Save the Children.” This led to (genuine) child welfare organization Save the Children releasing a statement, condemning the unauthorized use of its name in misinformation campaigns.
At this point, the conspiracy has expanded far beyond the original, mysterious Q account, and even beyond President Trump, to some degree. Several well-intentioned individuals are being sucked in through misleading child-trafficking claims, and might not be Trump supporters at all.
Why would anyone believe this?
Your guess is as good as mine; there are a huge amount of QAnon believers at this point, each with their own reason for falling down the rabbit hole.
But I think it’s worth considering that we live in incredibly strange, stressful times – we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, suffering from rising wealth inequality, with the horrors of climate change looming on the horizon.
QAnon completely rejects these terrible truths in favor of a simplistic, superhero worldview of good and evil. It must be nice, I suppose, not to worry about these things, simply trusting that the President will defeat the bad guys.
There’s also the appeal of the crowdsourced “lore,” the shared activity of followers decoding not just the Q posts, but the sea of information that exists on the internet, and translating it into information that, they imagine, will help save the world. Perhaps it feels a bit like living in The Da Vinci Code.
Not to mention, high-profile examples of accused sexual predators protected and enabled by power structures, combined with the stomach-churning stories of abuse constantly coming out of Hollywood, has helped push the more absurd theories into the realm of plausibility.
But social media giants have finally recognized the problem; Twitter, Facebook and TikTok have all made moves to stop the spread of QAnon by banning related hashtags, keywords and certain user accounts.
Recently, YouTube changed its hate and harassment policies to ban “content that targets an individual or group with conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence.” YouTube, however, still allows QAnon content to exist on the platform, as long as it does not target individuals.
Whether this will be enough to dampen the movement remains to be seen; QAnon has proved to be both absurd, and alarmingly adaptable.