The convoluted and outlandish QAnon conspiracy theory has been getting a lot of play in the news lately, especially in the months since the pandemic broke out, and even more so since President Donald Trump called believers of the theory “people that love our country” and implied he was “willing” to help their cause during a press conference.
And while the phenomenon has historically been associated with older Americans, it’s becoming more well-known among young people, who are often first introduced to it via social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, according to various media reports.
If you haven’t been following this complicated, multi-faceted story, you might be wondering, “What the heck is QAnon, anyway? Is it dangerous? What’s the big deal?”
Here’s what you need to know about QAnon right now:
1. What is QAnon?
QAnon is actually not just a single conspiracy theory, but rather, a far-reaching web of theories and predictions about events in the news, which one psychiatrist called “part conspiracy theory, part religious cult and part role-playing game.”
In a blog post for Psychology Today, psychiatrist and UCLA professor Dr. Joe Pierre wrote, “Back in the 1980s, parents worried that kids playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ would get so invested in their magical role-playing characters that they might lose touch with the real world. Today, QAnon is a kind of live-action role-playing game in which the conflation of fantasy and reality isn’t so much a risk as a built-in feature.”
In this role-playing game metaphor, QAnon believers (self-dubbed “Q patriots” or just “patriots”) are the players, who work collaboratively to weave together convoluted conspiracies that explain or justify events taking place in the news.
The source material for the game is provided by “Q,” a person or group of people claiming (without any evidence) to be a high-up White House insider, who regularly posts cryptic predictions about upcoming news events to deep-web sites like 4chan and 8kun. These predictions are then interpreted by the “Q patriots” and eventually circulated on more mainstream platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and the recently shut down aggregator QMap. Additionally, QAnon fans believe that President Donald Trump regularly sends covert signals confirming Q’s existence through coded language, hand gestures and tweets.
Not all believers subscribe to every QAnon-related theory, but one popular tenet of the QAnon belief system is the theory that many top Democrats, celebrities and billionaires (folks like the Clintons, Beyoncé, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, etc.) are part of a secret club of satanic, pedophile cannibals.
Meanwhile, the theory posits, President Trump is actively mounting a case to have them all exposed, arrested and possibly executed.
Separately, QAnon followers also often perpetuate the myth that COVID-19 is a hoax.
It’s important to note that Q’s predictions rarely — if ever — come to pass. For example, Q has claimed on several occasions over the last few years that Hillary Clinton would be arrested on some day, but no such arrest has ever been made.
2. How big is QAnon?
Because QAnon means different things to many different people, there’s no way to accurately measure how big the community is. However, we know that people fall down the QAnon rabbit hole for a wide variety of reasons.
Psychologists and conspiracy theory experts have varying opinions about what makes QAnon so compelling, but studies have shown that conspiracy theories in general tend to rise in popularity during times of widespread crisis or chaos. And with the pandemic, countless natural disasters raging across the country and an upcoming presidential election, it’s no wonder that Americans might be feeling a little uneasy at the moment, to put it lightly.
“People are scared and uncertain about what the future holds, dealing with a massive world-changing event that seems totally out of control,” wrote Mike Rothschild, author of the “The World’s Worst Conspiracies,” in an email to YR Media.
“When that happens, they grab onto explanations that help them make sense of it — and conspiracy theories like QAnon can fill that void. Q gives followers a sense of who is to blame, what really happened, and what they can do to spread the word — even if they’re all fake.”
Meanwhile, QAnon experts like Julian Feeld, who cohosts the QAnon Anonymous podcast, argue that QAnon’s appeal stems from “cognitive dissonance” among Trump supporters who might be disappointed with the president’s performance in the White House.
“I think for Trump voters who…maybe weren’t seeing the changes that they wanted, they created an alternate belief system in which Trump was fighting this ‘deep state’ cabal of what they believe are pedophiles and cannibals and satanists. They created this reality that Trump was fighting these evil forces because it gave them, I believe, a sense of volition, a sense of control, or a sense that maybe their vote wasn’t for nothing,” Feeld said.
3. The danger of QAnon
Experts say that harmful misinformation associated with QAnon presents a very real threat to public safety, as well as the upcoming election.
There is a common fear among many journalists and researchers who cover QAnon that its followers could be motivated to commit real-world violence by the various conspiracy theories they’re reading about online.
There have been several reported instances of this happening already. Right Wing Watch reported that a Texas woman known to hold QAnon beliefs chased multiple other drivers with her car, repeatedly hitting one of them, because she believed they had kidnapped a child for trafficking.
Other experts worry that QAnon could have lasting impacts on the way its believers make everyday decisions, interact with the news and even vote.
“I really think the harm is kind of like a systemic harm. If people start believing this kind of false view of reality, and it becomes widespread, and they start making decisions based on this, and people start voting and taking political actions based on them…it starts corrupting the democratic process,” said Mick West, author of “Escaping the Rabbit Hole” and creator of conspiracy debunking site metabunk.com.
4. How QAnon uses social media
Several social media companies have made efforts to slow the spread of misinformation perpetuated by the Q fans, but some — including many social media influencers — have adopted vague, more mainstream-sounding hashtags and rallying cries, such as “#SaveTheChildren,” in an effort to skirt the censors and introduce QAnon-related theories to a wider audience.
“It seems like Instagram and TikTok are being inundated with QAnon content, particularly by lifestyle influencers who are embracing its move into anti-trafficking conspiracy theories under the guise of ‘raising awareness,’ ” wrote Rothschild, in an email to YR Media.
Facebook recently announced that they had “removed over 790 groups, 100 Pages and 1,500 ads tied to QAnon from Facebook, blocked over 300 hashtags across Facebook and Instagram, and additionally imposed restrictions on over 1,950 Groups and 440 Pages on Facebook and over 10,000 accounts on Instagram.”
TikTok and Twitter have similarly removed large amounts of QAnon accounts and have blocked access to related hashtags.
Despite these efforts, several #SaveTheChildren rallies have cropped up across the country recently, in some cases gathering large crowds of QAnon followers, in addition to other unwitting protestors who want to express their support for victims of human trafficking, but aren’t necessarily familiar or on board with the movement’s origins.
Travis View, a QAnon researcher and Feeld’s cohost on the QAnon Anonymous podcast, tweeted the following about these marches:
“By pivoting to a vague ‘Save The Children’ message that obscures its QAnon roots, QAnon followers only sow confusion about which causes actually work to help children and which are a deceitful camouflage for an online conspiracy theory driven extemist [sic] movement…QAnon’s track record remains dismal when it comes to helping. They haven’t saved a single child, they haven’t brought a single child abuser closer to justice, they haven’t solved a single crime. But they have radicalized unstable people into taking dangerous and violent actions.”
“It’s constantly in flux, and if you push one thing down, something else pops up,” West explained.
5. Effects of falling down the QAnon rabbit hole
As with any conspiracy theory, QAnon can have devastating effects on the individuals who are consumed by it, most often because they become alienated from friends and family who don’t buy into the theory.
“The people falling into this honestly are victims, and they’re often destroying nothing except their own lives and their connections to people around them,” said Feeld.
“People become socially isolated as well. If people get really deep into these things it becomes an obsession and the only people they can find to talk about it are other QAnon people,” said West.
“Q has severed relationships, broken apart families and been the cause of numerous crimes. The best we can do for people who get sucked in is let them know we still care about them and that they mean more to us than the conspiracy does to them,” Rothschild wrote.