The QAnon conspiracy theory, founded in some of the darkest corners of the internet in 2017, has spread like wildfire through the hybrid media system. Its connections to the mob that stormed the U.S. capitol on January 6th have turned it into a major political issue.
However, is it really about a Satan-worshipping sex-trafficking ring, or does the focus lie in the bigger narrative? This article will examine the formation and spread of QAnon ideas, followers' ultimate goals, and how this has turned into a political issue.
A brief history of QAnon
Many have described QAnon as a follow-up movement that emerged from the popularity of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which alleged that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager John Podesta were the masterminds behind an international child sex-trafficking ring headquartered in the basement of a popular pizza place in Washington, D.C.
When WikiLeaks published Podesta's leaked emails, members of the notoriously unhinged and extreme imageboard 4chan took it upon themselves to verify these bizarre claims. Sifting through emails upon emails, users developed a system of "codes" that were allegedly used in email exchanges. These include the word “cheese” which they claim stands for little girl, and the word “sauce,” signifying an orgy.
These claims, although completely unfounded, are said to be distributed by a high-ranking U.S. government official. Using the nickname “Q,” this official gives out highly classified pieces of information online regarding Trump’s war against a transnational Satan-worshipping, child-trafficking sex ring led by popular politicians, business people, and media personalities.
A great number of posts by Q on 4chan, as well as Twitter or Reddit, allude to this sex-trafficking ring. However, the more important underlying idea is that the liberal elite controls all government activities, and more generally speaking the world, through the "deep state." The deep state is seen as a “hidden” network of high-ranking people secretly manipulating and controlling government policies and decisions.
It is important to stress here is that QAnon content is produced by many different actors, not just by Q. Maly (2021) argues that QAnon is best seen as "a decentralised and polycentric pyramid-like conspiracy theory that is constantly being produced and reproduced in different niches by different producers. Mom-influencers, yoga communities, 4channers, and MAGA-activists all prosume the theory and make it ready for uptake in their niches using different angles and discourse strategies" (Maly, 2021).
The construction of QAnon's discourse
Even though QAnon as a polycentric and layered phenomenon has only existed for a few years, the underlying idea of a liberal deep state has been at the core of new right movements for quite a while now. For example, after his first term Obama was accused of not having been able to overthrow the “double government”, essentially describing the same system of control as the deep state.
Further, Illuminati conspiracies as we know them today are said to have originated in the Enlightenment-era more than two centuries ago. Similar to QAnon, these conspiracies also detail a system of control kept in place by a secret society. Today, liberal deep state rhetoric guides any and all discourse surrounding QAnon ideas. It is therefore important to examine exactly how QAnon's ideas spread and how this discourse is constructed.
After quickly gaining popularity on 4chan and 8chan, the intelligence information provided by Q was taken up on other popular media such as Reddit, where r/GreatAwakening amassed tens of thousands of subscribers in a short period of time.
Messages posted by Q are often very cryptic and are designed to be deciphered by followers. Messages left by Q are often referred to as breadcrumbs, and those reacting to them as bakers. This demonstrates the constructed and heavily mediated nature of the discourse surrounding this theory, as followers of Q are encouraged to actively fabricate major parts of the theory. For example, in Figure 2, below, bakers are invited to ‘connect the dots’.
In this particular post, Q is refers to the owner of Victoria’s Secret, Leslie Wexner, who was later discovered to have close ties with the late Jeffrey Epstein. More importantly, this post demonstrates how the content of QAnon ideas is inherently collectively constructed. As Q’s announcements spread to almost all popular social media platforms, more and more actors become involved in constructing the discourse around it. This interaction leads to a constant production and reproduction of theories based on small snippets of information.
On Instagram, "momfluencers" have amplified QAnon ideas by repackaging them in a more “innocent-looking” way. Momfluencers are, as the name suggests, mothers who are also influencers on various social media platforms, primarily Instagram. They often build large followings by posting relatable content about their life as a mother, raising their child, and family life in general. Key to this movement is their access to crucial audiences that typically fall between the ages of 35-45.
These self-proclaimed “QAmoms” take QAnon slogans such as “down the rabbit hole” or “the great awakening” and repackage them in visually appealing, pastel-colored Instagram posts, like Figure 3, below.
These posts have generated monumental traction both within and outside their core audience and they are able to reach a completely new set of people, many of whom would otherwise never have stumbled upon r/GreatAwakening or the 4chan thread. This content could even potentially reach Trump opponents who may digest the content in a different way due to its aesthetic delivery. Although the momfluencer community specifically focuses on the #saveourchildren hastag, as is fitting to their online personas, their underlying ideas are more far-reaching.
QAnon as umbrella theory
As seen in the hashtags in Figure 3, QAnon has moved beyond just sex-trafficking rings. It encompasses a wide array of conspiracy theories, including COVID-deniers, those who believe that Conservative voices are being silenced by a liberal elite, and most recently those who believe the 2020 U.S. election was "stolen." In this way, the QAnon movement can be seen as an umbrella movement, encompassing many different, smaller conspiracies, which at their core all operate on the same basic idea that America is living in an illusion of democracy fabricated by a liberal elite.
Due to the movement's ability to encompass so many smaller niche conspiracy theories, it has transcended social media and made its way into traditional mass media, spreading their ideas through the hybrid media system.
Trump recognizes and supports
Importantly, QAnon has been taken up even by former U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump publicly acknowledged the movement and responded to questions about the movement saying he believes “these are people who love our country”, and “they like me very much.” Further, as shown below (figure 5), QAnon members openly attended numerous Trump rallies held during his campaign.
Trump's statements, as well as his willingness to have QAnon members at his rallies, shows that the movement is engaged in a politics of recognition, wherein widespread acknowledgement only fuels those passionate about the conspiracy theory. Headlines like that in figure 5, in which one of the largest U.S. news outlets provided extensive coverage of the movement, can lead to an increased willingness of QAnon members to spread their ideas in as many ways as possible. The way in which QAnon is presented as “ruling them all” further highlights the notion that QAnon transcends more traditional, small-scale conspiracies and is able to provide a space where all kinds of conspiracy believers can gather under one overarching idea.
This overarching idea of a manipulative liberal deep state lies at the core of smaller conspiracies taken under the QAnon umbrella. Because they have been bundled together, their power to actually change the socio-political field is stronger than ever before. However, in order to to spread their ideas to the widest array of people, their ideas also need to be popular. In the hybrid media system, this means making sure social media algorithms are working in your favor.
Using the algorithm
This is where the concept of algorithmic populism (Maly, 2018) comes into play, whereby the interactions a post receives can sometimes be even more important than the actual content. The algorithm needs to be used in such a way that it reaches those who would potentially subscribe to the movement's ideas.
This is, further, where bots come into play. Research has shown that up to 13% of the accounts on Twitter actively interacting with and constructing the narrative around QAnon are bots. This represents a significant part of the discourse and shows the agency exercised by non-human actors in constructing QAnon theories. A connection can be drawn to momfluencers here, who, more often than not, are present on multiple social media platforms, meaning that they can activate multiple algorithms at once to work in their favor, hence employing the concept of algorithmic populism.
This shows that QAnon is not just a conspiracy theory about a Satan-worshipping sex-trafficking ring. This is just the surface of a much deeper idea, namely that the liberal left is perpetuating a system of control through the deep state. This system of control is exercised through “fake news” which “shape the public narrative” and in that way shape the political agenda. Their ultimate goal is to bring the “truth to light,” and they want to do this by spreading their ideas about the elite-governed deep state.
This highlights the metapolitical nature of the QAnon movement. At its essence, it is not a political movement. It does provide information about current political events, however, it always alludes to the bigger picture, namely that there is truth being concealed.
The bigger goal: cultural change
Hence it is about much more than politicians, parties or policies, it is about the transformation of society towards the “Great Awakening,” which inherently renders it metapolitical. The movement aims to bring about real cultural change through the spread of their ideas and in turn does become political through this process, especially when a (former) world leader commends them for loving their country.
QAnon discourse, and all those who produce and reproduce it, pertains to the idea that, as liberals control the deep state, their ideas are hegemonic in society. In other words, liberal ideas are seen as normal by society at large. Popular ideas about culture, politics, and society are controlled by the left, and QAnon claims that a huge network of fake news perpetuates and maintains these ideas.
In the meme above, the left is depicted as sheep following the herd, in this case is CNN. This meme perpetuates the idea that the left is leading the agenda, as it possesses power over cultural ideas in the United States.
Returning to the politics of recognition, QAnon's claims were once again recognized and perpetuated by Donald Trump following the suspension of his Twitter account: “they [Twitter] are all about promoting a Radical Left platform where some of the most vicious people in the world are allowed to speak freely.” Following this, QAnon's goal is to make their ideas hegemonic and therefore bring about social change that normalizes far-right ideas.
Online discourse goes offline
While this goal remains unmet, QAnon followers continuously position themselves as victims, claiming that members of the Republican Party are actively being silenced and that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats.
Known QAnon sympathizer and Georgia Congressional Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene wore a face mask with the word “censored” on it on live national television during a speech regarding Trump’s second impeachment. This shows that the metapolitical nature of the QAnon movement has now gained a significant political dimension, as politicians and party members are taking up its fundamental ideas and further constructing the narrative.
Greene represents how this online movement is actively influencing offline discourse as well. Further, the January 6th attack on U.S. capitol shows how this online network of bundled conspiracies brought together a raging mob that encompassed people from a variety of niche groups.
Transforming into real-life violence
The attack on the capitol was specifically planned to coincide with the day electoral votes were counted in order to further amplify QAnon's message, namely that the election was stolen by the liberals. In figure 9, below, we can see a man wearing a QAnon t-shirt with the slogan “trust the plan,” alluding to the desired hegemony of the far-right. Next to and behind him we see three men wearing red MAGA hats and shirts. Another man is wearing a camouflage MAGA hat, indicating his deep engagement with The Army for Trump (Maly, 2020).
In figure 10, an image that went viral following the attack, a man carries a confederate flag past two portraits: on the right is of Charles Sumner, a former Massachusetts senator who stood against racism, and on the left is John C. Calhoun, an influential figure in the succession of the South and an avid proponent of slavery.
The image is especially jarring given that the man flaunts a symbol of white supremacy in front of portraits that convey an evocative message about the deep divide during the U.S. Civil War and the deeply embedded history of slavery. On top of this, Trump once again did not condemn the mob but simply responded to them by saying “Go home, we love you”, once again showing the significant political dimension of this metapolitical conspiracy theory group.
What this brings to the foreground is that QAnon comprises a wide variety of people from many smaller far-right extremist groups. It was only able to gain this much traction due to the interaction and active reproduction of the group’s ideas by the former President and various other high-ranking Conservative officials. Due to the shared fundamental idea of the liberal deep state, they can now function as one collective. Far from the original child sex-trafficking and Satan-worshipping narrative, QAnon is now a movement comprised of many niche far-right theories with the desire to bring about social and political transformation, ultimately leading to cultural change.
QAnon has shown that contemporary conspiracy theory groups are no longer discussed by solely on anonymous 4chan or reddit threads. The discourse has moved to all corners of the internet while actively being produced and reproduced by an array of human and non-human actors. On the surface it may seem like an outrageous conspiracy theory about liberal masterminds, however if one looks deeper it becomes clear that underlying ideas have brough all kinds of niche far-right movements together.
Because this idea of the liberal deep state is at the root of all movements under the QAnon umbrella, their ultimate joint goal is to achieve far-right hegemony, replacing the existing liberal normality. Hence, this is far bigger than just one single theory, it is an attempt to change an entire system of existing conditions, with the ultimate goal of achieving a cultural transformation favoring the far-right discourse above all else.