QAnon appearing at Trump rallies.

QAnon: a wild conspiracy theory with Donald Trump’s support?

23 minutes to read
Paper
Idhuna Pastoor
29/01/2020

Have you ever heard of QAnon? It is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that started on the platform of 4chan, but has been infiltrating mainstream media at a fast pace. Followers of QAnon - the "Q-army" - believe that “there is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who rule the world” (Rozsa, 2019). Thankfully, Trump got elected and since he knows everything about these pedophiles, he will fight hard to destroy them, according to the Q-army (Wong, 2018). 

What is interesting here is that, while Trump has never publicly spoken of QAnon or connected himself to the theory, the Q-army has found quite some evidence over the years that would confirm that Trump believes in QAnon's doctrine as well. For this article, I used Google Trends and Google News to find the most relevant Q-army events in relation to Trump. With the help of issue mapping and CrowdTangle, I will show some examples of Trump's behavior that are seen by the Q-army as evidence that Trump is one of them. Still, in order to better understand all of this, first we need to take a look at the history of the relationship between QAnon and Trump. 

QAnon and Trump

The QAnon conspiracy theory is also known as "The Storm". The Storm is an anticipated event in which the members of the Satan-worshipping pedophile cabal will be arrested, which will lead to redemption (Wikipedia, 2019). The origins of this idea of a "Storm" can be traced back to Trump himself. 

On October 5, 2017, Trump was taking photos before a military dinner. He declared that that dinner was "maybe the calm before the storm". When asked what he meant by this, he simply responded "you’ll find out". This exchange - seen in the video below - sparked the first post from an anonymous user called "Q", on the messageboard 4chan (Coaston, 2018). The name Q refers to Q clearance, which is the security clearance from the Department of Energy that allows access to “Top Secret Restricted Data, Formerly Restricted Data, National Security Information, and Secret Restricted Data” (Wikipedia, 2019). 

YouTube video from the channel Bloomberg Politics, in which Trump supposedly refers to the "Storm". 

In his/her first post, Q claimed s/he was a high-level government insider with top security clearance (Wong, 2018). In a second post that followed a few hours later, Q shared coded phrases that more and more people started to interpret and argue about for months to come. The post in question can be seen below. As more and more people started following Q, the group of users who read and believed his/her posts became known as the QAnon community (Coaston, 2018).

An example of a Q post.

If we look at the current status of QAnon, its growth is immediately evident. Nowadays, QAnon gets mentioned in mainstream media, thereby attracting a lot of attention, and has a growing "army" behind it, who shows its support both online and offline. QAnon supporters can now be found on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Twitter users who actively tweet about QAnon have between 150.000 and 200.000 followers, and they use a variety of hashtags, like #Storm, #Qarmy, #GreatAwakening, #MAGA, and #WWG1WGA (Twitter, 2019). The last hashtag stands for "where we go one, we go all", the QAnon slogan meaning that the Q-army never gives up and never leaves anyone behind (Charles, 2019). Below we can see some examples of tweets with QAnon hashtags. 

QAnon tweet.

QAnon tweet.

Despite the fact that many of Q's predictions have been proven false, the Q-army continues to firmly believe in their theory. What QAnon essentially does is offering hope to Trump supporters. It gives them the feeling that all is fine because Trump controls everything. This basis of the theory, that Trump is in control, is reliable in the sense that the Trump administration does, in fact, control the entire federal government. 

The QAnon community does not just want to find and expose "'the truth", but is actively making an effort to create a logic of explanation and persuasion, a way of reasoning and a sort of learning environment for its members. 

This strong belief in a conspiracy theory is connected to confirmation bias: people tend to believe what they want to believe. And “once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it” (Heshmat, 2015). This means that disconfirmation does not work, it only raises more suspicion in the minds of the Q-army. Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Bristol, explains: “Conspiracy theories like QAnon are ‘self-sealing’ - meaning that evidence against them can become evidence of their validity in the minds of believers. ... Trying to disprove a conspiracy theory thus usually only serves to reinforce it” (Coaston, 2018). 

What we see with QAnon, is that it "brings together people with different levels of knowledge and expertise from a wide array of domains which they utilize in concordance in their pursuit of 'the truth'" (Procházka & Blommaert, 2019). The QAnon community does not just want to find and expose "the truth", but is actively making an effort to create a logic of explanation and persuasion, a way of reasoning and a sort of learning environment for its members. 

On Twitter, for example, the Q-army are constantly fighting for "the truth" against non-believers. Whenever a QAnon believer gets a response that contradicts his/her beliefs, the response gets overruled with QAnon memes, hashtags, and messages in capitals. Just one of the many examples of this can be seen below. A Twitter user called @WWG1WGA posted a tweet about "pizzagate", a conspiracy theory related to QAnon. The picture shows a tweet from the official NSA Twitter account which allegedly confirms pizzagate. 

Tweet from user @WWG1WGA supporting Pizzagate.

Below the tweet, responses like the one from @CeciliaCmaide emerge. @CeciliaCmaide clearly does not believe in the theory and shares this in her tweet. A response coming from @TheWantedEmcees - another QAnon believer - contains pictures and memes that show the truth of pizzagate. (Short) conversations like these occur frequently, and they clearly show that the Q-army does not deviate from their "truth". 

Twitter truth fight between QAnon and non-QAnon believers.

For non-believers, the QAnon theory is fake news. Tandoc and Ling (2017) talk about how fake news is not just constructed by journalists, but also by the audience "for its fakeness depends a lot on whether the audience perceives the fake as real". For the Q-army, the theory is obviously not fake, and this belief only gets reinforced thanks to echo chambers. "Echo chambers exist where information, ideas or beliefs are amplified and reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system where competing views are underrepresented" (Bakir & McStay, 2017). In other words, algorithms - based on the internet history of a user - selectively show the kind of information that the user wants to see. The algorithms can thereby reinforce existing false information, while alternative views are not considered. The Q-army thus stays in their own filter bubble that only confirms their bias.

The members of the Twitter Q-army also support each another. Under the same tweet from @WWG1WGA that we saw above, a user called @MCollaborator shares how the QAnon theory has really impacted him. @WWG1WGA responds with supportive and informative tweets. Thanks to this supportive exchange, @MCollaborator's bias gets confirmed. 

Conversation between @WWG1WGA and @MCollaborator.

Conversation between @WWG1WGA and @MCollaborator.

Lewandosky also touches upon how conspiracy theories are difficult to fight because they are not created by evidence, but by (the desire for) believing “that there must be something more to the events that shape our lives, culture, and politics than accident or happenstance” (Coaston, 2018). For the Q-army, the rationale is clear: Trump supports and confirms our theory, which is evidence that proves that QAnon speaks the truth. But what exactly is this evidence and what is it based on? 

QAnon at Trump rallies

Especially since 2018, QAnon believers have started to make their presence known offline as well (see tweet below). They show up at Trump rallies with merch and signs including the Q sign, shouting things like “We Are Q” and “Make noise for Q” as well as the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (Relman, 2019). Because of their offline appearance at such events, a couple of things have now happened that are seen as evidence by the Q-army that Trump is a QAnon supporter. 

Q-army appearances at Trump rallies.

In June 2018, a Trump and QAnon supporter who appeared at a Trump rally with a shirt showing the QAnon logo, was given VIP access. During the rally, Trump approached the man and gestured towards him (Holt, 2018). The Q-army responded enthusiastically to this, sharing it on their social media timelines. For example, see the Facebook post from Linda Forsythe below. 

QAnon believer posts about VIP rally access.

QAnon supporters also believe that during a different speech, Trump made a Q-shaped hand gesture. That is, Trump seems to have made a ‘Q’ with his right hand while talking (YouTube, 2018). 

The video in which Trump makes a "Q" with his hands according to the Q-army.

For the Q-army, this is a sign, which they discuss in the video's comment section. However, this comment section also includes some skeptics besides QAnon believers (see the pictures below). 

Q-army seeing the video as true evidence.

QAnon believer vs non-believer.

Discussion below YouTube video about Q-sign.

Another incident happened at a Trump rally in Greenville, North Carolina. A baby wearing a onesie with "Trump" written on the front and "Q" on the back was apparently noticed by Trump. The President pointed at the baby and said: “Look at that beautiful baby, look at that beautiful baby. Wow, what a baby. What a baby! That is a beautiful baby! That’s like from an advertisement, perfect! Look how happy that baby is! So beautiful, thank you, darling. That’s really nice” (YouTube, 2019). 

Donald Trump notices QAnon baby. 

This baby quickly turned into a QAnon mascot symbolizing the good that would remove all evil, and the hashtag #Qbaby became a trending topic with over 38.000 tweets. Of course, it should be noted that the chances of Trump knowing that there was a "Q" on the back of the romper are very slim (Dickson, 2019). Yet, this seems to be only a small, irrelevant detail for the Q-army. Again, the YouTube comment section was filled with QAnon believers. 

Q-army seeing the baby as ultimate proof.

Q-army seeing the baby as ultimate proof.

And in case you do not completely understand why the baby is seen as evidence that Trump supports QAnon, the Q-army is happy to explain it to you, as seen below.

Q-army explaining the Q-baby.

QAnon merch at Trump rallies: allowed or not? 

The next example shows conflict between QAnon and regulations at Trump's rallies as well as the effects of confirmation bias. With a growing amount of supporters wearing "Q merch" offline, we can no longer avoid seeing “Q” when looking at photos or news coverage of Trump rallies. But, there is an interesting tension here between the Q-army and rules against displaying the "Q" symbol during a Trump rally: is it actually allowed to wear clothes that display a "Q"?

When a Trump campaign official was asked about the standard operating procedure for treating Q-army members during a rally, he said that the staff was instructed to “generally just ‘ignore them’ and not ‘make a big deal out of’ them, both to deprive them of as much press attention as possible and to avoid ‘pissing off the crazy’ people” (Relman, 2019). 

However, some QAnon believers shared that their Q-merch was banned from the President’s rallies. They were instructed to turn their t-shirts inside out or cover them up with another clothing item (Sommer, 2019). For the Q-army, this was a disappointment, but it did not keep them from finding new ways to still show their support for QAnon. For example, some added a piece of tape to an "O" to make it look like a "Q" (Tweet from Sommer, 2019). 

QAnon followers report a ban of Q-merch.

Secret Service claim to not ban Q-merch.

It seems clear that there is no support from Trump’s staff for the conspiracy theory. But for the Q-army, this only raises suspicion. They think that the ban is only there because Trump knows that QAnon is true, and he wants to keep this truth a secret. 

The Q-army's strong confirmation bias to turn can lead to turning counter-arguments and hostile treatment into evidence that supports the QAnon logic. 

And the story continues. Apparently, through their subsequent online interactions, the Q-army found that this request to change or hide QAnon clothes was not made at every rally. On top of this, the US Secret Service themselves have denied certain accusations made by QAnon believers. Cathy L. Milhoan, director of communications, said: “The U.S. Secret Service did not request, or require, attendees to change their clothing at an event in New Hampshire” (Bump, 2019). These developments showcase the parallel existence of different narratives around why and how Q merch came to be banned at some Trump rallies. The Q-army's strong confirmation bias can lead to turning counter-arguments and hostile treatment into evidence that supports the QAnon logic. 

QAnon on Trump’s Twitter timeline

Donald Trump has also tweeted about the rallies, attaching pictures to his tweets that show Q signs or people wearing Q merch (Tweet from Trump, 2019). It seems very far-fetched to think that the President tweeting pictures that feature some instances of "Q" in them is an outright indication of support, but for the Q-army these kinds of tweets are massively important and serve as evidence. In fact, a big buzz is also made out of some interactions between Trump's account and Q-army accounts as seen in the examples below. 

Trump retweets MAGAPILL, a QAnon promoting website.

Trump retweets another QAnon Twitter account.

Indeed, Donald Trump has retweeted quite a few QAnon believers' posts during his presidency. For example, “he shared a video critical of the Transportation Security Administration that originated from a Twitter account called Deep State Exposed that is operated by a QAnon follower” (Hendrix, 2019). It had also happened before that, in order to show a shared critical stance against the Democrats, Trump retweeted posts from accounts that support the QAnon theory (Hendrix, 2019). However, whether Trump is aware of the background of those users he re-tweets, remains a question. 

QAnon appearances in Trump’s public life

With "Q" standing for top secrecy, part of this conspiracy theory's culture is anonymity. Discreetness and invisibility are key elements of their culture: they call their doctrine "QAnon", and the user Q, where the intelligence comes from, posts anonymously. Still, despite the relative invisibility of Q, supporters have (had) quite a few public appearances. 

In August 2019, an official Trump campaign advertisement featured QAnon supporters and Q signs. In a video titled "Women for Trump", we see a woman holding a sign where the "O"’s have been changed into "Q"’s; elsewhere, we see a sign with "Keep America Great" that features a large Q in its upper left corner (Derysh, 2019; see below). Of course, these signs could have been included in the campaign ad accidentally, especially since Trump rallies are filled with QAnon supporters and it is getting more and more difficult not to see or include them in one's footage.  

Trump's advertisement includes Q signs.

Trump's advertisement includes Q signs.

After these Q signs appeared in the advertisement, many QAnon believers saw it as Trump's way of apologizing and rectifying the fact that Q merch was not allowed at some rallies. According to the Q-army, Trump did this on purpose, as the tweet below argues

A QAnon believer says that Trump did this on purpose.

But QAnon supporters are not only prominently present in the audience. At another Trump rally, one of the warm-up acts for Trump recited a QAnon slogan during his speech. When the speaker said "where we go one, we go all", the audience gave an enthusiastic response (Msnbc, 2019; Sommer, 2019). The reaction was captured in video below at the 1 minute and 22 second mark. But what does this say about Trump’s support for QAnon? How much knowledge did Trump have about his warm-up acts? For the Q-army everything is clear: their theory is once again confirmed. 

Video from MSNBC showing a warm-up speaker shouting the QAnon slogan. 

It is important to note that the examples discussed here cover only a few of the many events the Q-army sees as evidence that the President is their supporter. Other happenings include: Trump employing a publicly active QAnon believer as chef for his Mar-a-Lago resort (Sommer, 2019); a Florida SWAT Officer wearing a Q patch during Mike Pence’s visit (Haag, 2018); and Trump hosting William Lionel Lebron - a leading promoter of the QAnon conspiracy - in the Oval Office for a photo opportunity (Wikipedia, 2019). Besides that, not only has Trump interacted with the Q-army on Twitter more than 25 times, but also “members of his family, his personal attorney, current and former campaign staffers, and even some former administration officials” have repeatedly and publicly given attention to the QAnon theory (Kaplan, 2019). 

QAnon: a conspiracy theory favored by the President? 

Most conspiracy theories tend to stay forever in the realm of the obscure, the unbelievable and the bizarre. But in this case, where the President of the United States himself possibly supports one, things are different. QAnon is no longer a small conspiracy theory that only reaches some of us; the attention it is getting is growing both online and offline along with its following. The theory is now bigger than ever, but still unbelievable and bizarre. As QAnon enters mainstream media, it is of growing importance that more people are educated on the theory, its followers' practices and its potential consequences for the public sphere. 

The Q-army's online (and offline) interactions show that there is support among their ranks as well as, of course, support for the theory. At the same time, QAnon believers ignore or refuse to acknowledge the validity of any contradictory evidence or comments. The Q-army seems to continuously find new information that supports their theory and sees counter-evidence as a suspicious cover-up of the truth. Besides that, the Q-army is living in their own echo chamber, which only reinforces their belief.

Overall, the examples discussed in this article, indicate that Trump has (had) quite a few interactions with QAnon. The difficulty lies in safely concluding whether these interactions were based on conscious decisions made by Trump, or whether they are simply far-fetched connections created by the Q-army. What we do know is that - with or without Trump's support - QAnon seems to be a growing community of people supporting a conspiracy theory that will not be going away anytime soon by the looks of it.

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