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Assessing the Threat of QAnon Violence

Assessing the Threat of QAnon Violence
15th June 2020 Julien Bellaiche
In Insights

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate was the theatre of an unusual scene on Saturday, 23 May 2020. As thousands gathered throughout Germany to express their anger at COVID-19 measures held in the country, an atypical crowd of protesters stood in front of the emblematic monument. They wore hazard suits and flowers in their hair. On their clothing, some harboured the letter Q, showing their allegiance to the QAnon movement. This was not the first time QAnon supporters appeared in anti-lockdown protests in Germany. Since mid-April, they have been reportedly seen at several gathering across the country, holding up signs with references to the movement. The presence of adherents to a pro-US President Donald Trump conspiracy theory at German demonstrations may be surprising as the movement has been mostly rooted in the United States. It seems however that Germany is not the only place in which QAnon is gaining support. Within the online sphere, websites and supporters from across the globe are appearing. Moreover, recent reports suggest that the movement is growing into a new religion. While it is important to note that most QAnon supporters are non-violent, limiting their activities to the online world, these developments deserve attention as the theories the movement promotes have inspired violent acts in several cases. This article will provide an overview of the QAnon movement and examine some of the elements making it fertile ground for violence. It will then explore its recent evolutions and its online internationalisation.

QAnon is a pro-Donald Trump conspiracy theory that surfaced on the image board website 4chan in October 2017, when the anonymous user Q posted messages predicting the arrest of Hilary Clinton and the breakout of violent protests across the United States. Clinton’s arrest did not take place but Q kept posting enigmatic predictions suggesting the existence of a broad conspiracy within the US government. Q is an unknown user – or group of users – who claims to be a high-ranking military officer with “Q clearance” or “Q access authorisation” – a top-secret clearance level allowed by the US Department of Energy. This allegedly grants him access to classified information relating to the workings of the US government. Q purports, among other things, that Trump is working to put an end to a cabal of global paedophile elite embedded in the “deep state” that secretly controls world governments. In order to fight them, Trump would need support from devoted patriots who could access supposedly true information relating to the alleged struggle by deciphering Q messages – or “Q drops” as his followers call them. This would lead to the “Great Awakening”, a rise of popular awareness to the alleged truth, prompting mobilisation to overthrow the conspiracy. Since his first posts, Q has posted thousands of “Q drops” and moved overtime from 4chan to 8chan and its successor 8kun, using a password-protected “tripcode” to validate his identity. According to NBC News’ journalists Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, QAnon started to spread when two 4chan moderators brought Q posts to the attention of “Pizzagate” conspiracy adherent Tracy Diaz, who shared them online with her considerable crowd of followers. Over the next months, thousands of “anons” – anonymous Internet posters – viewed and shared Diaz’s video in which she introduced the conspiracy theory, turning QAnon into a real movement. It is hard to gauge its size today but it is likely to have tens of thousands of adherents according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

QAnon theories have inspired numerous violent acts and the group was reportedly identified as a domestic terrorism threat by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in an internal memo in May 2019.  The FBI document cites a California man who was found with bomb-making materials in his car. He allegedly planned to bomb the Illinois capitol to “make Americans aware of Pizzagate and the New World Order, who were dismantling society.” Last February, a man plead guilty of terrorism charge after blocking Hoover Dam bridge with an armoured truck. Heavily armed, he demanded the public release of the US Inspector General’s report on Hilary Clinton’s emails – a popular request among QAnon supporters. Other adherents were linked to acts of murder, kidnapping and public disturbance. Although this violence seems to remain on the margins of the movement for now, several studies suggest that conspiracy theories may increase the probability of extremist behaviour. James Bartlett and Carl Miller argue that conspiracies are widespread among extremist groups and adhesion to such theories in contexts of extremism often serve as a radicalisation catalyst, bounding extremist groups together and sometimes pushing them towards violence. More recently, Joseph E. Ucinski and Joseph M. Parent conducted a study in the United States in which they assessed the level of adhesion to conspiracy theories among a broad sample of participants. They concluded that those inclined towards conspiracy beliefs were more likely to consider the use of violence as a legitimate way of expressing discontent with the government. Finally, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton show that believers in conspiracies demonstrate a willingness to conspire themselves. QAnon violence should therefore rise concerns as the spread of the movement’s theories has the potential to fuel more violent acts in the future.

Moreover, the movement seems to undergo various transformations, making it look more like a cult or a religion than a political movement. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance describes it as a new religious movement defined by the language of evangelical Christianity and propelled by the absolute faith of its followers. Its people are expressing their fervour through the ardent study of “Q drops” as sacred texts. Additionally, GNET Associate Fellow Marc-André Argentino spent twelve weeks attending online two-hour Sunday morning service of a newly born QAnon church. He depicts a neo-charismatic church interpreting the Bible through QAnon conspiracies. The movement is also characterised by the existence of a group jargon, specific terms and acronyms used by its members. In the QAnon dimension, the White House is called the “castle”, clues are “Crumbs” and followers are instructed by Q to “trust the plan” and “enjoy the show.” The acronym CBTS refers to the “calm before the storm”, a Trump quote perceived by Q adherents as an evidence of the US President’s support to their cause, and WWG1WGA stands for “Where we go one, we go all,” a popular rallying cry among Q supporters. According to psychiatrist Robert Lifton, this type of specific group’s language contributes to constricting member’s critical thinking abilities, increasing their vulnerability to the group’s message. Thus, the sacralisation of QAnon conspiracies, through fervent devotion to “Q drops” and common practices, together with the use of a specific jargon bolstering member’s identification with the group’s message, may turn rebellion against allegedly corrupted institutions into a sacred duty. This may lay the ground for more violent trends to emerge within the movement.

This threat is concerning as the global aspects of QAnon conspiracy theories seem to gather supporters from across the globe through the Internet. The hashtags #QANONWORLDWIDE and #WWG1WGAWORLDWIDE on Twitter are used in a considerable amount of tweets and the former became increasingly popular over the past two months. Other hashtags identifying as local national branches of the movement, such as #QanonFrance, #QAnonUK, #AussieQ or #QAnonGermany are also present in large numbers of tweets, sometimes accompanied by the hashtag #QArmy. Followers from all over the world post videos of themselves saying QAnon mottos from their home countries, such as this British family or this man from Queensland, Australia. The pro-QAnon Twitter account Eye Drop Media, which counts with 32.2 thousands followers, posted a montage viewed 358.6 thousands times gathering dozens of similar videos in a dramatic set-up, blended with extracts of an interview of British conspiracy theorist David Icke. On Facebook, a French-speaking QAnon page has more than 25,000 members, among whom about 3600 subscribed in the month prior to the time of writing. French and Italian QAnon websites surfaced on the Internet as well. It is hard to evaluate in this article the real scale of the movement’s online internationalisation, and further research is needed to grasp its nature, extent and impact. It is however important to note that the above-mentioned examples illustrate that QAnon’s ideas are intelligible for non-US audiences and followers across the world may be tempted to act against what they perceive as local representative of the alleged global cabal promoted by Q.

Increased fanaticism and unconditional belief in QAnon conspiracy theories may lead to the use of higher levels of violence among radicalised members willing to take matters into their hands and fight what they perceive as an injustice. As the recent demonstrations in Germany illustrate, the movement is growing and seems to be gaining support outside of the US, extending the threat to foreign countries. Reddit, Facebook and Google took action against QAnon, impeding the movement’s presence on their platforms. However, it is essential to keep looking for efficient ways to combat Q’s narrative across the Internet before more violence emerges.