QAnon is a decentralised violent ideology rooted in an unfounded conspiracy theory that a globally active “Deep State” cabal of satanic pedophile elites is responsible for all the evil in the world. Adherents of QAnon also believe that this same cabal is seeking to bring down President Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope in defeating it. The name “QAnon” refers to its followers’ belief in “Q” as a military intelligence operation geared towards supporting President Trump in his efforts to root out and eliminate the “Deep State.”
QAnon and violence
QAnon is a militant and anti-establishment ideology rooted in a quasi-apocalyptic desire to destroy the existing, “corrupt” world order and usher in a promised golden age. This is reminiscent of numerous violent, anti-government, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi extremist organisations across the globe. Its diversified and increasingly broad base of support means that it continually absorbs other conspiracy theories that have fed into other globalist anti-government movements, among them the beliefs of 1990s militia movements about the “New World Order”, thinly veiled connections to centuries-old anti-Semitic narratives about blood libel and the anti-government apocalypticism and religious fervor of the Branch Davidians.
Recent criminal cases show that QAnon has contributed to the radicalisation of a number of ideologically motivated violent extremists. In light of this, in 2019 an FBI intelligence bulletin stated that QAnon could ‘very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity,’ noting that ‘one key assumption driving these assessments is that certain conspiracy theory narratives tacitly support or legitimise violent action.’ Separately, a 2020 report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) highlights that QAnon has already led to several acts of violence. This same report also drew attention to the fact that the time between radicalisation and mobilisation can be very short (as little as a few days).
An increase in QAnon-inspired criminality or violence is possible, or even likely, as it grows in salience around the globe. By mid-2020, some believed it to have adherents in as many as 75 countries.
When and where did QAnon start?
The QAnon conspiracy emerged on 28 October 2017, when a user named “Q” posted what were purported to be highly classified government secrets on 4chan’s /pol/ (politically incorrect) discussion board, contributing to a thread discussing the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States (US) elections.
Notably, “Q’s” claim of having special access to government secrets is not unique; rather, it is part of a wider “anon” genre comprising anonymous users of discussion boards who claim to be government officials party to secret, and usually highly inflammatory, information. Both before and in the early days of “Q,” for example, there were several 4chan users that claimed to have special government access.
In September 2020, nearly three years following the emergence of “Q,” there remains no consensus as to who the original “Q” was—let alone who manages its output at present.
QAnon’s central claim
QAnon’s central claim—that a cabal of powerful elites control the world, using their power to covertly abuse children—has its origins in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which can be traced back to October 2016. According to this theory, the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton contained coded words and satanic symbolism indicating the existence of a secret child sex trafficking ring run out of a popular pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. Two months after these ideas began to gather momentum, a Pizzagate conspiracy theorist arrived at the restaurant in question with an AR-15-style rifle, firing three shots before surrendering to police after realising that he—and, indeed, the Pizzagate theory in general—were mistaken.
QAnon as an ideology
Though it started as a series of conspiracy theories—many of which proved, in short shrift, to be false—QAnon has evolved into a religio-political ideology over the past three years.
As an ideology, the QAnon belief system permits the development of symbolic resources that enable those who believe in it to define and address the problem of “Evil.” The resultant worldview is characterised by a sharp distinction between “Good” and “Evil” that is typical of both conspiracy and violent extremist movements. QAnon adherents reinforce this notion by claiming that “QDrops”—that is, the “intelligence leaks” issued by “Q” online—are based on empirical evidence. Consequently, they rely on the creation of elaborate, often labyrinthine productions of said “evidence” in order to substantiate and decipher QAnon’s coded claims.
For true believers in the movement, this reliance on the essential, coded “truths” of QAnon render it unfalsifiable. Largely for this reason, QAnon adherents are not passive consumers of QAnon content; they are also online activists, content creators who generate memes, videos, texts, music, and films, much of which in turn goes on to have its own life, feeding and generating more “Q” claims. From this network of ideas, they construct and make meaning, redefining their place in society in a secularised, cultic parallel to religious tradition.
1) Amarnanth Amarasingam and Marc-André Argentino, “The QAnon Conspiracy Theory: A Security Threat in the Making?”, CTC Sentinal, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-qanon-conspiracy-theory-a-security-threat-in-the-making/.
2) Adrienne Lafrance, “The Prophecies of Q American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/qanon-nothing-can-stop-what-is-coming/610567/.
3) Marc-André Argentino, “In the Name of the Father, Son, and Q: Why It’s Important to See QAnon as a ‘Hyper-Real’ Religion,” Religion Dispatches, https://religiondispatches.org/in-the-name-of-the-father-son-and-q-why-its-important-to-see-qanon-as-a-hyper-real-religion/.
4) Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Women Making Conspiracy Theories Beautiful How the domestic aesthetics of Instagram repackage QAnon for the masses,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/08/how-instagram-aesthetics-repackage-qanon/615364/.
5) Marc-André Argentino, “The Church of QAnon: Will conspiracy theories form the basis of a new religious movement?” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-church-of-qanon-will-conspiracy-theories-form-the-basis-of-a-new-religious-movement-137859.
6) Lydia Khalil, “Cross-Promotion”, GNET, https://gnet-research.org/2020/07/22/cross-promotion/.
7) Massod Farivar, “How the QAnon Conspiracy Theory Went Global”, VOA, https://www.voanews.com/usa/how-qanon-conspiracy-theory-went-global.