This series of Insights draws on the GNET report by Inform: ‘Cults and Online Violent Extremism’. Inform are an independent educational charity providing information about minority religions and sects which is as accurate, up-to-date and as evidence-based as possible. This Insight introduces the first grouping of online cultic activity that can glorify and inspire violent extremisms: ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups. Other Insights in this series can be found here.
Inform’s report, Cults and Online Violent Extremism, proposes three ideal-typical groupings of online cultic activity that can glorify and inspire violent extremisms: ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups, ‘Online Cultic Milieus’ and ‘Cultic Fandoms’. This Insight provides an overview of this second category: Online Cultic Milieus. The grouping of Online Cultic Milieus draws upon the sociologist Colin Campbell’s description of a wider ‘field’ of 1970s subcultures in which individuals might move between ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups and explore other forms of rejected or socially deviant knowledge. This description focuses attention on an environment that is not characterised by a distinct ideology, group identity or charismatic leadership, but rather forms a social space where individuals are able to explore various alternatives to the ‘mainstream’ and groups attempt to attract the interest of individuals to their causes. This Insight focuses on the QAnon and Anti-Vax Conspiracy Movements.
There is nothing new about conspiracy theories or anti-vaccine sentiments. In 1831, there was immediate opposition to adopting the first smallpox vaccine. Riots and other disturbances broke out in several British cities during the smallpox epidemic, driven by the widespread belief among the poor that the disease did not actually exist, but was concocted by the government to provide bodies for vivisection experiments or simply to reduce the population. There have been well-documented political conspiracies, at least as far back as the Roman Empire and, at certain times, narratives concerning conspiracies by various groups have been an accepted and public part of the political sphere.
However, a ‘conspiracy theory’ is more than just a theory that posits a conspiracy. The relationship between conspiracy theories, power and knowledge is the basis of much recent sociological work. Political historian Michael Barkun suggests that what ultimately defines conspiracy theories is the mobilisation of stigmatised knowledge – that is, claims that challenge the accepted epistemic authorities and are often based on forgotten, superseded, ignored, rejected or suppressed forms of knowledge. It is important to remember that sometimes conspiracy theories are proved to be true (for example, plots by Islamist or far-right terrorists) even if at other times that has not been the case (for example, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare or Satanic ritual abuse). The popular idea that conspiracy theories are necessarily paranoid and/or irrational does not stand up to close scrutiny.
QAnon first emerged in 2017 from online discussions about the anonymous ‘Q’, an individual who claims to be the conduit between the public and a secret military-aligned group. Q first posted on 4chan, an anonymous image board for fringe internet subcultures. Q found an audience on 4chan’s /pol/ forum, continuing a trend of claiming to be a whistle-blower and drawing together pre-existing threads about conspiracies involving global elites. QAnon gained a mainstream following when its material was shared to Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
The ‘online cultic milieu’ is characterised by all forms of what Barkun termed “stigmatised knowledge”. The content of this knowledge can be varied and contradictory. David Robertson has identified many of these beliefs as “situational, dispositional and socialized”. He proposes that these kinds of beliefs are better understood as a range of options from which one can choose in a particular context, rather than a strict yes/no proposition or ethical framework that guides all action.
Numerous studies have found a correlation between low trust in science and anti-vax sentiment. Other interests in this online environment include UFOs and conspiracy theories about UFO cover-ups. Some of the beliefs found in the QAnon milieu include that the MRNA vaccines are bioweapons that contain microchips. Anti-vax sentiment is often part of a wider worldview in which the ‘natural’ is prioritised, alongside alternative health practices such as detoxification and purification. Anti-vaxxers might reject germ theory or might advocate ‘natural immunity’. For those more spiritually inclined, illness might be embraced as a learning experience or as some kind of fate or karma.
Closely related to this mix of ‘rejected knowledge’ is a belief in a ‘hidden hand’. This was articulated most clearly in the QAnon focus on the existence of an ‘evil cabal’ believed to control world governments and media, responsible for global poverty, division and crime. This cabal is sometimes identified with specific people and has been purported to participate actively in the ritual abuse of children, echoing historical antisemitic allegations of blood libel. Paralleling Christian millenarian narratives with a more secular framing, those more committed to QAnon milieus look forward to a ‘Great Awakening’, a wider public acceptance that the cabal exists, and the millennial ‘Storm’, and the military-assisted defeat of the conspiracy that will usher in a new age.
In anti-vax discourses, the ‘hidden hand’ generally focuses on ‘Big Pharma’, the blanket term for large healthcare and pharmaceutical organisations believed to perpetuate illness for financial profit or population control. Although those vocally promoting such views are often decried as conspiracy theorists as a term of abuse and dismissal, it is important to acknowledge that some aspects of this worldview are evidence-based. For example, Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family, has now reached a settlement acknowledging culpability for its aggressive promotion of OxyContin, known to be highly addictive and a contributing factor to an ongoing opioid addiction crisis in the United States and elsewhere.
A common theme across all groups that draw on stigmatised knowledge is the importance of doing your own research, educating yourself and reaching your own conclusions about the best course of action for you and your family. Individual, experiential knowledge is prioritised over top-down, ‘scientific’ knowledge as articulated by traditional authority figures. The imposition of the latter is challenged in both personal practice (anti-vaccination, natural health) and sometimes in public protests. Academic frameworks identify the importance of non-dominant forms of epistemic authority, including personal experience and ‘assemblage’ (‘dot-connecting’) for those involved in this milieu.
While much of the practice of doing your own research is done by individuals in isolation, the ‘online cultic milieu’ overlaps with groups and communities operating offline. For example, there are online support groups for parents that promote critical information about vaccinations alongside advice on nutrition, natural remedies and reducing toxins. Such groups also may organise courses and local meetings for parental support groups.
Sometimes such beliefs and practices overlap with more established, ‘offline’ alternative new religions. For example, the now-defunct Genesis II Church of Health and Healing promoted its ‘healing sacrament’ of Master Mineral Solution (MMS), a form of bleach called chlorine dioxide, which should be ingested daily and/or as a cure for specific diseases, including autism and COVID-19.
Outside such special-interest subgroups, this cultic milieu as a whole is unlikely to come together except in protests, rallies or demonstrations, which often have a wider remit, such as the anti-lockdown protests that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic or the Bilderberg Fringe Festival of 2013. Anti-lockdown protests were able to mobilise a disparate group of people, bringing together anti-vaxxers, far-right adherents and QAnon supporters with a focus on opposing received wisdom and established authorities.
Symbols and Aesthetics
On the one hand, the online cultic milieu as a whole does not have any shared symbols and aesthetics. However, when considering specific non-dominant theories and beliefs, shared language and identifying hidden symbols can form a key part of independent knowledge formation through assemblage and identification with an in-group that understands an esoteric symbolic message.
For example, some individuals in this milieu might focus on ideas of paradigm shifts, ascension, the fifth dimension, consciousness, awakening, the third eye and so on. Others might mobilise around terms such as ‘health freedom’, a more political position that leverages concerns about a loss of freedom and an increase of government control. QAnon merchandise often features the letter Q, the slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (abbreviated to ‘WWG1WGA’), the number 17, references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the phrases “The storm is coming” and “The Great Awakening”. Also common is American patriotism in the form of American flags and eagles. QAnon also presents itself as compatible with Christianity, with Q’s posts utilising apocalyptic Christian imagery and martial symbolism in such pericopes as Ephesians 6:10–18.
There is no single, organised movement with clear boundaries when considering the online cultic milieu. The majority of those who hold anti-vax sentiments do not join an organisation with membership criteria. They are more likely to explore ideas online, joining temporary online communities relevant to their emerging and shifting interests. There is no single leader of an anti-vax community but rather multiple figureheads, often online influencers, who form a ‘counter-elite’, an alternative source of authority.
Since those involved anticipate opposition from traditional authority figures, they communicate on diverse and changing platforms. Using QAnon as an example, Q first posted on 4chan and later gained a mainstream following when the material was shared on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. Then, following suspensions from mainstream social media sites, QAnon content creators migrated onto alternative platforms, such as Telegram, Rumble and Odysee.
Many of the related movements exploring marginalised knowledge in the online cultic milieu are reflective of real concerns. Some of the beliefs in this milieu are based on accurate evidence, while others are assembled from overlapping areas of rejected knowledge. The risk these milieus pose to social stability and specifically for violent extremism is extremely varied and dependent on wider social contexts.
Several violent incidents involving QAnon supporters were listed by the FBI as examples of domestic violent extremism motivated by fringe political conspiracy theories. These examples informed the FBI’s assessment that QAnon represented a potential security threat. Following the Capitol insurrection, QAnon criminal activity gained increased visibility, leading some national security experts in 2021 to declare the conspiracy theory and its attendant supporters and groups an emerging danger that could soon rival more traditional terrorist threats.
Some commentators argue that specific aspects of the belief system held by some adherents of QAnon – its dualism, apocalyptic language, and disconfirmed prophecies – are indicators for potential violence committed by its adherents. Others have explored additional factors that, together with an acceptance of QAnon beliefs, correlate with violence. These include socio-economic and interpersonal crises, trauma, drug abuse, mental illness and the perception of persecution, especially when such persecution is considered an existential threat and is combined with identity fusion and violence-condoning language.
Unsurprisingly, Inform concurs with the authors of a 2021 editorial in The Lancet, who argued that anti-vax movements should be approached as a religious phenomenon, with people’s beliefs understood and taken seriously in order to prevent further marginalisation: ‘Lessons from studying cults’ would be a constructive perspective, the editorial suggests.