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QAnon, Political Radicalisation and January 6th: A Gendered Perspective

QAnon, Political Radicalisation and January 6th: A Gendered Perspective
15th September 2023 Sophia Moskalenko
In Insights


By now, many have heard of QAnon, an online phenomenon that originated in late October of 2017, when the first cryptic messages, later called ‘Q drops’, appeared on a fringe social media site, 4chan, hinting that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested by the National Guard. The poster signed their messages ‘Q’, a reference to the US Department of Energy’s highest security clearance, and claimed that they were a former military officer from Donald Trump’s inner circle. Since these original posts, over 5,000 Q drops were posted, and people in the US and around the world began deciphering and collectively interpreting them, creating a community of millions of followers. The ‘drops’, together with their interpretations, culminated in QAnon: a set of conspiracy theories that portray Donald J. Trump as the archetypal hero waging a secret fight against a secret global cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles, including prominent US politicians (Bill and Hillary Clinton), multi-millionaires (Bill Gates, George Soros), Hollywood celebrities (Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Oprah) and even the Pope. Adherents of QAnon also believe that they, ‘true American patriots’, may need to resort to violence to help bring ‘the Storm’ and save the USA. This sentiment was shared on QAnon forums and message boards in the run-up to the January 6th storming of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, with the riotous crowd breaching the government building in order to stop the counting of the votes in the 2020 Presidential election that Donald Trump lost. 

QAnon followers have been charged with various violent crimes including assassination plots for political figures, planned kidnappings, and even the murder of a New York mafia boss. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security issued its first National Terrorism Bulletin for domestic extremists, which included conspiracy theorist groups such as QAnon. Many reporters have echoed the Department of Homeland Security’s concerns, comparing QAnon to a radicalised terrorist group.

Until recently, no research has empirically linked beliefs in QAnon conspiracy theories with political radicalisation––support for violent or illegal political action––or with support for the January 6th riot. With my co-authors Tomislav Pavlovic and Brett Burton, we set out to fill this knowledge gap by conducting an internet survey to assess QAnon beliefs, as well as participants’ political radicalisation, and their attitudes toward the January 6th Capitol Hill riot. We also sought to explore individual characteristics, such as personality traits captured by the NEO Big 5—Neuroticism; Conscientiousness; Agreeableness; Extroversion; and Openness to Experiences, to see if they predicted conspiratorial beliefs, radicalisation, or support for the insurrection. Finally, we wanted to empirically test the journalistic and theoretical claims that suggested women were particularly vulnerable to QAnon messaging, especially to QAnon’s ‘#SaveTheChildren’ campaign and the corresponding conspiracy beliefs that children were being kidnapped en-masse to be sexually abused and tortured by a cabal of high-powered politicians and celebrities. This Insight summarises the findings of our journal article, ‘QAnon Beliefs, Political Radicalization and Support for January 6th Insurrection: A Gendered Perspective’. 

Study Methods 

Recruiting participants from Prolific, an online research platform, we aimed to maximise the chances of including participants who support QAnon conspiracy theories. For that, we relied on existing research to select them. Since the majority of QAnon followers seem to be politically right-leaning, with over half of US Republicans believing the central tenets of QAnon, compared to only 4% of Democrats, we selected participants who were registered Republicans. We also selected people who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, relying on research indicating that about half of Trump supporters support QAnon, and are more likely to endorse QAnon allegations, even if they haven’t heard of QAnon. Finally, we selected individuals who self-identified as politically conservative, because previous studies have found that 62% of conservatives believe at least one core QAnon conspiracy, and during the 2016 presidential election conservative individuals were more likely to engage and share conspiracy theories on Facebook and Twitter. Taken together, by selecting US Republican conservatives who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, we hoped to increase our potential for selecting QAnon-supporting respondents. Our final sample consisted of 331 US-based participants.

The survey they filled out included some well-validated measures, such as NEO Big-5, which measures personality variables, and ARIS (Activism and Radicalism Intentions Scale), as well as two measures designed especially for this study: one to assess support for the January 6th riot, and another to assess beliefs in the tenets of QAnon conspiracy theories. 

Study Findings

As expected, we found a correlation between support for January 6th and radical intentions, but not activist intentions. This means individuals who supported January 6th insurrectionists were themselves more likely to express a willingness to engage in illegal or violent action, but not legal and nonviolent action, in support of their group or beliefs. Similarly, belief in QAnon conspiracies predicted radical intentions and support for the riot. 

Perhaps more surprising are the results we observed when comparing female and male participants. Women in our sample reported a greater belief in QAnon conspiracy theories than men. Additionally, fewer women than men fully rejected all QAnon conspiracy theories we asked them about. In other words, women in our study reported a stronger belief in QAnon than men. 

This is consistent with journalistic accounts of QAnon appealing to women through yoga, essential oils, and alternative medicine Instagram pages, what has come to be known as ‘Pastel QAnon’ for the soft colour palette these pages often use. Another women-specific appeal of QAnon was through the #SaveTheChildren campaign, which emphasises child kidnapping, sexual abuse and torture, and in doing so likely resonated with women’s maternal instincts. It seems this two-pronged approach of QAnon messaging had the desired effect of bringing women into QAnon’s following. 

But, not just any women. Our study looked at five personality traits in relation to support for radical intentions, QAnon ideas, and the January 6th riot. These personality traits showed unexpected and informative patterns of correlations among women. For women in our study, support for the insurrection was positively related to ‘Openness to Experience’, whereas, among men, this relationship was negative. In other words, women who are open to exploring and seeking new experiences were supportive of January 6th, but men of the same personality type were less likely to support it. A similarly divergent pattern of gendered correlation emerged between extroversion and radical intentions: extroverted women were more radical than introverted women, but introverted men were more radical than extroverted men. Taken together, these findings suggest that men and women may come to the QAnon movement for different reasons, with men more motivated by a desire for societal change, including through violent and/or illegal means, whereas women in our study seemed to be more motivated by seeking new experiences and social connections in own radical activity and in support of others’ radical actions.


To our knowledge, this is the first study to use a measure of political radicalisation and a measure of support for January 6th alongside a measure of QAnon conspiracy beliefs. Consistent with previous research into general conspiracy beliefs, QAnon conspiracy theories predicted support for non-normative political action such as violent rioting and attacking police and security forces, and support for the insurrection. These findings indicate that QAnon beliefs are related to political radicalisation. 

More women in our study reported believing QAnon conspiracy theories and their average endorsement of QAnon conspiracies was higher than that of men. We also observed a positive correlation between the ‘Openness to Experiences’ personality trait and support for January 6th, and between ‘Extroversion’ and radicalisation among women in our study, but not among men. On the other hand, for men, but not for women, QAnon conspiracy beliefs correlated with activist intentions. These findings suggest a different psychology underlying QAnon’s appeal for men versus women. 

For tech companies, the rise of QAnon presented a new challenge in monitoring and moderating content and users. Our findings suggest a possibility for gender-specific measures to reduce radicalisation via online platforms, such as the ones that gave rise to ‘Pastel QAnon’. Since the impetus for associating with QAnon seems to be socialisation and excitement-seeking for women, potentially fruitful off-ramping efforts may include targeted advertisements on the pages of local community engagement initiatives that could offer women new experiences, and opportunities to participate in good causes and meet new people. On the other hand, our findings among men suggest that the most effective deradicalisation strategies to reduce online polarisation would involve removing the most incendiary posts and imposing limits on the users responsible for them. 

Sophia Moskalenko is a Research Fellow at Georgia State University. Her research focuses on radicalization, terrorism, self-sacrifice, and disinformation. She serves as a consultant to the European Commission, NATO, and the United Nations’ Office of Counterterrorism. She is the co-author of the award-winning “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the mind of QAnon” (2021; Stanford University Press). Twitter: @sophiamoskalen1