For many people, their first awareness of a social media phenomenon called “QAnon” came with news coverage of a failed autogolpe in the US, on January 6th of this year. On that date, an organised mob invaded the US Capitol building in an attempt to derail the election process and prevent the inauguration of newly-elected President Joe Biden. Their mission was to keep the defeated incumbent Donald Trump in power.
Among the banners and signage carried by the insurgents, onlookers saw many variants on the letter Q and slogans like “Where We Go One We Go All,” “The Great Awakening,” “Trust the Plan,” “Save the Children,” etc. For those who had been observing the QAnon phenomenon during the years leading up to the insurrection, all these slogans and symbols were familiar indicators of a deeply troubling development in both US history and social media culture.
Among those worried observers were Darshan Stevens and Alex Hornby of Cortes island. When we discovered our mutual interest in the topic (cults in general and QAnon in particular), I suggested an interview for Currents. The result became a four-part special feature, airing the week of May 10th 2021.
What is QAnon?
QAnon is something new in political history, thanks to the unprecedented connectivity and “viralism” of social media. It can be described as a fusion of ultra-right-wing politics with conspiracy theories and urban legends, blending at the edges into American televangelism and multi-level marketing, leveraging social media algorithms for its spread and reach… and even incorporating elements of online gaming. QAnon has adherents world-wide, though its epicenter is American and its central mythic figure is Donald Trump. Many experts on the sociology and psychology of cults describe it as an “online cult.”
In the QAnon mythos, Trump is an heroic avenger/rescuer figure who will save America (and the world) from a diabolical conspiracy of Democrats, liberals, Hollywood moguls, and Jewish financiers. These members of the “Deep State” or secret world government, the mythos asserts, have for years been kidnapping children and imprisoning them in underground facilities. In these dungeons, members of the cabal not only make sexual use of the children but also “tap their adrenal glands” or drain their blood for a substance called adrenochrome, which these evil people use as a recreational and life-extending drug.
This ghastly situation will be remedied, the legend promises. Trump is God’s appointed hero who at an appointed hour will rally the faithful to a final battle between good and evil, break the cabal, jail its members, and free the children from their underground prisons. This pivotal event will usher in a new age of American greatness, peace, freedom, and prosperity.
Students of history will recognise many familiar themes in this hodge-podge of fear and fantasy. The Blood Libel reappears here in a new, medicalised guise, as does the ever-popular apocalyptic transformation narrative. For most people, this narrative is an eyebrow-raising farrago of recycled nonsense; but some of the mob who stormed the Capitol on January 6th were ready to kill and/or die for it. And some did.
How Did This Happen?
How did such an astonishing modern mythology coalesce and acquire believers? The seeds go back to Pizzagate in 2016 and beyond, with roots in the “Birther” movement and older American conspiracy theories. In 2017, one of the most extreme white supremacist message boards on the internet (4chan) posted a message from a user known only as “Q”. Q claimed to be a high-ranking military officer. Q claimed to have insider knowledge of “Trump’s Secret War” against the liberal elites. At first he/she/they made predictions (Hillary Clinton will be arrested on such and such a date) but after several failed prophecies, the tone changed and Q’s “drops” became cryptic hints and questions.
Enthusiastic readers then began to participate in a kind of game, interpreting Q’s sybilline utterances. Numerological and symbolic analysis — amounting to collective apophenia — became a key feature for participants. Moderators from the dark side of the net (4chan and 8chan — 8chan being notoriously the forum where white supremacist shooters posted their manifestos and videos) began active promotion of Q material, finding that it boosted their ratings. And Q — almost overnight — went from being just one of many “anon” variants on 4chan claiming to have secret insider knowledge of government corruption, to a national and international phenomenon. (Brief history from NBC News).
With its authoritarian far-right agenda, QAnon fell into natural alignment with other Ultra groups like the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Boys (many of whom were among the January 6th planners and participants). QAnon distinguished itself from the rest of the macho gun-fetishist crowd, however, by successfully developing a “Pastel QAnon” face on Facebook and Instagram, where the “Save the Children” meme proved to be a magnet (and click-booster) for a legion of “QaMoms.”
The events of January 6th marked a kind of high-water mark for QAnon as a movement; the failed autogolpe did not measure up to the promised nation-wide uprising (The Storm, or the Great Awakening). The prophetic promises of QAnon went unfulfilled again on Inauguration Day: Trump did not descend in a black helicopter, arrest all the Democrats, and bellow “You’re Fired” at Joe Biden. True believers were left confused and disappointed. However, as we discuss, the social media phenomenon that is QAnon deftly switched its focus: it has momentarily abandoned the “captive children” narrative and now focuses on anti-vax, anti-mask, and “Covid is a Hoax” memes.
Unbeknownst to each other, your humble author and fellow Cortes residents Darshan Stevens and Alex Hornby had been researching and trying to understand the QAnon phenomenon for the last two or three years. Thanks to a random encounter in the comments section of an online magazine, we discovered each others’ interest in the topic; I was surprised to learn that there were QAnon adherents here on Cortes Island; and I asked if Darshan and Alex would be willing to participate in an interview for Cortes Currents.
The resulting conversation occupied a lively two and a half hours. I have edited selected key points into a four-part radio series, which airs on CKTZ the week of May 10th, 2021. Each show will also be available here as a podcast (see above). The entire interview, as a five-part article, is available on Medium. At the end of Part 5 is a longish list of links and references for further reading, some of which are also included below.
In the course of the interview we try to define QAnon (what is it?) and how it differs from other conspiracy theories, contrarian belief systems, and cults. We discuss the surprising connection between New Age / Wellness communities and QAnon (“Conspirituality”) and the counter-intuitive emergence of “right-wing hippies”. We discuss QAnon in the context of grifts, con games, and multi-level marketing schemes; as a proto-religion; and as an effective tool for ultra-rightist recruitment and radicalisation.
We discuss the painful impact on family and friends of cult members in general and QAnon members in particular–and how family and friends may be able to help cult members to re-assess their extremist beliefs. Darshan and Alex share their own feelings of loss and grief over personal friendships disrupted by QAnon ideology. We explore the boundaries of bedrock democratic principles like freedom of religion and speech, in light of openly authoritarian, insurrectionist “proto-religions” like QAnon.
Other topics include social and conventional media standards (or the lack thereof) in our time, accountability, media literacy, critical thinking and research skills. As counselors themselves, Alex and Darshan are also deeply interested in the psychological underpinnings of cult membership, recruitment and retention. We discuss the connections between trauma and cult membership, the nearly-universal appeal of heroic/apocalyptic cult narratives, what factors make people more vulnerable or susceptible to cult recruitment, and how people exit cults and reclaim their lives from extreme or obsessive mythical narratives.
Whether you have friends and family who have “fallen down the Q rabbit hole” or not, I hope this interview series will be thought-provoking and informative. As always, thanks for listening.
- Full transcript of interview — in five parts, on Medium.com; includes a more extensive list of references
- QAnon Anonymous — a podcast by investigator/bloggers who have been covering the topic diligently for over 140 episodes
- Q: Into The Storm — documentary series on US TV
- QAnon Casualties — Reddit forum for friends and family of Qanon believers
- Cults: A Reference and Guide — definitive scholarly catalogue of cults
- Articles by Darshan and Alex — QAnon, trauma, vulnerability
- Clickbait — article by De Clarke; also Occam, Copernicus, and QAnon
- Freedom of Mind — website of Steven Hassan, cult expert
- QAnon is More Important Than You Think — Atlantic Magazine
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