The QAnon Conspiracy
Surveys show that about a quarter of Americans are familiar with the QAnon conspiracy theory, and that's a staggering number of people. What began as a few random and childishly implausible posts on an obscure Internet message board favored by porn enthusiasts, racists, and other fringe extremists, has grown into a very serious political movement in just a few years. Today we're going to shine our skeptical light into the darkest corners of the Internet to illuminate the QAnon conspiracy theory, one of the most fascinating developments that will grace the pages of sociology textbooks for decades to come.
During the 2016 US presidential campaign in which Donald Trump ultimately defeated Hillary Clinton, a number of "anons" — a term for people posting to the Internet anonymously — began to make false derogatory claims about Clinton in an effort to tilt public opinion in favor of Trump. These posters included "FBI Anon" who assured Trump supporters that Clinton would be arrested as soon as Trump was elected, and others with names such as "CIA Anon", "WH Insider Anon", and "High Level Insider Anon". They all claimed to be in positions of special insight and power, and all generally assured Trump voters that should their candidate prevail, a vast wave of indictments against Democrats would follow, who would then be imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. One such anon was "Q Clearance Patriot" who first posted in a forum thread called "Calm Before the Storm" in October 2017. The topic of the thread was an unexplained comment made by Trump — who had, by then, already been elected — in which he said we were in the calm before the storm, and when asked by reporters what he was talking about, he said "You'll find out." Well, nobody ever did, and nothing in particular ever happened that seemed to match it. It was almost certainly just another random word dump from someone well known for just saying words when he had nothing particular to say.
But this was the world's introduction to Q. Q clearance is an actual thing; it's the highest security clearance level at the US Department of Energy, equivalent to a Top Secret clearance at the Department of Defense. There's no secret about this or other clearance levels; their existence and meaning is public information. But whoever might hold them, or what classified information they have access to, is another matter. Q claimed to be such an individual, and although the predictions of indictments and "storms" that he made turned out to be as baseless as those made by FBI Anon and all the other anons, for some reason Q is the one who gained traction. Before long, Q had a vast following, mainly among people who longed to see far-right values take over in Washington. Q's posts just seemed to hit the right nerve.
Correction: According to the Personnel Security and Suitability Program Handbook, Q is only the second of three basic sensitivity levels; SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) would be the highest. So QAnon is not as special as he thinks. —BD
The world of QAnon is one in which Trump is a lone, heroic warrior, the only person strong enough to take a stand against a nebulous entity they call the "deep state". The deep state is a secret shadow government, led by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, philanthropist George Soros, and others, existing to facilitate unspecified corruption and — hold onto your hats — their global pedophilia ring. In the QAnon world, the US Democratic party, the deep state, and pedophilia are essentially synonymous. The added element of pedophilia brings validation to those on the far right who see the left as the cause of all of their problems, and can now also justifiably cast it as the ultimate evil. The conspiracy theory appeals most to those who see themselves as marginalized and victimized, and they seek to retake power through Trump, who they see as a messianic outsider untainted by deep state corruption. In many ways, the Internet commenter calling himself Q is not the cause of anything; rather, the widespread, earnest acceptance of the ideas he expresses is an inevitable symptom of the frustration felt by QAnon believers who see themselves as marginalized in the post-Obama era, smoldering in the ruins following the wave of progressive values that had swept across the nation for 8 years. QAnon just happened to be the rallying point that these victims found, where they could plant a flag of white nationalism and cheer Trump's retaking of America for them.
Correspondingly, much of the content shared among QAnon believers is surprisingly positive. Their principle social media hashtag #WWG1WGA ("Where we go one, we go all") celebrates unity and patriotism — granted, it's a peculiar brand of patriotism hard to understand for those outside the movement. Another QAnon hashtag #TheGreatAwakening references what they see as a renaissance for transparency and justice. One of their most common themes is "Follow the white rabbit," which encourages digging for more information about the deep state — though, unfortunately, this usually means an echo chamber of reinforcing YouTube videos.
But while adherents see themselves as heroes in pursuit of the ultimate good, the FBI and others do not. The FBI has labeled QAnon a potential domestic terror threat, following a number of violent crimes and threats performed in Q's name. In 2018, a heavily armed man blocked the road over Hoover Dam with an armored van demanding the release of information he believed Q had revealed. In 2019, a man who considered himself a QAnon soldier murdered a boss of the Gambino crime family, believing him to be a deep state operative. Also in 2019, a woman was arrested after conspiring with other QAnon believers to kidnap an unnamed person to protect them from Satan-worshiping pedophiles, whom they planned to attack during the raid. And I, as the author of a book on conspiracy theories, receive anonymous death threats from QAnon believers all the time, as do many of my colleagues.
Obviously, the very idea that Q could be an actual person with Q clearance actually posting government secrets to the Internet is so ludicrous as to be comical. Revealing top secret information is extremely illegal, and it would be trivial for federal law enforcement to track down whoever is making these posts — especially if their pool of suspects was as small as the tiny number of people with Q clearance. Any real person at that level in government would probably never have advanced to their current position if they were in the habit of freely posting classified information to the Internet. If we allow the equally ludicrous prospect that the Q persona is a deliberate disinformation campaign in the Trump administration, then what is there to be gained? Making yourself look foolish with failed predictions? Nothing about it makes any sense at all.
Yet, as we see, the total implausibility of QAnon has had little impact on its penetration into the far right. In the 2020 US election, at least 60 candidates running for Congress had expressed their belief that QAnon is real. Substantial academic research has sought to answer the question of why sane, smart people believe irrational conspiracy theories, and it's a subject we've covered many times right here on Skeptoid. The tendency to perceive evil threats conspiring against good people is deeply rooted in our human brains and always has been, ever since our earliest primitive days when a certain amount of native paranoia resulted in just enough incremental hazard avoidance that natural selection embedded it into our genes. Today, we see that the more you feel you're not in control of your life, the more likely you are to believe there's a conspiracy against you. The more anxious or worried about it you get, the stronger this tendency becomes. Presidents Obama and Trump were about as polar opposites as two human beings can be; and so the more a person feels slighted by one, the more likely they are to jump aboard a bandwagon glorifying the other.
Nevertheless, somewhere there is an actual person typing Q's posts into a computer — and he's real, he's not the figment of an overactive pattern-matching engine in someone's ape brain. So inevitably we're forced to ask who is Q? Who is the person — or group of people — making these posts? While there has never been a serious suggestion that he is actually who he claims to be — an active government operative with Q level clearance who is freely allowed to publicly post classified information to the Internet — there has been at least one interesting piece of evidence suggesting that Q is a deliberate hoax. In the first few months of Q's existence he would frequently make revelations, usually of the form that Hillary Clinton and hundreds of other Democrats would be indicted tomorrow, and of course not one of them ever came true. Perhaps to avoid losing credibility, he began posting in codes — codes which followers have been free to interpret as whatever they want them to mean:
In August of 2018, password expert Mark Burnett posted a Twitter thread breaking down Q's codes. Burnett has analyzed countless millions of passwords and written a book about how and why people choose and create passwords — in particular, how they pound out pseudo-random passwords by just haphazardly hitting keys. Taking into account factors like character frequency, character position on the keyboard, character sequencing, and finger positioning on a standard QWERTY keyword, Burnett found that Q's codes bear every predictable trait of random character striking from the standard finger position, and none of the traits of actual meaningful text. Apparently Q got tired of making false predictions, and then just got lazy and typed random codes that he knew his followers would mold into whatever did come true. If your followers are going to do all your work for you, why do it yourself?
And so with every reason to believe that Q is a deliberate hoax, we can turn to candidates for who the hoaxer might be. A lot of people have suggested a Russian troll farm, as rallying the far right (and the far left) have proven to be effective tactics for them at destabilizing the US socio-political system. That's a very reasonable guess, and it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. Some have suggested a liberal comedian or writer having fun trolling the far right, but as Q has been dragging on for years now, the time to spring the punchline has long past and this possibility seems unlikely. A strong candidate is Jim Watkins (and/or his son Ron), a former web pornographer, Army veteran, vocal first amendment advocate, and owner of the various web forums where Q has posted. Subpoenaed to Congress in 2019, he showed up wearing a Q collar pin and has promoted values prominent among the QAnon community, e.g., establishing special text formatting conventions on his forum for identifying and calling out gays and Jews.
But at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who the fingers belong to on the keyboard at the other end of the Internet connection. QAnon is not about the person who invented the Q persona and was singularly fortunate in having it succeed so well online; QAnon is about a tribe of people who feel their time has come to regain their power after having been sidelined. And, from this perspective, it is the story of nearly all conspiracy theorists, whether they're on the left or the right, or whatever other ideology unites them in their belief. Conspiracy ideation cuts horizontally across all demographics and it reaches all of us to some degree. This non-partisan, equal-opportunity tendency for all of us to embrace conspiracy theories is, in fact, a somber echo of "Where we go one, we go all." Our task must not be merely to laugh at the foolishness of the QAnon phenomenon, but rather to reexamine our own beliefs and flush out all conspiratorial tendencies — including our own.
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