QAnon

Anonymous

QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory detailing a supposed secret plot by an alleged ‘deep state’ against U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters. The theory began with an October 2017 post on the anonymous imageboard 4chan by someone using the name Q, a presumably American individual that may have later grown to include multiple people, claiming to have access to classified information involving the Trump administration and its opponents in the United States.

Q has falsely accused numerous liberal Hollywood actors, Democratic politicians, and high-ranking officials of engaging in an international child sex trafficking ring, and has claimed that Donald Trump feigned collusion with Russians in order to enlist Robert Mueller to join him in exposing the ring and preventing a coup d’état by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros.

‘Q’ is a reference to the original poster’s handle, which implied they held Q clearance, a United States Department of Energy security clearance required for access to Top Secret information about nuclear weapons and materials. QAnon believers commonly tag their social media posts with the hashtag #WWG1WGA, signifying the motto ‘where we go one, we go all.’

The conspiracy theory, mainly disseminated by supporters of President Trump under the names ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Great Awakening’ – QAnon’s precepts and vocabulary are closely related to the religious concepts of millenarianism and apocalypticism – has been characterized as ‘baseless,’ ‘unhinged,’ and ‘evidence-free.’ Its proponents have been called ‘a deranged conspiracy cult’ and ‘some of the Internet’s most outré Trump fans.’

According to conspiracy theory researcher and journalist Travis View, who has studied the QAnon phenomenon and written about it extensively for ‘The Washington Post,’ the essence of the conspiracy theory is that: ‘there is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who rule the world, essentially, and they control everything. They control politicians, and they control the media. They control Hollywood, and they cover up their existence, essentially. And they would have continued ruling the world, were it not for the election of President Donald Trump, who was elected to put a stop to the cabal, and whose struggles behind the scenes are being revealed by ‘Q.’ ‘The Storm’ is an anticipated event in which thousands of people, members of the cabal, will be arrested, possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay prison or face military tribunals, and the U.S. military will brutally take over the country. The result will be salvation and a utopia on earth.

QAnon adherents began appearing at Trump re-election campaign rallies during the summer of 2018. TV and radio personality Michael ‘Lionel’ Lebron, a promoter of the theory, was granted a photo opportunity with President Trump in the Oval Office on August 24, 2018. Bill Mitchell, a broadcaster who promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory, attended a White House ‘social media summit’ in July 2019. In August 2019, the FBI determined QAnon to be a potential source of domestic terrorism – the first time a fringe conspiracy theory had been so rated by the agency. That month a man warming up the crowd before Trump spoke at a rally used the QAnon motto, ‘where we go one, we go all,’ later denying it was a QAnon reference.

Media outlets have described QAnon as an ‘offshoot’ of the widely discredited and debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. On October 30, 2016, a Twitter account that posted white supremacist material and presented itself as run by a New York lawyer claimed that the NYPD had discovered a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party while searching through Anthony Weiner’s emails. Throughout October and November 2016, WikiLeaks published John Podesta’s emails. Proponents of the Pizzagate theory read the emails and alleged they contained code words for pedophilia and human trafficking. They also claimed Comet Ping Pong, a D.C. pizza shop popular with Democratic Party staffers, was a meeting ground for Satanic ritual abuse.

The story was later posted on fake news websites, beginning with ‘Your News Wire,’ which cited a 4chan post from earlier that year. The ‘Your News Wire’ article was subsequently spread by pro-Trump websites, including SubjectPolitics.com, which added the claim that the NYPD had raided Hillary Clinton’s property. The ‘Conservative Daily Post’ ran a headline claiming the FBI had confirmed the theory.

A person identifying as ‘Q Clearance Patriot’ first appeared on the /pol/ board of 4chan on October 28, 2017, posting messages in a thread entitled ‘Calm Before the Storm,’ which was a reference to Trump’s cryptic description during a gathering of himself and United States military leaders as ‘the calm before the storm.’ ‘The Storm’ is QAnon parlance for an imminent event when thousands of alleged suspects will be arrested, imprisoned and executed. Q later moved to 8chan, citing concerns that the 4chan board had been ‘infiltrated.’

QAnon’s posting campaign has a history of false, baseless, and unsubstantiated claims. Beginning with the first posts incorrectly predicting Hillary Clinton’s imminent arrest and followed by more false allegations, such as claiming that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is a puppet ruler installed by the CIA, QAnon’s posts have become more cryptic and vague allowing followers to map their own beliefs onto them. By generating a keyboard heatmap of QAnon’s supposedly coded messages, information security researcher Mark Burnett concluded that they ‘are not actual codes, just random typing by someone who might play an instrument and uses a QWERTY keyboard,’ adding that ‘almost all the characters’ in the codes alternate between the left and right hands, or the characters are close to each other on the keyboard.

Some of QAnon’s other allegations include his February 16, 2018 false claim that U.S. Representative and former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz hired El Salvadorian gang MS-13 to murder DNC staffer Seth Rich, and his March 1, 2018 apparent suggestion that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler. A July 7, 2018 article published in ‘The Daily Beast’ also noted that QAnon falsely claimed that ‘each mass shooting is a false-flag attack organized by the cabal.’

Other beliefs held by QAnon adherents include that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and others are planning a coup while simultaneously involved as members of an international child sex trafficking ring. According to this idea, the Mueller investigation is actually a countercoup led by Donald Trump, who pretended to collude with Russia in order to hire Robert Mueller to secretly investigate the Democrats. Another recurring theme is that certain Hollywood stars are pedophiles, and that the Rothschild family are the leaders of a satanic cult. By interpreting the information fed to them by Q, QAnon adherents come to these conclusions.

On multiple occasions, QAnon has dismissed his false claims and incorrect predictions as willful misinformation, claiming that ‘disinformation is necessary.’ This has led Australian psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky to emphasize the ‘self-sealing’ quality of the conspiracy theory, highlighting its anonymous purveyor’s use of plausible deniability and noting that evidence against the theory ‘can become evidence of [its] validity in the minds of believers.’ Author Walter Kirn has described QAnon as an innovator among conspiracy theorists in his approach of enthralling his readers with ‘clues’ rather than directly presenting his claims: ‘The audience for internet narratives doesn’t want to read, it wants to write. It doesn’t want answers provided, it wants to search for them.’

There has been much speculation regarding the motive and the identity of the poster, with theories ranging from the poster being a military intelligence officer, to Donald Trump himself, to the posting campaign being an alternate reality game by Cicada 3301, an organization that posts puzzles to recruit codebreakers from the public. Because 4chan is anonymous and does not allow registration by users, any number of individuals may post using the same handle. The poster uses a frequently changing tripcode (the anonymization algorithm used of imageboards) to authenticate himself on 8chan.

The Italian leftist Wu Ming foundation has speculated that QAnon has been inspired by the Luther Blissett persona, an ‘open pop star’ informally adopted and shared by hundreds of artists and activists all over Europe and the Americas since 1994. It was also used by leftists and anarchists to organize pranks, media stunts, and hoaxes in the 1990s. ‘Blissett’ published the novel ‘Q’ in 1999. In September 2018, Jack Posobiec, a conspiracy theorist and correspondent for the right wing ‘One America News Network,’ claimed that QAnon was started by two pro-Trump Twitter trolls, and that the letter Q was chosen due to the Blissett novel.

QAnon may best be understood as an example of what historian Richard Hofstadter called in 1954 ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics,’ related to religious millenarianism and apocalypticism. The vocabulary of QAnon echoes Christian tropes – for instance ‘The Storm’ (the Genesis flood narrative or Judgement Day), and ‘The Great Awakening,’ which evokes the historical religious Great Awakenings from the early 18th century to the late 20th century. According to one QAnon video, the battle between Trump and the cabal is of biblical proportions,’ a ‘fight for earth, of good versus evil.’ The forthcoming reckoning is said by some QAnon supporters to be a ‘reverse rapture’ which means not only the end of the world as it is now known, but a new beginning as well, with salvation and a utopia on earth for the survivors.

Experts have classified the appeal of QAnon as similar to that of religious cults. According to expert in online conspiracy Renee DiResta, the QAnon pattern is similar to enticement into cults in the pre-Internet era, where as the targeted person was led deeper and deeper into the group’s secrets, they become more and more isolated from friends and family outside of the cult. In the Internet age, QAnon virtual communities have little ‘real world’ connection with each other, but online, they can number in the tens of thousands. Rachel Bernstein, an expert on cults who specializes in recovery therapy, says that ‘What a movement such as QAnon has going for it, and why it will catch on like wildfire, is that it makes people feel connected to something important that other people don’t yet know about. … All cults will provide this feeling of being special.’ There is no self-correction process within the group, since the self-reinforcing true believers are immune to correction, fact-checking, or counter-speech, which is drowned out in the groupthink of the cult.

Hofstadter said of political paranoiacs: ‘The paranoid spokesman … traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse… Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated – if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.’

Travis View describes the QAnon experience as addicting and video game-like; it offers the ‘player’ the appealing possibility of being involved in something of world-historical importance. According to View, ‘You can sit at your computer and search for information and then post about what you find, and Q basically promises that through this process, you are going to radically change the country, institute this incredible, almost bloodless revolution, and then be part of this historical movement that will be written about for generations.’ View compares this to mundane political involvement in which one’s efforts might help to get a state legislator elected. QAnon, says View, competes not in the marketplace of ideas, but in the marketplace of realities.

View says that, ‘People in the QAnon community often talk about alienation from family and friends. … Though they typically talk about how Q frayed their relationships on private Facebook groups. But they think these issues are temporary and primarily the fault of others. They often comfort themselves by imagining that there will be a moment of vindication sometime in the near future which will prove their beliefs right. They imagine that after this happens, not only will their relationships be restored, but people will turn to them as leaders who understand what’s going on better than the rest of us.’

Disillusionment can come, however, from repeated the failure of the theories’ predictions. Q had predicted Republican success in the 2018 US midterm elections, and claimed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was involved in secret work for Trump, with apparent tensions between them a cover. When Democrats made significant gains and Trump fired Sessions, there was disappointment among many in the Q community. Further disillusionment came when the predicted December 5 mass arrest and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay detention camp of enemies of Donald Trump did not occur, nor did the dismissal of charges against Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn.

For some these failures began the process of separation from the QAnon cult, while other urged direct action in the form of an insurrection against the government. Such a response to a failed prophecy is not unusual: apocalyptic cults such as Heaven’s Gate, the People’s Temple, the Manson Family, and Aum Shinrikyo resorted to mass suicide or mass murder when their expectations for revelations or the fulfillment of their prophecies did not come about. Psychologist Robert Lifton calls it ‘forcing the end.’ Travis View echoes the concern that disillusioned QAnon believers might take matters into their own hands, as Pizzagate believer Edgar Maddison Welch did in 2016, Matthew Phillip Wright did at Hoover Dam in 2018, and Anthony Comello did in 2019 when he murdered Mafia boss Frank Cali, believing himself to be under the protection of President Trump.

Prominent QAnon follower Liz Crokin, who in 2018 asserted that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death and is now Q, stated in February 2019 that she was losing patience in Trump to arrest the supposed members of the child sex ring, suggesting that the time was approaching for ‘vigilante justice.’ Other QAnon followers have adopted the Kennedy theory, asserting that a Pittsburgh man named Vincent Fusca is Kennedy in disguise and would be Trump’s 2020 running mate. Some attended 2019 Independence Day celebrations in Washington expecting Kennedy to appear.

QAnon proponents have been shared on social media by Donald Trump and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, and the topic was featured on he Russian government-funded RT television network. Operation Rescue vice president and pro-life activist Cheryl Sullenger referred to QAnon as a ‘small group of insiders close to President Donald J. Trump’ and called his internet postings the ‘highest level of intelligence to ever be dropped publicly in our known history.’ In 2018, U.S. actress Roseanne Barr appeared to promote the conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory was strongly promoted by American radio show host and far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and political commentator and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, until it was reported by ‘Right Wing Watch’ that they had both ceased to support QAnon by May 2018, declaring the source to now be ‘completely compromised.’ However, in August 2018, Corsi reversed course and stated that he ‘will comment on and follow QAnon when QAnon is bringing forth news,’ adding that ‘in the last few days, QAnon has been particularly good.’

On June 26, 2018, WikiLeaks publicly accused QAnon of ‘leading anti-establishment Trump voters to embrace regime change and neo-conservatism’ in a tweet. Two days later, the whistleblower organization shared an analysis by Internet Party president Suzie Dawson, claiming that QAnon’s posting campaign is an ‘intelligence agency-backed psyop’ aiming to ’round up people that are otherwise dangerous to the Deep State (because they are genuinely opposed to it) usurp time & attention, & trick them into serving its aims.’ On August 4, 2018, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked to comment on the conspiracy theory in his ‘ask me anything’ session on the /r/The Donald subreddit. In response to the question ‘is Q legit?,’ Spicer answered ‘no.’ On August 24, 2018, President Donald Trump hosted William ‘Lionel’ Lebron, a leading promoter of the QAnon conspiracy, in the Oval Office for a photo op.

On March 14, 2018, Reddit banned one of its communities discussing QAnon, /r/CBTS_Stream, for ‘encouraging or inciting violence and posting personal and confidential information.’ Following this, some followers moved to Discord, a video game chat community. Several other communities were formed for discussion of QAnon, leading to further bans on September 12, 2018 in response to these communities ‘inciting violence, harassment, and the dissemination of personal information,’ which led to thousands of adherents regrouping on Voat, a Switzerland-based Reddit clone that has been described as a hub for the alt-right.

On June 15, 2018, Matthew Phillip Wright of Henderson, Nevada, was arrested on terrorism and other charges for driving an armored truck, containing an AR-15 and handgun, to the Hoover Dam and blocking traffic for 90 minutes. He said he was on a mission involving QAnon: to demand that the Justice Department ‘release the OIG report’ on the conduct of FBI agents during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Since a copy of the OIG report had been released the day prior, the man had been motivated by a Q ‘drop’ which claimed the released version of the OIG report had been heavily modified and that Trump possessed a more damning version but had declined to release it. In video recorded inside his armored truck, Wright expressed disappointment that Trump had not honored a ‘duty’ to ‘lock certain people up,’ asking him to ‘uphold your oath.’

On July 29, 2018, Q posted a link to Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti’s website and photos of his Newport Beach, California, office building, along with the message, ‘Buckle up!’ The anonymous poster then shared the picture of an as-of-yet unidentified man, appearing to be holding a cellphone in one hand, and a long, thin object in the other, standing in the street near Avenatti’s office, adding that a message ‘had been sent.’ This sparked an investigation by the Newport Beach Police Department.

The conspiracy theory’s targeting of George Soros and the Rothschild family has led Jewish-American magazine ‘The Forward’ as well as ‘The Washington Post’ to accuse it of containing ‘striking anti-Semitic elements’ and ‘garden-variety nonsense with racist and anti-Semitic undertones.’ A Jewish Telegraphic Agency article published in ‘Haaretz’ on August 3, 2018 stated that ‘although not specifically, some of QAnon’s archetypical elements—including secret elites and kidnapped children, among others—are reflective of historical and ongoing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.’

The Blue Marble Jubilee fundraising event at Grass Valley Charter School in Grass Valley, California scheduled for May 11, 2019, was canceled as a precaution after a tweet by former FBI head James Comey on April 27 using the hashtag #FiveJobsIveHad, in which the first letters of the jobs were GVCSF, was interpreted by QAnon followers as a veiled reference to the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation, suggesting that Comey planned to stage a ‘false flag’ terror attack at the event; the hashtag was also interpreted by QAnon adherents as an anagram of ‘five jihads,’ and the time stamp on the post was related to the 9-11 attacks. The police and the FBI received warnings, in addition to the school, which decided not to take the risk of internet vigilantes attending ‘to guard the place,’ as a police sergeant put it.

Anthony Comello of Staten Island, New York, was charged with the March 2019 murder of Gambino crime family underboss Frank Cali. According to his defense attorney, Comello had become obsessed with QAnon theories, believing Cali was a member of a ‘deep state,’ and was convinced he ‘was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself’ to place Cali under citizen’s arrest. Confronting Cali outside his Staten Island home, Comello allegedly shot Cali ten times. At his first court appearance, Comello displayed QAnon symbols and phrases and ‘MAGA forever’ scrawled on his hand in pen. Comello had also posted material on Instagram praising Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Jeanine Pirro.

Two individuals who declared themselves as Republican congressional candidates in 2019 expressed interest in QAnon theories. Matthew Lusk, a Florida candidate, told ‘The Daily Beast’ he was not a ‘brainwashed cult member,’ although he said QAnon theories are a ‘legitimate something’ and constitute a ‘very articulate screening of past events, a very articulate screening of present conditions, and a somewhat prophetic divination of where the political and geopolitical ball will be bouncing next.’ Danielle Stella, running as a Republican to unseat Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, wore a ‘Q’ necklace in a photo she tweeted and twice used the hashtag #WWG1WGA. Her Twitter account ‘liked’ responses from QAnon believers who acknowledged the necklace, and the account follows some prominent QAnon believers. A former campaign aide asserted that Stella was merely posing as a QAnon believer to attract voter support.

An FBI ‘Intelligence Bulletin’ memo from the Phoenix Field Office dated May 30, 2019 identified QAnon-driven extremists as a domestic terrorism threat, the first time a fringe conspiracy theory had been labelled as such. The memo cited a number of arrests related to QAnon, some of which had not been publicized before. The memo says that ‘The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.’ According to testimony before Congress in May by the assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism director, Michael G. McGarrity, the Bureau divides domestic terrorism threats into four primary categories, ‘racially motivated violent extremism, anti-government/anti-authority extremism, animal rights/environmental extremism, and abortion extremism,’ which includes both pro-choice and anti-abortion extremists. The fringe conspiracy theory threat is closely related to the anti-government/anti-authority subject area.

An under-reported QAnon-related incident was mentioned in the memo: the arrest of a California man on December 19, 2018 with bomb-making materials in his car, which he intended to use to ‘blow up a satanic temple monument’ in the Springfield, Illinois Capitol rotunda in order to ‘make Americans aware of Pizzagate and the New World Order, who were dismantling society.’

Reactions from QAnon followers ranged from suggesting that the memo was a fake, calling for the firing of FBI Director Christopher A. Wray for working against Trump, to the idea that the memo was actually a ‘wink-and-a-nod’ way of attracting attention to the conspiracy theory, and tricking the media into asking Trump about it. At a Trump re-election rally some hours after the existence of the memo was revealed, Brandon Straka, a gay man who claims to have been a liberal Democrat but is now a Trump supporter, in a warm-up speech before Trump addressed the crowd, used one of QAnon’s primary rallying cries, ‘Where we go one, we go all.’ A videographer found numerous QAnon supporters in the crowd, identified by their QAnon shirts and paraphernalia.

In August 2019, a video posted online by ‘Women for Trump’ late in July showed campaign signs where the ‘O’s in ‘Women’ and ‘for’ were pasted over with ‘Q’s. The images which included the altered signs were clearly taken at a Trump campaign rally, which have increasingly attracted adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory. The video has since been taken down.

In August 2019, a ‘Digital Soldiers Conference’ was announced for the following month in Atlanta. The stated purpose was to prepare ‘patriotic social media warriors’ for a coming ‘digital civil war.’ The announcement for the event prominently displayed a Q spelled in stars on the blue field of an American flag, and the host of the event had numerous references to QAnon on his Twitter account. Scheduled speakers for the event included former Trump aides Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, as well as Gina Loudon, a Trump friend and member of his campaign media advisory board, and Bill Mitchell, a radio host and ardent Trump supporter. The conference host is CEO of a firm that markets a search engine he asserts is free of alleged censorship of conservative views, characterizing it as an ‘intelligence enterprise’ with high-level White House connections, telling a reporter, ‘you don’t know who you’re fucking with’ and denying the Q flag was a reference to QAnon.

QAnon supporters claim that they were asked to cover up their ‘Q’ identifiers and other QAnon-related symbols at a Trump campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on August 15, 2019. Although one person who was asked to turn his ‘Q’ shirt inside-out when he entered the rally identified the person who asked him to do so as a Secret Service agent, the agency denied this was the case, saying in an e-mail to ‘The Washington Post’ ‘The U.S. Secret Service did not request, or require, attendees to change their clothing at an event in New Hampshire.’ QAnon supporters also claim that their visibility at Trump rallies has been suppressed for months.

On September 9, 2019, United States President Donald Trump retweeted a video from the QAnon-promoting Twitter account ‘The Dirty Truth.’ The video criticized former FBI director James Comey.

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