QAnon is a disproven far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic paedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former President Donald Trump during his term in office. QAnon has been described as a cult.
More on the QAnon Conspiracy
One shared belief among QAnon members is that Trump was planning a massive sting operation on the cabal, with mass arrests of thousands of cabal members to take place on a day known as the “Storm”. QAnon supporters have accused many Hollywood actors, Democratic politicians, and high-ranking government officials of being members of the cabal, without providing evidence.
Trump and QAnon
QAnon has also claimed that Trump simulated the conspiracy of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to enlist Robert Mueller to join him in exposing the sex trafficking ring, and preventing a coup d’état by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros. The QAnon conspiracy theories have been amplified by Russian state-backed troll accounts on social media, as well as Russian state-backed traditional media and networks associated with Falun Gong.
Although preceded by similar viral conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, which has since become part of QAnon, the conspiracy theory began with an October 2017 post on the anonymous imageboard website 4chan, by “Q” (or “QAnon”), who was presumably an American individual; it is now more likely that “Q” has become a group of people acting under the same name. A stylometric analysis of Q posts claims to have uncovered that at least two people wrote as “Q” in different periods. Q claimed to be a high-level government official with Q clearance, who has access to classified information involving the Trump administration and its opponents in the United States.
NBC News reported that three people took the original Q post and shortly thereafter spread it across multiple media platforms to build an Internet following for profit. QAnon was preceded by several similar anonymous 4chan posters, such as FBIAnon, HLIAnon (High-Level Insider), CIAAnon, and WH Insider Anon. Although American in origin, there is now a considerable QAnon movement outside of the United States, including in the United Kingdom and France since 2020, with a “particularly strong and growing” movement in Germany and Japan.
QAnon wwg1wga Explained
Japanese QAnon adherents are also known as “JAnon”. QAnon adherents began appearing at Trump reelection campaign rallies in August 2018. Bill Mitchell, a broadcaster who has promoted QAnon, attended a White House “social media summit” in July 2019. QAnon believers commonly tag their social media posts with the hashtag #WWG1WGA, signifying the motto “Where We Go One, We Go All”, derived from the 1996 film White Squall.
At an August 2019 Trump rally, a man warming up the crowd used the QAnon motto, later denying that it was a QAnon reference. This occurred hours after the FBI published a report calling QAnon a potential source of domestic terrorism, the first time the agency had so rated a fringe conspiracy theory. QAnon followers came to refer to Trump as “Q+”. The number of QAnon adherents is unclear, but the group maintains a large online following.
The imageboard website 8chan (rebranded to 8kun in 2019) is QAnon’s online home, as it is the only place Q posts messages. In June 2020, Q exhorted followers in a post on 8chan to take a “digital soldiers oath”; many did, using the Twitter hashtag #TakeTheOath. In July 2020, Twitter banned thousands of QAnon-affiliated accounts and changed its algorithms to reduce the conspiracy theory’s spread.
A Facebook internal analysis reported in August 2020 found millions of followers across thousands of groups and pages; Facebook acted later that month to remove and restrict QAnon activity, and in October it said it would ban the conspiracy theory from its platform altogether. Followers had also migrated to dedicated message boards including EndChan, where they organized to wage information warfare in an attempt to influence the 2020 United States presidential election.
After Trump lost the election to Joe Biden, updates from Q declined dramatically. QAnon beliefs became a part of attempts to overturn the election, culminating in Trump supporters attacking the United States Capitol, leading to a further crackdown on QAnon-related content on social media. On the day of Biden’s inauguration, Ron Watkins, a former site administrator for 8chan and a de facto leader among QAnon adherents, suggested it was time to “go back to our lives as best we are able”. Other QAnon adherents believed that Biden’s inauguration was “part of the plan”.
History of QAnon
The QAnon conspiracy started in October 2017 when an anonymous user known as “Q” on the Internet forum 4chan began posting cryptic messages about the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton. Q is an alleged government official claiming privileged access to classified information. Since 2017, they have posted thousands of messages, including ones naming other Democratic party figures as part of a secret network of nefarious political actors. Although there have been no such “Q drops” since December 2020, the QAnon movement has continued to subsist on its own.
QAnon has ideological roots in earlier conspiracy theories such as the John Birch Society’s New World Order theories during the Cold War, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, Bill Cooper’s 1991 militia manifesto Beyond a Pale Horse, and David Icke’s writings from the 1990s. Segments of QAnon draw from the influential early-2000s internet hoax of John Titor, a military time-travelling saviour. Finally, not long before Q appeared, there were various other “anon” posters claiming government insider knowledge, such as FBIAnon and CIAAnon.
Weeks after Q’s original post, three individuals began significantly amplifying the Q drops: YouTuber TracyBeanz (Tracy Diaz) and 4chan moderators Pamphlet Anon (Coleman Rogers) and BaruchtheScribe (Paul Furber). Working together, they generated posts and videos analyzing Q’s messages, which gained traction among conspiracy theorists and the far right, particularly among supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
By early 2018, the QAnon community had grown to tens of thousands of subscribers on multiple platforms. The conspiracy has continued to gain supporters and mainstream publicity through viral campaigns such as its on-the-ground “Save the Children” events. In 2020, there were an estimated 4.5 million QAnon accounts on Facebook and Instagram, and growing QAnon communities were identified in more than 25 countries.
Through it all, Q and the QAnon community have weathered numerous platform disruptions, demonstrating the ability to migrate, adapt, and survive. Q moved from posting on 4chan to 8chan in late 2017, then to 8kun in 2019. Since summer 2020, QAnon content faced a new wave of bans and restrictions on TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube—which intensified in 2021 after QAnon followers played a prominent role in the January 6 insurrection. These efforts may drive casual QAnon consumers away from popular platforms toward more fringe and extreme forums like 8kun.
Who is Q? in QAnon
Many believers long maintained that Q was a high-ranking government official in Trump’s inner circle with access to sensitive military information. (Within the U.S. Department of Energy, which is responsible for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, the letter Q designates a high-level security clearance.) It’s possible that control of Q’s messages changed hands over the years. NBC News reported in 2018 that “a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website” banded together to turn initial Q posts into “an entire mythology.” More recently, the HBO documentary “Q: Into the Storm” suggested the person behind Q is Ron Watkins, the longtime administrator of 8kun. Watkins denies being Q.
Organizational Structure at the QAnon
QAnon’s organizational structure remains unclear. The community takes its directions from Q, whose position in the movement is as much that of a deity as an extremist leader: their wisdom is absolute and their word gospel. As with most other extremist factions of the far-right, the violence perpetrated by QAnon to date has been committed by lone actors. That may suggest there is little organizational coordination to violence—the community instead creates a permissive environment for airing grievances and offering advice for those willing to commit violence.
As with many modern extremist movements, QAnon exists on a variety of online platforms, emerging from the “chan” ecosystem onto more mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Despite a number of bans and restrictions by social media companies, the movement’s spread indicates it may already be too late for piecemeal takedowns to be effective. QAnon already has support among a wide range of communities, including celebrities, law enforcement, military veterans, anti-government extremists, wellness influencers, and even members of Congress.
What is Trump’s involvement in QAnon
As president, he retweeted QAnon content on multiple occasions. His repeated talk about a “deep state” of unelected government workers undermining his presidency, and about what he calls hoaxes and witch hunts, parallel the logic and language of QAnon. Asked about the conspiracy theory at a news conference in August 2020, Trump said, “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
How many people believe in QAnon?
A March poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 15% of Americans agreed with the core QAnon belief that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” Among Republicans, that number was 23%. A YouGov online poll for the Economist suggested a link between religious belief and tied to belief in QAnon. It found that American adults who attended church at least once a month were 8 percentage points more likely to rate QAnon favourably.
With only 22 violent incidents in three years, of which nine counted as terrorism and three were fatal, the demonstrated threat from QAnon extremists has been relatively small. For comparison, TNT data on terrorist attacks and plots record 148 far-right incidents (which include the nine QAnon attacks that meet the definition of terrorism), 34 religious incidents, and 37 far-left incidents over the same time period. However, QAnon extremism has increased every year since its inception—there were three incidents in 2018, six incidents in 2019, 13 incidents in 2020, and two incidents just in January 2021.
Additionally, QAnon has the potential to be more lethal, especially when viewed as a subset of conspiracy theories more broadly. The conspiracist milieu in which QAnon resides is adjacent and sometimes overlaps with other dangerous beliefs—for example, the New World Order and the Great Replacement theories—that have inspired white supremacists and militia extremists for decades. Since October 2018, there have been at least five major mass shootings across the globe that were motivated in part by conspiracy theories; they claimed a total of 96 victims.
Political changes in Washington, D.C. have the potential to instantly and gravely worsen the threat posed by QAnon adherents. Given QAnon’s assessment of Democrats as satanic paedophiles, any Democratic gains—whether legitimate or perceived, including President Biden’s election victory—may inspire Q to retaliate under a variety of justifications, such as to “Save the Children” or “Stop the Steal.” President Trump’s political future will, accordingly, also likely factor into the movement’s threat.
The variability of Q tactics and targeting so far suggests the form of violence will be unpredictable, greatly complicating counterterrorism efforts and increasing the likelihood of both more frequent and more lethal attacks. The U.S. government is aware of the threat. As early as May 2019, an FBI assessment warned that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was likely to intensify the domestic terrorist threat from conspiracy-motivated extremists, including QAnon believers.
And a March 2021 domestic violent extremism assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence seemed to indicate government concerns over QAnon and related conspiracies, warning, “Newer sociopolitical developments—such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence—will almost certainly spur some DVEs [domestic violent extremists] to try to engage in violence this year.”
Along with violence, QAnon’s most threatening capability is its dissemination of online disinformation through its diverse and transnational ecosystem of supporters. Furthermore, QAnon has demonstrated it can adapt its messaging to changing times and turn any world event into a conspiracy, any person into a target. Yet some question how resilient the QAnon movement would be if Q disappeared and its core enablers and influencers lost traction on social media—Q’s noticeable silence since Joe Biden’s electoral victory has led to both a rise in violent rhetoric and fragmentation between hardcore QAnon believers and those losing the faith.
Even if QAnon is but a temporary meme, dangerous conspiracy theories will not go away. As long as the Internet provides forums for fringe content, QAnon adherents will continue to perpetuate their fact-free beliefs and occasionally be radicalized to conduct violent attacks. And if QAnon does disappear, it will still have highlighted a path for both nefarious extremists and state-actor rivals to polarize and divide American society, often with violent consequences.