Although QAnon’s raison d’etre is largely rooted in US domestic politics – where it has capitalised on societal anxieties – its conspiracist thinking is gaining ground overseas.
Since QAnon’s first post in 2017, what was once an obscure fringe movement confined to the far-flung crevices of the internet, has proliferated, resulting in new followers, acts of terrorism, and a handful of devotees making bids to hold political office – and winning.
While its trajectory has been restricted predominantly to American turf, it now shows signs of spreading overseas.
According to a report published this month by NewsGuard, a company that tracks misinformation and rates trustworthiness of news sites, QAnon’s ideological tentacles are starting to take root in Europe. Websites, pages, social media groups and accounts have appeared in the UK, Germany, France, and Italy, and are gathering a large following.
Combining the use of social media and harnessing misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic, the movement has exhibited an ability to adapt to diverse national contexts by feeding on popular discontent and anti-establishment sentiment.
Tech companies have played a pivotal role in amplifying QAnon’s messaging. More recently, social media platforms have started to respond by cracking down on the group’s digital footprint, but policies around it remain inconsistent.
“I think it's very worrying,” Chamila Liyanage, a fellow at the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) told TRT World. “QAnon is part of multiple external challenges against liberal democracy.”
What makes QAnon malleable so that it can be tailored to fit disparate political landscapes? And what does its growing popularity within far-right ecospheres mean for democratic polities?
Prophecies of Q
QAnon emerged on October 28, 2017 on the imageboard site 4chan in a thread called “Calm Before the Storm,” which claimed Hillary Clinton would be arrested between 7:45am – 8:30am EST on the morning of October 30.
That obviously never came to pass, but the fixation on Hillary Clinton (in addition to other democratic politicians or liberal figures) is derived from a debunked conspiracy theory a year earlier: Pizzagate.
The Pizzagate conspiracy alleged that coded words and satanic symbolism was apparent in John Podesta’s emails, hacked during his tenure as chair of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and pointed to a secret child sex trafficking ring at a pizza restaurant in Washington DC. It all came to a head in December 2016, when a man invaded the venue armed with an AR-15 rifle to ‘self-investigate’ the validity of the conspiracy.
QAnon retained Pizzagate’s central belief, that a cabal of child-abusing elites controlled the world. Most notably, the central protagonist is US President Donald Trump, who QAnon heralds as the righteous leader of a struggle being waged against a global ‘deep state’ of satanic paedophiles running an extensive child sex trafficking operation.
On the list of infinitely powerful boogeymen include the Clintons, the Obamas, Bill Gates, George Soros, Hollywood celebrities, the Rothschild banking family, and the Illuminati.
Absorbing an assemblage of conspiracy theories under its umbrella, QAnon has grown into a decentralised network that analyses cryptic prophecies – ‘drops’ – posted on online forums by an anonymous figure known as ‘Q,’ who claims to be a Trump administration official with access to high-level intelligence. This heroic insider is preparing the public for a ‘great awakening’ where the elites will be routed and ‘the truth’ will be revealed.
What makes QAnon distinct from a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory is religious zeal and eschatology. At the core is the notion that cleansing the world of evil will redeem a fallen, corrupt world and usher in a new golden age – in what could be described as the birth pangs of a millenarian sect.
Alexander Reid Ross, a fellow at CARR and author of Against the Fascist Creep, called it a “syncretic political cult” which “relies on a basic millenarian structure”.
“QAnon claims to unite all oppositions in pursuit of a post-apocalyptic world that overcomes the ‘demonic elites’ through a vigilant ‘people’ who have received some occult, mystical secrets as revealed by a prophetic leader devoted to the ultimate sovereignty,” he told TRT World.
“For Q and for much of the European far right, Trump represents a kind of salvation from the postwar liberal order.”
Bizarrely enough, Omega Kingdom Ministries (essentially a QAnon church) was established in February, where liturgy dedicated to QAnon conspiracies are reinterpreted through Bible verses.
The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance alluded to a gnostic tendency when she wrote that the “language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement,” which “marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”
Just think of how our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ humbled Himself and was ridiculed, mocked, derided, arrested, scorned, whipped, scourged, and hung on a cross in His humility to save all humanity. @realDonaldTrump is a suffering servant. History will justify him. #QAnon #Q— ABOwarrior⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@ABOwarrior) December 14, 2018
This strain of messianic optimism drives adherents and attracts newcomers across the ideological spectrum. Narratives of redemption are imbued with a salience during times of disaster – be it economic, political, social, or a pandemic.
For Liyanage, QAnon creatively links ancient messianic beliefs with pseudo-religion and the wider conspiracy theory universe. Such fantastical views can be derived from various cultures and are deeply ingrained in cultural consciousness at a global level.
“This is one of the reasons it can fit in many contexts,” she argued.
“QAnon is particularly successful in its ability to tap into undying human ‘hope’. The hope for a better future or a messianic golden age without current suffering is a sellable idea.”
That QAnon represents an anti-establishment ideology rooted in an apocalyptic desire to destroy the existing world to usher in a utopia, elevates the movement from harmless tinfoil-hat trolling on virtual forums, to one fraught with offline consequences.
Its ideology especially finds resonance with other far-right movements, such as anti-government, militant white nationalist and neo-Nazi extremist organisations across the US.
Last year, the FBI listed the group as a potential domestic terrorism threat, stating that QAnon and other fringe conspiracy theories are likely to motivate domestic extremism because “their narratives tacitly support or legitimize violent action.”
While the theory emerged from imageboards like 4chan (before moving to 8chan, now rebranded as 8kun), QAnon grew on Reddit and Twitter, and flourished on Facebook and YouTube.
Reddit banned it in 2018, but Silicon Valley on the whole has been slow to curtail the spread of QAnon’s false prophecies. In many ways, tech companies have amplified its messages because of a reliance on automated recommendation systems that can facilitate radicalisation.
In July, Twitter removed 7,000 accounts associated with QAnon and another 150,000 accounts were hidden from trends and searches.
Last week, Facebook took down or restricted more than 10,000 groups, pages and Instagram accounts linked to QAnon, citing a shift in the company’s policy toward movements that have “demonstrated significant risks to public safety,” but do not meet the criteria for an outright ban.
TikTok recently blocked QAnon-related hashtags, and YouTube has started providing a context box underneath QAnon videos that links to a Wikipedia page that explains the far-right conspiracy theory.
But is censorship an effective solution on its own? Studies indicate that users are more likely to seek out bad information when a Big Tech platform flags it as false. Eroding trust in institutions has created a ripe environment for big-tent conspiracies to stubbornly flourish.
Furthermore, the trends suggest that Q-curiosity is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.
According to Axios, there was 10 times as much Google search interest in QAnon in July than in January, and QAnon pages and groups on Facebook had 10 times more likes at the end of last month than last July. There has been a 190 percent increase in the daily average number of tweets within popular QAnon hashtags since March compared to the prior seven months.
Primed to go global
Fact checks and account deletions, while worthwhile, might have occurred too late to stem QAnon’s normalisation and steady metastasis.
In July, Vice News documented the global scope of the movement, citing a QAnon festival in Finland, and legions of followers from countries like the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, and even Japan and Iran.
Earlier this month, The Guardian published an investigation that studied more than 170 QAnon groups, pages and Instagram accounts totaling 4.6 million followers. It documented dedicated communities in at least 15 countries, among the largest being German, Italian, Polish, Dutch, Australian and British.
As well as this, NewsGuard’s latest report warns of the group’s extensive root growth in Europe.
“Early on, European websites raised questions about how QAnon theories applied to their countries, underlining that the deep state at the heart of these theories knew no borders. This allowed these theories to slowly morph, and target local representations of the ‘elites’ at the heart of Q’s narrative,” it said.
The infiltration of QAnon’s theories into local conspiracy groups are a sign of growing mainstream visibility – they have been shared and republished by pro-Yellow Vests groups in France and German far-right groups, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in particular.
In July, the right-wing German website Compact-Online claimed that German politicians are also managing paedophile networks, echoing similar accusations made against US politicians.
Liyanage asserted that QAnon gets a natural foothold in Europe, noting that “thinkers of the New Right, Theosophy and Esoteric Nazism closely resonate with QAnon’s wider belief system.”
She points to how Q provides ample space for followers of Russian strategist and fascist, Aleksandr Dugin, to converge, while those under the influence of right-wing Brazilian ideologue Olavo de Carvalho can find common ground, too.
“That’s why the far-right ecosystem has no borders. It can fit anywhere especially in times of trouble.”
Indeed, there are a confluence of real concerns driving more people to Q’s narrative: Covid-19, battered economies, and the Jeffrey Epstein child trafficking saga have all provided fertile ground for incubation and evolution.
When the documentary ‘Plandemic’ went viral in May on YouTube, QAnon sympathisers were instrumental in spreading the documentary's bogus Covid-19 conspiracies. Viewed over 8 million times, it blamed the outbreak of the virus on big pharma, Bill Gates and the World Health Organisation.
Fears over the virus have funneled what might otherwise be disparate conspiracy theories about government cover-ups, 5G, and global vaccine schemes into a grand unified theory – one that offers simplistic answers and deliverance in the face of complexity and incompetence.
Its a template that is inherently flexible; fit-for-purpose and transnationally scalable.
Back on home soil, Q gospel has found itself closer to the halls of power.
#TakeTheOath 🇺🇸— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) July 5, 2020
Happy 4th of July 🇺🇸
God Bless America 🇺🇸
In its present form, Q appears to have enveloped parts of the Republican Party. The theory has been espoused by a dozen GOP candidates running for elected office, and watchdog group Media Matters identified 59 congressional and Senate candidates across the country that have, at some point, endorsed or are sympathetic to the movement.
One of them, Marjorie Taylor Greene, is likely to be elected to Congress in November after she won the Republican primary in a deeply conservative district in Georgia. Greene openly embraces the conspiracy and has notoriously voiced anti-Semitic and Islamophobic views.
Whether intentionally or not, Trump himself has repeatedly nodded to Q: on the Fourth of July, he amplified Q-related Twitter accounts 14 times. Trump and his sons have retweeted or circulated Q memes more than a 100 times.
As QAnon’s contours assume global dimensions, the movement’s normalisation in the US, evidenced by the possible ascension to high office by Q or Q-adjacent supporters, suggests that the conspiracy has reached a dangerous new phase.
Ross believes there should be serious concern over QAnon’s rise and what it signifies.
“The spread of disinformation online, along with the lack of political leadership to quash in it in the US, creates a perfect environment for the rise of a kind of sacralised politics that seeks to oppress anything that resembles science and reason.”