If you’re feeling Q’d out, you’re not alone.
I, for one, would have been happy to leave my reading about the pro-Trump online conspiracy theory QAnon back in the Trump era. Despite the best efforts of its murder-minded followers who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, Joe Biden was inaugurated. We’ve clawed back a hard-won sense of normalcy. Don’t we deserve a break before reexamining one of the most triggering sources of PTSD from the last four years?
Of course we do, and it would be nice to believe the columnist who claimed this month that QAnon is dead because its hopes for Trump’s reinstatement haven’t come to pass, and because its leader, the mysterious Q, has gone silent. But failed predictions and Q’s silences have never hampered the growth of this movement before. We were reminded of this Tuesday with the publication of The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything, the first real history of QAnon, by journalist and conspiracy expert Mike Rothschild.
As Rothschild will tell you, QAnon has morphed into multiple shapes in its brief history — from #SavetheChildren to #StoptheSteal — and will continue to do so with or without Q. As I write this, its adherents (including the CEO of alleged security firm Cyber Ninjas) are attempting to concoct “proof” that the election in Arizona was stolen, in part by shipping its voting machines to a random location in Montana. The forces of science and sanity could be overwhelmed by a Congress full of Q-pilled obsessives after the 2022 midterm elections if we take our eyes off the ball now.
So for those not ready to deal with an entire book on QAnon, or still lamenting the loss of a loved one to its online rabbit hole, I’ve summarized the main findings here. Starting with one that QAnon opponents have already wasted too much time on:
1. It doesn’t really matter who Q is.
The 2021 HBO documentary Q: Into the Storm spent most of its energy trying to unmask the author of the cryptic “Q drops” on the extremist imageboard website 8Chan, aka 8kun. Spoiler alert: It’s not a “Q-clearance patriot” at the top of the Trump administration as Anons claim. It is almost certainly Ron Watkins, the former 8Chan admin and longtime conspiracy theorist who currently lives in Japan.
Rothschild concurs, pointing out the similarities between Q-drop language and Watkins’ post-election messages on the Telegram app, and that Watkins and Q share a love of expensive watches and pens. He also believes the original Q, from whom Watkins took the handle, was probably Paul Furber, a programmer from South Africa known online as BaruchTheScribe. But Rothschild also cautions against us getting sucked into the unmasking game, which can be as distracting and pointless as deciphering a Q drop. He writes:
“As one believer put it to me when I asked if Q’s identity matters, ‘God, no! Who cares?’ …. Its believers wanted it to be true. And that’s the most important aspect of Q, not who typed text into a window on 8kun and hit ‘post.’ … searching for Q’s ‘real’ identity ignores the very real psychological and social forces that made it such a successful movement.”
Those are the exact same forces that continue to make it a threat.
Related Video: How to recognize and avoid fake news
2. Many of QAnon’s greatest hits came from movies.
All that said, Rothschild and the cult experts he interviews say it can be useful to point out that when it comes to Q drops, there’s no there there. The gateway to QAnon includes so-called Q proofs, usually cherry-picked from the nearly 5,000 Q drops of the Trump era. Most cited is a “prediction” that Sen. John McCain would be “back in the headlines,” made one month (well, give or take a day and a few hours) before McCain died.
To believe that is more than coincidence, you have to ignore the non-specific nature of the claim, the fact that McCain often made headlines, and the thousands of times Q was wrong about everything else (including the topic of the earliest Q drops from 2017, the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton).
Making Q more ridiculous: how many of his ideas appear to be cribbed from mass entertainment. The “ten days of darkness,” a supposed future event where the internet and power grid will be taken down in preparation for mass arrests of Q’s enemies, came from Blade Runner 2049. All the chatter about adrenochrome, a “superdrug” (actually a compound freely available over-the-counter) supposedly harvested from terrified children by a cabal of pedophile elites, can be traced back to the classic Hunter S. Thompson novel and Terry Gilliam movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Concepts from The Matrix, The Godfather Part III, and even the obscure 1996 Ridley Scott movie White Squall made their way into Q lingo.
I’ve written about how Hollywood helped create the conditions for QAnon’s rise, and it seems QAnon has eagerly returned the favor. Concepts from The Matrix, The Godfather Part III, and even the obscure 1996 Ridley Scott movie White Squall made their way into Q lingo. The latter is the origin of the movement’s slogan “Where We Go One, We Go All,” which Anons believe was inscribed on the bell of President Kennedy’s yacht. (JFK didn’t even own a yacht, which tells you all you need to know about the QAnon commitment to fact-checking.)
“Much of Q’s story is simply ripped off or plagiarized from other sources,” Rothschild writes. “Once you start to see Q’s component parts, they become all you can see. You don’t see a daring and novel form of truth-telling, you see a hokey old story dressed in the clothes of other stories and put in a shiny new box. You see a fabulist struggling to keep things fresh and exciting, as their fans demand more and more.”
3. QAnon absorbed history’s biggest libels and scams.
In its eventful first four years of existence, QAnon acted like some vast new object in the solar system of pre-existing conspiracy theories. Almost everything you can imagine got sucked into its orbit. It isn’t just movies or novels (like the violent 1970s rightwing revenge fantasy The Turner Diaries) that fueled its growth. It’s also antisemitic tropes that go back to the “blood libel” of 12th-century England — the accusation that Jews drink the blood of Christian children. Rothschild, whose interest in conspiracy theories was piqued by the ones about the banking house that shares his last name, draws a clear connection between blood libel and the adrenochrome nonsense.
QAnon is the “big tent” of conspiracy theories; its followers often have their own hobby horses that they ride into the convoluted tale told by Q, such as proving that 9/11 was an inside job. It also appears to have pulled in some of the biggest scams of the last 20 years. Its followers are often the same people who invested in the Iraqi currency, the dinar, a bust of an investment led by scammers who claimed a “revaluation” of the currency was coming after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; it was still said to be coming soon in 2019 when one top dinar guru was indicted in a $1.6 million fraud scheme.
And then there’s NESARA, a scam based on a supposed secret law to reorganize the U.S. economy that will kick in any day now. Though based on a real economic proposal ignored by Congress, NESARA was promoted by online scammer Shaini Candace Goodwin, a 9/11 truther known as the “Dove of Oneness.” When Goodwin died in 2010, with the IRS on her tail, a new generation of NESARA scammers filled message boards looking for marks.
And what was the name of the supposed new era of prosperity once NESARA kicks in? The Great Awakening. That’s what QAnons call their hopeful outcome of the movement — an imminent, inevitable coup —as well. The phrase goes back to a Christian revival movement in the 1700s, which may help explain why many evangelicals get sucked into the mega-conspiracy’s orbit. Truly, there is nothing new under Q’s sun.
4. Q lost control completely in 2020.
The QAnon movement ran on the enthusiasm of conspiracy theorists at a lower level than Q. There were the “bakers” who turned those cryptic, coded drops into “breads” — explanations that could be easily digested by average internet users, with a sprinkling of biases inserted by bakers along the way. There were the self-described “autists” who were proud that certain of their offline issues (lack of social cues, obsessive focus on seeing patterns) received so much respect in the highly credulous circles of QAnon.
But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, the movement was overwhelmed by new members whose conspiracy theories didn’t match what Q had been selling. Chief among these were the influencers who became known collectively as “pastel QAnon” or “Q-a-mom.” Suddenly, with all that time alone at home on their hands, Instagram lifestyle gurus and boomers on Facebook were finding their way into the movement through the #savethechildren hashtag.
Which sounds like a nice idea — who doesn’t want to save the children? — until you know it began with the bizarre claim that furniture store Wayfair was selling kidnapped kids via deliberately overpriced cabinets. More cynically, the bakers and autists were trying to evade bans of Q content that were then being half-heartedly and belatedly imposed by social media companies. They saw #savethechildren as a way to get their message across to a whole new audience, so flooded the hashtag with Q slogans and icons.
Meanwhile, Q himself “seemed either unimpressed or unaware of the movement’s growth among the young yoga moms and crystal healers of America,” Rothschild writes. Q drops never mentioned #savethechildren, Wayfair, Bill Gates, 5G, or the widely-shared COVID conspiracy video “Plandemic.” One drop did mention hydroxychloroquine, Trump supporters’ favored COVID “cure,” but only to say that the “fake news” media was trying to cover up proof of its efficacy.
Most of what Q had to say about the pandemic was that it was a conspiracy to discredit Trump and hide Biden’s supposed infirmity, but this was the kind of relatively mild stuff being spouted by the average Fox News guest. Q barely posted at all in August 2020, the month that #savethechildren exploded.
This power vacuum allowed all sorts of theorists and scammers to take the wheel. One mention of “chemicals pushed for home use cleaning” in a Q drop way back in 2018 was seized upon by boosters of an old-school medical scam — including a “former police captain” known online as Chief Police 2. He saw it as support for MMS, a mineral blend that basically turns into bleach when you mix it with citric acid. But this was a tough sell even for Anons — and when the bleach cure concept filtered up to Trump, it damaged the president’s standing so much that he stopped appearing at White House COVID briefings.
Was QAnon scuppered by this evidence that was fragmenting into a leaderless movement that could literally have killed you if you followed all its pronouncements? It was not. It was, in fact, going global, with various fringe movements in various countries latching on to some aspect or other. In the UK, it was embraced by anti-vaxxers. In Germany and France, antiglobalist right-wingers saw what they wanted to see in Q drops. Australia’s Prime Minister was revealed to be friends with a prominent Q promoter.
Most ominous, however, was news from opinion polls back in the U.S., revealing that some 80 percent of Republicans believed some aspect of QAnon’s various tropes. The movement was shedding Q, Rothschild writes, and “becoming a true conspiracy theory of everything.”
5. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter deserve blame — but not Reddit.
Despite Q’s claim in an early drop that Facebook was a deep state “spying tool,” it is clear from this history that the movement would never have found traction without the Silicon Valley giant. For those of us who have spent years sounding the alarm about the radicalizing influence of social media algorithms, The Storm is Upon Us is full of frustrating facts. In 2018 alone, QAnon YouTube videos were shared more than 1.4 million times; estimates are hazy, but the service likely made millions in advertising on Q content. In 2020, a wild claim that Oprah had been arrested for pedophilia began with QAnons on Facebook. “#Savethechildren exploded on Facebook especially,” Rothschild notes.
The effects of this popularity started to bleed into real-life crime. Cynthia Abcug was a single mother who lost custody of her kids and came to believe they were being kidnapped by the Deep State, and so (ironically) kidnapped them herself; she was arrested with a ton of Q paraphernalia, including bracelets with the Twitter handle of a Q promoter called Joe M. Along with other anonymous Twitter users, he had already been the prime mover in a bizarre case where a school fundraiser in Grass Valley, California was shut down after online threats. Anons believed former FBI director James Comey had threatened an attack on the school in a coded tweet. (Don’t ask.)
It isn’t just the social media giants who should hang their head in shame. Amazon, whose algorithm boosted the QAnon bestseller An Invitation to the Great Awakening, made no attempt to police its thousands of Q-branded items for sale until the Capitol attack. Same goes for Etsy’s homemade Q gear. GoFundMe and Patreon allowed users to shovel money to Q influencers. Google allowed Q apps on the Play store. Allowing this madness to grow unchecked until it fomented an actual coup attempt may be the greatest stain on the history of tech services.
Oddly enough, the one online service that can hold its head high on QAnon is one that had learned from its history of allowing dangerous racist conspiracy nonsense: Reddit. The company banned its vast 70,000-member subreddit, r/GreatAwakening, back in March 2018 when its members started doxxing supposed mass shooters. Even r/the_Donald, a Trump-supporting subreddit that would itself be shut down over threats of violence in 2020, policed itself by automatically deleting all mentions of QAnon.
6. Don’t call it brainwashing.
The fact that some Trump voters never fell for Q nonsense is a cause for cautious optimism. Rothschild ends the book with a chapter of recommendations for anyone trying to “deprogram” a loved one who fell into QAnon. First and foremost, you need to recognize that this is going to be a long haul — especially as QAnon doesn’t bear all the traits of a classic cult (which tend to break up when leaderless).
“The stereotypical idea of ‘brainwashing’ isn’t the correct term to apply to Q.”
“The stereotypical idea of ‘brainwashing’ isn’t the correct term to apply to Q,” Rothschild writes. It’s a controversial word to start with, with many psychiatrists deriding it as pseudoscience. Many of the QAnon followers past and present are rational in many respects; they get sucked into a complex linguistic mystery that can be as satisfying as doing a crossword. Others see themselves as “digital soldiers” in a war of good and evil. “It attracts your mental energy because it’s so dense,” one former Q fan told the author.
All of the apostates in this book pulled themselves out of QAnon because they themselves started to see weird inconsistencies in the various conspiracy theories. This suggests that the best thing friends and family can do is be patient, not cut ties completely, and be there to listen whenever their lost QAnons are ready to talk. If they want to do something active, Rothschild suggests taking the loved one on a “digital holiday” away from the internet — even if that’s just taking a long hike or playing ball for a few hours.
Which might be a good idea for Q opponents too — all the better to make sure we’re rested and ready for the online battles that are sure to come with whatever dangerous ideology QAnon morphs into next.