Great Britain

The QAnon conspiracy

Q&A

What is QAnon?

QAnon is a wide-ranging and baseless internet conspiracy theory that has been on the fringes of rightwing internet communities for years, but its visibility has exploded in recent months amid the social unrest and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

QAnon has its roots in previously established conspiracy theories, some relatively new and some a millennium old. QAnon evolved out of Pizzagate and includes many of the same basic characters and plotlines without the easily disprovable specifics.

But QAnon also has its roots in much older antisemitic conspiracy theories. The idea of the all-powerful, world-ruling cabal comes straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document used throughout the 20th century to justify antisemitism. Another QAnon canard is a modern remix of the age-old antisemitic blood libel.

“Q”, posing as a government insider with top security clearance, has made more than 4,000 posts so far. Cryptic and elliptical, they often consist of a long string of leading questions designed to guide readers toward discovering the “truth” for themselves through “research”. It’s a kind of participatory internet scavenger hunt with perceived high stakes and a ready-made community of fellow adherents.

Experts in conspiracy theories point out belief in QAnon is far from common. The largest Facebook groups had approximately 200,000 members in them before Facebook banned them. When Twitter took similar action, it limited features for approximately 150,000 accounts.

While most QAnon followers will not engage in violence, many already have, or have attempted to, which is why the FBI identified the movement as a potential domestic terror threat. Participation in QAnon also often involves vicious online harassment campaigns against perceived enemies, which can have serious consequences for the targets.

QAnon is gaining traction as a political force in the Republican party in the US. Media Matters has compiled a list of 77 candidates for congressional seats who have indicated support for QAnon and at least one of them, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, will in all likelihood be elected in November 2020.

Julia Carrie Wong 

He was desperate and scared and pleading for advice. “It’s integrating itself into soft rightwing timelines and I believe it’s starting to radicalise many. Seeing my mum and nan fall for it unaware is so troubling. I’ve seen it all over Facebook and these people genuinely believe they’re revealing the truth.”

It is QAnon, the unfounded conspiracy theory that has gone through countless, bewildering versions since it emerged in the US in 2017 and is now spreading like California’s wildfires across the internet.

At its core are lurid claims that an elite cabal of child-trafficking paedophiles, comprising, among others, Hollywood A-listers, leading philanthropists, Jewish financiers and Democrat politicians, covertly rule the world. Only President Trump can bring them to justice with his secret plan that will deliver what QAnon’s disciples refer to as “The Storm” or “The Great Awakening”.

Heavy on millennialism and the idea that a reckoning awaits the world, the theory has found fertile ground in the American “alt-right”.

But, unlike many contributors to the QAnoncasualties forum on Reddit, the man concerned about his mother and grandmother was from Britain and he was in despair at how the movement’s ideas were taking hold here. “My mum and grandma have shown me some, quite frankly, terrifying hard-right Facebook posts, calling Black Lives Matter Marxist paedophiles, typical QAnon stuff, however not even advertised as Q,” he explained.

What was once dismissed as an underground US conspiracy theory is becoming something more disturbing, more mainstream, more international, more mystical. And the effects of this are now being felt in Britain.

This weekend rallies were held in several cities around the country attended by disparate, discrete groups protesting against lockdowns, vaccinations, 5G mobile phone technology and child abuse.

Few of those who turned up at these events would describe themselves as QAnon supporters. Indeed, many have legitimate concerns about the government’s response to the pandemic. But where they overlap with QAnon is in a shared deep distrust of government, an enmity that encourages the cross-pollination of anti-authoritarian ideas in a Britain becoming more fragmented, more angry.

“Belief in one conspiracy theory can open the door to many more, and the line between anti-lockdown, anti-5G narratives and QAnon is, to some extent, blurring, for example with some alleging that an evil, child-trafficking cabal is behind the current crisis,” said David Lawrence, a researcher with the antifascist organisation Hope not Hate, which has been monitoring the rise of QAnon in the UK.

In London on Saturday, Resist and Act for Freedom, which described itself as “a medic-focused” anti-vaccination rally, was addressed by Kate Shemirani, a nurse suspended from practising by the Nursing and Midwifery Council for being accused of promoting baseless theories about Covid-19, vaccines and 5G.

Shemirani has espoused some of the QAnon theories and has described the Covid-19 crisis as a “plandemic scamdemic”. She has described the NHS as “the new Auschwitz” and her online media postings make references to Hitler and the Nazis, an investigation by the Jewish Chronicle has found.

A handful of QAnon-inspired banners, such as “We Are Q”, were being held aloft. Others held flags bearing slogans – for example, “Save Our Children” and “Where We Go One We Go All” – that are affiliated to QAnon.

Shemirani told the crowd: “Our government has declared war on the people of the UK.”

The police, including some on horseback, made several unsuccessful attempts to break up the rally, pushed back by scores of protesters. As they did, the crowd chanted to them: “Choose your side.”

One woman in her 20s, who was wearing a hoodie with a QAnon logo, told the Observer that she had come to the rally because she had read about the child abuse taking place across the US and the UK, a chief QAnon trope.

Another protester, Emma, 25, said she had a young daughter. She was holding a placard suggesting hundreds of thousands of children had been abducted around the world. “I’ve done years of research,” she said. “QAnon are right. There’s a global elite out there going for our children. Trump is taking down the elite and draining the swamp.”

She was dismissive of the government’s response to Covid. “The government is trying to take away our constitutional rights. You don’t need vaccination, you need to live well, eat well.”

She also believed that Black Lives Matter was funded by George Soros, the Jewish financier who funds a number of major civil society initiatives. “He’s a Zionist,” she said without further explanation.

Gregory Stanton, founding president of Genocide Watch, said: “QAnon’s conspiracy theory is copied from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the conspiracy theory promoted by Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany.

“Its potential for the promotion of genocidal hatred is a deadly historical fact. The Protocols’ theory that Jews plan to take over the world, and are well on their way to doing so, has been an ideology and motivator for pogroms since the middle ages, and under the Nazis for the Holocaust. It is a conspiracy theory that has literally cost millions of lives. QAnon has revived the Protocols, complete with the Blood Libel, that the secret cabal kidnaps children, drains their blood and cannibalises them to gain mystical power.”

There is evidence that far-right groups in Europe are turning their attention to the QAnon movement. A “freedom rally”, held last month in Trafalgar Square and where QAnon supporters were clearly present, was also attended by a group flying a flag of the now defunct British Union of Fascists.

In Germany, a major QAnon rally was attended by followers of the Reichsbürger far-right movement, which rejects the legitimacy of the modern German state. Similar flirtations have been reported among groups in Finland and Scandinavia.

But QAnon is also creeping into UK street protest movements that have no affiliation with the far right.

Earlier this year a “justice for all” rally in Nottingham attracted hundreds who came out in support of military veterans and tougher action on child-grooming gangs.

QAnon iconography was visible at the event, while one of the rally’s organisers claimed to have had contact with “ a general from Q” and a “group from Q”.

Another group, Freedom for the Children UK, which aims to raise awareness about child exploitation and human trafficking, holds marches in cities around the UK.

Many involved are well-intentioned but Hope not Hate has found that inside the private group’s online forums, members frequently post QAnon misinformation and references to “Pizzagate”, an unsubstantiated QAnon precursor that claimed several high-ranking Democrat officials, including Hillary Clinton, were involved in a child sex abuse ring based at a Washington pizza restaurant.

“QAnon has gathered pockets of support in the UK, and is likely to continue to build momentum as the US election approaches,” Lawrence explained. “But, while the spread of a dangerous conspiracy theory is always concerning, especially when it is animating people on to the street in protest, it is important to underline that the QAnon scene as a whole is still dominated by the US.”

Indeed, over in the US QAnon is now marching on Washington. Several Republican congressional candidates, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who looks likely to win her seat in Georgia, have openly expressed support for the movement.

Last week, Lauren Witzke, who has posed in a QAnon-branded T-shirt and tweeted the QAnon motto, WWG1WGA – where we go one we go all – won the Republican primary for a US Senate seat in Delaware. Witzke has since distanced herself from QAnon.

By contrast, QAnon has been confined to the fringes of the UK political scene. But this is not to say it will remain there. “Support for conspiracy theories and the far right tends to rise in volatile, uncertain times,” Lawrence explained. “Public trust in UK institutions has been increasingly challenged in recent years, and exacerbated by the pandemic and the government’s inconsistent responses.”

That QAnon is gaining traction in the UK now, three years after it first emerged in the US, is no surprise to those who have encountered it.

An analyst who monitors online extremism in Britain, and spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity, said it had the ability to appeal to anyone. It hardly mattered that the movement was US-focused.

“It offers wish fulfilment – the idea that at some moment Donald Trump is going to liberate people from debt and slavery. Someone might hate banks, well Donald Trump is going to liberate them from banks. Someone might despise immigrants, well Donald Trump is fighting a conspiracy against him inspired by George Soros. The content is not as important as the communities in which it embeds itself.”

Stanton said QAnon was “an opportunistic ideology”.

“QAnon even briefly stole the Twitter hashtag for Save the Children, the genuine charity that protects children,” Stanton said. “QAnon attracts some women who think it is about saving kidnapped children. By relaying ‘secret messages’ from inside the ‘Deep State’ QAnon lurks in the shadows, where its leaders cannot be exposed for promoting racist, anti-Jewish Nazi terrorism. Extremist ideologies are often dismissed until they take power, as the Nazis did, as communism did, as Isis did. We ignore them at our peril.”

Many of those drawn to QAnon from within the UK are followers of the new religious movements that emerged out of the 60s and 70s, or the new-age traveller communities of the 90s. Others have a fascination with UFOs.

But to believe that their views have no relevance to the UK’s political ecosystem would be dangerous, experts claim. “QAnon feeds on widespread conspiracy theories, new age, and occult belief systems,”said Chamila Liyanage of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. “QAnon will not be able to influence UK politics right away, but it will first gain a foothold among the enthusiasts of fringe belief systems and conspiracy theories. This is metapolitics, changing minds, then cultures can be changed in the long run. If more and more people distrust liberal democracies and believe that liberals are satanists planning to implement the New World Order, it’s not possible to uphold democratic accountability. Such a situation will surely bring political consequences in the long run.”

Earlier this year, the Observer reported that John Mappin, a Scientologist and supporter of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, was flying the QAnon flag over his castle in Cornwall. Mappin is a central figure behind Turning Point UK, the British arm of the pro-Trump American student organisation Turning Point USA, whose founder, Charlie Kirk, has been accused of pushing pro-QAnon narratives based on debunked statistics produced by the movement’s supporters.

Turning Point UK has been endorsed by several leading Conservatives, including the home secretary, Priti Patel, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Mappin, who has declared that “Q is 100% valid”, has used YouTube to promote QAnon.

One person in the US who has seen friends and family turn to QAnon told the Observer: “People who fall into QAnon or adjacent modern conspiracy thinking, including my family member and friends, are people who have unresolved trauma, such as from childhood, that has left them with deep insecurities about their place in the world and the state of society.”

He said that these people often had “a lack of understanding for sciences, math, history and politics, a lack of critical thinking, a vulnerability to magical thinking – Evangelical Christian or deep new-age spirituality” – and were dealing with the “trauma of Covid, the loss of physical connections, the loss of work” while confronted by “unfettered internet access and dangerous social media algorithms”.

Robert Johnson, who helps moderate the Qanoncasualties site after watching a relative fall victim to the movement, warned anyone can fall down the QAnon rabbit hole.

“How fast someone can be sucked in? If they are susceptible, I’d say five days to start believing. If they have an underlying condition, they can reach mania in a week.”

One contributer to the QAnoncasualties forum said that his father had become “so invested in QAnon that it feels like someone just hypnotised him”.

Stanton has argued powerfully that QAnon is simply the Nazi cult rebranded. “Two definitions of a cult are: a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister; and a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing: a cult of personality surrounding the leaders. QAnon’s strange and sinister beliefs qualify it as a cult, as does QAnon’s misplaced admiration for Donald Trump.”

As with any cults, financial gain is not far away. QAnon merchandise has mushroomed. Websites hosting the theory are making money out of traffic. Covid quackery is doing brisk business on QAnon sites.

The world today is ripe for the cult’s promotion, Stanton argues, as it shares many similarities with the world in which Hitler emerged.

“I think it comes at a similar time to the 1920s and 1930s. We have mass unemployment. We face a plague that is like the Spanish Flu that killed millions. Nazis and QAnon both seek a ‘saviour’ leader who will deliver society from disorder and the cabal of conspirators that is secretly taking over their nations.”

The difference now, though, is that technology has unified the world. A movement emanating from the US can quickly spread beyond its borders.

One contributor to the Qanoncasualties forum told the Observer that QAnon appears to mimic the spread of the pandemic.

“It struck me that the way QAnon has taken off in a really big way this year, despite being three years old, is like the spread of the virus, in terms of the exponential growth curve. The more people that are connected to QAnon, the steeper the curve will be in terms of them spreading the BS on social media and in real-life interactions.”

The appeal seems almost physical. As one German contributor to Qanoncasualties, who was not a QAnon follower but had been a believer in Pizzagate, explained: “It all started on Reddit. It began with stumbling on a few ‘alternative’ subreddits, those with prefixes ‘real’, ‘anarchy’, ‘true’, etc. To this day, I’m still not sure what triggered the hate spiral in me.

“I think one of the possibilities is that any unresolved conflicts are channelled in anger and negative energy. A lot of people describe their relatives watching QAnon videos all day – they know that they’re essentially on an IV drip of some stuff they crave. I have no idea how it works inside the body, but I’m willing to bet there’s a physical response to this behaviour.”

Research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has found that QAnon and the online world have enjoyed a powerful symbiosis after lockdown started in many countries, including the UK.

A report the ISD published in June showed that membership of QAnon groups on Facebook increased by 120% in March, while engagement rates increased by 91%. From 27 October 2017 to 17 June 2020, the ISD recorded 69,475,451 million tweets, 487,310 Facebook posts and 281,554 Instagram posts mentioning QAnon-related hashtags and phrases.

The ISD said that “across all three platforms, a clear trend exists showing a notable increase in conversation volumes coinciding with periods when lockdowns were issued”.

It found that the top four countries driving discussion of QAnon on Twitter were the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. Much of the online discussion is driven by the actions of Trump, who has retweeted QAnon-promoting accounts.

One Reddit contributor said that QAnon was spreading for “one reason only”. “The failure of the government, in the US at least, to deny and denounce it. These conspiracies and cult-like behaviours have arrived thousands of times over the years and usually die out.

“However, when you have a president who says he didn’t know much about QAnon, except ‘they like me very much’ and ‘I heard... that these are people who love our country’, then immediately this is essentially permission and acknowledgement of their movement.”

Facebook and Twitter have recently taken steps to restrict QAnon. The movement now largely operates on the 8kun message board site, whose earlier incarnation, 8chan, has been criticised for hosting images of child abuse and promoting white supremacy groups.

“QAnon hardcore followers are still gaining but there is more awareness and active scepticism recently,” Johnson said. “They had a recent setback with the shutdown of qmap.pub (a website endorsed by Q). But they are a great hype machine and Covid has been a godsend. Globally it is gaining ground and numbers. I think it surpassed 72 countries this week. We recently had a user report dealing with a family member in Switzerland.”

But can a cult survive the demise of its leader?

Few believe that if Trump loses in November, QAnon will disappear.

“When Obama won that’s what kickstarted half of the angry movements that fed into this,” the online extremism analyst explained. “It didn’t calm the Republican right, it made them much more aggravated.”

Nor would Trump’s defeat sound the death knell for an incipient QAnon movement in the UK.

“There is a high possibility that the spirited belief system which surrounds QAnon can slowly become a political movement in the UK,” Liyanage said. “It will be successful because no one can fight it through reason. It’s not a rational belief system but mostly a supernatural belief system.”

The mysterious rise of QAnon

QAnon publicly emerged on 28 October 2017 when a user calling themselves Q, who claimed to have high-level security clearance, posted a series of cryptic messages on the website 4chan (which later became 8chan and then 8kun).

Q claimed that they would work to covertly inform the public about President Trump’s ongoing battle against the “deep state”, a blanket term used to describe those in power working against the president. Since then, users claiming to be Q have made over 4,000 posts, known in the community as “Qdrops”, fuelling the growth of a lurid meta-conspiracy connecting a range of harmful narratives.

The QAnon theory now connects antivaccine, anti-5G conspiracies, antisemitic and antimigrant tropes, and several bizarre theories that the world is in the thrall of a group of paedophile elites set on global domination in part aided by ritualistic child sacrifice. It morphed out of an earlier conspiracy, “Pizzagate”, which suggested that a paedophile ring involving senior officials in the Democratic Party was being run out of a pizza restaurant in Washington.

In 2019, the FBI labelled QAnon a domestic terror threat, observing that conspiracy theories have the potential to encourage “both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts”.

In the 2020 US elections there are 14 congressional candidates on the ballot for November who express support for the theory.

Who is behind QAnon remains opaque. But NBC has reported that it took off when two 4chan moderators, who went by the usernames Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe, reached out to Tracy Diaz, a small-time YouTube star who helped popularise the earlier ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy who then helped bring QAnon to a wider online audience.

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