Jordan: I’ll be honest here, even after having referenced it and talked about it and shrugged and laughed at the people who take it seriously. Even after it became clear it was probably serious, I still don’t know really what QAnon is. If you ask me, I’d tell you it’s a conspiracy theory. I could tell you, it involves a guy named Q posting online. It’s about US politics and the 2016 presidential campaign plays a role, and Donald Trump is supposed to be on the side of QAnon, whatever side of whatever they’re on. That’s about it.
News Clip: QAnon is an online conspiracy that alleges there is a deep state designed to take down Donald Trump and there will be a great awakening and a storm where all the members of the Deep State are rounded up and sent to a place like Guantanamo Bay.
Jordan: I’ve learned that that is actually a very old definition of what QAnon has since become. By now, this thing is everywhere. And especially over the past few months, it’s been growing exponentially. If it is still a conspiracy theory, because just about nothing in it is true, it’s now a conspiracy theory likely to have believers in power in the United States government.
News Clip: And it was Michael Flynn appearing to take the QAnon pledge.
QAnon Followers: Where are we go one, we go all. Where we go one, we go all. Bless America.
News Clip: This guy used to be the head of the defence intelligence agency.
Jordan: And it’s no longer just an American thing either. It’s spreading in Europe. And as you may have heard, it’s here in Canada. So what has QAnon evolved to become? Why is it still growing so fast? How did we end up here? Can we ever convince QAnon believers that they’re wrong? That their conspiracy theory is just that? And what happens if we can’t? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Marc-André Argentino is a PhD candidate and a public scholar at Concordia University. Hello, Marc-André.
Marc-André: Hi Jordan, how’s it going?
Jordan: It’s going well. I’m hoping you can help us unpack this whole nest of, uh, whatever it is that seems to have been gathering strength, even though I thought it would vanish, you know, probably a couple of years ago,
Marc-André: I’ll do my best to at least try to untangle a bit of the very complicated mess that is QAnon.
Jordan: Let’s start, if I asked you, how does QAnon differ from all the other conspiracy theories out there? Is there anything that immediately it comes to mind?
Marc-André: I think the biggest thing that comes to mind is, and it’s weird to say in a way, but it’s how inclusive QAnon is to a certain extent. As long as you adhere to the principles of the conspiracy theory, almost anyone is really welcomed in the movement, whether it is the type of conspiracy theory that you personally would believe in that would attract you to QAnon. So there is an overarching QAnon conspiracy narrative, but really if you’re believing in like, you know, the new world order or the Illuminati or reptilians are controlling the world, pretty much anything other than flat earthers, you’re going to be accepted in the movement. But then it doesn’t matter what your race is. It doesn’t matter what your gender is. It’s one of those movements where you join and you create a QAnon account on social media and you’re going to have a swarm of people following you and interacting with you and talking with you. And I think the inclusive and sentiment of community is something that’s probably very attractive to individuals that may feel isolated or lonely, or may have individuals around them who do not believe the same thing as them. And then finding this entire community that’ll react and interact with you around the same things you believe and consume is probably a very powerful element that you might not have found in other conspiracy theory movements. And I think also the way that social media works plays a role. Like after 9/11, the truther movement was massive and it started congregating around early messaging boards. But the power of, you know, social media like Twitter and Facebook and YouTube provides not only a feed that is tailored to you, but provides a community that will interact and react with you as well.
Jordan: So give me the central narrative, I guess then, leaving out all of the ways that everything else can fit in if you want it to fit in. What’s the central narrative of Q?
Marc-André: So the central narrative is that there is a Deep State global cabal, which is basically a large organization of evil people who are Satanic and paedophilic and are responsible for all the evil in the world. So they believe that the global elites, whether it is politicians, or movie stars, or the wealthy are all part of this global organization and they use sex trafficking and Satanic rituals as a way of advancing their goals. And Donald Trump, despite all the Deep State efforts was elected, and he’s aware of the Deep State’s existence, and his task right now is to save the world and defeat the Deep State. And the deep state is going to try to do everything they can to prevent him from being elected.
Jordan: How’s he doing with that so far?
Marc-André: Well, there’s been a lot of promises by Q, and let’s be honest, I don’t think many of them have come to fruition. We’re up to 4,580 Q drops, which is the messages from the individual called Q. And I don’t think there has been any that have fully come to fruition. There’s some echos and resonance that you may find within the real world. But the issue is if you throw a lot of spaghetti at a wall, at a certain point, something is going to stick.
Jordan: Where did this theory come from? Like how did it come to be, I guess?
Marc-André: So the classic story that reporters are observers that research QAnon will push, is that it really started in October, 2017 on 4chan on a board called /pol/, which is the politically incorrect board, and it was in a thread called the calm before the storm. And ultimately it was an individual that was making a prediction that Hillary Clinton would be arrested at 8:30 the next day. Obviously the first prediction never came to fruition. But since then. It’s been a continuation of these drops, pushing in various conspiracy theories, reacting to what’s happening in the real world. And it really didn’t come to the mainstream up until about a month later in, November of 2017, when, thanks to a great piece of investigation from NBC, was that they found out that the admins of that /pol/ board, which were using the name Pamphlet Anon and BaruchtheScribe, which are actual– Pamphlet Anon is Coleman Rogers, and BaruchtheScribe is a South African and man named Paul Furber, they contacted Tracy Diaz, who had a large following on YouTube to talk about this Q post in her vlog. And that was the first time where you had the obscure 4chan board posts be mainstreamed on a more consumed and widespread social media platform. And that’s where it really started trickling into other platforms. You saw a calm before the storm subreddit be created. That’s where a lot of the activities started being mainstreamed early on in 2018. So if you weren’t on 4chan or on 8chan, once they shifted from 4chan to 8chan. Reddit was where you would go to consume it and that’s still a very large platform for introducing people to it. And from then it’s just been slowly growing, and in reality, though it was known in 2018 and 2019, the pandemic is really what has started shooting QAnon into popular culture, and has probably played a role also in making it very political and raises a few questions around stuff like public health when they are linking with anti-vaxxers, anti masks, alternative health promoters of conspiracy theory. So, there’s a lot of questions in our current environment of the dangers that may be posed by this decentralized and loosely connected group of conspiracy theorists.
Jordan: I’m going to get into why this is happening now during the pandemic, cause that’s an interesting question, but first, can you give me a sense then, currently, how mainstream has it gone? When you use that word in reference to a conspiracy theory, what does a mainstream conspiracy theory look like, I guess?
Marc-André: I think the first thing we might have to stop doing is actually calling this at least a conspiracy theory movement. They’re still based in conspiracy, but I think QAnon has actually evolved into something closer to an ideology. And the reason I probably go there, is there are behavioural and sociopolitical impacts that QAnon has, that resembles closely to ideological movements, which I could get into after, but–
Jordan: Explain that, explain, what are they?
Marc-André: So what, in my perspective, my background, one of my backgrounds is I’m a scholar of religion. So I’ve always looked at these types of groups in a very different lens. And I think that QAnon over the past 12 months has started to look like something that would be called a hyper real religion, which is something that’s newly been– well, newly discovered in religious study. It’s been about 10 years that they’ve had this term going around. And it’s talking about how you have the commodification of religious ideologies combined with popular and consumer culture in the West. An example that I could give that makes it a little easier to understand is Jediism, which started as a joke in the UK when they were doing the Census. It was a post that were saying, if you get 300,000 individuals to claim they are part of a group, it will be recognized as a religion. Obviously you put something like that on the Internet, it’s not hard to get 300,000 British citizens to say they have subscribed.
Marc-André: But since that was done, individuals in the movement have actually started ascribing to the ethical framework of Jediism from, you know, the world of Star Wars. And they’re following the basic principle on how to live a good life. And you’re seeing this blend of what was a pop culture phenomenon, which is part of a large consumer culture of books and comic books and movies, turn into an ideological movement that is guiding the social and political behaviours of individuals. And this is kind of what we’re seeing with QAnon. It’s slowly evolving into something more than just a series of conspiracies, into a mean by which individuals are guiding their lives and making decisions about very important things. And to take it even a step further, I also recently found a QAnon church, which kind of looks at what a possibility of what QAnon may look like in a future, if the group would fragment or split off. And having a formalized religious institution with religious rituals tied around Neo-Charismatic movements in the US, with QAnon texts, narratives, and myths and forming new rituals is kind of a sign that you’re seeing this as more than just passing, you know, musings around possibilities of who’s controlling the world, or trying to explain evil. This is really changing how people perceive this, and though the QAnon church is a very specific example, and taken to an extreme, the way that people are making decisions about who they’re voting for, about their personal options for masks, how they reinterpret over and over again Q drops to find new meaning, or determine how they’re going to live their life, or the actions they’re gonna take based on these posts has a resonance with religious behaviour, which is why I’m trying to look at this from this perspective. And I think understanding them as an ideology provides a framework for understanding the group in a better way than just simply understanding them as a conspiracy theory movement. Because scholarship around conspiracy theories right now would dictate conspiracy theories are for the losing side, or for individuals that are your typical– people would reflect on conspiracy theorists as these tinfoil hat wearing individuals that live in their basement. You know, these are not the type of people that believe in QAnon. You have people running for office, you have elected officials, former generals giving credence to the movement, you have movie stars. So it’s not the powerless or the losers that are believing this, but it’s actually the powerful and the winning side, we have to remember the Trump admin and the Republicans are the party that won in 2016. And this is the conspiracy theory that was moving out of that, and that’s really different than what we understand. So this is how I’m trying to understand it as a way of, one, educating people about the movement, but also trying to provide a better framework and understanding the type of potential threats from a national security, public health, and democratic institutions perspective.
Jordan: You kind of touched on it a bit there, by referring to who some of the believers are, but let’s get back to that. ‘Cause you were going– before that, and that was a fascinating digression, and I feel like I understand where this is coming from a lot better, but give me some examples of the scope of this. Who are those prominent individuals you mentioned? Do we have any idea of the scale of the movement, I guess how big it is?
Marc-André: So, before getting to the prominent individuals, for the scale of the movement, I have an idea to an extent where I could offer a best guess. There’s no official census of QAnon, and it’s very difficult to give a number, but just to give you an idea about– for the past 12 months, there’s been on average between 50,000 and 90,000 unique accounts talking about QAnon on Twitter, let’s say. Now in there, there’s obviously journalists, scholars, observers. So you’re going to have a bit of noise. But you’re looking at maybe, if we’re going to cut it down the middle, let’s say there’s 60,000 accounts on Twitter that claim to be QAnon adherents. That number has gone up a bit. It’s about a 71% increase on content on Twitter since the start of the pandemic. But Facebook is where it gets interesting, because there we’ve seen a 651% increase of QAnon content on Facebook. So where there were 69 groups in March, there’s 179 as of today. And that means the number of members in those groups have jumped from 213,000 to 1.4 million. Now, again, there’s probably duplications, overlap. There’s probably some individuals that are just observers in there. But there is a very large increase in individuals that are at least interested, are consuming this type of content. And it’s the same thing with QAnon pages, where they’ve doubled in likes going from 450,000 to 911,000. So there’s an increase, but to talk about the scale, an intelligent guess would probably, I would have to say there’s between maybe, oh, 100,000 to maybe 600,000 individuals that subscribe to this. It’s still very difficult to say, because these are just social media numbers, so without any proper census, it’s hard to do. And it’s important to also say that over the past few months, QAnon has exploded on the international scene. So there’s still QAnon communities that have shown up in Nordic countries, QAnon Germany is the second largest community in the world. They’re in Australia and New Zealand and Korea and Japan, Russia, the Czech Republic and all over Europe and Canada, the US. So it’s another level of scale that is very difficult to grasp. But it is a very widely spread movement that has been able to surpass it’s American centric origins. And when it comes to key actors, I recently published a– well, actually I published a piece yesterday about this talking about some of the QAnon candidates. A friend of mine, Alex Kaplan at Media Matters, has been doing a great job tracking QAnon congressional candidates that believe or give credence to QAnon. We’re up to 63 candidates in 27 different States.
Marc-André: And actually 13 of these are going to be on the ballot in November, with a potential six or seven others that might also be making it on the ballot. And there’s two candidates, there is Lauren Boebert from Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia, that actually have a chance of winning their seats. So we might even have QAnon candidates in Congress. And other than that, there’s powerful people that also have been doing it. So there’s the President Trump who’s retweeted QAnon content at least 185 times since the start of the, of the conspiracy theory. But what’s interesting is that he’s retweeted their content 90 times since the start of the pandemic. And individuals– you’ve had Rudy Giuliani amplify their content, Brad Parscale, who’s the campaign manager for President Trump, you had his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, you’ve had his son most recently post a QAnon meme on Instagram to promote the Tulsa rally, his daughter has promoted the content. So there’s, at least politically, those around the president and the president himself have at least amplified the content on social media.
Jordan: Let’s get to why it’s exploding now. I mean, obviously people are at home more than ever, with more time on their computers, but is there anything beyond that?
Marc-André: I think the important thing to understand is at its core conspiracy theories are a way of explaining the evil that is happening, either to you or to the world around you. So if we’re– right now, we are in a period of crisis. You know, there’s a global pandemic, there’s health insecurities, economic insecurities, political insecurities. There’s a lot of questions that experts and leaders do not have. And if we do have answers, the leaders, or those that are in positions of power are going to change them as more information comes out about the virus and its impact. So people are looking around for something to blame, or they’re looking for answers and there’s nothing. So, the conspiracy theory like– cause here’s the thing, QAnon is a cognitive opening that gives a way for these individuals to process and deal with these very difficult times. So basically, they take events out of the realm of abstraction and they give them a face, they give an enemy, and something to blame. And it’s not just anyone. It’s a diabolical, all knowing, all powerful actor. And it’s the fault of that actor that everything around you is falling apart. And this means of explaining evil is attractive to individuals in crisis. And basically the conspiracy theories explain and make sense of everything that is failing someone. So if you’re having financial troubles or if you’re having political strife in the country you’re in, then this evil force is an easy answer, an easy way to explain what you’re having difficulty understanding.
Jordan: How do we– I’m going from the assumption here that none of the stuff in the core QAnon narrative is true. Is that, as far as you know, that’s correct, right? I’m not–
Marc-André: So there’s always a kernel of truth, and that’s how conspiracy theories work. The best example of that is the MK Ultra conspiracy theory. There’s, you know, government documents that said this type of experimentation did happen, there’s a whole bunch of reasons why it shouldn’t have, but it still did. They explained it away. And they said that this program is no longer working. And all available evidence would point that this is no longer happening. But a conspiracy theorist will take that and say, of course the government doesn’t want you to believe that it’s still happening. They just put it in some darker, shadier part of the government, and they’re still doing it. And this explains why a person who was pro-Donald Trump, all of a sudden would change their mind. They’re MK Ultra. They’ve been activated. Or they’ll say when a QAnon member does something atrocious, oh, he was under MK Ultra, this is a false flag to discredit our movement. There’s always a kernel of truth to a lot of these. It’s just the extrapolation of that kernel of truth is what turns it into a conspiracy theory.
Jordan: Okay, so then my question, I guess, is, and maybe this is a good place to kind of wrap up on, is what happens now? And when I say that, I mean, is there a way that people who have really bought into this can be brought back, can be a talked sense into, for lack of a better term? Or does this just continue?
Marc-André: There’s always hope to bring people back from these type of beliefs, based on existing scholarship, not necessarily on conspiracy theories, but if you think about radicalization into extremist movements, there are ways to bring people back or bring people out of these movements. There’s not a lot of research into QAnon right now, so it’s going to be difficult to create programs or a framework to support these types of efforts at this moment. It’s something that hopefully, at least, some of my research and some of my colleagues’ research will support and provide insight to over time. But in the short term, there’s a couple of possibilities of what happens with QAnon. We do have an important election happening in November. If President Trump wins, this will be a vindication for the movement saying that they were right all along and Trump is still winning, and their war against this Deep State is going on. And we’ll have another four years that will be very difficult to predict on what will happen to the movement. But I expect some type of exponential growth and continuation would be probably on the menu. If Trump loses, I do not think the movement’s going to go away. There’s a couple of possibilities. So because QAnon is rooted in American evangelicalism, in Neo-Charismatic movements, there’s a possibility that the QAnon church I discovered, and others may form some type of new religious movement around QAnon. There are those that are diehard QAnon believers that will not go away. That will probably say, Oh, Trump didn’t lose. The Deep State did this. We need to fight even harder to defeat the Deep State. The third possibility is some individuals will be tired of waiting for these empty promises, the arrests will never have happened, Q may keep posting, but an interesting event that’s going on right now is on far right channels on telegram and QAnon channels on telegram, there’s a growing overlap where QAnon may be an interesting recruitment pool for more extreme actors. And I think there’s a possibility that individuals who are disenfranchised with the conspiracy theory landscape and the just digital soldier landscape might want to think of, maybe I need to get off the computer and do things a different way, and they may go that way. And then there’s a fourth pool where people will just say, it’s been four years, nothing happened. I’m tired of it. And they’ll move on to some other conspiracy theory and continue on probably in the same type of worldview, but believing in some other type of narratives.
Jordan: Well, all of those sound pretty disturbing.
Marc-André: I’m sorry. I wish I had some better news. And I really hope I’m wrong. If there’s one thing as an academic, if this is the one thing I’m wrong about, I hope it is.
Jordan: Well, thank you so much for explaining this to me. I didn’t understand it as more than a meme and a and a sign off on social media. So this was really helpful.
Marc-André: I’m happy. I was able to shine a bit of light on this movement.
Jordan: Marc-André Argentino of Concordia University. And that was The Big Story. If you would like more Big Stories, you can head to our website, thebigstorypodcast.ca, and you can find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can find us in your podcast player, no matter which one you prefer. And if it lets you, please leave us a rating, leave us a review. We love to read them. You can also email us. The address is email@example.com. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and we will talk tomorrow.
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