It is the nature of conspiracy theories to turn tragedy into grist, to transform grief and human suffering into an abstract game. The latest horrifying example came out of news late July that Barack Obama’s chef Tafari Campbell had drowned in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. What was a terrible accident and a tragic loss for Campbell’s family and friends was almost immediately seized upon by the paranoid corners of the internet as proof that somehow Barack and Michelle Obama had been involved in an assassination.
It was not the first time that conspiracists have seized on a senseless death as proof of a deeper plot: the 1993 suicide of Vince Foster, lawyer in the Clinton White House, and the murder of the DNC staffer Seth Rich during the 2016 presidential campaign were both used as proof of a “Clinton body count” by the right wing, a playbook that was immediately resurrected as news of Campbell’s death broke. The difference was that those earlier conspiracy theories were focused almost entirely on the Clintons, while the current iteration is far more diffuse and its targets far more wide-reaching.
Campbell’s death, these conspiracists claim, is not just proof of the Obamas’ criminality but of a massive network of treasonous child sex traffickers – an elaborate and convoluted narrative all too well known to us now as QAnon. QAnon appeared in 2017 and quickly spread through the far right, before beginning to wane in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration.
But it hasn’t disappeared entirely, and understanding the conspiracy theory’s rise and fall – and the awful legacy it has left us – reveals a great deal about the modern landscape of partisan paranoia. It also offers some clues on how best to fight back.
QAnon seized the public’s imagination in 2017, exploding from an anonymous forum on one of the internet’s most notorious websites and becoming a popular conspiracy theory. The figure of “Q” first appeared on the message board 4chan – a website where anonymous users posted hardcore pornography and racial slurs – claiming to be a high-level intelligence officer. (Later Q would move to the equally vile site 8kun.)
In October of 2017, the first Q “drop” (as Q’s missives became known) claimed that Hillary Clinton’s extradition was “already in motion”. A few hours later, a second post claimed Clinton had been “detained but not arrested”, while asking a series of cryptic questions (“Why does Potus surround himself with generals?”, “What is military intelligence?” and so forth). Users were hooked by the story that Q began to unfold over the next few months.
The narrative of QAnon that developed from these early messages claimed that there was a conspiracy by the so-called deep state to undermine the presidency of Donald Trump – but Q also let his readers know that this conspiracy was countered by well-placed patriotic individuals, like Q, who supported Trump.
Trump was, Q said, always fully in charge, and always seemingly just a few moves away from winning a vague eleven-dimensional chess game against the deep state and the Democrats. The narrative also incorporated another conspiracy theory, known as Pizzagate, which claimed that these same high-ranking Democrats (along with various Hollywood celebrities) were engaged in a secret child trafficking ring involving sexual abuse and ritual murder, claiming they used children to harvest a chemical compound and elixir of youth, adrenochrome.
This, in itself, was nothing new: Americans have circulated fantastic stories of ritual human sacrifice for centuries. A rumor in 1834 that a convent outside of Boston was home to an illicit cabal of Catholics kidnapping and enslaving women led to a riot in which the convent was burned to the ground, displacing the women who lived there. More recently, the 1980s saw the rise of the Satanic ritual abuse panic, in which daycares and suburban homes were thought by many to be the sites of secret groups of Satanists subjecting children to impossible and terrifying ordeals. Though no evidence of such groups ever emerged, these accusations appeared regularly on daytime talkshows and led to numerous convictions of parents and childcare workers, some of whom spent years in prison.
The other element that QAnon borrowed heavily from in those early days was the rhetoric that, in Q’s words, “the storm was coming”: that it was only a matter of days or weeks before a sudden, revelatory shift occurred, where the guilty would be punished and the righteous made whole. It was a secularized version of a time-honored tradition: an End Times rhetoric that has captivated America for centuries, from the Great Disappointment (when thousands of followers of William Miller prepared themselves for the Second Coming of Christ on 22 October 1844) to the popularity of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins’ Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s.
QAnon gamified these strands. The cryptic missives invited decoding and translation, and were purposefully vague enough that they could be interpreted in any number of ways. Like astrology or tarot cards, Q drops seemed freighted with meaning while lacking any specificity. One could log on, read the latest tea leaves and connect the latest dots, all the while binding oneself further to the web of paranoia. The phenomenon spread widely, roping in not just paranoid conspiracy theorists but puzzle solvers and people looking for community. And because there was so much cryptic messaging embedded in the discourse, it hardly mattered that those few things that might have been verifiable (such as Hillary Clinton being “detained” in October of 2017) were demonstrably false.
It turned out to be a remarkably successful formula; in the days before the 2020 election, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that fully half of Trump’s supporters believed that top Democrats were “involved in an elite child sex trafficking ring” and that Trump was working to “dismantle” that same Democrat-led conspiracy. And despite the ludicrous and defamatory nature of the conspiracy theory, Trump seemed to embrace it; during a town hall event in October of 2020, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie repeatedly offered him a chance to denounce the movement and Trump refused.
And then, in December of 2020, the Q drops abruptly ceased, and the movement seemed to falter. It helped that by then many tech companies – perhaps belatedly – had begun to filter out QAnon content: Twitter and TikTok in July of 2020 and Facebook and Instagram that October, along with YouTube around the same time. These filters drove conspiracists to fringe platforms like Gab and Rumble, reducing the movement’s reach with the general public.
But the decline of QAnon after the election was more existential. The central narrative, that Donald Trump and select insiders were working behind the scenes to defeat the deep state and its child sex-trafficking ring, could not be sustained once Trump was removed from office. As Mike Rothschild, author of The Storm Is Upon Us, told me: “The QAnon as we knew it from October 2017 up until Biden’s inauguration is over, because it had to be over: the storyline of President Trump unleashing the purge of the deep state over Twitter doesn’t really work when he’s not the president any more, and he’s not on Twitter any more.”
But by that point the damage was done. The January 6 riot at the Capitol, an attempt to overturn the peaceful transfer of power and reinstate Donald Trump as president, was not only populated by QAnon believers – its central purpose was motivated by QAnon. If Q and his well-placed insiders could not defeat the deep state and keep Trump in power, then his followers would have to do the job themselves. (An analysis by 60 Minutes found that one in 10 of the rioters had connections to QAnon.)
Even as many conspiracists shifted the narrative to stolen elections and the Covid-19 pandemic, the belief persisted. A February 2022 poll found that even though it had been over a year since Q had communicated, the number of believers in the conspiracy was holding steady at 16% of Americans – which is over 40 million people. The poll found that the best predictor of QAnon beliefs came from which news source an individual trusted most – those who trusted far-right sources, including One America News and Newsmax (and, to a lesser extent, Fox News) were far more likely to believe in QAnon than others. Two sitting members of the House of Representatives – Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert – posted QAnon content to their social media accounts prior to being elected.
Though Q (or someone posing as Q) finally made a reappearance in July of 2022, by then much of the landscape of American conspiracy theories had changed drastically. As Rothschild explains, even as the original storyline “came to a natural end”, there was immediately “the emergence of the stolen election movement, and they found their next thing. It really went really seamlessly from one thing to another”. The movement no longer needed “the codes and the drops and the props and the cryptic stuff”. And without the mystic clues and portents, many of the ideas that first gained strength through Q drops have gone mainstream. They have percolated into the public discourse, embraced by many in the Republican party, and no longer need to involve any actual reference to Q or 4chan.
The surprise success of the film Sound of Freedom is just one more example. Ostensibly just a thriller about a special agent rescuing children from a trafficking ring, the movie’s box office takings – so far over $173m in the US and Canada – have not been dampened by widespread assertions that it is a QAnon parable. Though the movie makes no mention of QAnon and does not require the viewer to believe in any conspiracy theories in order to make sense of the narrative, its star, Jim Caviezel – who attended a private screening hosted by Donald Trump in July – has openly promoted it in QAnon context. On Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, Caviezel talked about the “whole adrenochrome empire”, referring to the anodyne chemical compound which he claimed to be “an elite drug that they’ve used for many years: it’s 10 times more potent than heroin, and it has some mystical qualities as far as making you look younger.”
This week, the film’s writer-director, Alejandro Monteverde, described links with QAnon as “ridiculous” and “heartbreaking” and pointed out that he started writing the film in 2015, two years before QAnon surfaced. Though he distanced himself from Caviezel’s views (“There’s people that are too close to the film that are in politics,” he said), the film’s success has legitimized QAnon theories, regardless of its creator’s intentions. In the eyes of QAnon followers, what was once a conspiracy theory discussed only on fringe websites can now be seen at your local multiplex. “Most people don’t want to be digging through 4chan looking for clues about what this Q drop really means,” Rothschild says. “They want to see results. And with something like Sound of Freedom, you’ve got the results. Not in terms of saved kids but in terms of awareness and box office success.”
The things that drove QAnon originally have now seeped into general thought; freed from the ridiculous premise, they’ve been accepted as mainstream rightwing talking points. Last week, the Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis told supporters at a barbecue in New Hampshire: “We’re going to have all of these deep state people, you know, we are going to start slitting throats on day one.”
While such violent rhetoric is primarily directed at Democrats, Rothschild also points out that QAnon, like many other conspiracy theories, traffics heavily in antisemitism: tropes about “puppet masters” controlling everything proliferate, along with constant references to George Soros and the Rothschild family.
It’s been one of the many insidious ways antisemitism has spread: a constant barrage of vague accusations while playing up people’s sense of paranoia and unease. And it’s had disastrous consequences: Robert Bowers, the white nationalist convicted of carrying out a mass shooting against the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, complained in online messages that QAnon hadn’t gone far enough to root out Jews in America.
And QAnon itself hasn’t gone away entirely. In the wake of Tafari Campbell’s death, conspiracists on Gab.com leapt at the chance to prove that this somehow proved Q drops from years ago. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, now X, and his reinstating of previously banned accounts devoted to QAnon, has helped fuel a resurgence as well.
The important thing, it seems, is to keep alive the potency of the original narrative, and keep it connected to the day’s events. Conspiracists now use old Q posts like Nostradamus’s prophecies, reinterpreting gibberish in light of new events to retroactively claim there’s been a plan all along. The YouTube videos and podcasters who accrue social capital around QAnon these days do so by interpreting the evidence of the day as proof that the plan is working.
Such belief allows them to maintain a sense that for all the appearance of chaos and randomness in today’s world, there is order behind it. One recent QAnon video wound up an hour-long recap of the day’s events with the rallying cry: “Nothing’s gonna stop what is coming. And what is coming? The storm is coming,” before referencing a previous Q post: “2019 – the year of the boomerang.” This, the host argued, was “starting to make sense now … why would you give the deep state the exact moment this was going to happen?”
When the philosopher Karl Popper coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s, he explained it as a quasi-theological outlook on life: “The conspiracy theory of society,” Popper wrote, “comes from abandoning God and then asking: what is in his place?” While a shadowy cabal controlling your every action from behind the scenes may seem terrifying, it offers a narrative and an explanation for the way the world works. And this is what QAnon was and continues to be to its believers: proof that there’s a plan (even if not entirely divine), which in turn gives them hope, and meaning.
That’s a far more powerful drug than adrenochrome, and weaning adherents off of it will take real work.
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