While 2020 will of course be a year defined by the deadly pandemic and the colossal impact it had on our lives, it will also be the year that another dangerous virus was mishandled and irresponsibly spread, swimming fervidly through the veins of the internet: QAnon.
The conspiracy theory has been around for some time, but this year has conspired to combine several vital factors: a conspiracy-theory-loving President, a global pandemic causing fear and vulnerability, and a population in lockdown, turning to the internet for connection and comfort. All of these factors have helped to enable the QAnon theory to reproduce productively at a dangerous rate, this year in particular.
At the end of April, despite its gradual emergence, a Pew Research survey found that just 25% of people had heard of QAnon and what they believe. But a new poll in October found over half of voters (55%) had heard of it, highlighting how much it has evolved and snowballed in just a few months.
What is QAnon?
For those who are fortunate enough to have never heard of it, a short intro can be found here, but it is essentially an all encompassing theory positing that the world is run by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles (including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Tom Hanks) who are plotting against Donald Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.
Believers have been regularly appearing at Trump rallies and speaking to reporters about their positions. A recent video shows one believer asserting one of QAnon’s favourite claims: that JFK Jr. – the son of the former President, who died in a plane crash in 1999 – is actually alive and a huge Trump supporter, and is often secretly backstage at Trump rallies. The believer then goes on to say that while she doesn’t believe racism is a problem in America, she was sure that an undead JFK Jr. roaming the streets in a red MAGA hat could certainly be a possibility.
Theories like these were able to gain traction across social media, with Facebook groups proving a particulalry fertile breeding ground for engaging new users with existing suspicions or hate for divisive figures like Hillary Clinton and Hollywood elites. Perhaps a case of ‘too little, too late,’ Facebook announced the ban of QAnon related groups on the platform this month, which meant the removal of nearly 1,000 different pages.
Twitter had also attempted to banish QAnon with the deletion of 7,000 related accounts in July, but thousands of active users still remained to continue spreading the latest Q news.
The growth of the theory across the internet has seen its believers develop a wide range of hashtags and code names with vague connections to the conspiracy, that have bled into and been adopted by unsuspecting everyday internet users. A recent trend during the pandemic even saw certain lifestyle influencers becoming enamored with aspects of the theories and sharing the misinformation with their followers.
Hashtags such as #WWG1WGA (their rallying call of ‘Where We Go one, We Go All’), #TheCalmBeforeTheStorm, #TheStorm, #SaveTheChildren and #PizzaGate are all just some of the ways you can spot a QAnon post. Due to mainstream social media crackdowns, many are now also seeking refuge at right-wing social sites with fewer restrictions on spreading misinformation, such as Parler and Gab.
Recovering from a QAnon Addiction
Much has been written about the theory, its origins, the terrifying impact on spreading misinformation, and the way it preys on vulnerable people online, but what about those this cult damages in real life situations?
An ex-believer spoke to Rolling Stone in September and described the feeling of seeing a new post from ‘Q’ – the mysterious poster of the conspiracy, as almost “like a drug.” He said: “You read a Q drop and he tells you something, and you’re like, ‘Whoa dude, that’s crazy’….a hit of dopamine goes off in your brain, and you have to go in deeper and deeper and deeper in order to get that feeling again.”
There are many more like him, with one group on Reddit called r/ReQovery where ex-QAnon believers can share and discuss their experiences. While that group has just over 1,000 members, a much bigger one deals with those caught up in other people’s QAnon delusions, and is growing rapidly.
The group is described as a place “for emotional support and a place to vent” for those who “have a loved one who’s been taken in by the QAnon conspiracy theory,” and it is full of desperately worried people seeking help and advice from fellow sufferers whose family members/close friends have fallen into the QAnon rabbit-hole during the pandemic.
One recent popular post titled “I’ve officially lost my parents to Qanon”, explained that in the past year, her parents have become increasingly radicalised by the conspiracy, blowing up in an argument about the recent Supreme Court appointee: “My mom called me “pure evil” said I was a demon, that she and my dad had “failed” as parents.”
Other posts are titled “Another family wrecked,” “Pretty sure I lost my best friend”, “My husband hates me because of QAnon” and “My mother is threatening suicide if Trump loses.” All follow a sadly similar pattern of previous conspiracy-sympathetic people growing increasingly convinced throughout the past few months of the theories from QAnon. The ideas have built up such strong convictions in the victims, that they are willing to destroy family ties or long term friendships in defence of their new found beliefs.
The general sentiment from posters across the community is that those who strongly believe in the conspiracy are often extremely fired up and passionate about it, constantly sharing posts, starting arguments, aggressively pushing the latest narrative and content to those around them. This creates great strain on relationships, and weighs down considerably on those caught in the middle of the firestorm, with any counter arguments or evidence swatted away as fake news.
The Reddit community seems to really help the members with first hand advice and the offering of other people to discuss their experiences with. Useful resources including articles, podcasts, videos and books tackling the issue have been compiled in the subreddit to help those whose family and friends have fallen fowl of the growing problem.
The desperately sad stories from people across the world highlights the damage the right-wing conspiracy is doing not only to the political sphere and the proliferation of misinformation, but also to the relationships of people across the country at a time in which such connections are so important.
These conflicts have certainly been heightened by the upcoming election, but with over 20% of Trump supporters identifying with QAnon and 82% believing that ‘using violence is justified to defend something they believe in’, concerns are rife whatever the outcome of the election.
Social media sites are more aware than ever of the issue they face to prevent further spread of this virus, but we must hope that those in the positions to do so, can handle this one better than Trump has handled the pandemic.