Until recently, many people didn’t take conspiracy movements seriously, even though violent acts have been perpetrated by those on the fringe. People who believe in false conspiracy theories are often just considered silly or weird.
Below the surface, however, there are movements from these communities that have negatively affected our societies, and will continue to do so. The most prominent of these conspiracy communities is the QAnon movement.
QAnon adherents are not your caricature conspiracy theorists wearing tin foil hats and living in their parents’ basement. Some may soon be elected officials.
QAnon has an interesting place in the fringe. Though birthed from the same “chan culture” as other fringe internet conspiracy communities, QAnon is still in full evolution.
This October will mark three years since the inception of the QAnon movement after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories on the internet forum 4chan.
From online fringes to mainstream politics
What started as a conspiracy theory — about a deep state satanic cabal of global elites involved in pedophilia, sex trafficking and supposedly responsible for all the evil in the world — has moved from the world of online into mainstream popular culture.
In his book American Conspiracy Theories, political scientist Joseph Uscinski writes:
“ … conspiracy theories are essentially alarm systems and coping mechanisms to help deal with threats. Consequently, they tend to resonate when groups are suffering from loss, weakness or disunity. But nothing fails like success, and ascending groups trigger dynamics that check and eventually reverse the advance of conspiracy theories.”
Though academic research would suggest that conspiracy theories are for “losers,” QAnon has thrived. After all, the community propagating the QAnon conspiracies was on the winning side of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Recent reports also suggest the pandemic has been beneficial to QAnon, a boon for the movement in terms of new members and an increase in social media content.
Increase in Q content on Facebook
I have been researching the QAnon movement since 2018. Based on my most recent social media analysis, QAnon has seen a 71 per cent increase in Twitter content and a 651 per cent increase on Facebook since March 2020.
Facebook has seen a veritable QAnon boom. Currently in my data set there are 179 QAnon groups with more than 1.4 million members, and 120 QAnon pages with a total of 911,000 page likes. The most interesting element of this Facebook boom is that most of the new pages are international, providing QAnon content in many different languages.
QAnon has used its increased visibility to spread medical disinformation, raising public health concerns. They have also been the source of wild sex trafficking claims, forcing some celebrities to respond to their allegations.
One of the more important signs of QAnon moving into the mainstream is the growing number of QAnon supporters running campaigns for the U.S. Congress.
Most Q candidates are Republicans
Researcher Alex Kaplan of the U.S. not-for-profit publication Media Matters has found 62 QAnon believers ran in congressional primaries in 27 different states. Almost all of them ran as Republicans, although a few were independents.
At least 12 of these candidates will be on the ballot in November — five in California, two in Illinois and one each in Oregon, Georgia, Ohio, Texas and Colorado, with two more candidates in runoff races in Georgia and Texas. Results from primaries showed nearly 600,000 people voted for candidates who support QAnon.
Marjorie Greene is the star QAnon candidate and is expected to win the runoff for a safe Republican seat in Georgia. Trump congratulated Greene after she came in first in the party’s primary and called her a “big winner.”
Five-term incumbent defeated
On June 30, five-term GOP incumbent Scott Tipton from Colorado was upset by Lauren Boebert, who stated in an interview with the conservative website Steel Truth that she was “very familiar” with QAnon.
“Everything I have heard of this movement is only motivating, and encouraging and bringing people together, stronger and if this is real than it can be really great for our country,” said Boebert, who is now on the ballot for November’s election.
When the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called upon the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to disavow Boebert for her QAnon beliefs, the NRCC told the Huffington Post:
“We’ll get back to you when … the DCCC disavow(s) dangerous conspiracy theorists like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff who have pushed without evidence their wild-eyed claims that the president of the United States of America is actually a secret Russian double agent under control of the Kremlin.”
Q supporter running for Senate
QAnon is no longer the simple fringe conspiracy movement it was at its inception three years ago. It now resembles a mainstream religious and political ideology. Some candidates perceive QAnon as an ideological platform they can campaign on, while others view QAnon adherents as an electoral base from which they can gain votes.
Trump has amplified tweets from supporters of the QAnon conspiracy movement at least 185 times, including more than 90 times since the start of the pandemic.
Trump associates such as his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, campaign manager Brad Pascale, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr. have all amplified QAnon content as well. Most recently, Eric Trump promoted QAnon on Instagram when plugging the president’s controversial rally that was held Tulsa, Okla.
Writer and conspiracy researcher Travis View notes: “QAnon conspiracy theories are promoted at the highest levels of power, when it wasn’t that long ago conspiracy theories were the pastime of the powerless.”
If QAnon believers make their way to the halls of Congress, those once considered powerless will have achieved real power. As journalists and researchers raise awareness about QAnon candidates, American voters will need to determine if they’re ready to to entrust the responsibility of their democratic institutions to QAnon adherents.