A Social Media Conspiracy Theory Case Study: QAnon
A modern political cult is working the social media system.
Last week I wrote a piece about how social media inherently lends itself to support the spread of conspiracy theories.
The social internet is designed for like-minded people to share content with each other. Some of the strongest, most frequent triggers that cause us to share a piece of content are intense positive or negative emotions. Conspiracy theories are inherently polarizing, leading to intense positive or negative emotions. Therefore, it should be no wonder that social media is a veritable breeding ground for conspiracy theories. The environment created by these platforms is a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to spread, even if the social media platforms would prefer they not spread at all.
Below I examine QAnon and how the political cult is capitalizing on a system ripe for such use.
Edgar Welch didn’t hurt anyone when he fired his AR-15 assault rifle into Comet Ping Pong, and the police arrested him without a fight. But, why did Edgar Welch, a 28-year-old husband and father of two drive six hours to a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. on a Sunday in December 2016? The internet told him that former democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign oversaw a child sex trafficking ring that operated, in part, out of Comet Ping Pong, the Washington, D.C. pizzeria. Specifically, Comet Ping Pong was alleged to be home to satanic ritual abuse of children. Welch, believing what he read on the internet and wanting to protect children, took it upon himself to investigate. In the end, Welch found no evidence of the child abuse and trafficking about which he read online, and it was actually he who ended up the criminal behind bars.
This is “Pizzagate,” as you may have heard it called, and it is one of the most recent (and elaborate) conspiracy theories that has spread quickly across the country on the superhighway of social media. Really, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory is just one small part of QAnon, a far-right conservative political movement built upon the idea that a group of celebrities and Democrat politicians are leading a deep state effort to undermine Donald Trump and traffic children for the purpose of sexual or satanic ritual abuse. QAnon is most simply understood as a political movement, but it is probably most accurately understood as a political cult, as its adherents demonstrate markedly religious tendencies. QAnon and the numerous tentacles of conspiracy theories that orbit around the movement collectively demonstrate the seismic effect of social media on the spread and legitimization of conspiracy theories.
The QAnon movement is built around an anonymous person who has identified himself as “Q” across a number of the deepest, darkest corners of the social internet (4chan, 8chan, 8kun, and others). Adrienne LaFrance summarizes the general beliefs of those who adhere to QAnon like this:
Q is an intelligence or military insider with proof that corrupt world leaders are secretly torturing children all over the world; the malefactors are embedded in the deep state; Donald Trump is working tirelessly to thwart them. (“These people need to ALL be ELIMINATED,” Q wrote in one post.) The eventual destruction of the global cabal is imminent, Q prophesies, but can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in Q’s clues. To believe Q requires rejecting mainstream institutions, ignoring government officials, battling apostates, and despising the press. One of Q’s favorite rallying cries is “You are the news now.” Another is “Enjoy the show,” a phrase that his disciples regard as a reference to a coming apocalypse: When the world as we know it comes to an end, everyone’s a spectator.
The message of Q aligns nicely with the anti-media, anti-establishment, and anti-liberal platform of the Donald Trump presidency. So, naturally, QAnon has attracted more supporters of President Trump than of any other political demographic. But how do the conspiratorial ramblings of an anonymous social media user make it from the darkest corners of the social internet to your grandma’s Facebook feed or even to the White House? How does an anonymous post about child sex trafficking on a sketchy message board eventually lead a man to arm himself, drive six hours, and investigate for himself?
By believing the lie that “Reality is relative to my beliefs.”
QAnon is powerful because Q makes many predictive statements that, like a horoscope, are so vague they can be interpreted as accurate among anyone who wishes to believe they are the oracles of a prophet. Q creates social media content in corners of the social internet in which there are more conspiracy theorists than there are people with common sense. It’s like dropping a match in the driest part of a forest—nothing will keep the fire from igniting. Then, the theories spread from the dark corners of the internet in which they originate to more popular social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, where they are injected into groups and feeds of people who are predisposed to believe the prophecies of Q because of their political beliefs. Because social media platforms are designed to connect like-minded people, injecting the prophecies of Q into the social media feeds of the right people is easy. The theories then spread on the most used internet websites in the world, eventually making their way into dinner table conversation, White House press briefings, and, perhaps, leading people to take matters into their own hands, like Edgar Welch did in 2016.
QAnon has capitalized on the echo chambers and resultant tunnel vision created by the modern social internet by whipping people into a frenzy with falsehoods that, though false, support the beliefs of a particular group of people who are passionate and who use social media with zeal. People love to consume and share content that supports their belief systems, regardless of whether or not that content has any basis in fact.