By Gretchen Deitrich
QAnon, or “Q”, an online entity that started on the anonymous message board 8kun, now 4chan, has garnered national attention due to its followers and supporters making up a majority of insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. QAnon started in 2017 with anonymous posts about Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails and support for then President Donald Trump. Q followers were staunch believers that a pedophile ring–composed of Hillary Clinton, John Podesta (Clinton’s 2016 election campaign chair), Bill Gates, and other political and social elites–was running the country, this conspiracy is also referred to as Pizzagate. Because of its supposed entwinement with the U.S. government, believers of QAnon referred to this as a “deep state” pedophile ring and deemed Donald Trump as their savior.
The digital manifestation of this was first evident with “#SavetheChildren”, a hashtag synonymous with anti-child trafficking, which was hijacked by Q-Anon supporters through the means of social media platforms, more notably Facebook. This hashtag was then used to further spread this conspiracy theory onto social media platforms. Evidently, the number of supporters grew as a result.
In 2020, the number of Q drops on 4chan increased, and QAnon supporters grew as more anonymous posts claimed that the novel Coronavirus pandemic was a worldwide hoax for population control. These posts signed “-Q” were condensed into short sentences with code words that followers would decipher and use to post responses. What gave Q supporters a stake in QAnon’s credibility was its own claims they had a top security clearance within the federal government. With this reputation, Q successfully birthed a series of violent conspiracies and hoaxes that became universal within the far-right, Trump supporting realm.
Within the past five years since its emergence, almost 14% of the United States population somewhat believe in QAnon (Conner & MacMurray, 2021). This number suggests that there is another driving force behind Q-Anon support besides Q’s own claims of credibility. Connor & MacMurry (2021) theorized that this could be attributed to an overall distrust in the government combined with the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic which provided a flourishment of digital activity that fueled online conspiracies. Enders & Uscinski (2021) investigated the psychological and moral traits that were related to widespread distrust of established government and social institutions. They suggested that this distrust is rooted in a fear-based mindset in which once trusted institutions are now aligning with nontraditional politics and social norms. This fear-based mindset is the idea that as American society continues to diversify in ethnic, racial, gender, and religious identity, the collective narrative of traditional culture that centered around Christian morals is no longer valued as much as before, and this change is what elicits fear.
The QAnon conspiracy seemed appealing to this demographic as a counter to shifting political and social norms in the United States. This liberal shift threatened and still does threaten those who value and build their own identities on traditionality, like the QAnon believers. When this threat seemed apparent in institutions and mainstream media, it worsened this demographic’s trust in the government, news, and even science.
The perception of this threat had left a significant amount of people emotionally vulnerable and distressed. Conner & MacMurry (2021) characterized the consternation of this group as a moral panic framework in which movement away from traditional, Christian morals and values created alarm and reason for concern. As a result, conspiracy theories were appealing because they leveraged this group’s traditional values and identities. Q-Anon gave people something to hang onto in the face of such a significant perceived threat.
In review, an overall sense of government distrust grew in the midst of significant modern cultural shifts by means of sexuality, gender and racial diversity. A collective, fear-based mindset and moral-panic psychological framework could explain the exploitative nature of QAnon’s political movement by creating a joint, moral compass centered on traditionality. Significantly, the use of social media platforms by means of communication for both Q-Anon supporters and important figures seem to be the indicator for mobilization of the movement leading up to the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021. This demonstrates the potency of digital spaces during times of distress.
Conner, C. T., & MacMurray, N. 2021. The perfect storm: A subcultural analysis of the
QAnon movement. Critical Sociology 48(6):1049–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/08969205211055863
Enders, A. M., & Uscinski, J. E. (2021). The role of anti-establishment orientations
during the Trump presidency. The Forum : a Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics, 19(1), 47–76. https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2021-0003