QAnon has graduated from obscurity to the mainstream. Once only found in the darkest places on the web, QAnon now has members of congress pushing wild theories ascribed to this far-reaching phenomenon. The QAnon conspiracy theory has its tentacles in everything, spreading false information about a variety of real social and political issues including the Black Lives Matter Movement, the presidential election, COVID-19, and even Disney. QAnon is no longer on the periphery of the internet, but a tangible movement that could threaten US democracy.
What is QAnon?
QAnon is the popular term used to describe a whole host of internet conspiracies that explain a false, alternate reality where the world is run by a shadow government filled with Satan-worshiping pedophile elites.
The FBI calls it a potential domestic terror threat, and after the January 6 riots, the movement is now a credible threat to U.S. democracy.
QAnon’s loose mythologies, broad core tenets, and simple ability to absorb smaller conspiracies with the slimmest thread make it a movement that’s hard to define. A product of the overly connected modern age, QAnon is something new, unknown, terrifying, and dangerous to democracies across the world.
It all started with Pizzagate.
What is Pizzagate?
Pizzagate was a conspiracy that pre-dated QAnon, but many of its pieces served as the foundation for QAnon belief. The Pizzagate conspiracy started when WikiLeaks released hacked emails from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in November of 2016. One particular email exchange released by WikiLeaks showed that James Alefantis, owner of the Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington D.C., was in touch with Podesta about having a potential fundraiser for Clinton.
Soon, users on 4Chan began to make wild claims about the potential meaning of the email exchange. Conspiracy theories filled Internet message boards speculating its meaning. These users soon postulated with zero evidence that Comet was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring.
Soon after, Edgar Welch, radicalized by these wild theories, drove from North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong armed with an AR-15 assault weapon. He entered the pizzeria and fired in the restaurant. Welch was soon apprehended and later was sentenced to four years in prison. All of this transpired due to the wildy false and since-debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory which took message boards by storm.
Pizzagate was the firing shot that signaled the beginning of something graver and more dangerous, a conspiracy theory that easily radicalized its base. Many parts of the Pizzagate conspiracy continued to circulate the internet after it’s initial downfall—such as demonic politicians participating in human trafficking and child sex rings—and it is these ideas that helped form QAnon.
How did QAnon start?
In October 2017, an anonymous message was posted on the ephemeral message board 4chan. Using a fictitious backstory, the user claimed to have access to confidential information and chose to reveal it all in cryptic yet easy-to-solve posts, later dubbed Q-drops.
The anonymous user, identified only by their tripcode but eventually known as Q, continued writing almost 5,000 messages over the next four years, forming the far-right conspiracy theory’s foundation. The mysterious Q claimed to have been an employee at the Department of Energy with Q-level clearance, hence the moniker that’s been given to this anonymous poster (or posters).
Fervent 4chan users began deciphering these posts on the ephemeral imageboard, and though this amateur cryptanalysis lit a flame in the /pol/ board, it lit the whole world on fire once social media got ahold of it. Eventually, Q moved to 8chan, stating that 4chan had been “infiltrated.” This move coincided with the authorship of Q changing hands, as textual analysis has found that multiple people are behind the persona.
A few anons (what the believers of QAnon call themselves) abetted the conspiracy theory from fringe imageboards to the mainstream internet. The most successful among them was Tracy Diaz, known online as Tracy Beanz, who helped start the first QAnon Reddit board and whose YouTube videos spread the conspiratorial gospel.
What is the ‘Storm’?
The QAnon storm is central to the broader conspiracy theory. The conspiracy of “the storm” has its origins at the start of Q’s first post on 4Chan. Q posted under a thread titled “Calm Before The Storm,” likely a reference to a weird Trump quote when he was standing with military leaders. “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm,” he said, and then when asked what he meant, he said, “You’ll find out.”
In the fall of 2017, Q posted a very detailed rundown about a supposed future arrest of Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chairman John Podesta, and details about how this event would go down.
“HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01 am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M's will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.”
Nothing ever transpired. Since then, the Storm has become common parlance for an impending event in which thousands of supposed global elites, including Obama, Clinton, and any liberal you can imagine, will be detained, incarcerated, and/or executed. Usually, this is expected to be spearheaded by Trump. Though it can vary.
Even though the Storm never happened (and the date of the Storm keeps getting pushed back), this hasn’t dissuaded devout followers from believing a storm is coming.
How many people believe in QAnon?
It’s hard to say how many people actually believe in QAnon, but pollsters keep trying. A number of surveys have shown a strikingly inconsistent percentage of the U.S. population believes in the conspiracy-fraught theory. One poll conducted in October of 2020 showed that 7% of the U.S. population believed QAnon was true, whereas a rolling survey has shown month over month that only 4 percent of Americans support QAnon.
A PRRI-IFYC study conducted online from March 8-30, 2021, showed that 15 to 20 percent of Americans (or roughly over 30 million) believe in three core ideas of QAnon. About 15 percent of Americans believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” This poll concluded that news media consumption was the biggest variable for QAnon beliefs. In fact, those who trust far-right news the most are more likely to believe in tenets of QAnon (go figure).
So how should we dissect these polls if we’re seeing such vastly different numbers? One of the issues with polling as it relates to QAnon and other conspiracy theories is that pollsters can’t get a clear picture as to who is an ardent believer and who is not. One poll with QAnon support in the single digits outright asked: “Are you a supporter of QAnon?”; the other single-digit poll asked, “What is your opinion of QAnon?” Both these questions can lead to what pollsters call social desirability bias, where respondents give what they think is a more “socially acceptable” answer instead of being truthful.
On the other hand, the PRRI-IFYC study asked respondents questions related to whether they believed in specific QAnon tenets without directly asking whether they supported the conspiracy theory.
The issue with the PRRI-IFYC study is that QAnon isn’t unique in its conspiracy theories—it’s a tentpole of some pretty old conspiracies. So asking questions about beliefs might not be catching other kinds of believers. At the same time, one might believe in some of these tenets and not follow QAnon at all.
Whatever the case, even if we accept that at least 4 percent of the U.S. population believes in QAnon, that’s roughly 13 million people. Having said that, more people believe in ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings than believe in Q. But ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings don’t necessarily pose an existential threat to democracy.
What role does social media play in QAnon’s popularity?
The Facebook Papers. That’s what thousands of pages of leaked internal documents are being called. Apart from showing Facebook’s mishandling of misinformation, it also demonstrated that Facebook was well aware of the damage its algorithm was having on people—and how quickly it shuffles people down a conspiracy-laced rabbit hole. A study conducted by Facebook researchers demonstrated just how easy it is for someone with a conservative political leaning to be served QAnon conspiracies and right-wing misinformation.
In 2019, a researcher set up a fake Facebook account for a fictitious Carol Smith, a hypothetical Wilmington, North Carolina, mom who was politically conservative. Within just two days of her profile being created, Smith received recommendations to join Facebook groups that were dedicated to QAnon. Even without following these groups, within a week, her feed was full of hate speech and disinformation that violated Facebook’s policies.
This one example showcases how Facebook’s algorithm could easily radicalize a person.
The global pandemic has also meant more people are at home and apart from friends and loved ones. With more people online and using technology to stay connected, an algorithm that pushes conspiracy theories can easily lead to dire consequences. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube suggest content that can easily radicalize and indoctrinate individuals. Because of this, QAnon is tearing families apart—with loved ones becoming radicalized and moving to forums and sites with like-minded conspiracists where they share harmful hoaxes and beliefs which have led to violent acts and even murder.
It’s important to note that Facebook and YouTube aren’t the only platforms rife with misinformation. Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and other social networks had to crack down on misinformation once QAnon conspiracy theories started spreading widely on them. Even after social media de-platformed QAnon, it’s still festering in other forums and websites—and let’s not forget that QAnon got its start on 4chan.
Who is Q?
Q falsely claims to be a government insider working for the Department of Energy with Q-level security clearance and close ties to Trump. For years, the burning question has been who is behind Q? But it seems likely there could be multiple authors behind the eponymous leader of the movement.
One possible author behind Q is Ron Watkins, the son of Jim Watkins, an internet entrepreneur who founded a Japanese porn site in the 1990s. He expanded to imageboards after allegedly stealing 2channel from its original owner, who hosted the website on Jim’s servers. In 2014, Ron convinced his father to acquire the imageboard 8chan and became one of the site’s administrators. In 2018 the QAnon movement packed up and moved from 4chan to 8chan.
Since the move, it’s been speculated that Jim and/or Ron Watkins had a hand in nurturing the conspiracy theory. The former software developer of 8Chan, Fredrick Brennan, told Insider that he believes Jim Watkins played a part in “Q drops.”
In 2021, Ron slipped a not-so-subtle clue that he might be Q. As VICE News reported, “Ron Watkins spoke about his newfound fame as a key spreader of baseless claims about voter fraud after Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. Then he said: “It was basically three years of intelligence training, teaching normies how to do intelligence work. It was basically what I was doing anonymously before.” Later, after realizing his mistake,he added, “...never as Q.”
Though Ron adamantly denies he is Q, he’s parlaying the cred he’s earned in the movement and attempting to run for Congress in 2022.
Though Jim and Ron Watkins both deny they are Q, whatever the case, the conspiracy has grown beyond the creator. Even without Q posting for nearly a year, conspiracies still grow and thrive.
What happened to QAnon after Trump’s election loss?
Q posted his final drop on December 8, 2020, a month after Trump lost the election. Despite the silence, the movement has continued to grow and evolve, finding new adherents inside mainstream politics and in communities like the evangelical church.
Q seemed to know trouble was coming, because ahead of the election he told followers to go into stealth mode and avoid mentioning QAnon.
So in the wake of the January 6 attack, where QAnon followers like the QAnon Shaman played a central role in storming the Capitol, many adherents of the movement attempted to distance themselves from the conspiracy, claiming somehow that QAnon was a construct of the media.
To back up this patently ludicrous claim, followers pointed to a Q drop that said: “There is Q. There are Anons. There is no QAnon.” The followers did this to allow them to continue to spread their conspiracies without the negative press QAnon attracted after the Capitol riot.
Even though Trump lost and was banned from mainstream social media, QAnon followers focused primarily on the efforts to undermine the democratic process. They spent a lot of energy boosting the sham recount in Maricopa County in Arizona, as well as efforts in other parts of the country to undermine election results and convince election officials of their wild theories.
Central to this was Ron Watkins, who restyled himself as a cybersecurity expert who knew more about voting machines than pretty much anyone in the world. Even though his “expertise” was highly questionable, he succeeded in becoming a right-wing talking head, and was even retweeted by Trump—before both were kicked off mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, along with tens of thousands of their followers.
Many parts of the GOP world have embraced QAnon conspiracies, including dozens of candidates for 2022, and even Donald Trump Jr. There are also plenty of people grifting off the QAnon support base, hosting talks and conferences across the country, including a conference in May in Texas where Michael Flynn called for an uprising like the Myanmar military coup, and a conference in October at a Vegas hotel owned by major Trump backer Don Ahern.
Flynn has been joined by right-wing figures like Kraken lawyers Lin Wood and Sydney Powell, as well as conspiracy theorist and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, as major players in the post-Trump QAnon universe.
Besides seeing their conspiracy theories becoming part of the Republican Party orthodoxy, QAnon followers have also found a new home in right-wing churches where evangelical pastors are ready to go to war over the belief that Donald Trump is still president—pastors like Pastor Greg Locke, who spouts conspiracy theories about child sex trafficking tunnels under the White House from the pulpit.
Though there are also some pastors fighting back against the spread of these conspiracies within the church.
Other QAnon supporters have moved into even more dangerous parts of extremism, including white supremacy and antisemitism.
Just this month, we saw QAnon head in a new direction when an antisemitic leader of a cult-like offshoot, who bases his predictions on numerology, convinced hundreds of followers to travel to Dallas to see the return of JFK—which obviously never happened.
Anti-vax conspiracy theories
The anti-vax movement is far larger than QAnon, but the conspiracy theory has pointed its large pyramid eye on the COVID vaccine, with disastrous results.
QAnon has joined the far-right in radicalizing anti-vaxxers, turning steadfast yet passive refusal to get vaccinated into more-extremist fervor. Influential conspiracy theorists have pushed COVID treatment “alternatives” such as ivermectin, a medication primarily meant to treat parasitic diseases in livestock. Some just disregard the idea of COVID treatments since they consider the infectious disease to be a complete hoax.
Threats of violence have even emerged over vaccines, with Romana Didulo, the self-proclaimed QAnon “Queen of Canada,” urging her followers to “shoot to kill” people who are vaccinating children.
Those who choose to remain unvaccinated in America are varied in background and their reasons why, but conspiracy theories like the ones advanced by QAnon push anti-vaccine sentiment to the extreme, making vaccinations not a matter of choice but of life and death.
QAnon civil war
With all new belief systems, there usually comes a schism, a war between sides whose views might seem to differ minutely for an outsider but are critical to insiders. The conspiracy's first civil war spawned from an unlikely catalyst, the conservative darling Kyle Rittenhouse. The teen gunman who killed two people appeared on Tucker Carlson’s increasingly conspiratorial show and accused Lin Wood of “taking advantage” of him when the former Trump lawyer briefly represented him in 2020. This sparked criticism from other notable figures in the movement, who came to Rittenhouse’s defense and denounced Woods.
Under attack, Woods lashed out at his fellow QAnon figurehead and unofficial leader of the movement, Michael Flynn, accusing Flynn of not defending him. Woods’ divisive slights toward Flynn have since divided their conspiratorial supporters. The sparring between the two escalated when Wood released the audio of a phone call between Flynn and himself. Flynn had some choice words when it came to the movement that has so far venerated him, calling QAnon “total nonsense” and its supporters a bunch of “kooks.” Even after his comments, his supporters seem unphased, with some, like influencer Craig Longley, dismissing Flynn’s comments as merely a distraction.
Though supporters of the conspiracy theory have been separating into splinter groups—such as the JFK cult—the Flynn-Woods feud marks a breaking point in the movement. Supporters are forced to pick sides, with the opposing side becoming “deep state” agitators—the heretics of the QAnon world.
This page was originally published in mid-November 2021. It’s been updated for improved clarity on the topic.