Last week, the mainstream press learned about the conspiracy theory QAnon thanks to its fans showing up at Trump rallies holding signs about “Q” and “The Great Awakening.” If you’re lucky enough not to know, QAnon is a conspiracy theory that alleges that the government is full of pedophiles and that Donald Trump is working to get rid of them. On 4chan, an anonymous user known as Q claims to be a high-ranking member of the government, drops cryptic, Nostradamus-like hints, and fuels the conspiracy, which has at this point spread slightly beyond the fringes of the far right.
The conspiracy is easily disproved bullshit, but that hasn’t stopped believers—who call themselves researchers—from taking action in the real world. Between the recent Trump rallies, interviews with supporters, and QAnon believer blocking a bridge near the Hoover Dam with an armored van, people who believe in QAnon have spent a lot of time making America’s right-wing look very dumb. According to yet another conspiracy theory, that’s the point.
On August 6, BuzzFeed reported that “It’s Looking Extremely Likely That QAnon Is a Leftist Prank on Trump Supporters.” Three days later, it tweaked the headline to read “People Think This Whole QAnon Conspiracy Theory Is a Prank on Trump Supporters.” The theory goes that whoever started posting stuff on 4chan wanted to see what they could make conservative Americans believe. But here’s the thing—there’s no evidence to support that claim, just as there’s none to support the claim that high ranking members of the American government have been running a Satanic child sex abuse ring for decades unnoticed. The prank theory just adds another layer of conspiracy, and an example of the media getting lost in the novelty of internet subcultures rather than looking at how they impact the world.
“Reality isn’t always what we want it to be,” Joan Donovan, media manipulation research lead at Data & Society Research Institute, told me over the phone. “There’s thousands of crazy ideas [on 4chan] that never achieve this level of attention. Even if it is a prank, it’s not something you could reproduce or plan.”
Central to the idea that QAnon is a leftist prank is a book published in 1999 called Q. Luther Blissett wrote the book, a nome de plume for a collective of Italian writers that now calls itself Wu Ming. The novel tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who journeys across post-Reformation Europe joining various radical movements in the 16th century. As he tries on different types of rebellion, a spy for the Vatican named Q pursues him and delivers cryptic messages signed only with his pen name. It was a best seller in Europe, but is little known in America.
BuzzFeed connected the dots, reached out to the book’s authors, and published an article that suggested a lot but provided no evidence to back its claims. QAnon and Q share similarities, but one is a published novel with a known set of authors who’ve written other books and explained their intentions. QAnon is an image board conspiracy theory, and no one (except for whoever is doing it) has any idea who is behind it or what their intent is. To read anything into it other than what’s on the surface and its effects in the real world—cryptic messages about hidden government satanists that have led to actions by people in the real world—is dangerous, and just as speculative as believing the feds are running child sex dungeons.
But Donovan pointed out that the book Q and the conspiracy theory QAnon are both part of a rich folkloric tradition that predates both. “It’s a trope,” she said.“There’s a spy who is a bit of martyr that assumes extrajudicial duties on behalf of the state, but becomes disenchanted. The state is always hiding its true secret—that very wealthy people get to live out their fantasies in extreme decadence without any fear of reprisals.”
There are a lot of movies and books about government operatives who become disillusioned by the state then begin to rebel against it, even sending out subtle clues to eager adherents. Hell, that’s half the plot of All The President’s Men, the Hollywood version of Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of the very real Watergate conspiracy.
Even the use of the letter Q isn’t original. “Q and Z as letters in the alphabet are so rarely used that they tend to appear in mysterious situations,” Donovan said. “There are always going to be hints and allusions to the past because our structures of storytelling and language are consistent. We’re telling similar stories over time. It’s hard to tell what aspects of this are just part of the structure of folklore itself.”
BuzzFeed reached out to the Wu Ming foundation and asked them to speculate about a online conspiracy theory they have no knowledge of. I reached out as well, via a publicly available email address on its website to ask if they started QAnon or had any knowledge of it. “Believe me,” it wrote back. “We had never heard about this until six weeks ago.” And while Wu Ming had a lot of interesting thoughts to share about creating myths, culture jamming, and pranking the media, ultimately it doesn’t know any more about QAnon’s intentions or who is behind it than anyone else.
4chan and its /pol/ section are such chaotic and messy places that it’s hard to predict what will go viral and what will be lost in the swirl of posts. Donovan pointed out that 4chan isn’t an entry level message board and that for something like QAnon to grow, it had to make the leap from 4chan to Facebook and Reddit. “I can imagine that the story, in moving from /pol/ into Reddit is somehow orchestrated,” she said. “So the people who are running QAnon Reddit pages…are much more the narrative makers.”
In a broader sense, the entire QAnon phenomenon is a repeat of 2016, when white supremacists came out of the shadows of 4chan and other corners of the internet and into the light of Facebook, Twitter, and cable news. What was percolating on message boards that most people don't understand suddenly appeared in Trump rallies, and probing and speculating about these people’s intentions proved irresistible to the masses. Were they actually racists? Were they "just trolling?" Where did these people come from, and what made them tick?
The media was so entranced with the novelty of people, many of them young and internet savvy, who were openly fascist, that they wasted time on these questions rather than looking at the impact they had on real people in the real world. Speculating about the personalities, beliefs, and intentions behind “trolling” behavior encourages more of it, and ignores the negative consequences in the real world, as Whitney Phillips and many other scholars have argued.
Is QAnon a leftist prank? The world is a weird place, and anything is possible, but there is no evidence to support that claim. Is it some other kind of prank? Anything that happens on 4chan is a prank to the degree that it's a culture where one of the only constant characteristics is a dedication to upset others. But ultimately, the origins and intent of QAnon don’t matter.
What matters is that real people in the real world are showing up at Trump rallies waving QAnon signs. Someone out there is making money selling them QAnon shirts and other merchandise. What matters is that there's currently armed men in Tucson, Arizona patrolling the desert in search of the child sex slavery camps QAnon invented out of thin air. To wildly speculate on the origins of a conspiracy theory popularized by established bad actors is to similarly chase mirages in the desert.